Senior College Football Columnist

USC Trojans: What hot seat?

CULVER CITY, Calif. -- USC got a jump on Friday's Pac-12 media day when athletic director Pat Haden posted a video Thursday night on Youtube about the state of Trojans football and to make sure everyone knew that Lane Kiffin was not on the hot seat. At least not in his eyes.

"I anticipate the media will ask me if our football coach is on the hot seat this year. He is not," Haden said. " . . . (Kiffin) is a dynamic play-caller in my estimation. I firmly believe we will bounce back strong."

Kiffin, coming off a 7-6 season where his team came into the year as the preseason No. 1 pick, said Friday that he hadn't seen the video, but he appreciates his boss' support.

"That's good for him and good for our players and our staff," the 38-year-old coach said. "They're probably not going to get asked (about him being on the hot seat) as much."

Still, given the media climate in 2013 and the fact that his players are on Twitter and watching TV, Kiffin knows his team is bound to hear speculation. Asked if he'll discuss it with his team at any point, the coach said he likes to keep things general.

"As we get into next week and fall camp, we'll talk about limiting distractions because none of that ever matters," he said.

Maybe so, but outside speculation often has created a toxic environment around a team, where bad things tend to get compounded. Just ask Gene Chizik about the Auburn 2012 season or Jeff Tedford about the way things unfolded at Cal or Houston Nutt about 2011 at Ole Miss. Blocking everything out, especially in this day and age is a tricky proposition.

"It's very hard because you've got these things coming at you from all angles," conceded USC star wideout Marqise Lee. "You hop on your Twitter and you see things about 'Kiffin.' You go on Instagram you probably see a picture of Kiffin and things like that. It depends on the person. I just use it as motivation.

"Kiffin doesn't talk about it all. I respect him for that because (critics say) all the problems go back to him. 'It's Kiffin this. It's Kiffin that,' but all Kiffin cares about is making sure that us as players are on the right path. I don't think he focuses on the negativity that's coming towards him."

A year ago at this time, Kiffin was being hailed by the media as "matured" and more settled down, a changed man from his year at Tennessee where he stepped on a lot of toes. His team had just gone 10-2 and knocked off mighty Oregon at Autzen Stadium. Better still, the Trojans were loading up on blue-chip recruits at a dizzying pace all in spite of devastating NCAA sanctions that were handed down right after he accepted the USC job.

But as the 2012 season unfolded it was one gaffe after another, both on and off the field. Lee and linebacker Hayes Pullard said a late October loss at Arizona was the turning point of the season. The Trojans, then ranked No. 9, squandered a 15-point second half lead after committing five turnovers in a 39-36 loss despite the star receiver putting on one of the greatest displays in USC history, catching 16 passes for 345 yards.

The Trojans ended up losing five of their final six games of the season. And, despite players dismissing last year that there was any "national title or bust" attitude, it does now sound like that filtered into the program.

"We had a mind-set, where coming in No. 1 you want to make it to the national championship and that's your thought-process in the back of your head -- making it there," Lee said Friday. "Then, losing that first game and then you go to Arizona and lose there, and so we lose a second game and then thinking you don't have the ability to go to the national championship game any more kind of threw us of is. Then things went downhill and the focus was a little bit off."

Kiffin, in response to a disappointing 2012, shook up his staff even shuffling defensive coordinators, meaning his dad, Monte left and has been replaced by old Cal DC Clancy Pendergast and his 5-2 scheme. That should play well for a team with a fierce defensive front. The bigger concerns are in the secondary, along a suspect O-line and replacing four-year starting QB Matt Barkley. And making sure the team's focus is sharp and stays that way.

Kiffin was adamant than any Hot Seat rumors or lingering disappointing from 2012 will not impact how his team prepares.

"One of our biggest challenges as a head coach is not getting too high or staying too low especially when you're talking about something that has to do with last year," he said. "That is so far gone for our players and coaches. That might as well as have been 10 years ago. Just like what happened the year (2011) before had nothing to do with last year. Our disappointing of (2012) has nothing to do with this year."

One other thing Kiffin doesn't want to hear about is the roster restrictions or how USC has 15 less scholarship players than most FBS teams. They are an excuse, he admitted when I asked him if worries about players constantly hearing about it can turn into a crutch.

“I try to avoid talking about sanctions,” Kiffin said, pointing out that he has to answer the media's questions about the topic, adding that he's also had discussions with his staff to stop talking about it. "I don't want our players to hear anything about it. We don't want any excuses. Two years ago, we didn't have numbers and we played very well."

Expectations around the league are modest for USC. Local Pac-12 media members picked USC to finish third in the Pac-12 South.

Lee, sounded like Kiffin's biggest fan (at one point he said, "I'd play for Kiffin until I die") is convinced the Trojans and their embattled coach will have a bounce-back season.

"Last year we thought about the process too much," said the junior Heisman Trophy candidate. "After the two losses we couldn't hop back on track. It happens. Last year we didn't have that strong mind-set of bouncing back like we did the year before. This year I think it's different.

"I think (the mind-set of the team) has already changed. If you really pay attention to the mind-set of some of the players from last year to this year, people you expect not to be the verbal leaders -- like (sophomore wideout) Nelson Agholor -- are speaking up.

"Now we're pressing the re-set button, putting a chip on your shoulder and we're rollin'."

 
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