Kiffin's last stand?
By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There is really only one word that could describe the 2012 season for Lane Kiffin and the USC Trojans and that word is disappointment.
Last summer the feeling was that the star-studded Trojans were set to dominate not only the Pac-12 but the entire FBS. Just about every pundit from coast to coast had the Trojans penciled in as the No. 1 team in the country. When the preseason AP poll came out USC was sitting in the top spot. They had a Heisman frontrunner in quarterback Matt Barkley and arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the country in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
Those expectations did not come to fruition though. After starting out 2-0 and scoring 91 points in their first two games the Trojans were humbled in a 21-14 setback to Stanford and knocked out of the top 10. The Trojans closed out the season losing five of their last six games to end the year at 7-6 and on the outside looking in on the polls they had once sat atop to begin the year.
It wasn't exactly the kind of year anticipated after their 10-2 campaign in 2011.
Fast forward to this offseason and expectations have certainly been tempered. Barkley, Woods and Second-Team All-Pac-12 safety T.J. McDonald have all moved on to the greener pastures of the NFL, leaving the Trojans with more questions than answers.
The biggest of which is who will replace Barkley under center. The former Trojan finished his career eighth in total passing touchdowns (116) in FBS history, while he also toppled a number of USC and Pac-12 records. Even with Barkley under center the Trojans couldn't live up to their massive potential.
Now a trio of unproven, youngsters will try to do what Barkley couldn't, as redshirt sophomores Cody Kessler and Max Wittek and true freshman Max Browne will be charged with reviving the USC brand going forward.
Wittek would seem to have the edge as he got into eight games last season and even had two starts when Barkley suffered a shoulder injury near the end of the year. Still, Wittek threw for just 388 yards and three touchdowns with five interceptions on 52.2 percent passing. However that production or lack thereof is above that of the other two quarterbacks he will be competing with for the starting job. The majority of the action Kessler has seen has been as a holder, while Browne set Washington state records in passing yards (12,953) in high school, but obviously hasn't played a minute of football at the college level.
"I think there is a lot of people around the country that are trying to find one really good quarterback and I think we have three," Kiffin said of the competition, while making it clear that there was no frontrunner as of yet.
Regardless of who is throwing the ball downfield at the Coliseum, the Trojan offense will undoubtedly be built around defending Biletnikoff Award winner and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Marqise Lee. If there was any bright spot for the Trojans a year ago it was Lee who was absolutely electric in the passing game. The speedy receiver hauled in 112 passes for 1,680 yards and 14 touchdowns and put together individual game performances of legendary proportions like setting a Pac-12 record with 345 receiving yards against Arizona.
With former battery mate Woods gone on the outside the offense is likely to become even more focused on getting Lee the ball so he can makes plays in space.
However Lee might not just be asked to carry the team offensively as there has also been talks of having him move in and play defensive back. With his amazing athletic ability it makes complete sense for Kiffin to try to utilize him in any way possible.
Helping to carry the load, at least on offense, will be Nelson Agholor who seems to have taken the lead for the No. 2 receiver slot after an impressive two-touchdown effort in the spring game.
"Me and Nelson are the new me and Rob(ert Woods) basically," Lee said. "Nelson understands the game just as much as I do. So therefore we always try to communicate. I think we'll be on the same page just like Rob and I were."
While having Lee back will be a big help, what might be the most important thing for USC in terms of getting back into contention for Pac-12 and national titles will be on the sideline, specifically in Kiffin.
Though his seat has yet to get hot there is no reason to think it might not be warming up. Kiffin had one of the most talented teams in the country last season but was severely out-coached by a number of teams in his own conference, including Stanford's David Shaw and Oregon State's Mike Riley. Both of those teams finished in the top-25, while USC did not.
At this point Kiffin's name recognition is about all he seems to have going for him. He was a disaster as a coach for the Oakland Raiders. Then had a mediocre season with Tennessee (7-6) before jettisoning off to Los Angeles with a throng of SEC fans chasing him.
How he departed Tennessee, to put it mildly, left a bad taste in many people's mouths and Kiffin has not done much to improve his public image since. While all coaches tend to hold onto information and tip toe through meetings with the media, Kiffin has seemed to be more prickly with the press. That was especially true last season when Kiffin walked away from an interview after being asked about an injured player or when he lied about having not voted for USC as the No. 1 team in the USA Today Coach's Poll.
While these incidents have no bearing on how good a coach he is, they certainly look much worse when his teams consistently fall short of their promise. When your winning such actions can be construed as a severe taskmaster that runs a tight ship.
Just look at Alabama's Nick Saban. Kiffin however, is no Saban. For Kiffin it makes him look petty and dishonest. When you are the first coach since 1964 to have a team ranked No. 1 in the preseason end the year outside of the national rankings, your coaching style and ability has to be called into question across the board and that includes your personality.
When it comes down to it, if Kiffin can't prove that he can be a consistently successful head coach it won't matter who plays quarterback or if Lee keeps smashing records, USC will disappoint once again.
05/07 10:35:28 ET