Lane Kiffin has cycled through more reinventions than Madonna in the 20 years we've known him. He's been Lane, Monte Kiffin's kid. Lane, the Offensive Whiz Kid. Lane, the Overmatched NFL Coach. Lane, the Firebrand. Lane and the Tarmac. Lane, the Pariah. Lane, the Redeemed.
A win Saturday brings about a new identity: Lane, the Revered Head Football Coach. Lane, the SEC and national championship threat. Lane, the Coach of the Year candidate.
We've long known Lane can scheme up an offense. Nick Saban has seen it first hand, both as his employer when he revolutionized Alabama's offense and produced three SEC offensive players of the year at three different positions in his three seasons as the Tide's offensive coordinator, and as an opponent.
A year ago, Ole Miss rolled the Tide defense, putting up 48 points, 31 first downs and 647 total yards in last season's game. The 48 points were the most ever scored on a Saban-led Alabama defense (Auburn also scored in 48 in 2019 with the help of two pick-sixes). At one point Ole Miss scored touchdowns on four consecutive non-clock killing drives.
The problem, of course, was that Ole Miss's offensive excellence was exceeded by its defensive ineptitude. Alabama scored 63 points on 723 yards; they punted once, scored touchdowns on their final eight possessions, and converted six of seven third downs.
So far through this still-young season, Ole Miss ranks 37th in yards per play, 51st in passing efficiency and 50th in scoring. A defense that allowed touchdowns on seven out of every 10 red zone trips (112th) has cut its rate to 4-of-8 through three games (36th). The 2021 Rebels defense won't confuse anyone with 2011 Alabama, but that's okay. When your offense leads the nation in scoring and yards and ranks fourth in yards per play, average is good enough on defense. (As proof, Ole Miss is No. 2 nationally in net points per drive: No. 1 on offense and No. 41 on defense.)
No. 12 Ole Miss at No. 1 Alabama (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS) pits perhaps the two best offenses in the country, with perhaps the two best quarterbacks in the country. Bama's Bryce Young is hitting 72 percent of his throws for 9.2 yards per attempt with 15 touchdowns against one pick; Ole Miss's Matt Corral is completing 69 percent of his passes for 10.5 yards an attempt with nine scores and no interceptions.
Corral has played near-perfect football thus far, and history tells us that's what it will take to win in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday.
Opposing QB Performances in Alabama Home Losses, 2008-20
-- Joe Burrow, LSU (2019): 31-of-39 for 393 yards, 3 TDs 0 INTs; 14 rushes for 64 yards
-- Chad Kelly, Ole Miss (2015): 18-of-33 for 341 yards, 3 TDs 0 INTs; 8 rushes for 21 yards, 1 TD
-- Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (2012): 24-of-31 for 253 yards, 2 TDs 0 INTs; 18 rushes for 92 yards
-- Jordan Jefferson/Jarrett Lee, LSU (2011): 9-of-17 for 94 yards, 0 TDs 2 INTs; 11 rushes for 43 yards
-- Cam Newton, Auburn (2010): 13-of-20 for 216 yards, 3 TDs 0 INTs; 22 rushes for 39 yards, 1 TD
So, across those 13 seasons you have five wins, three Heisman Trophy winners, two national champions, and one extreme outlier. Remove the 2011 LSU game -- unless you feel confident about Ole Miss holding Bama out of the end zone, that is -- and you've got 13 passing and rushing touchdowns and no interceptions.
Kiffin will also have to swim upstream against the raging current of history himself to obtain victory.
Needless to say, an Ole Miss win would be a big, big deal. These schools first met in 1894 and have played 63 times since. How many games ended in Rebel victory? Ten. How many of those 10 occurred in Tuscaloosa? Two. Ole Miss managed to score back-to-back victories over Saban-led Tide teams in 2014-15 (the only time this has ever happened) and gagged away the SEC West championship both times. In fact, in this the 30th season of the SEC's divisional alignment, Ole Miss is still looking for its first outright West title.
What I'm saying is, don't expect perspective and restraint if the Rebel charter flight lands in Oxford with an elephant tusk stowed away. The Rebels will be the clear favorites in the SEC West, having taken down the defending division, conference and national champion, led by a well-rounded, fully-formed head coach. They would get to enjoy that victory for all of... a couple hours.
Yet another massive Arkansas game. Everything the Ole Miss-Alabama game is for offense, No. 8 Arkansas at No. 2 Georgia (noon ET, ESPN) is for defense.
Georgia leads the nation in scoring, total, yards per play and pass efficiency defense, and they're fifth in yards per carry allowed. Opposing passers have tossed one touchdown against seven picks. Arkansas' numbers aren't quite as sterling (11th in scoring, 12th in total, 8th in yards per play) but that's in large part due to the Hogs' tougher schedule. They limited Texas A&M to 10 points and held Texas to seven non-garbage time points, that came after an interception in Hogs territory.
Arkansas' schedule is a major factor here. The Razorbacks will roll into Sanford Stadium absolutely bursting with confidence. They weren't expected to beat Texas or Texas A&M, so their underdog status won't faze them here.
While Arkansas is energized, Georgia is rested. The Hogs' win over A&M felt like a mini-championship game -- they even lifted a trophy and everything -- while Georgia's 62-0 waltz over Vanderbilt felt like a scrimmage. How often can Arkansas dig deep into its emotional well? If Georgia takes over on a short field, leading 14-7 late in the third quarter and looking to go in for the kill and with the entire crowd behind them, will the Arkansas defense be invigorated or exhausted?
Arkansas players signed with their school hoping to play in games like these, Georgia players did so expecting to. Saturday marks Arkansas' first top-10 showdown since Nov. 25, 2011; it's Georgia's 15th such game of the Kirby Smart era alone.
If Georgia wins, it's merely another checkpoint on the path to their ultimate destination. If Arkansas wins, though, it represents further affirmation that their dreams have become reality, a destination unto itself on a journey of destiny. They, in resume at least, will have an argument to be the No. 1 team in the country -- something no Hogs team has done since 1965. They will return home to swarms of fans greeting them at the airport, on campus, in their classrooms. They will get to exhale... before turning around and hosting Ole Miss next week.
Can Jim Harbaugh win an important road game? If Harbaugh could play his entire season in Ann Arbor and in September, he'd rival Nick Saban for national championships. He's 19-0 in home games in August and September, and 34-22 in every other game.
No. 14 Michigan leaves the Big House for the first time Saturday to visit Camp Randall Stadium (noon ET, Fox), a place where Harbaugh is 0-2 and has been out-scored 59-24.
Michigan will get a wounded Badgers team, fresh off a 41-13 loss to No. 9 Notre Dame that wasn't as bad as the final score but hurt all the same. Any national championship hopes died at Soldier Field, and now Wisconsin has to win to remain alive in the Big Ten West race.
The Wolverines rank fifth nationally in rushing at 6.29 yards per carry and 290.8 per game, although with an asterisk. Rutgers limited Michigan to season-lows of 112 yards on 2.95 per carry in last week's 20-13 Wolverines victory. Cade McNamara has thrown the ball well when asked for Michigan, averaging 10.1 yards per attempt with no interceptions, but what happens if he has to throw 25 or 30 times instead of his customary 15?
The biggest regular season Cincinnati game ever. The AP poll and the College Football Playoff rankings are not the same thing, this we know. But consider this: the highest a Group of 5 team has ever been ranked in the CFP poll is No. 8, and Cincinnati is already No. 7 in the AP poll.
Luke Fickell's Bearcats stroll onto this sport's most hallowed ground already armed with the respect of the public; not only are they ranked ahead of No. 9 Notre Dame, they're also favored in Vegas.
This is a game (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC) that every other Group of 5 would-be party crasher has dreamed of. We know that because Luke Fickell literally told us this week.
“This is what you’ve always dreamed of,” Fickell said. “This is what you want. This is what these guys have worked for. Not just to play Notre Dame because that’s always a big deal. But to have the matchup where you’re legitimately two top-10 teams that a lot of people are excited about watching.”
The obvious storyline here is Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman going against his old program. Fickell compared it to coaching against his brother. No other matchup offers less secrecy around tendency and personnel as this one.
And speaking of tendency, the Wisconsin game tells us the Irish are starting to wrap their heads around Freeman's boom-or-bust scheme. After surrendering plays of 89 and 60 yards in the opener against Florida State, Notre Dame didn't allow a run longer than 10 yards against Wisconsin. The Irish secondary did yield gains of 43 and 35 yards, but they also put the game away with consecutive pick-sixes late in the fourth quarter.
The shortcut to winning this game will be turnovers. Both teams are among the 16 squads who are plus-1.0 or better per game in turnover margin.
-- Virginia at Miami (7:30 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN): Virginia hasn't won in Miami in a decade
-- No. 5 Iowa at Maryland (8 p.m. ET Friday, FS1): One of six games pitting undefeated teams. Iowa looks to show that last week's close call with Colorado State was a fluke, while Maryland looks to move to 2-0 on Friday nights, a fact Mike Locksley is none too happy about.
-- Duke at North Carolina (noon ET, ESPN2): There's no denying September was an abject disaster for North Carolina. Would earning a third straight victory over their Tobacco Road rivals (and their 26th since 1990) change the mood in Chapel Hill? No, no it would not. But can you imagine the angst if the Heels lose?
-- Texas at TCU (noon ET, ABC): Texas's first Big 12 road game since announcing its intention to split happens to come at a place where they've dropped their last three visits.
Also, pretty much every drive Casey Thompson has led since entering the end of the Arkansas game ends in a touchdown? And he's been the best quarterback in college football? And I can't stop using question marks?
-- Louisville at No. 25 Wake Forest (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3): In the same division as Clemson, the winner of this game will be alone in first place in the ACC Atlantic. Believe it.
-- No. 3 Oregon at Stanford (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): With Clemson out of the race and Ohio State and Oklahoma looking wobbly, here's a chance for the Pac-12's marquee team to play on network television with the sun still up on the East Coast and after 9 a.m. Pacific time. The conference doesn't get many of these opportunities, let's see what Oregon does with it.
-- FIU at Florida Atlantic (3:30 p.m. ET): The 19th edition of the Shula Bowl. FAU has won three straight, all of them by multiple scores, and 14 of the previous 18.
-- Nevada at Boise State (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1): Nevada has beaten Boise State once this century, and it was one of the 10 best games of the decade. So Boise is hard to beat in normal times, and especially difficult while wearing these absolutely gorgeous helmets.
-- Syracuse at Florida State (3:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network): Every game is a big one when it's October and you're still looking for win No. 1, which somehow applies to Florida State. Syracuse has never won at Doak Campbell (albeit in only six tries) and they'll never have a riper opportunity than this one.
-- Bowling Green at Kent State (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+): Bowling Green has won two straight; one was against Murray State, yes, but the other was over Minne-dad gum-sota. Outright winners as 31-point underdogs, the Falcons now look for their first 3-game winning streak since 2016.
-- No. 6 Oklahoma at Kansas State (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox): Oklahoma has improbably dropped its last two games to K-State; the Sooners turned a 35-14 lead into a 38-35 loss last season, and in 2019 K-State built a 48-23 lead and held on to win 48-41. Oklahoma has never lost three straight games to the same opponent in the 21-year history of the Stoops/Riley era.
-- No. 11 Ohio State at Rutgers (3:30 p.m. ET, BTN): Ohio State is 7-0 all-time against Rutgers, all seven games coming since the Knights joined the Big Ten in 2014. The average margin of those seven games: 43 points.
-- No. 10 Florida at Kentucky (6 p.m. ET, ESPN): Kentucky ended its generation-long losing streak to Florida back in 2018, but would you like to know the last time the Wildcats beat the Gators in Lexington? Friend, that would be in 1986.
-- UNLV at UTSA (6 p.m. ET, ESPN+): UTSA is 4-0 for the second time in school history, and Jeff Traylor has personally promised me he'll drink a gallon of queso in the locker room if the Roadrunners make it 5-0.
-- Liberty at UAB (7 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network): UAB opens its long-awaited Protective Stadium against one of the top Group of 5 teams.
-- No. 21 Baylor at No. 19 Oklahoma State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2): A matchup of surprise unbeatens and, given Texas and OU's respective histories with the purple-clad teams they're playing earlier in the day, the winner of this game might just be the clear favorite to win the Big 12.
-- Indiana at No. 4 Penn State (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC): There's a lot going on in the early and middle parts of Saturday afternoon. At night? Not so much. Depending on what happens elsewhere, Penn State could have the nation's attention to itself as the Lions look to move to No. 3, No. 2 or maybe even No. 1 in Sunday's rankings.
-- Connecticut at Vanderbilt (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU): This is a game that is happening.
-- Boston College at No. 25 Clemson (7:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network): Clemson puts a number of streaks on the line when it takes the field at a sure-to-be subdued Tiger Stadium on Saturday night: a 10-game winning streak against BC, a 107-week streak in the AP poll, a 131-game stretch without losing two straight games in the same season.
-- No. 22 Auburn at LSU (9 p.m. ET, ESPN): If there's one thing that can get LSU's mojo flowing again, it's a night game against an old rival in Death Valley. Right?
-- Old Dominion at UTEP (9 p.m. ET, ESPN+): UTEP is 3-1 for the first time since 2010.
-- Washington at Oregon State (9 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Networks): Fresh off winning at the LA Coliseum for the first time since 1960, Oregon State hunts for its first 4-game winning streak since 2013 and its first wins over USC and Washington in the same season since 2008.
-- Arizona State at No. 20 UCLA (10:30 p.m. ET, FS1): With USC at 1-2 and Utah looking shakier than normal, might this be the Pac-12 South championship game?