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In his pregame interview Saturday on CBS, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin told the nation to “Get your popcorn ready.”
Instead, America should have been watching the Rebels’ game against No. 1 Alabama with a bucket of Halloween candy. Because Kiffin’s attempt to look like a grown-up coach with a serious football team turned out to be a poorly-fitting costume that came off with little more than a light tug.
If Kiffin’s goal was to demonstrate that he has the formula to be an Alabama nuisance, he sure didn’t coach like it in a 42-21 loss.
Maybe there was nothing Kiffin could do to make up for the significant talent differential Ole Miss was facing at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether a team gets blown out or loses by a respectable score.
But if Kiffin really thought Ole Miss had a chance Saturday — if his confidence level actually matched his grab-your-popcorn bravado — he surely wouldn’t have made a series of hair-brained, all-or-nothing calls early in the game that backfired spectacularly and ensured Nick Saban didn’t have much to worry about from his former assistant.
In the first 24 minutes of Saturday’s game, Ole Miss went for fourth-down conversions five times, each one more desperate and ill-advised than the last. By the end of that sequence, when Kiffin practically handed Alabama two touchdowns, Kiffin looked more like a losing poker player bluffing on bad hands at 3 a.m. in a downtown Las Vegas casino than a football coach being paid nearly $4 million to give his players a chance.
It's certainly true that for any underdog playing Alabama, there’s an appropriate level of risk baked into the game plan. It’s important to keep the ball, to extend drives and put some pressure on the Crimson Tide with creative play calling.
But you can’t hand them short fields in the second quarter when you’re still in the game. And for as much as Kiffin has matured as a person and coach over the last few years, Saturday felt like a regression to the YOLO days when he was considered the clown prince of college football — a reputation he hasn’t completely shed.
In fact, one of the story lines of this week was Michael Wilbon unfairly roasting him on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, saying “Lane Kiffin equals embarrassment at some point wherever he is.”
Despite some immature moments early in his coaching career, Kiffin has done nothing in his last two stops at Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss that would remotely be considered embarrassing. In fact, the respect within the college football community for Kiffin’s offense runs so deep these days that Saturday’s matchup against Alabama was widely considered the most interesting game of the week.
But if Ole Miss was really in the neighborhood of the No. 12 team in the country, which is where the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll had the Rebels ranked this week, they deserved a better fate than what Kiffin provided them against Alabama.
After failing to convert a fourth-and-1 at Alabama’s 6-yard line on their first drive — a defensible gamble, given that field goals weren’t likely to cut it in this game — Kiffin went for two more fourth downs on the next three drives.
The difference is, on the next two, Ole Miss was in negative territory when it decided against punting. One of them was a fourth-and-2 at the 47-yard line, and the next was a fourth-and-1 at Ole Miss’ 31, which felt like he was trying to double down on the previous call. The Rebels failed on both opportunities, and Alabama went from a 7-0 lead to a 21-0 lead without having to drive even half the field.
As his team went to the locker room for halftime, Kiffin defended the decisions in another interview with CBS, saying, “When you’re playing the No. 1 team in the country, you can’t keep punting.”
But there’s a fine line between respecting Alabama’s offense and coaching with such fear of it that you put all your cards on the table early in the second quarter.
Over the last half-dozen years, as analytics have become more prevalent in college football, there’s been a sea change in coaching attitudes about taking some risks on fourth down. In a lot of situations, the numbers say it’s a higher-percentage play to go for it than to punt the ball.
But funny enough, the one time Ole Miss’ defense stopped Alabama came after its only punt of the first half when the Crimson Tide had to start a drive at its 17-yard line.
We know Ole Miss has an explosive offense that came in averaging 52.7 points and 635 yards. That should have given the Rebels all the confidence in the world that they could stay in the game even if they got down a couple scores. Instead, it felt like Kiffin pushed all his chips into the middle at once, and by the time his team finally stabilized they were down 28-0 at halftime.
Make no mistake, Alabama is a better team than Ole Miss, and Saban seems to always have his teams primed for games against his former assistants. He is, after all, 24-0 vs. coaches who have previously worked under him.
But if this one was going to be competitive at all, Ole Miss needed Kiffin to rise to the occasion and coach a great game. By barreling through the line between aggressiveness and recklessness, Kiffin ensured it wasn't going to happen.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin blew it against Alabama