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Same Problem, Much Different Solutions

By Jim Johnson
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Arkansas and Tennessee both have openings, but much different needs.

While the early signing period has precipitated the timetable with which programs are making their coaching hires, there are still a couple of open jobs in the SEC.

Florida smacked a grand slam with Dan Mullen, Ole Miss made Matt Luke’s dreams come true, and Jimbo Fisher sure seems like he’s going to save Texas A&M from itself. Mississippi State, which is probably a comparable job to the two remaining open slots, Arkansas and Tennessee, is being widely lauded for thinking outside the box and snatching up Joe Moorhead.

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s coaching search, if you can even call it that at this point, has been a series of delusions, rejections, tone deaf decisions, backlash, broken deals, and more rejection.

Arkansas’ has been… well, no one really seems to know, actually.

Despite Arkansas and Tennessee’s similar standings in the marketplace, these two programs are in disparate extremes as far as the kind of hires they should make.

The Vols are in desperate need of an energetic, offensive minded coach that can continue to recruit at a high level and immediately compete in a, probably temporarily, weak SEC East, whilst injecting some excitement into a fan base that has been absolutely put through the wringer, of late.

Conversely, Arkansas would do well to establish some modicum of stability and consistency with someone that can make them a more steady presence in the SEC West.

Of course, with needs that are like night and day, the corresponding candidates will be, too.

Enter, Lane Kiffin and Brent Venables.

Kiffin would knock it out of the park in Knoxville. The only thing keeping the fan base from clamoring for him, right now, is his previous, short-lived tenure at Tennessee. It’s time to move on, though.

Sure, he departed the program in a fashion that left him in less-than-good standing, but that was almost eight years ago, and who can blame him? It was his dream job. Instagram didn’t even exist yet.

Plus, John Currie did a really nice job helping to lower the standards for what constitutes a good hire with his effortlessly clever Schiano fiasco.

Kiffin deserves a chance to remedy what transpired in his first go-round, and would likely do so on the field, quickly.

In 2008, Phillip Fulmer’s last year, the Vols; offense ranked 80th in S&P+, 102nd in FEI, 113th in points per drive, 111th in points per game, 116th in yards per game, and 110th in yards per play.

In 2009, Kiffin’s year at Tennessee, those rankings increased to 31st, 26th, 34th, 43rd, 60th, and 21st, respectively.

During Kiffin’s first year at USC, taking over for Pete Carroll, in 2010, the Trojans’ offensive ranking increased from 55th, in 2009, to 24th in S&P+, 46th to 21st in FEI, 56th to 33rd in points per drive, 64th to 37th in points per game, and 55th to 26th in yards per game.

He even oversaw incremental improvement at Alabama, during his first year as their offensive coordinator.

Anno Domini, 2017, however, he has put together his masterpiece, and not just on Twitter.

Just one year ago, Florida Atlantic’s offense finished the season ranked 75th in S&P+, 93rd in FEI, 78th in points per drive, 80th in points per game, 72nd in yards per game, and 71st in yards per play.

Those Kiffin-led Owls currently sit at 8th in S&P+, 10th in FEI, 5th in points per drive, 10th in points per game, 16th in yards per game, and 14th in yards per play.

Aside from having the most fun in college football, he is continuing to prove himself as one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. He has earned the right to try to prove himself as a Power 5 coach again.

On the other hand, Brent Venables, whose demeanor is the very antithesis of Kiffin, in all the right ways, has nothing left to prove as a defensive coordinator. He is probably one of the 15-20 best, most impactful coaches in college football -- not ‘assistant coaches’, coaches (as in, including head coaches).

(Click here for a more in-depth look at the statistical anomaly that is Venables’ consistency, from the preseason. If not, the following chart should suffice. PPDA= points per drive allowed; PPGA= points per game allowed; YPGA= yards per game allowed; YPPA= yards per play allowed)

Clemson '17 3rd 5th 5th 4th 6th 4th
Clemson '16 6th 9th 8th 10th 8th 5th
Clemson '15 6th 5th 11th 24th 10th 17th
Clemson '14 1st 1st 1st 3rd 1st 1st
Clemson '13 12th 21st 19th 24th 24th 23rd
Clemson '12 34th 64th 59th 46th 64th 69th
Oklahoma '11 7th 6th 16th 31st 55th 38th
Oklahoma '10 8th 9th 8th 33rd 53rd 35th
Oklahoma '09 3rd 8th 9th 7th 8th 5th
Oklahoma '08 4th 4th 41st 58th 68th 52nd

For the Vols, Kiffin seems like he’s got a closet full of shirts from every respectable P5 school out there, “just in case.”

Now, Arkansas might have to back up the Brink’s truck to pry Venables away from Clemson, but he’s their best bet, amongst guys the program could reasonably expect to hire.

Heck, if the Jeff Brohm to Tennessee rumors are true, Venables is content, and the Hogs are feeling lucky, maybe they take their own shot at Kiffin.

Kiffin is the higher ceiling, lower floor option, betwixt the two. Venables feels pretty can’t-miss, but how high can he take a team?

Still, arguably, the best case scenario for these two programs are two polar opposite coaches.

Tennessee, it’s time to forgive.

Arkansas, it's time to forge ahead.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP