13 for '13: For his next trick, Lane Kiffin faces the hot seat
On the verge of a breakthrough, Kiffin's "dream job" is beginning to look more like a nightmare as sanctions begin to bite.
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Lane Kiffin is 25–13 in three season as USC's head coach. (US Presswire)
It's an open question whether future generations will believe it or whether the current one will even remember. But let the record show: For at least one strange, fleeting offseason, Lane Kiffin had the rest of college football at his feet.
Some day you may find yourself assuring your astonished children that it all made perfect sense at the time. To many eyes, USC was the best thing going at the end of 2011, having just stunned Oregon on the road, obliterated UCLA in one of the most lopsided games in the history of the rivalry and punched its way back into the heavyweight division of the national polls. Yes, there was the matter of NCAA sanctions, and 2 1/2 years of decline preceding the surge. But there was also a veteran, blue-chip lineup headlined by the best quarterback in the country, Matt Barkley, poised to fulfill his destiny of bringing the Trojans full-circle as a senior after three years in the wilderness. They may deny it now, kids, but for most of 2012 we all pretty much agreed the Trojans were the bee's knees.
Of course that was before they were physically manhandled by Stanford in September and never quite recovered. Eventually, the Trojans dropped five of their last six, failed to beat a ranked opponent and became the first team since 1964 to begin the season ranked No. 1 and end it outside of the final polls altogether. After an uninspired 21-7 flop against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, they failed to receive even a single vote.
The defense, under the $1.5-million oversight of Kiffin's septuagenarian father, Monte, was hopeless against spread attacks employing versatile quarterbacks, at one point yielding 39 points to Arizona, 62 to Oregon and 38 to UCLA -- all Trojans losses -- in a span of a little over three weeks. (By many measures, the Oregon loss was the worst defensive performance in USC history.) The offense, Lane's baby, was erratic and turnover-prone, tying for dead last in the conference with 34 giveaways. Against their local rival, UCLA, the Trojans fell behind 24-0 and ultimately lost by 10, snapping a five-year winning streak; against their national rival, Notre Dame, they managed just 13 points with Barkley nursing a shoulder injury. At no point did both sides come together to offer a glimpse of the team's full potential.
Meanwhile, the younger Kiffin slowly chipped away at reports of his growing maturity, first by lying to reporters about voting his team No. 1 in the preseason coaches' poll (he claimed he hadn't, when in fact he had), then by petulantly cutting short a post-practice press conference after 29 seconds when a reporter had the temerity to bring up an injured player. (Earlier, a local reporter had been briefly banned for reporting an injury to a different player.) Before the Sun Bowl, the team was embarrassed by multiple online jabs against the city of El Paso, and made much bigger, more humiliating headlines by showing up so late for a pregame dinner that Georgia Tech had already left by the time the Trojans arrived. After the Sun Bowl, the locker room was reportedly divided by a heated altercation.
Individually, each of the offenses was minor, the kind of petty faux pas a winning coach can shrug off without a second thought. Combined with his impudent reputation and his team's underachieving collapse, though, the overall effect was of a locker room in the dark, full of blue-chip talents waiting for an adult to turn on a light. At one point, even a handful of opposing coaches lined up to take anonymous potshots when USC's season began to turn south. In the same article, Kiffin was forced to admit, "With the players we have, we should not be 6-3." From there, the Trojans proceeded to lose three of their last four.
Dynamic Marqise Lee is key to a rebound in 2013. (US Presswire)
By then, Kiffin's future was a weekly topic of discussion, forcing athletic director Pat Haden to repeatedly stand up for his head coach after each loss. But implicit in Haden's assurances that Kiffin would be back in 2013 was the assurance that 2013 would restore some semblance of progress amid potentially crippling NCAA sanctions and turnover at quarterback. If 2012 was supposed to be the year that the stars aligned, 2013 was always going to be the year that scholarship restrictions began to bite.
The revamp will begin on defense, where the elder Kiffin has made way for a new defensive coordinator, Clancy Pendergast, coming off an erratic tenure at California. Quarterback will be a three-way duel between Max Wittek, who undermined his case with a brutal performance in the bowl game, fellow sophomore Cody Kessler and incoming freshman Max Browne, who is already on campus and should have every opportunity to claim the job in the spring. After a pair of dramatically scaled-back recruiting classes the last two years, that may be the only position where depth isn't a pressing issue.
On the other hand, the Trojans will return their best player, All-American wide receiver/return man Marqise Lee, as well as their leading rusher (Penn State transfer Silas Redd), two reliable veterans at tight end (Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer) and five regulars on the offensive line. The defense gets back virtually the entire front seven, including top pass rusher Morgan Breslin, and not including defensive end Devon Kennard, who missed the entire 2012 season to injury. Man for man -- even if there are fewer of them -- USC is still the most physically imposing team in the Pac-12.
Kiffin does not necessarily have to bring that streak to an end to salvage another season. But he does have to revive the sense of USC as one of the bullies of the Pacific time zone, which does not exist anymore for a program that's dropped four in a row against Stanford, three out of four to Oregon, two out of three to Notre Dame and its only game against UCLA under the Bruins' new head coach, Jim Mora, with a division title on the line. Less than five years removed from their seventh consecutive conference title, the Trojans aren't even feared in L.A. Until he reclaims his own backyard, at least, the clock on Kiffin's future will be ticking more loudly by the day.
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