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Front Page - Friday, October 15, 2021

Kiffin will feel the heat in return to ground he scorched

Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin might have a little popcorn thrown his way when the returns to Neyland Stadium Saturday night. Kiffin abruptly walked out on UT in 2010 after one season. - Photo by Rogelio V. Solis | AP

Lane Kiffin slipped out of Knoxville in the dead of night, leaving burning mattresses, police barricades and expletive-screaming students in his wake.

After only 14 months as the head coach at Tennessee, Kiffin had announced he was leaving to take the same role at the University of Southern California.

Although it happened more than a decade ago, in many ways Tennessee’s football program has never recovered.

Kiffin’s departure triggered an embarrassing cycle of coaching turnover that sent the program into a tailspin.

Kiffin will be returning to UT Saturday night when he brings No. 14 Ole Miss (4-1, 1-1 SEC) to face the Vols (4-2, 2-1), 7:30 p.m. at Neyland Stadium.

The dueling high-scoring offenses alone should provide enough electricity to light up the stadium. But adding Kiffin’s presence to the mix amps up the anticipation even more.

Tennessee is hoping to pack the stadium and create a checkerboard effect with alternating sections of orange and white to match the end zones.

The Vols haven’t played in front of a home crowd of more than 100,000 fans since facing Florida in 2018. Their last sellout at Neyland came in 2017 against Georgia.

“Saturday night will be a great environment. We need it to be a hostile environment,” first-year UT head coach Josh Heupel says. “We need to make it tough for those guys to communicate. Our fans understand that they’re playing with tempo in their communication. We need to make it loud and make it uncomfortable for them.”

The UT fans will surely direct some vitriol at the Ole Miss sideline.

It’s not the first time Kiffin has returned to coach at UT. He was the offensive coordinator at Alabama when the Tide visited in 2014 and 2016.

But as the face of the Ole Miss program, Saturday’s game has been highly anticipated since the schedule was released.

Kiffin tried to downplay the significance this week, saying his return to Neyland won’t be extra special.

“I would think that you would think that,” says Kiffin, who went 7-6 in his lone season at UT in 2009. “It’d probably normally be the case.

“But there’s two things here: One, that was a long time ago. Two, we’ve done this thing. Since USC, I’ve gone and played against USC, played Tennessee, played Alabama. It’s not like, ‘hey, all of a sudden you’re going back to a place you used to coach.’”

Tom Hart will be the play-by-play commentator on the SEC Network broadcast of the game. Given the history with Kiffin and how far the program has fallen since his departure, Hart expects UT fans to be in full throttle.

“The Lane party gave them a hangover and they have yet to find a cure for it,” Hart points out. “It was the classic Lane Kiffin experience.”

On the night news leaked that Kiffin was leaving for USC, a group of angry UT students surrounded the football complex in a mob-like scene. Police were called to try to keep the peace as mattresses and Kiffin shirts were set ablaze. Kiffin was barricaded in his office until finally being escorted home by police at 4 a.m.

“There was this incredible level of excitement that Tennessee could return to glory under Kiffin because they had this hotshot young coach and he engaged the fan base and he brought his kind of Hollywood sexiness to East Tennessee that you wouldn’t have typically associated with Tennessee football,” Hart adds. “And then for him to just rip up the pilings and walk out the door left everyone shocked.

“It was almost like they were abandoned.”

Looking back at what Kiffin said upon his departure makes it sting even more for UT fans.

“We’ve come a long ways and improved as a team, and Tennessee’s going to be great forever,” Kiffin told reporters in 2010. “It’s not about Lane Kiffin. Tennessee’s a place that will always be great.”

Kiffin was wrong. The Vols haven’t been great, and the fan base has suffered years of PTSD and national mockery.

But every new hire spawns cautious optimism.

The early results under Heupel have been promising. In back-to-back SEC victories over Missouri and South Carolina, the Vols outscored both opponents 28-0 in the first quarter on the way to dominant wins.

Saturday’s matchup will feature two of the most up-tempo offenses in the country. Ole Miss is averaging 2.89 offensive plays per minute (No. 2 in the Football Bowl Subdivision), while UT averages 2.87 plays per minute (No. 3 FBS).

Ole Miss leads the SEC in total points per game (46.20), while UT is third (41.50). The teams rank the same in yards per game with 561.60 and 474.00, respectively.

Tennessee senior defensive back Alontae Taylor has been more concerned about how to contain Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral than how Kiffin will be treated.

Most of the players involved in the game were in middle school when Kiffin was the head coach at UT.

“You hear a lot on social media, the hate, the love and how all that goes. But it doesn’t really matter too much to us,” Taylor says. “We are just there to play football and there to play another week, another game. The stadium is going to be loud. The fans are excited about the game. At the end of the day, we are just trying to win another football game regardless of who the head coach is on the other sideline.”

Kiffin’s journey since leaving UT has seemed to humble him.

He was fired at USC on an airport tarmac after the Trojans returned home from a loss. He did a coaching rehab stint at Alabama before being hired as the head coach at Florida Atlantic. His success at FAU led him back to the SEC with Ole Miss.

Kiffin has become more self-deprecating. He enjoys engaging on Twitter and pushing the boundaries to bring attention to Ole Miss.

He made headlines two weeks ago when Ole Miss played at Alabama. Kiffin abruptly ended his CBS pregame interview with reporter Jamie Erdahl by saying “Get your popcorn ready” and tossing his headphones away.

His team was then crushed by the Tide, which resulted in Kiffin issuing a mea culpa and having boxes of popcorn sent to him.

The SEC Network broadcasters will discuss Kiffin’s return to UT and his history with the program. But Hart doesn’t think they will dwell on it extensively during the game. There should be enough theatrics taking place on the field to entertain.

“It’s going to be fun. Our crew is going to be hyped and there is going to be a fantastic crowd,” Hart says. “I think this will be an offensive celebration and one that you can kind of kick back - and to use Lane’s words - ‘Get your popcorn ready’ and enjoy some fun college football.”