Talent is there for Trojans to dominate

In what has become an annual tradition in advance of USC’s 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 Trojans’ starting offensive and defensive lineups.

“I know Lane hates when I say this, but they’re probably the most talented team in our conference when you just look at their starting 22,” Sarkisian said during a news conference Monday.

Kiffin has never embraced the former Trojan assistant’s praise of his roster, because, since becoming head coach in 2010, there have been times when USC’s record clearly didn’t reflect its talent. Understandably, Kiffin likely interprets such a comment as a back-handed compliment. If the talent’s so great, then fans can only blame the coaching for shortcomings.

“He says that every year,” Kiffin said in response during an interview on USC’s athletic. “He’s just going to say that no matter what.”

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 wouldn’t have lost eight conference games from 2010-11 and their conference opener this season at Stanford.

Sarkisian — much like Kiffin, I might add — is the ultimate gamesman, never one to forgo the opportunity to inflate his opponent’s resume or wax poetic about another team’s star player. There’s no harm in this philosophy: If Washington loses, the Huskies fell to a gifted Trojan team. If Washington wins, however, it’s a banner upset, announcing the Huskies’ arrival in the Pac-12’s upper echelon.

Ignoring Sarkisian’s possible pretext, I’ll 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 it’s really not particularly close. In the next few years, USC’s 2012 starting 22 will yield more NFL draft picks than any other conference competitor’s.

Let me clarify: This does not mean USC is the best team. Until proven otherwise, Oregon retains that mantle.

Still, as an exercise, let’s compare the two teams’ starting offensive lineups and indulge in a fantasy scenario in which Kiffin was given Oregon’s and USC’s starting offensive lineups, but could pick only 11 players to field a super-starting offense.

Even though Oregon’s offense averages 52.3 points per game compared to USC’s 34, it’s unlikely Kiffin would choose to field many Oregon starters.

Aside from all-purpose threats Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas, who on the Ducks’ offense would start for USC? Offensive tackle Nick Cody might supplant sophomore left tackle Aundrey Walker and tight end Colt Lyerla — often used at fullback — might replace redshirt freshman Soma Vainuku, but I doubt Kiffin, if given the chance, would pluck any other players from Oregon’s vaunted offense to insert into his starting lineup.

To continue this scenario further on the defensive side of the football, Oregon’s starting defensive talent is much more commensurate with USC’s, but Kiffin would still be hard-pressed to tinker too much with his roster in this fantasy scenario.

Middle linebacker Michael Clay — a Lombardi Award candidate — would likely replace sophomore Lamar Dawson. Either Ifo Ekpre-Olomu or Terrance Mitchell would start at USC’s 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, it’s difficult to make an overwhelming case that Kiffin would wish to exchange any other starting USC defensive players for Oregon’s.

Yet, USC allows 19.4 points per game and Oregon surrenders just 20, including a combined 21 points to Arizona and Washington — 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 that’s not a biting criticism of Kiffin and the gap isn’t as expansive as the exercise just demonstrated, no one extracts more talent from his players and tailors his schemes to fit his players’ strengths better than Kelly.

Right now, the Mount Rushmore of current college coaches is Alabama’s Nick Saban, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Boise State’s Chris Petersen and Kelly.

So why should Kiffin get a pass and why shouldn’t USC fans clamor for his immediate dismissal?

Simply put, because of roster limitations, Kiffin doesn’t have the depth other top teams enjoy. USC’s starting 22 is better than Oregon’s, but its top 44 simply isn’t. The Trojans’ second-stringers don’t 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 USC’s allotted 70-player travel squad for Saturday’s 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 doesn’t matter when a program like Oregon capitalizes on superior depth and coaching from a once-in-a-generation offensive guru.


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