PASADENA, Calif. — It was almost exactly a year ago to the day that USC took down No. 4 Oregon on the road at Autzen Stadium, improving its record to 9-2 en route to a 10-win season and a No. 6 final ranking in the Associated Press poll. The Trojans were riding high. Lane Kiffin was the hottest coach in the country and was a serious candidate for coach of the year honors.
Fast forward a year, and Troy is in chaos. USC is 7-4 and 5-4 in the Pac-12. It has have stumbled out of the Associated Press Top 25. It lost to UCLA for the first time in six years and just the second time in 14 years. And, worst of all, those misguided people who booked flights to Miami for the BCS Championship Game probably can’t get their money back.
It’s incredible what a year does. One second, everyone loves you. The next minute, you’re the most hated coach in Los Angeles. And that’s saying a lot.
So how did USC get here? And where do the Trojans go from here?
Defense is the answer for both.
The 2012 defense has been atrocious. You can’t give up 38 points to UCLA and 62 to Oregon. Thirty-nine to Arizona was embarrassing, too.
Everyone is quick to blame assistant head coach Monte Kiffin for the defensive struggles, and it’s true to an extent. USC has not played nearly as well as it should, given the fact the team has players such as sophomore linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard and a safety like senior T.J. McDonald.
But this is more of a problem with the other Kiffin on staff, Lane.
Here’s the thing: Lane Kiffin is not a defensive-minded coach. He is a number-cruncher. But it is defense-oriented coaches who win championships.
Look at Pete Carroll. USC had some of the best defenses in the country nearly every season, including a 2008 season where they gave up only nine points per game.
Look at Nick Saban. He has won two BCS national championships at Alabama and one at LSU behind stellar defenses. The offense was never the focal point of his teams, nor will it ever be. Even LSU’s Les Miles, who has the most inept offenses in the country, wins games because he cares about defense and builds his team around it.
Now, one might make the argument that offensive coaches can win, best exemplified by Oregon coach Chip Kelly. But the fact of the matter is that I have as many national championship rings as he does: none.
If the Trojans truly want to get back to a championship level, as I know Athletic Director Pat Haden does, they need a coach who cares more about defensive prowess than offensive firepower and breaking records. Having senior quarterback Matt Barkley throw 40 touchdown passes is fantastic. It’s fun to watch. Everyone loves seeing the scoreboard light up.
Until, that is, the other team scores 45 points and you lose by three.
Again, this isn’t an attack on Lane Kiffin; it’s just that his style doesn’t win championships. Cliche as it is, defenses win titles. Always have and always will.
The top three teams in the Associated Press poll are Notre Dame, Alabama and Georgia. The Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide’s defenses are tied for first in points per game allowed (10.1), while Georgia’s is a decent 18th overall. USC’s? 48th. That type of defense will not win a championship, and as long as Lane Kiffin is coach, I don’t think his priority will ever be fixing that unit.
That’s why this experiment should probably come to an end: Lane Kiffin needs to be let go as USC’s head coach.
I don’t think it will happen. Kiffin has done great things during these sanctioned times and gave hope to a huge fan base. But here’s the reality: USC can puddle around in mediocrity, or they can become true contenders by changing their philosophy to one focused on shutting offenses down.
There are plenty of coaches around who preach defense that would be fine candidates for the USC head coaching job. Charlie Strong, the head coach at Louisville, coached two national championship defenses as the defensive coordinator at Florida. Jack Del Rio is a former linebacker at USC and had decent success at the professional level. Even Jon Gruden — yes, that Jon Gruden — built his career in the NFL on strong defenses and has a Super Bowl ring to show for it.
Lane Kiffin is a great offensive mind. He has proven that by having offenses that always put up a lot of points. But he is probably better served as being an assistant coach at a school, as an offensive coordinator who doesn’t have to worry about what a defense does on a day-to-day basis. But he’s a head coach who cares more about scoring touchdowns than he does about the points his team gives up.
When a coach is seemingly more concerned with numbers than the actual game itself, it might be time to part ways.
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