OXFORD – While there’s certainly familiarity between Baylor head coach Dave Aranda and Lane Kiffin of Ole Miss, both coaches are expecting new wrinkles come New Year’s Day.
When the No. 8 Rebels and No. 7 Bears meet in the Sugar Bowl on the night of Jan. 1, it will be a matchup of two of the best minds on their respective sides of the ball. Kiffin is widely thought of as one of college football’s brightest offensive minds, while Aranda is seen just as highly from a defensive perspective. And numbers back up those notions.
Ole Miss (10-2) averages 35.9 points per game, which ranks 18th nationally. Baylor (11-2) surrenders just 19.2 a contest, ranking 14th in college football.
Kiffin and Aranda have matched wits before as coordinators, most recently when Kiffin was the Alabama offensive coordinator and Aranda the defensive coordinator at LSU in 2016. The two also matched up when Aranda was the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin and Kiffin was at Alabama, and when Aranda led Hawaii’s defense against Kiffin when he was USC’s head coach in 2010.
But times have changed, and so have the men leading their respective programs. But one thing has remained, in Kiffin’s eyes – Aranda’s emphasis on stopping the run.
“Our system is so much different than it was years ago. … I remember a stat in my head, about one time we played them," Kiffin said. "And it had been five years in a row, they were the only defense to be in the top-10 rush defense or something like that, if I remember right. …
“(There was) only one common thing in America, and it was him, where he had been at different schools. So, just unbelievable job, and (he) really gives you a lot of problems.”
Kiffin-coached teams have historically had success running the ball against Aranda.
In the first matchup, the Trojans ran for 246 yards against the Rainbow Warriors. Against Wisconsin, the Crimson Tide ran for 238 yards. And in the last contest, Alabama ran for 216 yards against Aranda’s Tigers. That Badgers squad boasted the No. 4 rushing defense in America, and LSU ranked No. 13 that season.
Aranda’s Baylor team is, as expected, stout against the run, allowing just 116.9 yards per game (16th nationally). Ole Miss, of course, relies heavily on its ground game, averaging 224.2 yards per game (ninth).
The Rebels rely heavily on pace, averaging 79 offensive plays per game, which ranks seventh in college football, according to Team Rankings. Conversely, Baylor is quite adept at slowing teams down, as opposing offenses average just 68 plays per game (34th).
While the Big 12 is generally considered a high-flying, fast-paced, offense-first conference, only one team ranks in the top-50 in plays run per game — Oklahoma State, who ranks No. 17 with 76.7 per game.
Aranda is well aware that, while his defense is ready for any challenge, the Rebels could present ones drastically different from what the Bears have seen thus far.
“I think it is different, what Ole Miss does, than what we see,” Aranda said. “We have seen teams that have the ability to go tempo and can sporadically kind of go fast, you know, maybe after an earned first down or maybe after just a general big play. But I think, what Ole Miss does, it’s more of a way of doing things. That, combined with big splits by receivers and their ability to make mismatches and create positive plays and negate negative ones is a big strength.”