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Senior College Football Columnist

Mathieu dismissal from LSU works out well for Kiffin, USC

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Tyrann Mathieu was revered by Lane Kiffin, who later said the CB was too short. (Getty Images)  
Tyrann Mathieu was revered by Lane Kiffin, who later said the CB was too short. (Getty Images)  

In a strange twist, even for him, Lane Kiffin was exonerated the same day he was vilified. Minutes apart, by people he’d never met and a player he never recruited.

Such is our digital world, our preseason poll, our belief that All-Americans are just that. For a few moments on Twitter Friday morning USC’s coach was being tenderized for "lying" about voting his team No. 1 in the preseason coaches’ poll. Then along came the news that LSU's Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team.

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The national defensive player of the year in 2011 instantaneously became the biggest disappointment of 2012. USC, No. 1? Yep, among others for your consideration. Honey Badger was that good. His absence means the Trojans -- along with the Tide, Ducks and Sooners -- just got a better shot at the top.

National championship addition by superstar subtraction? Do the Math-eiu.

Or start with asking Arkansas and Georgia late last season. Mathieu's incredible back-to-back performances saved the season.

Pay attention to that coaches' poll. LSU is No. 1 by four points, with fewer first-place votes than No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 USC. Project that margin to BCS computer decimal points in early December.

Think Honey Badger would have made a difference? Absolutely. Think there's a reason to revote that, and every other preseason poll out there? Probably.

Mathieu, the complicated, troubled, brilliant comet that streaked across our sky last season, fell to earth with a crash so loud it was heard in south central Los Angeles, Tuscaloosa, Eugene and Norman.

Les Miles was clearly affected announcing at a presser that the beloved Honey Badger had to leave. But it wasn't a football sadness. He loved the kid but we knew there was a sketchy edge to the All-American. Miles didn't take Mathieu -- a Heisman finalist -- to SEC media days. But the coach did take his starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who had pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual assault while at Georgia.

It was widely reported last year that Mathieu was suspended for a game because of a failed drug test. While there was no announcement from the school on Friday, Miles did say the dismissal was due to a violation of team and school policy. A third failed drug test could have gotten Mathieu booted from the school.

The best college secondary player since Charles Woodson was invited to New York despite that suspension. Even the ultra-conservative Heisman Trust was sucked into his orbit. The voters placed him fifth, ahead of Matt Barkley, Kellen Moore and LaMichael James.

Mathieu was that good and we were all that snowed in what seems to be this ongoing college crap storm. Half of CBSSports.com's preseason All-America secondary now needs to be replaced. Florida State's Greg Reid was dismissed from the 'Noles.

Reminder: We haven't kicked off yet.

But within moments of the LSU presser, our national football psyche showed through. USC fans had taken to Twitter urging a Honey Badger migration to the West Coast.

Admit it, you'd take him. He may be a troubled superstar but you'd love to make him your troubled superstar.

Twitter was a fitting place for Friday's news to puree. It's where Mathieu seemingly felt most comfortable. His tweets were both Shakespearean and street. His profile proclaimed he was "HEAVEN SENT." We should have known something was up. The prolific tweeter did not offer anything in the 31 hours before the announcement.

The silence was his eulogy.

Mathieu still sees his birth mother but was raised by a caring aunt and uncle. His birth father is serving time for murder. But at moments like this, the risk has never outweighed the reward. (See Josh Hamilton, etc.) He'll end up somewhere. As long as you can hit, shoot or tackle you're worth something to somebody.

Just not at LSU for Mathieu. Not now.

With him, the Tigers were able to fall behind Arkansas 14-0 -- and win by 24. With him, the Tigers went without a first down in the first half and still nailed down the SEC title by 32. In those two games alone, Mathieu returned seven punts for 234 yards, scored two touchdowns, made 12 tackles and recovered three fumbles.

In a preseason poll this close, in a conference this talented, Mathieu absolutely made a difference. At 5-foot-9, he was able to outjump receivers six inches taller. His return skills were otherworldly. In the first 25 games of his career he had at least one of these each time out -- an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a punt return for a touchdown.

With him, LSU was as flexible as a synchronized swimmer in London. When safety Eric Reid was injured prior to the Arkansas game, Mathieu slipped over from corner and was brilliant. Without him, well, it's a tribute to LSU if the Tigers make it to opening day No. 1. The defense is still intimidating. The only worse thing that could have happened would have been losing Mettenberger. One of the fallbacks at that position is Penn State transfer Rob Bolden.

Redshirt freshman Jalen Collins will take over for Mathieu. Imagine the pressure on a kid whose street cred for a No. 1 team is an impressive spring. The Tigers won't be as dynamic in crunch time. Odell Beckham Jr. will return punts. Beckham is a son of a former Tiger, with all the character that Mathieu lacks. He also won't win games single-handedly.

Those are words you can write about a cornerback once every 20 years.

Mathieu couldn't last three at LSU.

The comet has fallen and, yes, in a convoluted way Kiffin and USC are among the winners. It was Kiffin who had a chance to offer Mathieu three years ago when the coach did his one-and-done at Tennessee. The kid from St. Augustine High in New Orleans was the most valuable player at a Vols camp.

"I don't know to explain it to you guys," Tennessee assistant Frank Wilson told Kiffin and his father Monte at the time. "He's a kid we have to have."

Kiffin deemed Mathieu too short. Wilson never forgave him until he joined Miles' staff as running backs coach and helped recruit Mathieu to LSU.

Not only did Kiffin never recruit Mathieu, he never had to face him. But if USC's coach, Barkley and the rest of the Trojans get to the national championship game, Friday proved that one thing already is working in their favor.

Honey Badger won't be there.


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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