Senior College Football Columnist

Upset over Oregon makes Kiffin popular man in SEC


Kiffin's Trojans move Oregon out of the BCS picture, leaving just three SEC teams at the top. (US Presswire)  
Kiffin's Trojans move Oregon out of the BCS picture, leaving just three SEC teams at the top. (US Presswire)  

EUGENE, Ore. -- Lane Kiffin looked like the kid that he is, at least in terms of coaching experience.

Sitting on a trunk outside the USC locker room late Saturday, the Trojans' coach considered the mess he and his team had created. Not just here where they stared down the nation's fastest offense and ended the nation's longest home winning streak, but around the entire nation.

"I wonder if Nick left me a phone message," Kiffin said. "He likes me."

It's good to know you can take the coach out of the SEC but you can't take the SEC out of the coach. For some reason he and Nick Saban bonded during Kiffin's one-year fleeting affair in Tennessee.

Even the perpetually dour Sabanator had to crack a wide smile following USC's 38-35 stunner over No. 4 Oregon. The result moved LSU-Alabama rematch chatter from the corner bar stool to the level of high probability.

Ducks kicker Alejandro Maldonado was just wide, pushing a game-tying 37-yard field goal left as time expired -- on the game and Oregon's season, basically. Handed a chance to get back in the BCS race by Iowa State's Friday night upset of Oklahoma State, the Ducks gagged. USC never trailed in a game in which it was a 16 ½-point underdog.

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When the BCS standings are released Sunday it's likely that the SEC stranglehold on the game we've become used to is going to get a little tighter. Get ready for LSU, Alabama, Arkansas in that order at the top of the BCS. LSU and Arkansas play Friday. One of the two could play Alabama in the national championship game if the Tide can beat Auburn in the Iron Bowl on Saturday. The SEC championship game is Dec. 3.

"It's just exciting to see it could be a rematch between LSU and Alabama ...," said USC junior safety Jawanza Starling, a big-time prospect from Tallahassee, Fla., who was recruited by every SEC power that matter. "I don't know about everybody else, I wouldn't have a problem with that."

Assuming even that at this point could be too much at this point. In the last 24 hours, four of the top seven in the BCS have lost. Oklahoma State kicker Quinn Sharp wasn't, missing a potential game-winning field goal against Iowa State Friday night with 77 seconds. Big brother Oklahoma lost in the final seconds at Baylor. Clemson had a chance to climb back into contention until getting blown out by North Carolina State.

The last men standing are all from the SEC. The ones dancing off the Autzen Stadium turf are leading a Pac-12 South Division they can't win.

(More on that below.)

For the moment, Kiffin didn't care. Tennessee's former wonder boy just won the biggest game of his short three-year career and biggest game at USC since at least 2008. That's the last time the Trojans won the Pac-10. But back in those days it was almost always the favorite. This time the Trojans were a monster underdog on the road against a top-five team that was favored by more than two scores.

"We have been the underdog for a while now, but maybe that has shifted," said quarterback Matt Barkley.

"The dark clouds," Kiffin added, "are moving."

That's a reference to the two-year bowl ban that ends after this season. The crippling NCAA probation that hit 17 months ago is so old now that Reggie Bush is closer to retirement than he is a goal line. But the sanctions are just beginning to take effect in Troy. The loss of 30 scholarships over three years doesn't start until next year.

That made Saturday more unbelievable. Kiffin is 17-7 since the probation hit even as USC has changed roles from national power to that cuddly underdog.

"If you would have told me all the things that happened since we got here -- the transfers, the [de-committed] letters of intent, no bowl games -- yeah, I would probably say that," Kiffin said.

Saturday night, essentially, was USC's bowl with no ocean, no sun and no lavish gifts. A team with nothing to play for was more desperate than the one with everything in front of them.

They were led by Barkley, who could have transferred but chose to tough it out through the bowl ban. The junior threw four touchdown passes. Forget receiver Marqise Lee being a freshman All-American. He might be a first-team All-American after catching eight balls for 187 yards. Sophomore Robert Woods was nicked up this week but caught two touchdown passes.

Safety T.J. McDonald has been accused of playing over the line. It was a straight line he took to block an Oregon punt in the third quarter. Oregon fumbled four times, losing two including a critical turnover by LaMichael James at USC's 9 at the end of the first half.

The nation's longest home winning streak ended at 21.

"We really believe that in our hearts that scandal is behind us," USC AD Pat Haden said. "It's for these guys to have this moment. They're really just playing for the joy of the sport. If you went back and saw all these guys play when they were 7 years old they would probably play just like they did today."

Which was absolutely loose. They led 21-7 at halftime and 38-14 with 3½ minutes left in the third quarter. Attrition, fatigue and the Ducks got to the Trojans. USC won a game at Notre Dame this year with 53 scholarship players. It's not clear how many there were Saturday but tongues were dragging at the end.

The Trojans were finally going to put it away when tailback Marc Tyler fumbled at Oregon's 14 with 2½ minutes left. Considering that the Ducks' longest scoring drive to that point had been 2:16 that was a bad sign.

USC defenders were just holding on as Oregon got to the Trojan 18 with less than a minute remaining. But Chip Kelly, the ultimate attacker, wasn't able to get a shot at the end zone. He had to settle for what was ultimately Maldonado's chunked field goal.

Kiffin was in meetings Friday when he heard the Iowa State-Oklahoma State score and thought: "Oh great, they've [Oregon] got more motivation."

When he got to the field it looked like an NBA All-Star game. LeBron James was playing catch in an end zone. He was accompanied by Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. They were in town for some Nike get together. The already-jacked crowd reacted accordingly.

"I went over to Chip and said, 'What you couldn't get Michael [Jordan] here?" Kiffin said.

Three hours later, Kid Kiffin sat on that trunk in front of a green and yellow wall painted with Oregon's slogan: "Win The Day."

That's all USC has had to do all season. Meanwhile, Oregon's season -- in terms of a national championship -- is over.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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