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Lane Kiffin praises Vols, takes shot at attendance as he prepares for return to Rocky Top

Tennessee's coach in 2009, Kiffin is returning to Rocky Top as an opposing head coach for the first time.

Yes, Lane Kiffin's son bears the name Knox.

And yes, his only son was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, just weeks after Kiffin had assumed the top post on Rocky Top to replace the fired Phillip Fulmer after the 2008 season.

But don't think the fact that Lane Kiffin has a son named Monte Knox Kiffin would preclude the Ole Miss head coach from both praising his former employer and also scoring a direct hit with a subtle rebuke.

As Kiffin revisited his Rebels' thrilling, 52-51 win against Arkansas and looked ahead to his first return trip to the University of Tennessee this week as an opposing coach, Kiffin took a jab at the Vols' program with a statement on fan attendance.

“We have a lot of work to do, and we're getting ready for a challenging place to play,” Kiffin said Monday following his Rebels' practice. “It's on schedule to be their first sellout in years, so it's a very loud place, especially at night, and their team's playing extremely well with two conference blowouts in a row, lighting up on offense.

“This is going to be extremely challenging.”

The Vols, under first-year coach Josh Heupel, have yet to break 90,000 fans this season in their 102,455-seat cathedral Neyland Stadium. UT also is indoctrinating a new athletics director in Danny White, the former University of Central Florida head man who hired his former head football coach in Orlando to take over the Tennessee program.

Heupel has guided the Vols to an impressive 4-2 start, with losses only at home in a back-and-forth affair to 5-1 Pittsburgh and on the road at Florida.

It's unclear yet if Tennessee will sell out this weekend's visit from Kiffin's Rebels, though the school has officially announced it will once again 'Checker Neyland' in orange and white sections of fans for the sixth-straight year in terms of full-capacity stadiums. The Vols first “checkered” Neyland in 2015.

Also officially: Tennessee has not had a sellout-game since Sept. 24, 2016, when the Vols rallied from a massive deficit to defeat Florida, 38-28, for its first win in that series in a dozen years.

Kiffin isn't buying into any nostalgia as he returns to Rocky Top.

"There's two things here: one, that's a long time ago,” Kiffin said of his year atop the UT program, “and two, like, we've done this thing. Since USC (I) have gone and played USC (as Alabama's offensive coordinator) and played against Tennessee and played against Alabama (twice as Ole Miss' head coach), so it's not like all of a sudden, you're going back to a place you used to coach at.

“Again, went there twice at Alabama. Awesome place. I said something in some article last week about houses where we lived and they asked, 'What was your favorite house and where you lived?' and I said, 'The house in Knoxville.' They said why and it was a great house and a great set up with the river, but the people. Really enjoyed the people there, still in contact with a number of them and will see some of them Saturday."

As for what Kiffin expects to see from the Vols, he believes he has a good idea from his years atop the Florida Atlantic University program.

Kiffin's Owls lost in back-to-back years to Heupel's UCF squads; 56-36 in 2018 and 48-14 in 2019.

"What we've seen for years at UCF,” Kiffin said of Heupel's frenetic offense. “Run the ball really well with tempo, and then hitting big plays outside.

“We've seen it, we've lived it at FAU."