For a number of reasons, Saturday's matchup between Tennessee and UCLA will have coaching storylines that are sure to get a lot of play from fans and media alike. On Sunday, Ed Orgeron voiced his opinion that no two coaches in the country wanted to beat UCLA more than he and Lane Kiffin. In his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Lane Kiffin commented on the showdown between his father and his former superior:
"From a fan's perspective or a media perspective, I think it's a big-time matchup, a legends matchup if you look at Norm Chow versus Monte Kiffin. That's a big chess match with arguably the best defensive coordinator in NFL history and the best offensive coordinator in college history. I think it's a very intriguing matchup of two great coaches." (UTSports.com)
But in spite of all the other coaching fireworks that will surround this game, the most interesting and most important storyline centers around Norm Chow and the younger Kiffin, who will both be calling plays for their team on Saturday, and who both spent some very successful years doing the same at Southern Cal.
They are different people and different personalities off the field, but found similar success with similar styles on it. The 63 year old Chow made his name at BYU, where he served as offensive coordinator from 1982-1999. When he arrived at SC in 2001 with Pete Carroll (and Lane Kiffin), the Trojans hadn't been successful in years and the offense needed rejuvination. It took him one year to get going...and then the Trojans started lighting up the scoreboard.
In Chow's first season as offensive coordinator, USC averaged only 22.9 points per game, started 2-5 and finished 6-7 with a loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl. But with Carson Palmer at the helm, the Trojans rebounded with a Pac-10 title in 2002 and an offense that averaged 35.7 points per game and won Palmer the Heisman Trophy.
That was only the beginning.
The offense bumped it up to 41 points per game in 2003, scoring 40 or more in the last seven games of the regular season, and won a share of the National Championship. In Chow's final season in 2004, Heisman winner Matt Leinart threw for 3,322 yards and 33 TDs, Reggie Bush and LenDale White combined for 2,011 yards and 21 TDs on the ground, and the Trojans went undefeated in winning the BCS National Championship, with a pedestrian 38.1 points per game.
When Norm Chow left to become the offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, Lane Kiffin must've felt like a kid on Christmas morning: not only did he inherit playcalling duties at the tender age of 30, but all of the offensive pieces of the puzzle returned from USC's '04 National Championship team.
The 2005 Trojans, with Kiffin at the offensive helm, are statistically the greatest offense in college football history: 49.1 points and 579 yards per game, including a 3,000 yard passer, two 1,000 yard rushers and a 1,000 yard receiver. Until they were derailed by Texas in the BCS National Championship Game, they were the recipients of plenty of attention as "the greatest team of all time".
Kiffin's final year at USC produced another Pac-10 title, though the numbers dropped off with all new offensive skill players, down to 30.5 points and 391 yards per game. Still, Kiffin went 23-3 in two years as USC's offensive coordinator, keeping pace with his mentor's run of 36-3 from 2002-2004.
Though Chow certainly gets more credit for rebuilding the USC offense, their numbers are almost identical and equally spectacular during their tenures calling plays. The skill of the USC recruiting machine - including Kiffin, Chow and Orgeron - kept the cupboard stocked with great talent that both men utilized to their advantage.
So now, two men of incredible success in the same role at USC now face each other on opposite sidelines in Knoxville. Both Chow and Kiffin are dealing with less talent than they saw on the field with the Trojans, placing an even greater emphasis on play calling.
We've only seen Kiffin once, and again, say it with me - "It was only Western Kentucky." - but we did learn a few things about his style. You know, aside from the fact that after one week, the Vols lead the nation in total offense. And are second in scoring offense. I'm just saying.
Kiffin maintained balance despite two factors that we thought would suggest otherwise: Jonathan Crompton and a non-competitive game. We thought coming in that Crompton's past and WKU's present would lead to a ton of rushing plays. Instead, Kiffin dialed up 43 runs but 33 pass calls in his UT debut. Along with all the points and yards, the Vols racked up 34 first downs and went 7 of 9 on 3rd down.
This was a gameplan that kept its foot on the gas and kept the opposition off balance: the Vols ran some on second and long and passed some on third and short, and I don't know about you, but I had a terrible time trying to figure out what was coming next.
And that's a very good thing.
Chow, on the other hand, has a more particular style. Especially when not blessed with USC-level playmakers at the skill positions, as he was in Nashville and is now at UCLA, Chow loves employing the tight end in the passing game. With the Titans, receptions were spread around while backs saw their yards per carry increase significantly. And under Chow Vince Young was at his best while he was there, which comes as no surprise given his long pedigree of QB development, which UCLA fans hope will soon include Kevin Prince.
Against San Diego State, Chow and the Bruins were balanced as well: 38 rushes, 31 passes. Along the way, the Bruins won time of possession by almost 12 minutes and picked up 359 yards. Most of the pieces of UCLA's offense will be different than the ones the Vols saw last year in Los Angeles, with a new quarterback, new backfield and a mostly new offensive line, so it's hard to pull a lot of relevant information from last year's game on this side of the ball. But don't expect the quarterback to throw four interceptions in the first half.
With both teams still feeling themselves out and both offenses relying on several unproven players coming into the season (and both teams wielding defenses that can make life difficult), the abilities of Chow and Kiffin to push the right buttons at the right time could end up making the difference between winning and losing. Kiffin, of course, will never admit that he has something to prove against Chow...even though their numbers were very similar at USC, Chow did it first and got two rings out of it. But if the Vols come up with the better offensive performance on Saturday, don't think Kiffin won't enjoy the icing on his victory cake.
Will Chow and the Bruins work their way to an upset victory that becomes another page in Chow's legacy? Or will Kiffin and the Vols prove that last week was no fluke, and win the day as the student beats the master?