His team is 1-2. His defense is broken. And, more than likely, Saturday night will not be the last time Lane Kiffin loses a football game this season. But even in a loss that felt like a video game and ended with a basketball score, Kiffin reaffirmed his status as college football's greatest showman.
Not the greatest coach. Let's make that clear. When your team allows 63 points in a 60-minute game, as Ole Miss did against Alabama in a 63-48 loss, that title removes itself from the discussion for the time being. When you bounce around from job to job, as Kiffin has done over the past 15 years, you do so for a reason.
Ole Miss still has lightyears to go. And it's still unclear what the ceiling of a Kiffin-led program will ultimately look like. But even in defeat, in bringing his former boss Nick Saban and mighty Alabama to the brink, Kiffin showed he belonged. He showed that Ole Miss was indeed a team to be feared, no matter the record.
In scoring 48 points, Kiffin tied the most ever given up by Alabama under Saban since he arrived in Tuscaloosa. It was the most points an unranked team has scored against Alabama in the regular season since 1936. Ole Miss finished with 647 yards of offense—a figure that will likely make Alabama's defensive film sessions wildly unpleasant in the days to follow.
More than that, however, Kiffin delivered a moment. For everyone but the defensive players and coaches, this was maniacal entertainment. This was fun, outrageous football. Just two heavyweight boxers squarely in the center of the ring, trading haymakers. And it was that way up until the last few minutes.
In his latest act as coach, Kiffin has delivered a glorious stream of content—a mix of soundbites, competitive outcomes, unbelievable numbers and a YOLO coaching mentality that is oddly refreshing.
He didn't hesitate to go for it on fourth downs. He tried multiple onside kicks, including one early on in the second half that failed. He knew his defense wasn't stopping Alabama. He knew the talent gap at most positions was enormous.
And so, he did what any 15-year-old with a PlayStation and a copy of Madden would do: He played aggressively—some may even say carelessly—and nearly turned the college football world upside down in the process. The sport could use more of that.
Consider that at this point last year, it was uncertain if Kiffin would ever coach in a game of this magnitude again. Then the head coach at FAU, coming off a five-win season in his second year with the school, it was unclear what his coaching future would look like.
I spent a day with Kiffin in the film room last year as they prepared for Ohio State. The talent gap between the two programs was enormous. The thought of his offensive line actually slowing down Chase Young—the Buckeyes defensive end who was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in this year's NFL draft—seemed impossible. He knew it. I knew it. The outcome of the game itself, a 45-21 loss, was about you'd expect.
But that stop was necessary. In fact, FAU provided Kiffin not just a place to prove that fallouts in the NFL, at Tennessee and at USC were behind him. It also gave him perspective on the profession, something that clearly made the trip from Boca Raton to Oxford.
"I want to win football games," Kiffin said. "That's important and everything, but that's not the only thing. Because if that's truly the only thing, you won't be very happy. I've lived it."
In his first three games this season, Kiffin has put a scare into Florida, beat Kentucky 42-41 in overtime and made the Alabama defense more mortal than it's ever been.
One could make the argument that no team in college football has had a more difficult first three games. And yet, despite having two losses, Kiffin's reputation as a coach has only grown during that time.
Away from the field, Kiffin has continued to say things on a regular basis that almost no football coach would ever say. This theme began on social media years ago, although he's expanded his willingness to say whatever he feels on other platforms in recent years.
"I don't think he can cover me," Kiffin joked about Saban on the Dan Patrick Show earlier this week. "He's in his, like, 60s. I'm really worried about Coach. You know, he's elderly now."
He wasn't done. In summarizing his relationship with Saban in an interview with Kiffin said:
"I don't know, maybe like an ex. There's some good and some bad."
He is imperfect, which in a way makes a moment like this that much more intoxicating. His path to Ole Miss has been long and complicated. It has been difficult. And while it can be easy to obsess over every outcome and whether a team wins or loses, there is something to be said about the way he can entertain.
That is not something often written about a sport that is almost exclusively defined by success and failure. On Saturday, however, Kiffin showcased that, even in defeat, he could deliver a night in a way no other coach could.
After the game ended, Kiffin and Saban met. When asked about what he said to his former boss after the game, Kiffin didn't skip a beat.
"I thought they played defense in the SEC," Kiffin told him, according to ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough.
It is unclear what caliber of football team Kiffin has after only three games. Chances are it will continue to give up large amounts of points as the season continues. And yes, in many of those instances, Ole Miss will likely destroy the scoreboard as it did on Saturday night.
It will be imperfect. It will be different. It'll likely come packaged with soundbites during the week and after the games are played. The attempts won't always be successful, as was the case Saturday night. But the entertainment, regardless of whether Ole Miss wins or loses, will be there.
Kiffin will be sure of that.