All-Americans. A No. 1 ranking. A No. 1 NFL prospect. A team fresh off of a quality win over the 4th ranked Oregon Ducks on the road in Eugene. A team predicted to play Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.
That’s what 2011 Coach of the Year nominee Lane Kiffin inherited entering 2012.
Today, after a stunning 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, Kiffin completes a season that ended with five losses in six games, six losses overall at USC for the first time since 2001, and the dubious honor of being the first AP Preseason No. 1 team to ever finish with a half dozen defeats.
But as with every important life predicament, it shouldn’t be what happens that defines people, it should be how it happens. And unfortunately for Lane Kiffin, the how is much worse than the what.
The Trojans finished the season by losing to a team in the Sun Bowl that got blown out at home by Middle Tennessee of the Sun Belt a few months ago. They passed for just 105 yards against the 70th ranked pass defense in the nation and redshirt-freshman quarterback Max Wittek threw three interceptions while completing just 38 percent of his passes.
Even worse, Kiffin did nothing to stop it, prolonging a streak under his watch that now stretches 786 days since the Trojans won a game in which they trailed in the second half.
While Wittek was struggling mightily, backup and fellow redshirt-freshman Cody Kessler never was got the call to at least warm up. And the struggles were compounded by play calling that put the Trojans in difficult spots all game long.
When Kiffin wanted to pass, Wittek was in the shotgun or flanked with three receivers. When Kiffin wanted to run, the Trojans would often set up in the I-formation.
Just as they were all season long, the Trojans were incredibly predictable on offense and even with an interim-defensive coordinator at the helm of the Georgia Tech defense, Kiffin was easily figured out repeatedly.
But alas, Kiffin’s lack of adjustments has been the story for much of the season.
At UCLA, Curtis McNeal was running through, over and around the Bruins defense, totaling 161 yards on the ground. But Kiffin, addicted to the passing game and padding the stats of Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee, abandoned the running game and the Trojans threw themselves into three and outs while being down four points in a third quarter and having all of the momentum. The result was a loss.
Then there was the goal line stand against Notre Dame that has beaten to death for shoddy play calling despite eight opportunities with goal to go.
To sum it up, Kiffin has been the biggest cause of the Trojans’ dismal 2012 season.
So for Kiffin, his record at USC is now 25-13 in three seasons, all affected in some way by sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush scandal. For Pat Haden, that plays into the rationale that prompted the third-year athletic director to proclaim Kiffin’s safety after the 38-28 loss to UCLA last month.
But after faltering so dramatically and with a million bumps along the way, from deflated balls and jersey switches, to poor play calling and poor use of personnel, it’s been made clear that Lane Kiffin is not the guy to both lead USC to Pac-12 Championships or to do so in ‘the Trojan way’ that Haden preaches.
Yes, Kiffin is a tremendous recruiter. But with Su’a Craven, Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne, the trio at the heart of the 2013 recruiting class, all signed as early enrollrees, the time has come to make the change.
USC has too much fire power, too many weapons and too much history to allow an underachievement of such proportions slide, regardless of sanctions or recruiting prowess.