Kiffin on facing No. 1 Georgia: ‘No one is expecting us to win’

Crimson Tide photos / Lane Kiffin, left, and Kirby Smart were the offensive and defensive coordinators on Alabama's 2014-15 teams that won Southeastern Conference championships, with the 2015 Crimson Tide also winning the national title. Kiffin's No. 10 Ole Miss Rebels visits Smart's No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs this Saturday night.
Crimson Tide photos / Lane Kiffin, left, and Kirby Smart were the offensive and defensive coordinators on Alabama's 2014-15 teams that won Southeastern Conference championships, with the 2015 Crimson Tide also winning the national title. Kiffin's No. 10 Ole Miss Rebels visits Smart's No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs this Saturday night.

During the 2014 and 2015 college football seasons, Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart were Alabama's offensive and defensive coordinators who repeatedly took their players into practice showdowns that ultimately molded Southeastern Conference championship teams under Nick Saban.

The 2015 Crimson Tide won the national championship as well.

This Saturday night, the two will be on opposite sidelines when Smart's No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs host Kiffin's No. 10 Ole Miss Rebels in one of the SEC's biggest games of the season. Georgia could clinch a sixth Eastern Division title in seven seasons with a triumph, while Ole Miss is seeking to remain on Alabama's heels in the West race.

As for the first Kiffin-Smart encounter since serving on the same staff?

"We're not going to build it up to be something it's not," Smart said Monday during his weekly news conference. "I mean, every win in the SEC is critical. It's critical for them. They're in the hunt for the West. They're in the hunt for the playoffs. They're in the hunt for all the goals and aspirations they have, so it's not about he and I.

"It's really about the players and the guys who get to go out on the field and make plays."

Saturday marks the first Georgia-Ole Miss game since Smart's first season guiding the Bulldogs in 2016, when they ventured to Oxford with a 3-0 record and got clobbered 45-14. Georgia went 8-5 in Smart's debut year, but the Bulldogs played for the national championship in his second season and have been stout ever since.

The Bulldogs will enter this ESPN-televised showdown having won 26 consecutive games overall and 25 consecutive regular-season contests within the league.

"Obviously it goes without saying that he's done an unbelievable job," Kiffin said Monday in his news conference. "To stay No. 1 for this long. To be close to a three-peat is really phenomenal at any time, let alone nowadays with the portal and everything.

"The only way that happens is with phenomenal players and phenomenal coaching, otherwise you would have lost a couple along the way."

Kiffin ran Alabama's offense in 2016 before becoming head coach at Florida Atlantic, where he worked from 2017-19 before returning to the league at Ole Miss. After a 5-5 debut during the COVID-altered 2020 season, Kiffin has guided the Rebels to a 26-9 record the past three years that includes three straight wins over Texas A&M, two straight over Auburn and a 2021 trip to the Sugar Bowl.

This season's Rebels have reached the top-10 for a third straight year, which is a first for the program since 1962-64.

"Lane does a great job," Smart said. "He's extremely intelligent, but he doesn't overthink things. He probably doesn't get enough credit for that, because he wants to beat you with fundamentals. He wants to beat you with his players doing things within their system. He looks for matchups. He looks for explosive opportunities.

"They have broken some numbers that are out there. They get lots of snaps because they go with pace, but they do a good job with the snaps they get. It's not like he's trying to be the scheme of the week. He knows what they do well and what you don't do well, and he's looking for a matchup most of the game."

Georgia hasn't lost inside Sanford Stadium since 2019 and hasn't lost a night game at home since 2009. Kiffin joked that he can't call the last guy to defeat the Bulldogs in Athens, referencing that former South Carolina coach Will Muschamp is now Smart's defensive coordinator.

Kiffin has coached in his share of big games, whether as an Alabama assistant, a Southern California assistant or USC's head coach, but this one feels different to him.

"It's kind of more like playing with house money, meaning no one expects us to win," he said. "We're double-digit underdogs. Those big games over the years were more of the big game or the national game, and the teams were considered close. No one is expecting us to win or probably even play them close.

"We'll just go in there and see what happens."


Sanford at night

Georgia didn't play a single night game at home last season, but Saturday will mark the fourth one this year.

"I don't know that the night game impacts the atmosphere, because I think the 3:30s have been great," Smart said. "I think the toughest is the 12 o'clock kick to get the atmosphere you want, but I don't know that I see a difference between the other two.

"Last year's Tennessee game was probably the most impactful game since I've been here. I felt like they impacted the game the most, and I think that we need that same impact for this game."


Bulldogs bites

Georgia leads its series with Ole Miss 32-13-1. ... The Bulldogs and Rebels played annually from 1966 to 2002 but have only met five times since. ... Smart on Brock Bowers: "He's done everything we've asked. He ran on Friday and did a good workout. He had Saturday off, obviously, and he continues to work and is going to do all he can to try to get back as fast as he can." ... Smart said junior linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson will "try to find some innovative ways to get back and be able to play" after injuring his forearm in Saturday's 30-21 win over Missouri. ... Senior guard Xavier Truss on being the best player from the state of Rhode Island: "I wouldn't consider myself the best, but on paper that's what it says."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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