The Florida Gators enter the 2020 season as a program on the rise in college football, and as a team theoretically coherent and competent enough to compete for a championship.
Their first on-field hurdle of the season — one that will have the existential threat of COVID-19 spread hanging over it until its completion — comes in the form of a team newly helmed by a familiar foe whose capacities for coherence and competence have often been up for questioning over the entirety of his still-young football career.
Dan Mullen is only a little more than three years older than Lane Kiffin. But what the one-time boy wonder has done en route to Oxford in his peripatetic career might well make him the first coach to have sustained success in the Magnolia State since the man who will be his opposite number this Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (noon, ESPN or WatchESPN).
A decade ago, Kiffin was already out of his first SEC coaching job, preparing for his first season at USC after a tumultuous one-year reign on Rocky Top after Tennessee swooped in to hire the son of legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin despite his acrimonious departure from the Oakland Raiders, one that found late Raiders owner Al Davis dubbing Kiffin “a professional liar” and declaring “I think he conned me” in a scathing public rebuke of his fired coach.
Kiffin had turned up the temperature on the Florida-Tennessee rivalry, among others, in 2009, but he ultimately cooled down his own stock with USC, failing to do as a head coach what he had done under Pete Carroll as an offensive coordinator and eventually getting receiving a second infamous firing, as USC’s athletic director relieved Kiffin of his duties by pulling him off a team bus, whisking him from the Los Angeles International Airport tarmac to an airport hotel, and notifying him of his firing at 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
And that led to years more or less in the wilderness, first as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and Nick Saban’s personal spittle target as the Crimson Tide began a makeover of their offense and then as Florida Atlantic’s head coach. Kiffin left the ‘Bama attack in better shape than he found it, arguably, but still found himself out the door at an odd time, decamping for Boca Raton while the Tide still rolled in the College Football Playoff.
His time with the Owls was marked by his still-unfiltered opining on all and sundry, usually via Twitter, and his building of their program into a Conference USA titan — the Owls won 11 games twice over Kiffin, though playing conference championship and bowl games at home were a factor in both slates — that had little ability to challenge big-name foes. FAU faceplanted in intersectional meetings with Oklahoma and UCF, with a home win over a mediocre Air Force team likely counting as Kiffin’s best win outside conference play. (C-USA brethren Florida International and Louisiana Tech, meanwhile, each claimed wins over Miami in 2019, and other teams threw scares into more potent opponents.)
And now he arrives at Ole Miss with the Rebels in a state of flux. Matt Luke shepherded them through the post-Hugh Freeze morass of NCAA-mandated penalties following Freeze’s program being cited for recruiting violations, and landed one of the best recruits of the post-Freeze era by persuading former Florida commit Matt Corral to don Rebel blue.
What Kiffin and Corral — each competitive to a fault — and the Rebels’ other potential starting quarterback, John Rhys Plumlee, will be able to cobble together beyond their partnership(s) likely determines how far Ole Miss can go this year.
But the Rebels should be starting 0-1. Florida returns quarterback Kyle Trask — who enrolled at Florida before Corral ever committed — at the controls of an offense that will have to replace much of its offensive production thanks to a crop of receivers departing for the NFL, and also has all-everything candidate Kyle Pitts, a walking mismatch, at tight end. An improved offensive line should yield an improved running game, as well.
And on defense, Todd Grantham’s scheme is now being executed by talent that has inched upward from the players Jim McElwain left for the notoriously pressure-happy defensive coordinator. Marco Wilson and Kaiir Elam anchor a secondary with a slew of experienced safeties behind them, and Georgia transfer Brenton Cox and rising star Zachary Carter appear ready to harass opposing quarterbacks.
Ole Miss does have a notable coaching staff under Kiffin, especially on defense — itinerant cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley (four jobs since 2013) and former Jim Harbaugh lieutenant Chris Partridge will be in meetings with former Maryland head coach DJ Durkin, whose involvement in Maryland player Jordan McNair’s death after offseason conditioning made his hiring by Kiffin both deeply controversial at the time and a footnote at this point in a year that has had so many more flashpoints for furor.
The Rebels are probably a few years from making noise in the SEC West, though. Kiffin’s only had one offseason to work his usual magic on the recruiting trail, and the most promising pieces that remained after a 4-8 season in 2019 — Plumlee, Corral, the running back tandem of Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner, and canine micturation enthusiast Elijah Moore — are on the side of the ball where Kiffin’s acumen could help them shine, which is a recipe for a scare or three and for scoring 20+ points while giving up 40+.