Talent is there for Trojans to dominate
In what has become an annual tradition in advance of USCâs matchups with the Huskies, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian once again praised USC for having superior talent to the rest of the Pac-12. But this time, Sarkisian notably changed his phrasing in one subtle respect: He referred solely to the Trojansâ starting offensive and defensive lineups.
âI know Lane hates when I say this, but theyâre probably the most talented team in our conference when you just look at their starting 22,â Sarkisian said during a news conference Monday.
Kiffin has never embraced the former Trojan assistantâs praise of his roster, because, since becoming head coach in 2010, there have been times when USCâs record clearly didnât reflect its talent. Understandably, Kiffin likely interprets such a comment as a back-handed compliment. If the talentâs so great, then fans can only blame the coaching for shortcomings.
âHe says that every year,â Kiffin said in response during an interview on USCâs athletic. âHeâs just going to say that no matter what.â
After all, if USC was truly the most talented team in the Pac-12 each of the three years Sarkisian will have faced his former team, the Trojans presumably wouldnât have lost eight conference games from 2010-11 and their conference opener this season at Stanford.
Sarkisian â much like Kiffin, I might add â is the ultimate gamesman, never one to forgo the opportunity to inflate his opponentâs resume or wax poetic about another teamâs star player. Thereâs no harm in this philosophy: If Washington loses, the Huskies fell to a gifted Trojan team. If Washington wins, however, itâs a banner upset, announcing the Huskiesâ arrival in the Pac-12âs upper echelon.
Ignoring Sarkisianâs possible pretext, Iâll agree with his sentiment this time around: This year, USC does field the best starting 22 out of any team in the Pac-12, and itâs really not particularly close. In the next few years, USCâs 2012 starting 22 will yield more NFL draft picks than any other conference competitorâs.
Let me clarify: This does not mean USC is the best team. Until proven otherwise, Oregon retains that mantle.
Still, as an exercise, letâs compare the two teamsâ starting offensive lineups and indulge in a fantasy scenario in which Kiffin was given Oregonâs and USCâs starting offensive lineups, but could pick only 11 players to field a super-starting offense.
Even though Oregonâs offense averages 52.3 points per game compared to USCâs 34, itâs unlikely Kiffin would choose to field many Oregon starters.
Aside from all-purpose threats Kenjon Barner and DeâAnthony Thomas, who on the Ducksâ offense would start for USC? Offensive tackle Nick Cody might supplant sophomore left tackle Aundrey Walker and tight end Colt Lyerla â often used at fullback â might replace redshirt freshman Soma Vainuku, but I doubt Kiffin, if given the chance, would pluck any other players from Oregonâs vaunted offense to insert into his starting lineup.
To continue this scenario further on the defensive side of the football, Oregonâs starting defensive talent is much more commensurate with USCâs, but Kiffin would still be hard-pressed to tinker too much with his roster in this fantasy scenario.
Middle linebacker Michael Clay â a Lombardi Award candidate â would likely replace sophomore Lamar Dawson. Either Ifo Ekpre-Olomu or Terrance Mitchell would start at USCâs perilously-thin second cornerback spot. And Dion Jordan, a 2011 All-Pac-12 first-team performer, would without question occupy one of the defensive end positions.
Beyond these three switches, however, itâs difficult to make an overwhelming case that Kiffin would wish to exchange any other starting USC defensive players for Oregonâs.
Yet, USC allows 19.4 points per game and Oregon surrenders just 20, including a combined 21 points to Arizona and Washington â more explosive offenses than any team USC has played to date.
After completing this thought experiment, how is it possible not to determine that Chip Kelly is simply a far better coach than Kiffin and can extract more talent out of his roster?
Surely Kelly is a better coach than Kiffin, but thatâs not a biting criticism of Kiffin and the gap isnât as expansive as the exercise just demonstrated, no one extracts more talent from his players and tailors his schemes to fit his playersâ strengths better than Kelly.
Right now, the Mount Rushmore of current college coaches is Alabamaâs Nick Saban, Ohio Stateâs Urban Meyer, Boise Stateâs Chris Petersen and Kelly.
So why should Kiffin get a pass and why shouldnât USC fans clamor for his immediate dismissal?
Simply put, because of roster limitations, Kiffin doesnât have the depth other top teams enjoy. USCâs starting 22 is better than Oregonâs, but its top 44 simply isnât. The Trojansâ second-stringers donât experience the competition for their backup roles that those of schools do.
The Ducks excel with unparalleled depth, rotating second- and third-string players just as capable as their starting counterparts.
Nothing illustrates this point better than the reality that, on USCâs allotted 70-player travel squad for Saturdayâs game, the Trojans will bring several redshirting players and walk-ons.
Sarkisian and I are in agreement that USC fields the best starting 22 players in the Pac-12, but it doesnât matter when a program like Oregon capitalizes on superior depth and coaching from a once-in-a-generation offensive guru.
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