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Lane Kiffin enjoying time at Alabama, but a head coaching gig is in his future

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Alabama remaining sharp in Cotton Bowl practices (1:42)

Alabama head coach Nick Saban discusses the Tide's approach to preparing for Michigan State. (1:42)

DALLAS -- It doesn't look like it's going to happen this year, and maybe not next year, either.

But the odds are that Lane Kiffin is going to get another head coaching job.

As sure as he's unpredictable with his play calling and whenever he's in front of a live microphone, he's going to be calling his own shots again one day.

He's too talented of a coach and a recruiter -- and he's also learned from his mistakes in previous head coaching stops -- that some athletic director out there is going to give him another shot. And when you look at all the guys who landed head coaching jobs this offseason without prior head coaching experience (12, to be exact), it's pretty obvious why Kiffin didn't get any bites.

He's still too toxic, at least as a head coach, for an athletic director to pull the trigger. But the job Kiffin has done with Alabama's offenses the past two seasons can't be denied, and the guy who reached out to Kiffin after he was fired at USC midway through the 2013 season -- Alabama's Nick Saban -- is among those who thinks Kiffin should and will be piloting his own ship again.

"When you look at the job he's done for us, how he's managed our offense with different personnel each year and how he's been able to adapt and grow, I'd say it's just a matter of time before he's a head coach again," Saban said. "The thing you've got to remember about Lane is that his first head coaching job came before a lot of guys get their first coordinator job."

Translation: Kiffin probably wasn't ready, particularly when it came to managing a program and wearing all the different hats a head coach has to wear at places like Tennessee or USC.

Kiffin, who just turned 40 this year, admits it was humbling after being fired by USC five games into the 2013 season and having to go back to being an assistant coach. After all, he was an NFL head coach with the Oakland Raiders before he turned 32, making him the NFL's youngest head coach in the modern era.

But his time with Saban, coupled with his time with Pete Carroll on the USC staff a decade ago, may have been exactly what Kiffin needed.

"When and if that time comes [another head coaching opportunity], I know I'm much better prepared than I was before, obviously having a chance to be with coach Saban and learning from him," Kiffin said. "I wouldn't go try to be him. I think sometimes when you're young, you try too much to be Pete Carroll because you came from him, but you have to eventually try and figure out yourself and say, 'OK, this is what I take from here, here and here.'

"Now, instead of going in a little bit unprepared, you're prepared for all the situations that come up and say, 'This is how Coach Carroll would have handled this or how Coach Saban would have handled it, and this is how I would handle it.' "

In the past, Kiffin's mouth has gotten him in trouble. But a lot of that is Kiffin simply being Kiffin. The difference is that he's at least cognizant of it now, whereas in the past he was oblivious.

Case in point: Kiffin was in a joking mood Sunday during the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic media session, the first time he's talked publicly with the media since August per Saban's policy that assistant coaches don't talk to the media. He was asked about Michigan State's plan to defend Alabama Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and noted that the Spartans had already gone against a great back this season in Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott.

Naturally, Kiffin couldn't leave it at that.

"Hopefully, we give the ball to Derrick more than [Ohio State] did," quipped Kiffin, referencing Elliott's beef that he didn't get enough carries in the Buckeyes' loss to the Spartans.

Realizing his meant-to-be joke only elicited a few chuckles, Kiffin deadpanned: "Just kidding. That was a joke. It's OK to laugh."

Even funnier, when Kiffin was done with his session, he lamented to a couple of reporters off to the side: "I thought I might get through this without making any bad jokes. I guess not."

And tattling further on himself, he shook his head and said the last thing his agent, Jimmy Sexton, told him during a morning phone conversation was, "No jokes."

Alabama quarterback Jake Coker has come to admire that side of Kiffin.

"He's in tune with everything that's going on out there on the field, and he sees things that nobody else seems to see," Coker said. "But he also can relate. He's not afraid to make it fun when it's time to make it fun."

Saban's never been a big fan of distractions. He's even less of a fan of anything that could be construed as bulletin-board material, which is why many thought the Saban-Kiffin pairing would be a disaster. And while we've been treated the past two years to endless clips of Saban barking at Kiffin on the sideline, the truth is they're a lot more alike, certainly from a football perspective, than people think.

"I kind of always thought that watching him when I would watch him in games or watch him in press conferences, and this was years ago, just the discipline, toughness and style," Kiffin said. "I think that's why it's worked. There are a lot of similarities there that people wouldn't necessarily think and why we genuinely get along."

Kiffin said he would "love to be back" at Alabama next season as offensive coordinator, and sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that there's a good chance he will be back. There's always the chance that a lucrative NFL opportunity could pry Kiffin away, and he's always going to listen if there's a chance to be a head coach again.

The San Francisco 49ers offered Kiffin their offensive coordinator's job last year, but he didn't feel right about leaving Alabama after just one year. Now in his second season with Saban, Kiffin thinks the chemistry between the two of them is better than it's ever been.

"The second year has been so much better, not even the second year, but maybe after the first two months or whatever that you understand him and understand communicating with him and understand how everything works," Kiffin said. "It is different. But once you understand it and once you expect it, it totally makes sense.

"Coach Saban and Coach Carroll are extremely opposites in how they deal with assistant coaches and the programs are completely different. Why do they both win? They both have philosophies they believe in, and it's their philosophies. They know how to deal with every single situation."

That was never more apparent to Kiffin than after the home loss to Ole Miss earlier this season, especially after Alabama lost to Ohio State in the playoff a year ago.

"We were down and out, dead and gone after Ole Miss, and everybody was off the bandwagon and it was over," Kiffin said mockingly. "Coach Saban couldn't coach defense anymore, all the things people came up with, and you saw how he handled it. That week of practice was no different, where I think a lot of guys would have said: 'OK, maybe there is something to this. We need to practice less or do this differently because of the Ole Miss game.

"No, nothing is different because of the process. It wouldn't have been any different if we'd won the game by 40."