Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
After coaching a team that was ranked No. 1 in the preseason to a 7-6 record in 2012, Lane Kiffin entered 2013 amid heavy scrutiny and with a bullseye on his back, sitting atop Athlon Sports’ list of coaches on the hot seat for 2013.
Prior to the season, Kiffin appeared to be headed in the right direction when he relieved his father and former defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, of his duties.
It was a move many USC Trojan fans had been clamoring for as Monte wasn’t able to effectively adjust his defensive scheme to the college game.
As for the criticism Lane received in response to his calling of the offensive plays and tendency to consume himself with his play sheet, no change would be made there.
At Pac-12 media day in July, Lane answered his critics’ questions and confirmed that he would continue calling the plays in 2013.
Yes, when the Trojans were on their way to an 11-2 record in 2011, Lane was calling plays and didn’t face the criticism for it that he now does. An 11-2 record will afford you a certain amount of protection from scrutiny.
Entering a season with BCS Championship aspirations only to finish 7-6, unranked, and generating one touchdown in a home loss to the Washington State Cougars, will not protect you from that same scrutiny, nor should it.
Lane has shown he is capable of putting together a successful game plan — see the 2011 road victories in Oregon and Notre Dame. While those wins weren’t all Lane, they are examples of him being able to keep opposing defenses guessing and off balance.
Being someone who is, or was, widely considered an elite offensive mind, it is puzzling to see the Trojans struggle on offense as much as they have.
The recent lackluster offensive performances can perhaps be attributed to how Lane handled the quarterback competition, which appears to have backfired, blown up in his face, and has potential to get worse.
On Monday afternoon, Kiffin once and for all announced a starting quarterback moving forward, giving Cody Kessler the nod over Max Wittek. Kessler has of course already started both of the Trojans’ games thus far but Lane appeared reluctant to anoint him the full-time starter.
Kessler certainly didn’t help himself with underwhelming play in four quarters worth of action. Though Lane didn’t exactly provide a helping hand with the vanilla and predictable play calling.
If Kessler is taking the field as the quarterback at USC, he needs to be prepared, trusted, and able to complete more than just bubble screens and short hitches. Ditto for Wittek.
The way the situation unfolded has backed Kiffin into a corner in which he may never come out of.
Was his final decision based on Kessler earning it? Is it Kessler because he’s been the lone starter two games into the season?
Or after the abysmal loss to the Cougars did Lane realize he could no longer continue to stall and buy time hoping Wittek would eventually step forward?
Let’s not forget Wittek began this season with two games of starting experience already under his belt.
Naturally, you would believe he’d have a leg up on Kessler in the battle to take the snaps under center this season, but he was never able to overtake Kessler — no matter how much Kiffin may have wanted him to.
Waiting to see how Kessler would respond in a real game setting against Hawaii was a respectable strategy. But if Kessler was playing well enough to earn consecutive starts, why not make the announcement prior to Monday?
What more could Wittek have shown in his fourth game compared to his first three? The evidence points to much of the same — continued struggles.
One Pete Carroll, who safe to say experienced a palpable level of success at USC, firmly believed in naming a starter for leadership sake and his track record speaks for itself.
Best case scenario for Lane and the Trojans is Kessler takes the lead and the team begins to rattle off victories.
Even if this does come to fruition, the Trojans have already shot themselves in the foot by losing a game that they shouldn’t have, and you can be sure the “what took Kiffin so long” questions will surface.
Worst case scenario, Kessler and the offense continue to struggle throughout the season, which could, and arguably should, result in Kiffin losing his job.
As unfair as it may seem, Kiffin has inflicted this on himself. As the head coach, you’re held responsible for your team’s preparation, play, and results.
Also serving as the de facto offensive coordinator, you’re held accountable for a struggling offense that absolutely should not be sputtering like the Trojans are.
Lane shouldn’t believe he’s on the hot seat. He should feel like the ground under him is scalding, with winning providing the only relief.
If the boos unleashed on Lane were any indication of what may lie ahead if the Trojans pile up losses, he may wish he never returned to the place he once experienced so much success at.