Thursday, March 3, 2011

Catch Me if You Can: is Lane Kiffin taking USC on a Titanic voyage to Shutter Island?

With NCAA sanctions looming, Lane Kiffin and his recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron signed 30 kids this cycle, including eight who enrolled in January and count against the 2010 class. rated the class fourth in the country.

It was an impressive haul for a team facing a two-year bowl ban, the loss of thirty scholarships over three years, and four years probation.  "Lack of institutional control" the NCAA called it, ruling that the team had to vacate 14 wins and the 2004 national title.  SC appealed in January, and a ruling is due in the next couple of weeks. 

The appeal bought precious time, and the latitude to max out this February on Letter of Intent Day, the Trojans loading up with four and five-star gems like George Farmer, Greg Townsend jr., and defensive tackle Christian Heyward,  once coveted by the Ducks,  now destined for Cardinal and Gold.  Meanwhile, Coach Kiffin is under yet another NCAA inquiry for "failing to create an atmosphere of compliance" during his one-year stint at Tennessee.  A final decision in that case will come in June, with penalties to be announced about the time fall camp opens.  Some of the penalties may follow Kiffin to USC, in the form of reduced recruiting contact or other sanctions.

Amid all the legal wrangling, the cautious released statements and nondenial denials, there's football to be coached and played, and the juries that convene on Saturdays are far more decisive.   Thirty-five-year-old Lane Kiffin, a former backup quarterback at Fresno State University, sold his way into one of the premier head coaching jobs in all of football with a 12-21 record as a head coach.  He's never won a league title at any level.  In his first year at USC, he finished third in the conference with Matt Barkley, Jurrell Casey, Tyron Smith, Marc Tyler, Robert Woods, T.J. McDonald and Malcolm Smith.  Some say he should have done better.

Kiffin was hired at Troy because he was perceived as a link to the glory years, the Pete Carroll teams that won seven straight PAC-10 titles and two national championships (less the one they vacated).  In year one he proved he could recruit.  In year two, the Trojan faithful will be hungry for results.  

Last season:

8-5 doesn't cut it at USC, the 10th winningest program in college football history, winners of eleven national championships and 31 bowl games. Seven Trojans have won the Heisman trophy, and Matt Barkley was signed to be the eighth.  74 Trojans have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft, most of any school in the country.  This is the school of Lynn Swann, Marcus Allen, Junior Seau, and Ronnie Lott.  The Trojan boosters don't pay coaches to go 8-5.

Last year there were extenuating circumstances, including the loss of Pete Carroll to the NFL and the June announcement of the bowl ban.  The Trojans looked off from the beginning, sluggish in early wins over Hawaii, Virginia (17-14?), Minnesota, and Washington State.  Still, they were 4-0, and the hopes were they could fight on, and make the conference title their national championship in a catastophic year.  But the next week they lost to Washington for the second straight season, and a week later they lost the what's-your-deal rematch with Stanford, a heartbreaker in Palo Alto, 37-35 on a field goal with four seconds to play.  They bounced back, looking very Trojan-like clubbing California in the Coliseum, Barkley throwing for 352 yards and tying a school record with five touchdown passes.   5-2, with two losses on last-second field goals, and the history wasn't written on their season.  They took a bye.

Then the end of October, it was Fright Night II as the Ducks came to Los Angeles.   The Trojans hung around for two and half quarters, got an interception by Casey on a tipped pass at the line and punched in a short-field score to go ahead 32-29, but then Oregon buried them with 24 unaswered points over the last 26 minutes of play.  For the game, Jeff Maehl caught three touchdowns, and LaMichael James ran for 239 yards.  The Ducks won with players USC didn't want, and at 1-3, the Trojans' hopes of salvaging a league title in a lost year were over.  They went 3-2 the rest of the way, with wins over the Arizona schools and archrival UCLA, losses to Oregon State and Notre Dame. In all sophomore Barkley threw for 26 tds against 12 interceptions, a marked improvement over his freshman season.

Way--too-early 2011 forecast:

It could go two ways.  Maybe the bowl ban gets lifted or reduced, and suddenly the Trojans have something to play for.  Maybe Kiffin succeeds in selling an us-against-the-world mentality to his young team, convincing them they're still the Trojans, and the upstarts of the now-PAC-12 have to be repaid for their burgeoning arrogance.  "We're USC.  We beat other teams 53-32.  We need to reclaim who we are."

It's perfectly possible.  There's a LOT of talent left on the roster, supremely gifted athletes who are used to winning and the best of everything.  They didn't come to USC to lose to Oregon and Oregon State.  It could be they develop a chip on their shoulder, gel behind their confident and talented quarterback, and start exploiting their advantage in speed and strength.  But depth continues to be an issue, experience is another, and Kiffin hasn't convinced anyone that he has the decisiveness and game-planning vision to match his sales skills.  He landed the best football job in the country and the prettiest girl in the room, but can he outcoach Kelly, Riley, and Sarkisian?  He hasn't proved it, which doesn't mean he can't.

Biggest off season headlines:
Trojans Appeal NCAA Sanctions
NCAA Pegs Kiffin, Tennessee with Violations
Trojans Land Top Five Recruiting Class; Sign 30 Players
Tyron Smith, Jurrell Casey Leave for NFL Draft

Important Dates:

Spring practice starts March 22, and the Spring Game is April 23.  The Trojans open their 2011 season with a home game versus Minnesota on September 3rd.

Key Losses:

In Casey and Smith, SC lost a premier defensive and offensive tackle, the anchor of each of their lines.  It's the downside of landing elite players year after year.  Many are three-and-done, and it leads to a certain amount of me-first thinking in some cases.

The Trojans will be young, young, young in 2011.  In fact, there are only 13 seniors and 16 juniors on the roster.   Five players left when sanctions were announced, and blue chip offensive tackle recruit Seantrel Henderson never made it to campus, opting out for Miami when the NCAA detritus hit the air conditioner last summer.

Why the losses won't matter:

Michael Lev of the Orange County Register points out that 11 of the Trojans' 17 freshman redshirted last year, which means Kiffin and his staff will have 41 new players at their disposal.  He also notes:

 "USC does have experience at key spots, including quarterback (Barkley), center (Khaled Holmes), left tackle (Matt Kalil) and defensive line (the top five are entering either their fourth or fifth year in the program)."

Impact Newcomers:

Receivers George Farmer and Victor Blackwell.  Mammoth (6-1 322) defensive tackle Antwaun Woods.  Linebackers Tre Madden and Lamar Dawson, both potential candidates to one day wear number 55, a tradition of honor chosen by the coaches.  Defensive linemen Christian Heyward and Greg Townsend jr.  Depending on the development of an entire class like these, the Trojans could be fierce, sooner rather than later.

Critical Spring Practice Questions:

As a third-year starter, is Barkley ready to be the next great Trojan quarterback, display the leadership and will to define this team?

Will the coaching staff instill a new focus and commitment from this blend of newcomers and holdovers, return the pride and execution to go with the superlative talent?

Kiffin can sell and tap dance with the media, but can he coach at the school of John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll?  Ultimately, what's his deal?

An early look at the 2011 Schedule:

SC has a perfect opportunity to build momentum and confidence.  They open with three home games versus Minnesota, Utah, and Syracuse.  They travel to South Division rival Arizona State on September 24th, then host Arizona October 1st.  Road games at Notre Dame and Oregon stand to be their toughest tests, and they have Stanford at home on October 29th.  In all seven home games, including UCLA and Cal.  It's a very favorable schedule for a young team with potential, with a couple of big challenges later in the year.


  1. This is one of the very best-written football blogs around. Comparable to Ted Miller's.

  2. Wow, that is very kind praise. I enjoy Ted Miller's blog a lot, and being mentioned in that company is encouraging.

    Thanks for reading. I'm glad you enjoy the blog.