The postseason eligible Trojans have one game remaining, but for all intents and purposes, the USC football season has ended. One game can’t salvage a season of underachievement and suddenly make everything right. A single game can’t lift the program to the mark of preseason expectations. And though one game provides an opportunity to end the season on a high note, it also comes with the potential to establish new lows.
If 2011 signaled the rise of Troy, then the new year trumpets its fall. Though I can’t understand how a 10-2 record became 7-5 in a calendar flip, there were others that not only recognized reasons for the collapse, but also saw it coming.
The Bruins have several factors working in their favor entering their third season under Rick Neuheisel. Most notably, their cross-town rival just got hit with heavy NCAA sanctions (10 docked scholarships each of the next three seasons) that, at the very least, will benefit UCLA in head-to-head recruiting. But the Bruins weren’t exactly struggling in that arena: Even coming off a 7-6 season, they landed Rivals.com’s No. 8 class last spring….
…If UCLA, which enters preseason camp with just one projected senior starter, struggles this fall, it could spark grumblings about Neuheisel. But by then the foundation should be in place for either him or a successor to instigate a breakthrough right around the time USC feels the brunt of its sanctions. Remember, the Trojans started the 2000s with 5-7 and 6-6 seasons.—–Andy Staples & Stewart Mandel
We now know that Neuheisel’s successor is Jim Mora, who is just one win away from becoming UCLA’s most successful first-year coach. Snapping a 5-game losing streak to a crosstown rival is just one of his accomplishments, as well as defeating more ranked opponents in his first season (3) than Lane Kiffin (2) in his three years at USC.
Notre Dame and USC remain among the biggest brand names in college football. Yes, that’s true even now, with the Fighting Irish mired in a long stretch of mediocrity and the Trojans reeling from major NCAA sanctions.
So it’s naturally big news when either team changes coaches. When both do it in the same year, it’s really big news.
Last time it happened was in 1941, when Notre Dame hired Frank Leahy and USC hired Sam Barry. Advantage: Irish. Leahy went 87-11-9 and became one of the legends of the game; Barry went 2-6-1 in his only year on the job.
This time, with Lane Kiffin at USC and Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, the coaching changes offer another potential swing in favor of the Golden Dome. And from an Irish perspective, a reversal of rivalry fortunes is frantically overdue.—Pat Forde
Brian Kelly is a proven winner, having now recorded an undefeated regular season at three different stops. He inherited a Notre Dame program in shambles, coming off record-lows under former head coach Charlie Weis. In three seasons of rebuilding, the Irish have twice defeated the Trojans. And more important for the Notre Dame brass, in the third year of his restoration project, Kelly is on the brink of a National Championship.
The Trojan cupboard may have been bare when Kiffin arrived, but not nearly as empty as the one in South Bend. Kelly installed a new offense, which meant recruiting and teaching new players to run it. And though he is an offensive mind, he didn’t ignore the makings of a champion or set out to win games in a firefight. It’s a fully restored defense that has launched his team into the BCS championship game. It’s a much maligned defense that has preseason favorite USC currently sitting just two games above average.
In his first year as a starter, defensive end Morgan Breslin was one of the nation’s rising stars. His achievements were noted each week, until USC entered a 5-game stretch against spread offenses. Talent doesn’t suddenly fade at the season’s midway point. The junior college transfer became as insignificant during the stretch run as the scheme imposed by his coordinators.
We can speak of scholarship losses and the sudden 75-man roster, but what USC did not have was shadowed by All it did possess. The Trojans entered the season with the most prolific passer in school history, along with All-Americans at wide receiver. The addition of Silas Redd bolstered the backfield, and they ran behind one of the nation’s top centers in Khaled Holmes, and freshman All-American guard Marcus Martin.
The defense took hits in losing Nick Perry to the NFL and Devon Kennard to injury, but Leonard Williams surfaced as Pac 12 defensive freshman of the year. The aforementioned Breslin was Pac 12 honorable mention.
The Trojans also came equipped with 2011 freshman All-American linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard, who were supported by watch-lists cornerback Nickell Robey and All-American safety T.J. McDonald. But even so, I still see fault pinned on players who supposedly—-and suddenly—-performed with diminished talent, instead of properly placed on the men receiving large sums of money to develop and assist them in reaching goals.
I cursed the authors for premonitions laced in gloom, believing they were bias-based visions used to generate website hits and comments. Today I stare at dated articles that say, “I told you so”, and respond to each with, “yes, you did.”
USC lost to rivals UCLA and Notre Dame in the same season for the first time since 1995, and we were given a heads-up before arriving at this point. We can scratch and claw amongst each other, searching for answers for the sudden step back. But numbers don’t lie, and they tell that an average hire will bear average results and stray from a path once paved.
Lane Kiffin is 25-12 overall as the head coach at USC. He has compiled a record of 17-10 in conference, but is only 2-7 versus ranked teams. A figure that leaps to the forefront is his 15 victories to just 2 defeats to opponents that ended seasons with a record of .500 or worse, while breaking even (10-10) versus programs with winning records. In searching for the biggest difference between this season and the last, you may find it in scheduling. USC played 8 winning programs during the most recent campaign, which is the most in any season under Kiffin and his staff.
I have no crystal ball or fate predicting deck. All I have is optimism, and the belief that change will come. I’ve lost faith in the leaders on the field, but maintain trust in the leaders of the program to make the right decisions. USC may lose games, but will never lose my support, just as I will never lose my opinion.
Will it be continuity or new ingredients added to the formula for success? That’s a question that will be answered in the months to come. Southern California has earned its place in college football, and the current position sits below that perch. It’s an uphill battle, and one burdened by the weight of sanctions, but I believe it’s a climb still manageable with the right pieces in place.