As a USC fan, I've defended Lane Kiffin all season long against those who said he should be fired. But after USC's performance against UCLA, my support has nearly evaporated. By the looks of Facebook and Twitter posts, it looks like most fans have given up on him altogether. Before I state the reasons against Kiffin, I'll state a few very good reasons to keep him.
First, Kiffin walked into an extremely difficult situation. In his first season, he had to deal with mass defections in the wake of sanctions. For this season, and two more afterward, he has 10 fewer scholarships to work with. As a result, the team doesn't tackle as much as other teams in practice, for fear of injuring their marginal depth.
USC's sky-high expectations this year were probably unrealistic given their reduced numbers. But Kiffin helped raise those expectations with a surprisingly spectacular season last year. I'm not sure how many coaches in the country could have handled USC's situation better.
Second, Kiffin is one of the best recruiters in the country. They've had a top recruiting class every year he's been there, and this season USC has the No. 1 rated recruiting class in the nation according to both ESPN and Rivals.com, despite their scholarship limitations. I'm not sure what it is about Kiffin, because he doesn't sound half as charismatic as Pete Carroll. But you can't deny that he attracts top tier talent.
Third, I think a lot of the criticism levied against Kiffin's father, Monte, as defensive coordinator has been unfair. USC's defense has actually been pretty strong for most of the year. It's true that they gave up a ton of points and yards against Oregon, but Oregon has done that to every team they've faced this year. Other than a really bad quarter and a half against Arizona, you could argue that defense has been the strength of this USC team. UCLA did score five touchdowns today, but three of them were on a short field caused by an interception, a fumble, and a blocked punt. When the Trojans haven't put their defense in a bad position, they've held strong for the most part.
Also, I would disagree with those who think Kiffin is a bad play caller. For the most part, I think he's a pretty good one, and I really like how he sequences plays. Even Pat Haden has praised Kiffin's play calling in the past. But the best drawn up plays in the world will fail if the execution is bad, which has been the case with USC this season.
All of this leads me to my critiques of Kiffin, and the Trojans' execution has been horrific. It's not something that can be attributed to bad luck, so much as poor discipline and lack of focus. USC leads the Pac-12 in penalties, and many of their mistakes are the types of errors that an elite team should never make. But beyond penalties, the team has missed blocks, run improper routes, and made incorrect reads all season long.
It's incredibly frustrating to watch, because you can visibly see that USC is the more talented team in almost every game. But talent in college football only gets you so far. Good coaching can carry you to the next level. Oregon never has a recruiting class ranked nearly as high as USC, but they've been the top team in the conference for the past five years. Kansas State doesn't even have a top-25 recruiting class in most seasons, yet their coach Bill Snyder has the Wildcats ranked No. 1 in the BCS. UCLA had good recruiting classes under Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel, but it took Jim Mora to instill the toughness that the Bruins needed to enjoy the success they're having.
USC's demise is so shocking, because they were such a disciplined and focused team last season. Maybe the postseason bowl ban gave them a chip on their shoulder and gave them some extra motivation. But this season, with all of the expectations in the world, they crumbled under the pressure.
Also crumbling under the pressure has been Matt Barkley, who has turned the phrase "unfinished business" into a joke. I don't think Barkley meant another berth in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl as his reason for coming back, but that's what he's looking at. Protected by a porous offensive line, Barkley has proven that he gets rattled by pass rushers. His release isn't quick enough, he lacks playmaking mobility, and when he feels the blitz, he makes bad quick decisions and throws interceptions.
For the past few weeks, I've been quietly hoping that Barkley would get benched, because I've lost my faith in him. It's easy to put up good numbers when you can throw a quick pass to Marqise Lee and watch him dart away from defenses for 60 yards. But Barkley's inability throw under pressure has killed his draft status. If I ran an NFL team, then I wouldn't take Barkley in the first round.
Considering Kiffin works closer with the quarterbacks than any other position, he should take some responsibility for Barkley's sudden decline. But he also needs to take responsibility for the team's poor organization and lack of toughness. Coaches don't have control over everything, but discipline and focus is one of the few traits that are evidenced on well-coached teams.
Next week, Kiffin will send his Trojans up against a very well-coached Notre Dame team that has one of the toughest defenses in the country. You hate to judge a coach's career based on one game, but USC does have a lot to prove in its matchup with the Irish.
If USC starts the game looking as unprepared as they looked at UCLA, then Trojan fans will be furious. If they get out-muscled and beat up on the line, like they did against Stanford, then fans will be bitterly disappointed by USC's lack of toughness. And if they lose in another sloppy effort, then expect the names Jack Del Rio and Chris Petersen to come up.
Del Rio is a USC alum, who has been offered the Trojans job before. A former head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Del Rio has been doing pretty well as the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos this year.
As the head coach at Boise State, Petersen has overseen one of the most focused and disciplined teams in the country for the past few years. He's resisted offers for leave Boise before, but the USC job may prove too tempting. USC can offer more money than most schools, they have some spectacular new facilities, and they're not in a bizarre Big East conference that includes UConn, Navy, SMU, Central Florida, and San Diego State.
I don't necessarily want Kiffin to go, but it's clear that the culture in the program needs to change. I'm not sure how Kiffin can get this team back on track.