If there was one theme of Lane Kiffin's time at the podium on Monday in Atlanta, it was not to be afraid of breaking tradition simply because it was a tradition. That philosophy has seeped into every decision the Ole Miss head coach makes, even down to his wardrobe choice at SEC media days.
"I didn't wear a tie today," Kiffin said. "(SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is) like, Man, I've always wanted to do that. I'm like, Well, don't just do things the way they were done before. He was like, I was waiting for someone to do it."
Questioning traditional decision making factors in to Kiffin's least important choices and his most important ones, like whether or not to punt on fourth down.
A deep dive into the numbers has made Kiffin comfortable with changing his thinking on fourth down. The change is a recent one. Kiffin's last Florida Atlantic team was right around the FBS average with 22 attempts in 14 games; his last full season at USC (2012) saw 27 attempts in 13 games -- a number that tied for 20th nationally, but certainly nothing outside the ordinary.
In 23 games at Ole Miss, though, Kiffin has attempted 82 fourth downs, the most in the nation, including an FBS-record 49 in 2021.
"It's not easy. Like anything, if it was easy, everyone would do it. I get it. A lot of coaches don't follow the analytics because it's very hard for that press conference afterwards or for that stadium to turn on you when it doesn't work," Kiffin said.
Kiffin cited his two Alabama games as evidence. In 2020, Ole Miss went 4-for-4, all four extending or punctuating touchdown drives, which allowed the Rebels to keep pace longer than they would have with a more traditional approach in a 63-48 loss.
In 2021, Ole Miss went 2-for-5 on fourth down -- not a terrible result on its face, except for the timing of the misses. After converting a 4th-and-3 on their own 35 on the game's opening drive, running back Jerrion Ealy was stuffed on a 4th-and-1 from the Alabama 6. Ole Miss's second drive ended with an incomplete pass on 4th-and-2 from near midfield. And the third failure came on another 4th-and-1, an Ealy run on his own 31 that ended in a loss of four yards.
All three failed attempts led to Alabama touchdowns. Making matters worse, Ole Miss's first possession after the second Ealy fourth-down stuff was a Matt Corral strip sack that led to a 14-yard Alabama touchdown drive near the end of the first half, and Alabama opened the second half with a 77-yard touchdown drive that made the score at that time 35-0 in favor of the home team. To the untrained eye, it appeared Kiffin was trying to throw the game with his fourth down decisions.
He wasn't, of course. Kiffin was comfortable with two uncomforting facts. The first is that, even if you go for it on fourth down only in advantageous situations (and why would you go for it any other time?) and you turn a coin flip from a 50-50 proposition to a 60-40, you've still got to live with the other 40 percent of the time when the coin lands on tails.
Kiffin's fourth down decisions hit at a slightly greater rate than 60 percent, in fact. Ole Miss converted 63.27 percent of its 49 chances. And if you want those 31 opportunities to extend a drive or to turn three points into seven, you've got to deal with the 18 times your calculated gamble doesn't work.
The second uncomforting fact was that Ole Miss still would've gotten drilled if Kiffin kicked when the conventional wisdom told him to. Had Ole Miss kicked a field goal on the 4th-and-1 on Ole Miss's opening drive, they'd have taken a 3-0 lead... and trailed 35-3 early in the third quarter. Considering how overmatched the Rebel defense was against the Crimson Tide offense, hitting on a number of fourth downs was their only chance to stay in the game.
Kicking field goals and punts assuredly makes the score closer than the 42-21 final, but it certainly results in an Ole Miss loss.
But two years into his new "the only thing we're punting on is the conventional wisdom" philosophy, Kiffin has found an additional benefit beyond the 53 fourth-down conversions: a boost in performance and buy-in from the players.
"We sell that we believe in you. Analytics, that's a huge part of it. Players feel that we believe in (them), that's why we play so aggressively," Kiffin said.
I can't predict that what's going to be like year-to-year as far as 4th down attempts," Kiffin said. "It's not easy to do it, but analytics are proof and your players know that you believe in them."
If Kiffin is comfortable enough with his decision-making to go for it in his own territory, trailing 14-0 in Bryant-Denny Stadium and live with the consequences, maybe he can inspire others to really challenge the conventional wisdom. Like getting Greg Sankey not to wear a tie to the 2023 SEC media days.