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Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Upcoming season all about Kiffin

By Steve Bisheff

With the days leading to fall camp dwindling down to a precious few, there are almost as many pressing USC issues hovering in the air as there are sarcastic comments on Twitter.

There is the small matter of finding the right candidate to fill Matt Barkley’s ample cleats at quarterback. There is the large, somewhat hulking question mark at left tackle. There is the mystery of how the new 5-2 defensive alignment will fare in the pass-crazy Pac-12. And then there are the holes at cornerback that, all by themselves, seem big enough to fill the Coliseum tunnel.

The 2013 Trojans’ season will be about all those things. But in reality, it will really be about one thing.

It will be about Lane Kiffin.

This is the year the 38-year-old coach proves himself or is forced to take a hike. He knows it, athletic director Pat Haden knows it and every USC donor waving his thick, cardinal-colored checkbook knows it.

Lane Kiffin's job status beyond 2013 might ultimately depend if he makes the correct QB choice between Max Wittek (pictured) and Cody Kessler.
The controversies of 2012 have been well-documented by now. The switching of a jersey number against Colorado, the banning of a reporter who dared to write the truth, the intentional deflating of footballs by a student manager and the reported player blowup in the locker room after the Sun Bowl embarrassment against Georgia Tech.

It wasn’t enough to go 7-6, losing five of the final six after the world expected Barkley to win the Heisman and the team to capture the BCS Championship. No, the offseason was low-lighted by the dismissal of several assistants and the shocking late decision by a handful of highly rated recruits to bolt elsewhere. Now there are the early 2014 recruiting rumbles that have seen USC’s No. 1 quarterback target already commit to Stanford and top-ranked local kids sounding more excited about UCLA than the program Pete Carroll once ruled as the king of all he surveyed in L.A.

Kiffin stands there in the middle of it all, with his familiar white visor and tan khakis, trying to appear cool, shrugging off the criticism as if it comes with the job. He is actually right about that, but here’s the thing:

If you don’t eventually find a way to silence the critics, you no longer have to worry about the job.

And so Kiffin will begin by attempting to say all the right things at Pac-12 Media Day on Friday, then opening practice next week with the enthusiasm and optimism that always accompanies the start of fall camp at USC.

Soon enough, though, he will be forced to make the two major decisions that could dictate both his and the Trojans’ fate this season.

First, he has to pick a quarterback. The RIGHT quarterback. Does he go with Max Wittek, who has the bigger arm but comes off one of the more wobbly performances in recent school history? Or Cody Kessler, who doesn’t do anything better than Wittek, except maybe move the team more consistently while making fewer mistakes?

Does he go with his mind? Or his gut? On paper, this is the biggest quarterback decision at USC since Carroll had to choose between the two Matts, Leinart and Cassel. We all know how that one turned out.

Can Kiffin be as smart, or as lucky, with this selection? It should only take a couple of weeks to find out.

Then there is the always intriguing debate about the play-calling. Kiffin is supposed to be pondering whether he will continue in that role or allow offensive coordinator/ quarterbacks coach Clay Helton to take it over.

Not only were some of the head coach’s calls wildly second guessed last year, but it was the general feeling of fans and boosters that his obsession with calling plays was taking away from other pressing duties. Like, you know, actually interacting with a few of his players on the sideline.

There are some close to the team who believe Kiffin is seriously considering giving up his cherished laminated play card. Count me among those who won’t believe it until it actually happens. And even then, I wouldn’t expect it to last very long.

Kiffin lives for calling plays. The constant chess game between offense and defense fascinates him like nothing else.

But now it is a matter of maturity. It is time to find out who and what he really is. Is this guy truly meant to be a head coach, or not?

This is a year when Stanford appears more physical than ever, when Oregon is threatening to be just as good without Chip Kelly, when UCLA and Jim Mora are making significant inroads in what used to be a one-team town and when Arizona State seems on the precipice of winning the South Division.

This season could prove to be about any of those things throughout the conference, but not here. Not at USC, where, in 2013, it’s all about one thing.

It’s all about Kiffin.