Tough row to hoe

New Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin had to be watching intently as the No. 1 and 2 teams in college football, Alabama and Florida, met last night in Atlanta. He must play both every year.

In addition, his annual slate will include Georgia and South Carolina. The Bulldogs finished No. 2 nationally in 2007 and were preseason No. 1 for 2008. The Gamecocks, of course, are coached by Steve Spurrier, who won a national title at Florida.

If that doesn't present enough of a challenge, Kiffin's rotating league foes include LSU, which won the national title last year, and Auburn, which went 42-9 from 2004-2007 before slumping this season.

Some coaches have no desire to compete in college football's toughest conference. Fortunately for Tennessee, Lane Kiffin is not one of these.

"I could never understand that mindset," he said. "I don't know how to think like that. I know this: We're playing in the best conference in football, the SEC. To me, there's no comparison."

The opportunity to compete at the NCAA's highest level, in fact, proved to be a major selling point for Kiffin.

"The other quote 'big jobs' out there ... it wasn't close," he said. "There's no way you could compare those jobs to this job – not just because it's in the SEC but because of where it is and what's been done here before – the great coaching, the great teams and the great players."

Besides, coaching college football in the SEC can't be any more daunting than coaching pro football for Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was.

"To go be a head coach in the NFL and deal with the personalities in the NFL and the players and to deal with a completely dysfunctional franchise, that's something that's really valuable," Kiffin deadpanned. "That wasn't a joke. You can't go to school and learn crisis management like going there."

Those crisis-management skills should serve him well in the dog-eat-dog world of SEC football. Consider:

- LSU lost two conference games in 2007 but still won the national title.

- Georgia, pegged No. 1 nationally in preseason this year, suffered lopsided league losses to Alabama and Florida.

- Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom was forced to resign this week, just 12 months after being the consensus SEC Coach of the Year for 2007.

- Kiffin's predecessor on The Hill, Phillip Fulmer, was shown the door despite a record that features 100 more wins (152) than losses (52).

"The bar here is extremely high, and I love it," Kiffin said. "If the bar wasn't there, I wouldn't want to be here. Coach Fulmer's done an unbelievable job ... remarkable ... one of the greatest runs in college football. That's the truth.

"I'm here to continue that and see what we can do."

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