Alabama enters SEC play coming off home loss and lackluster road win

AP photo by Chris O'Meara / Alabama running back Roydell Williams (5), after scoring a touchdown against South Florida, celebrates with tight end Robbie Ouzts during the second half of last week's game in Tampa, Fla.

Lane Kiffin was Alabama's offensive coordinator the last time the Crimson Tide lost in September.

The Tide were ranked second when they lost 43-37 at home to No. 15 Ole Miss in the third game of their 2015 season — and didn't lose again en route to the Southeastern Conference title that year and the fifth of what has become seven national championships under head coach Nick Saban.

Kiffin is now a head coach on the other side of the series between these two SEC West Division rivals, taking the 15th-ranked Rebels (3-0) to Tuscaloosa for a Saturday matchup with No. 13 Alabama (2-1), which is looking to produce a glimmer of hope that another national title run is still a reasonable goal.

"In my three years there, we lost only one time at home, and that was to Ole Miss," said Kiffin, who was the Tide's offensive coordinator from 2014-16. "Sometimes that can kind of humble the team, can reset things. You see that often. People have a loss early, people start discounting them, and all of the sudden they start playing better and they fix the issues."

That's what happened in 2015. This time, Alabama is outside the top 10 of The Associated Press college football poll for the first time since that loss resulted in a two-week absence.

Back then, the Tide also had a lingering question at quarterback, but Jake Coker's off-the-bench performance against the Rebels secured him the job. Now it's Jalen Milroe's turn again after starting the first two games but not playing at all in the Tide's lackluster showing last Saturday at South Florida.

That 17-3 win followed a 34-24 home loss to Texas, which is currently ranked No. 3, a double whammy that has Alabama limping into SEC play, though Saban still sounds like a strong believer in his players.

"Look, I like the team. I've got confidence in our team," Saban said. "I really do. We've had some tough stretches before and players have bounced back, but I think everybody has got to make a commitment to doing that.

"It's not easy. We've got really tough competition coming up, but everybody has got to challenge themselves, I think, to be their best as a player, be their best as a team guy, be their best as a leader."

Milroe is back in the saddle again as Alabama's starter after neither Tyler Buchner nor Ty Simpson was as productive while splitting time against South Florida. Milroe is a dangerous runner who has made some big plays downfield, but he was picked off twice against Texas.

As for the series with Ole Miss, which is also opening SEC play, Alabama has won the past seven meetings, outscoring the Rebels by an average score of 52.8 to 25.3. The Tide have three games with 60-plus points against the Rebels in that span, including a 723-yard, 63-point explosion in 2020. Still, last year's 30-24 victory came courtesy of two Will Reichard field goals in the fourth quarter and an Ole Miss incompletion in the end zone in the final minutes.

Kiffin, who left the Tide to take over as Florida Atlantic's coach from 2017 to 2019 before taking the Ole Miss job, has never forgotten that Saban helped resuscitate his career by hiring him at Alabama. He's not shy about singing the Tide coach's praises, including his handling of frequent coordinator switches.

"He's done it better than anybody over time," said Kiffin, who had previously worked as a college head coach at Southern California and Tennessee and in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders. "That speaks to why he's the best coach in the history of college football and maybe all of sports."

On the other hand, Kiffin caused a stir when he suggested Alabama assistant Travaris Robinson was calling plays for the Tide's defense this year, not coordinator Kevin Steele. Saban said that isn't true, using the opening statement at his news conference early this week to emphasize Steele is handling "all the defensive coordinator responsibilities."

Asked about it later in the week, Saban said he's only focused on his team: "I don't really have a reaction to it."

Alabama is facing former defensive coordinator Pete Golding, who left for Ole Miss in January, creating the opportunity for Steel to return for a second stint in that role in Tuscaloosa.

Golding spent five seasons running Tide defenses.

Alabama's goal, according to running back Roydell Williams: "Be ready for anything. He's a great defensive coordinator. Whatever he throws at us, be ready for it."