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Tennessee coach has nothing but praise for USC ... seriously

Tennessee head football coach Lane Kiffin directs his team practices during the first day of football spring practice Tuesday, March 10, 2009 in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Tennessee head football coach Lane Kiffin directs his team practices during the first day of football spring practice Tuesday, March 10, 2009 in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

The big news out of Knoxville on Tuesday?

Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin said nothing controversial during his weekly teleconference, which might constitute a stop-the-presses moment given his 11-month history on the job.

He uttered not one provocative word about the Gamecocks, the SEC officials or any his coaching brethren.

In fact, he complimented Steve Spurrier's coaching style. He praised Alshon Jeffery's pass-catching ability. And he recited the kind of phrase you often hear from the league's coaches.

"It's a big-time matchup for us," he said. "We'll have to have a great week of practice to be able to play with these guys."

That's the sort of quote fans might have expected from Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson last week, but not from the guy whose public statements have put the rocky in "Rocky Top." If Kiffin were an ice cream flavor Tuesday, he would have been vanilla.

Of course, playing it low-key might work to his benefit, especially considering his Volunteers (3-4) are a 5 1/2-point favorite over No. 21 USC (6-2). His candor also might have been hindered by the SEC's reprimand of him Monday for criticizing the officials in Saturday's 12-10 loss to No. 1 Alabama. The league also warned Kiffin he could be suspended if he violates conference rules again.

So the guy who accused Florida coach Urban Meyer of cheating - falsely - had nothing unflattering to say about his counterpart at USC. He called Spurrier an influence in terms of how he wants his players to act.

"When I was young, I was always intrigued by him," Kiffin said. "I always thought his players played with great swagger and confidence. That was a reflection of him."

Kiffin also downplayed the significance of having former USC coach David Reaves, his brother-in-law, on his staff. Reaves was a coach with the Gamecocks for seven years, the final few as the quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator, but Kiffin insisted that inside knowledge offers no additional edge.

"I think that's very overrated," he said, noting his coaching staff spends hours watching game film forming their opinions about what schemes will work best.

Reaves was in the middle of the recruiting controversies that were the result of Tennessee targeting some of the same players Reaves had pursued at USC. One of those players was Jeffery, a highly recruited receiver out of Calhoun County High who backed off a verbal commitment to Southern Cal to include USC and Tennessee among his three finalists.

Jeffery created a firestorm after he signed with South Carolina when he told a reporter that Kiffin's final pitch included a comment that he would end up pumping gas the rest of his life if he chose the Gamecocks.

Kiffin, who has denied making the remark, reiterated his denial Tuesday.

"I still don't know where that came from," he said. "I don't know how it came about."

As for Jeffery stepping up to become USC's go-to receiver as a true freshman?

"He's playing fabulous. That's why we put so much energy into recruiting him," Kiffin said.

Kiffin spent much of the teleconference discussing the improved play of Vols senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton, as well as how Tennessee must battle another Top 25 team after close losses to Florida and Alabama.

In the end, he stated emphatically that this game was just another nationally televised bout against a strong SEC opponent - and not a grudge match for him or the program.

"It has nothing to do with that," he said.

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