- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our question this afternoon: "What's next for USC?"
Well, what's immediately next is the Trojans looking up at UCLA in the Pac-12 pecking order and Notre Dame in the national one. How 'ya like them apples, 'SC?
UCLA is the likely pick to repeat as Pac-12 South Division champions in 2013. They've got the QB in Brett Hundley and lots of talent coming back on both sides of the ball. And they have a decisively better coaching staff than USC, at least if we are allowed to extrapolate on the evidence we repeatedly saw on the football field this year.
A year ago, while UCLA and Notre Dame were seemingly floundering, it appeared the Trojan colossus was again rising under coach Lane Kiffin, whose bad reputation was undergoing a generous reevaluation. Yet the stratospheric expectations inspired by a 10-2 2011 season have yielded to desperation and recrimination just a year later.
The big 2013 story for USC? Kiffin's hotseat.
While USC under Kiffin certainly no longer has a buy rating, it might be premature to sell all your shares.
For one, the team coming back in 2013 certainly won't be untalented, including 17 returning position player starters (though a few with remaining eligibility might opt to enter the NFL draft). QB Max Wittek hinted against Notre Dame that the transition to him from Matt Barkley might not be too bad. He has a wicked strong arm that could make beautiful music with receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, if Woods opts to return for his senior season.
Further, you'd think the Trojans would be plenty motivated. They were the biggest punchline in college football this year. Yeah, bigger than woeful teams like Colorado. They were historically bad as a team that was ranked No. 1 in the preseason. They were beaten soundly by archrivals whom they whipped just a year ago.
This season was an unmitigated failure.
It might be easier for Kiffin to get his guys focused and motivated when everyone is taking shots at them instead of celebrating their potential awesomeness. The Trojans should be plenty angry heading into 2013. They chiefly should be angry at themselves, but here's a guess that the preseason talk -- regionally and nationally -- will give them plenty of names for an enemies list.
But before we look ahead to USC as angry underdog playing the "us against the world" card in 2013, there needs to be some rigorous backward looking evaluation of what went wrong this fall.
In this column, Steve Bisheff did an outstanding job of breaking down the difficult decisions ahead for Kiffin. We're about to second much of what he said.
First off, Kiffin needs to hire two new coordinators, which means he must dump two guys by the name of Kiffin: Himself on offense and his dad, Monte Kiffin, on defense.
Monte Kiffin is one of the all-time great defensive minds. His legacy is assured. But his work has been middling-to-poor at USC. He's gotten less from USC's talent than he should have.
If Lane Kiffin needs a role model for tough decisions, he could look to his buddy Steve Sarkisian at Washington, who dumped Nick Holt as defensive coordinator last year. Holt, Kiffin and Sarkisian go way back, but Holt was doing a lousy job. That was made even clearer this fall when new coordinator Justin Wilcox produced substantial improvement with arguable less to work with than Holt had in 2011.
Then, if Kiffin feels guilty about terminating his father, he can take out his ill will toward the responsible party by firing himself. It's not just that Kiffin didn't do a good job calling plays this year -- and he didn't -- it's that he neglected other aspects of his team that, as a head coach and CEO, he should have been on top of.
Oregon's Chip Kelly can micromanage his team and call an outstanding game. Kiffin can't. That's been made clear.
There's also this: USC has the resources to hire just about anyone Kiffin wants. He could pay both coordinators $1 million. If they are worried about job security due to Kiffin's hot seat, Kiffin could give them multiyear contracts. That alone would perk up the ears of just about anyone in the country, including top NFL guys.
Remember that list of candidates we made up for the head coaching vacancy at California? Kiffin probably could get a lot of those "hot" coordinators to come work for him.
With good coordinators, the Trojans are a nine- or 10-win team next year. With no changes, the good money would be on there being no Kiffins inside Heritage Hall in 2014.
Kiffin's survival also depends on more than Xs and Os, though.
As Bisheff covered at length, Kiffin often overthinks things, and this often leads to substanceless gestures, such as not allowing teams to do Friday night walkthroughs at the Coliseum, or trying to fool woeful Colorado with players switching jerseys.
Kiffin needs to learn that the USC head coach doesn't need to outsmart his opponents, much less use gamesmanship against them. He simply needs to put a disciplined, focused product on the field with a sound plan. Talent then takes over.
If there are competing simple and complicated ideas for something at USC, about 99.9 percent of the time, the simple one would work best.
What's next for USC? Well, if you are looking three-to-five-years down the road, I'd expect the program to again be in the Pac-12 and national title hunt on a consistent basis.
USC is not going to blow up and go all Paul Hackett Era again. Athletic director Pat Haden is too smart to let that happen.
The question is simply who will be fronting the program: Kiffin or someone else.
If Kiffin clings to the status quo, it will be someone else.