NCF Nation: Monte Kiffin

We've already noted that ESPN contributor Phil Steele loves USC this season, and he further quantifies that here when he considers whether to pick an over or under on predicted win totals provided by the Las Vegas Hilton.

He loves the over with USC at 9.5 (Win totals do not include conference championship and bowl games).

He writes:
Obviously, the Trojans were a huge disappointment last year, becoming the first preseason No. 1 team to finish outside of the Top 25, but the current team has much better depth. Outside of quarterback, they've improved at nearly every position. Their schedule is also more favorable, as they avoid Oregon and get Stanford at home. Currently Vegas has them favored in 10 of their games, while I have them as a favorite in 12. Another overlooked factor in this win total is that the Trojans play 13 regular-season games this year. They could lose three games and still cash on the over.

These are good points. Based on talent, the Trojans are a threat to win 10 or more games.

Some are down on USC for three reasons: 1. The departure of QB Matt Barkley; 2. The 2012 implosion; 3. Lane Kiffin's hot seat. These are not impossible issues to rectify. In fact, if Kiffin returns to his 2011 coaching form, all three will be solved. And let's not forget USC should be in better shape on defense with coordinator Clancy Pendergast running his 3-4 rather than Monte Kiffin's Tampa-2.

On the downside, Steele thinks you should go with the under for Utah at 5.5 wins.

He writes:
Making the step up to a BCS conference has not been easy for the Utes. After going 48-14 in Mountain West play from 2003-2010, they have gone just 7-11 in Pac-12 play the past two years. It does not get any easier for Utah this year after avoiding both Oregon and Stanford the past two years. Both the Ducks and Cardinal appear on their schedule, which I rank as the 12th toughest in the country. Currently, I have the Utes rated as an underdog in nine of their 12 games this year, and while I respect the job Kyle Whittingham has done, with only 12 returning starters, the Utes will find it difficult even matching last year's five wins.

Steele's take is based on a lack of returning starters and the schedule, which seem like reasonable grounds for analysis. The key for the Utes is getting better play at quarterback with Travis Wilson.
LOS ANGELES -- Devon Kennard didn't have to play through the prodigious frustration that was 2012 USC football. But he had to watch it -- and wonder what his impact might have been had it not been for a torn pectoral muscle that kept him out for the year.

The time to wonder is over. Kennard is back -- and healthy as ever -- as the Trojans transition to an odd-front defense under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

"I wasn't out there, but I know what it felt like," Kennard said. “It makes me appreciate what I can do for this team even more now. You have to let what happened last year go. But you still want to keep part of it in the back of your mind. You always want to play with a chip on your shoulder.”

[+] EnlargeDevon Kennard
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC is counting on Devon Kennard to make a smooth transition to a hybrid linebacker role in its new odd-front defensive scheme.
Continuing a league-wide trend, the Trojans are ditching the four-man front that was 69th in the nation (eighth in the league) last year against the run -- yielding 167 yards per game -- and going with an odd-front attack. Depending who you ask, it’s a 52 or 34 base; probably a bit of both depending on the opponent, scenario and offensive formation.

Regardless of who head coach Lane Kiffin hired to replace his father, Monte, as defensive coordinator, he knew he wanted to move away from the 4-3.

“It was probably the direction we were going to go regardless of who it was because of the conference,” Kiffin said. “College football has changed. Our conference has changed and it's dynamic, and it changes from week to week. There is so much perimeter running that goes on, whether it's quarterback, whether it's fly sweeps, whether it's backs, the ball is on the edge a lot -- a lot more than it's ever been. The 3-4 helps you with that because your guys are standing up on the edge and you're keeping the ball on the inside and limiting the perimeter plays.”

In the new scheme, Kennard and second-team all-league defensive lineman Morgan Breslin will become hybrid outside linebackers. Expect both to spend most snaps in a 2-point stance with the opportunity to rush, set an edge or drop back into coverage. It’s not totally foreign to Kennard since he would sometimes drop into coverage in the old scheme’s zone-blitz package.

“They could both rush, they could both drop back, one of them could do the other. It’s a very versatile defense,” said Pendergast, formerly of Cal. “This defense is really going to showcase their talents.”

The new scheme also means a position switch for linebacker Dion Bailey. Despite being a very thick 210 pounds, he’s better suited roaming the secondary. Last year he was more of a hybrid nickel/linebacker and tallied 80 tackles, including eight for a loss.

“We’ll be able to disguise what we’re doing a lot more pre-snap,” Bailey said. “We can move more people around and do a lot more with the personnel that we have. I think it’s a much better fit.

“For me, personally, I think it’s more of a natural position for me. I can better utilize my abilities, and it puts me in space where I can make plays. I really like it.”

Despite their struggles against the run, the Trojans ranked fourth in the nation last season in sacks per game, which is impressive. But they were still third in the league behind Stanford and Arizona State -- two other teams that have had great success with odd fronts. The hope is that with Kennard’s return, and putting Breslin in position to improve on his 13 sacks last season, the Trojans can wreak havoc at the point of attack -- not just the backfield.

The scheme is set. The coaches and players are in place. All that’s needed is the mentality to run it with brutal efficiency. In three of USC’s losses last season, they never led (Oregon, UCLA, Notre Dame). But the defense surrendered second-half leads against Stanford and Arizona, and they were tied at the half against Georgia Tech.

“We got out-willed in the fourth quarter too many times last year,” Bailey said. "That’s something we need to take in and learn from. It's not how you start, it's how you finish … we almost need to get back to how we were playing when we were on sanctions. Not playing for anybody else -- just playing for each other.”
USC coach Lane Kiffin has reconfigured his coaching staff with the official announcement -- many of the hirings were reported over the past few days -- of three new coaches: Mike Ekeler (linebackers), Mike Summers (offensive line) and Tommie Robinson (running backs).

Toss in defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, and four of Kiffin's nine assistants will be new in 2013. Quarterbacks coach Clay Helton also has been promoted to offensive coordinator.

The million dollar question, however, has not been answered: Who will call plays?

There's an overwhelming feeling around the program Kiffin should relinquish those responsibilities so he can better focus on the overall management of his team, something he fell short of doing during a horrible 2012 downward spiral from preseason No. 1. And his play-calling itself wasn't exactly inspired.

Here's a guess that the official word will be something to the tune of, "It's collaborative ... with Kiffin having final say."

A couple of further housecleaning moves: Special teams coach John Baxter will now also coach tight ends, and James Cregg, formerly the offensive line coach, will be co-offensive line coach with Summers, though Summers is the supervisor.

Summers was also named "running game coordinator," and Robinson, despite coaching running backs, will be "passing game coordinator."

The Trojans now have three coaches with "coordinator" in their title and two offensive line coaches. Here's a further overview.

"With so many young offensive linemen who will be so important to our success, I felt it was critical to have two coaches working with this group," Kiffin said in a statement. "It was a natural step to have John Baxter work with the tight ends because he has coached that position for much of his career."

Further, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, who was called the Trojans "defensive coordinator" last year even though he wasn't -- Monte Kiffin was -- will now be the "assistant head coach," the title held by Monte Kiffin, even though he was defensive coordinator.

Yes, if you were a cynical sort you could say the USC staff has become bogged down in semantics. That also could fall into the realm of Lane Kiffin focusing too much energy on things that matter not a whit and don't help you win football games.

The Pac-12 blog feels if you have a budding assistant coach who wants to be called something that makes his job definition less accurate -- a running backs coach as passing game coordinator? -- you should not hire him.

This staff also is imbalanced with six titled coaches working on offense and three titled coaches on defense -- presumably Pendergast will coach the entire secondary. That means graduate assistants will be called in -- again -- to fill important gaps.

Of course, it could work. Perhaps Kiffin has a well-planned vision of how this will all mesh together in 2013 and onward and cool his decidedly hot seat.

Athletic director Pat Haden has stood by Kiffin. He's allowed him to make important decisions and run the program as Kiffin sees fit. Raised eyebrows from fans and the Pac-12 blog ultimately don't matter.

If Kiffin and USC win eight, nine or 10 games in 2013, he'll likely be secure. Winning, as we all know, solves everything in college football.

But if Kiffin were hoping for a burst of enthusiasm from folks observing his reconfigured staff, this execution is not likely to get it.

Pac-12 spring focus on QBs, new coaches

February, 21, 2013

The overwhelming sentiment in college football is that having an accomplished quarterback coming back as you head into spring football is a good thing. Even a most excellent thing. Of course, overwhelming sentiments often end up getting poleaxed by what ends up happening when toe meets leather.

Last spring, USC was celebrating the return of the most celebrated quarterback in the nation, which made the Trojans top national title contenders. California, Oregon State, Utah, Washington and Washington State felt pretty darn set at the position. Meanwhile, Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA and Stanford had big questions at quarterback.

How did that turn out?

Still, quarterback is typically the Point A of where we in the Pac-12 start looking forward to the next season.

Those teams with big questions at quarterback last year? They are feeling pretty happy about themselves this go-around. Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA and Stanford have quarterbacks who are sure to be on watch lists for national awards. Ducks QB Marcus Mariota is among the front-runners for the Heisman Trophy.

Meanwhile, three teams are looking for a new starting quarterback: Arizona is replacing Matt Scott, California is replacing Zach Maynard, and USC is replacing Matt Barkley. Those are wide-open competitions without a clear front-runner.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsDespite a head-coaching change, Oregon likely is feeling confident heading into spring workouts with Marcus Mariota back at QB.
Then there are teams that have experience at quarterback but not entirely the right kind -- or, at least, there's some uncertainty who will be behind center to start 2013.

Coming off a 1-11 season that included generally horrible play at quarterback, it's fair to say Colorado's QB competition is wide open, even more so with a new head coach and new offensive system (the pistol).

Oregon State went back and forth with Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz throughout 2012. That competition will be rejoined this spring, though it's 50-50 whether we'll have any post-spring clarity on the ultimate pecking order. Travis Wilson took over at Utah as a true freshman when Jordan Wynn went down to injury, but he probably will need to win over new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson.

And while Washington and Washington State have returning veterans with plenty of starting experience -- Keith Price for the Huskies and Connor Halliday for the Cougars -- their inconsistency in 2012 will inspire some intrigue this spring that perhaps a youngster could put up a meaningful challenge for the starting job.

Of course, there are other spring story lines of note.

After four new coaches saw their first Pac-12 spring in 2012, three more newbies arrive this year. That's a lot of change over two seasons, but coaching changes are a constant in the Pac-12 and college football in general.

Mike MacIntyre will begin a massive rebuilding project at Colorado, and Sonny Dykes faces a minor rebuilding project at California. In contrast, Mark Helfrich at Oregon won't be rebuilding anything or changing much in terms of scheme or how the Ducks operate. But he is charged with winning 11 or 12 games and playing in a BCS bowl game every year.

Another rebuilding project that begins this spring: Lane Kiffin and USC.

Kiffin and the Trojans had an epically disappointing 2012 season, becoming the first team ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press poll to finish with six defeats. That landed Kiffin on the hot seat, inspiring him to remake his staff, most notably replacing his father, Monte Kiffin, with former California defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

It still remains to be seen if Kiffin will continue as offensive playcaller.

The Trojans will not only be looking for a quarterback this spring, but they also will be adopting a new base 3-4 defense. So there's a lot to get done.

USC can take heart in its 2012 misfortunes, though. Teams that head into spring believing they've already got it all figured out, well, they just might not. And teams that seem laden with questions might find some exciting answers few saw coming -- Taylor Kelly!

The overwhelming sentiment entering 2013 spring practices is that Oregon and Stanford are again the cream of the North Division and that Arizona State and UCLA are the front-runners in the South. A significant part of that is all four seem set with very good and potentially outstanding quarterbacks.

Teams with QB issues, meanwhile, are questionable to worrisome.

While there are plenty of story lines to follow this spring, we won't know for months whether those overwhelming sentiments get poleaxed once again.

Pendergast hiring official at USC

January, 18, 2013
Though it started getting reported early this week that Clancy Pendergast would be USC's next defensive coordinator, the Trojans waited until Friday afternoon to issue a news release making the hiring official.

Pendergast, a longtime NFL coach, coordinated California's defense the previous three seasons. He replaces Monte Kiffin, who has been hired by the Dallas Cowboys.

“Clancy is a perfect fit for us,” coach Lane Kiffin said in a statement. “He is a very experienced and successful defensive coordinator. He plays an attacking-style defense with multiple looks and, having spent the last three years in the Pac-12, he knows how to defend the various kinds of offenses that we see in this conference.

“What was particularly appealing to me was how he took a Cal defense that was seventh in the Pac-12 in total defense the year before he arrived and then led the league his first two years. That’s our goal here, to have that same kind of impact. I also liked that he has coached at the highest level, getting to the Super Bowl in the NFL.”

Pendergast, 45, also has previously coached at USC. He was a defensive assistant in 1992.

You can hear more of our thoughts on the hiring here.

And the complete news release is here.

Best case/worst case: Pac-12 bowls

December, 13, 2012
Our assignment is to pose a best-case and a worst-case scenario for every Pac-12 bowl team.

So here goes.


Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque, N.M., Dec. 15: Arizona (7-5) vs. Nevada (7-5), 1 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Arizona rolls 40-28, as quarterback Matt Scott goes out with a bang that raises NFL eyebrows, and running back Ka'Deem Carey rushes for 195 yards to sew up the national rushing title.

Worst case: Scott gets knocked out of the game early and backup B.J. Denker looks overwhelmed, raising questions about the future at QB. Carey rushes for 35 yards and loses the rushing title as Nevada rolls 42-21. Michigan fans hit the message boards with a litany of "I told you so" about Rich Rodriguez.


MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Dec. 22: Washington (7-5) vs. Boise State (10-2), 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: In a "Welcome back!" performance, QB Keith Price throws for 295 yards and three touchdowns -- matching the total TD passes the Broncos have yielded all season -- and runs for another score as the Huskies end 2012 with a statement victory that bodes well for 2013. The Huskies' hot offseason topic is how high the preseason ranking will be.

Worst case: Washington starts slowly as it has much of the season, then gives up a double-digit fourth-quarter lead as Price throws multiple interceptions. Boise State wins going away 38-17, and the Huskies' hot offseason topic is whether coach Steve Sarkisian has plateaued.


Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, San Diego, Dec. 27: UCLA (9-4) vs. Baylor (7-5), 9:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: That the Bruins score 45 points is not unexpected. That Baylor is held to just 17 points is unexpected. UCLA dominates on both sides of the ball, and quarterback Brett Hundley looks like a budding Heisman Trophy candidate. After the game, linebacker Anthony Barr and guard Xavier Su'a-Filo both announce they are returning for the 2013 season. Says Barr, "Unfinished business? Naaah. I just like playing with these guys."

Worst case: Baylor rolls over UCLA in a 55-30 win, as the Bruins' defense can do nothing to slow the Bears, while Hundley throws three picks. Barr and Su'a-Filo opt to leave for the NFL, as does coach Jim Mora, who is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Oregon State

Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, Dec. 29: Oregon State (9-3) vs. Texas (8-4), 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Oregon State throttles the Longhorns 31-13 with stifling defense, but the big story is Cody Mannion -- or is it Sean Vaz? -- throwing four touchdown passes and making a strong case to be the 2013 starter.

Worst case: The Beavers become the only team that couldn't run on Texas this year, and Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz both throw two interceptions in a 30-10 defeat. Meanwhile, Oregon State makes both Case McCoy and David Ash look like superstars. "Well," say all the national commentators. "This makes a strong case for the Big 12's superiority over the Pac-12. But we've still got to see the Fiesta Bowl."

Arizona State

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, San Francisco, Dec. 29: Arizona State (7-5) vs. Navy (7-4), 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Best case: Arizona State uses its superior speed on both sides of the ball to throttle Navy 48-17. After the game, consensus All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton announces he's returning for his senior year.

Worst case: Navy's triple option wears down the Sun Devils in a 28-17 victory. Even worse, the Sun Devils turn the ball over five times and commit 12 penalties for 105 yards, including two personal fouls. They look like the 2011 team, not the 2012 version under new coach Todd Graham.


Hyundai Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas, Dec. 31: USC (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (6-7), 2 p.m. ET, CBS

Best case: Matt Barkley looks like, well, Matt Barkley, throwing five touchdown passes as the Trojans roll 40-10. As for the defense, coordinator Monte Kiffin goes out in style, with the Trojans holding Georgia Tech's option to just 225 total yards. Head coach Lane Kiffin announces after the game that he has hired Bob Diaco away from Notre Dame to be his defensive coordinator.

Worst case: Barkley tries to play but reinjures his shoulder, and the Trojans fold thereafter, ending a horribly disappointing season with a 38-17 loss. After the game, receiver Robert Woods, running back Silas Redd and cornerback Nickell Robey announce they will enter the NFL draft. Lane Kiffin also announces the hiring of Nick Holt to run the Trojans' defense.


Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 1: Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5), 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Stanford dominates on both sides of the ball in a 30-10 victory, holding the Badgers to just 79 yards rushing and 210 total yards. Quarterback Kevin Hogan throws two touchdown passes and runs for another, while running back Stepfan Taylor rushes for 145 yards and a score. After the game, linebacker Shayne Skov, defensive end Ben Gardner and tight end Zach Ertz announce they will be returning for their senior seasons.

Worst case: Montee Ball rushes for 197 yards and two scores as Wisconsin pushes the Cardinal around in a 24-17 win. The Badgers sack Hogan four times, overwhelming the Cardinal's offensive line. After the game, Skov, Gardner and Ertz announce they will enter the NFL draft. Coach David Shaw is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles, and Walt Harris is rehired.


Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz., Jan. 3: Oregon (11-1) vs. Kansas State (11-1), 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Oregon starts fast and never lets up in a 51-20 blowout, with running back Kenjon Barner rushing for 187 yards and two scores and quarterback Marcus Mariota throwing for three TDs. The Ducks sack Collin Klein five times and grab two interceptions. "I'm sure glad we didn't play them in the regular season," Kansas State coach Bill Snyder says afterward. Shortly after the game, Ducks coach Chip Kelly signs a lifetime contract, opens practices and promises to be more patient with hypotheticals and other sorts of irritating questions.

Worst case: The Kansas State defense throttles the Ducks' offense, and Klein throws three TD passes in a 30-13 victory. The Ducks rush for only 101 yards. "Oregon struggles in these big games," say the national commentators afterward. "And this really makes the Pac-12 look bad." Kelly is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Mariota quits football to become a professional surfer. John Mackovic is hired to replace Kelly.
It started off with the potential for a real feel-good story.

The son, Lane Kiffin, gets the job as head coach of the USC Trojans and brings his dad, Monte, along as his defensive coordinator. What son wouldn’t want to go to work with his father every day? And it’s not like it was simply a case of nepotism, either. Monte was a well-respected defensive mind in the NFL with a Super Bowl title to his credit.

[+] EnlargeMonte Kiffin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireMonte Kiffin's defense never quite worked as planned with the Trojans, and now he's leaving after USC's bowl game.
On paper, it seemed like a match made in heaven. But the reality just never seemed to fit, and it came to an end on Thursday night with the news that the elder Kiffin would be resigning after the Trojans’ upcoming bowl game.

Next up for USC, Kiffin? Tough decisions

November, 29, 2012
Lane KiffinHarry How/Getty ImagesSeveral steps must be taken in order for Lane Kiffin and USC to return to prominence in the future.
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.

And yet.

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.

[+] EnlargeMonte Kiffin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireShould Lane Kiffin remove his father, Monte Kiffin, as the Trojans' defensive coordinator?
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 Insider, 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.

Notre Dame prediction: Week 13 at USC

November, 21, 2012
Coming to you one day early because of the holiday.

When Notre Dame has the ball: Everett Golson has grown steadily over the course of the season, and now he has the chance to deliver a title-game berth for the Irish. As long as the quarterback doesn't get careless with the ball, Notre Dame should be able to move consistently against the Trojans. The ground game has been there for the Irish all season, and I'd expect them to rely on that early to try to open things up on the perimeter with Tyler Eifert and T.J. Jones. The offense is clicking at the right time, and it's facing a defense that has been reeling, with many calling for coordinator Monte Kiffin's job.

When USC has the ball: Don't get excited just because Matt Barkley isn't back there. Max Wittek is making his first career start, he's got probably the best receiver duo in the country and, frankly, he's playing with house money. For all their faults, the Trojans are loaded at the skill positions and are capable of lighting up the scoreboard. Notre Dame will look to do what it did to Oklahoma -- allow the short gains but stop the big play. Make the Trojans beat you by executing down the field, play after play. This is the No. 1 scoring defense for a reason, and as long as it does what got it to 11-0, the Irish should fare well Saturday night.

Intangible: USC loses its fifth game of the season, to the No. 1 team in the country? Few can fault a backup quarterback for that. Beat the rival Irish and ruin their national title hopes? This is how legends are born in this rivalry, so why not say you're going to win, as Wittek did Tuesday? Notre Dame's path to the title game is simple: Win. At risk of hyperbole, a loss Saturday could rank among the biggest letdowns in school history. How the Irish handle that pressure determines the outcome Saturday.

Prediction: Notre Dame 21, USC 10. Golson stays cool on the road, and the Irish punch their ticket to South Florida.

Video: Friday Four Downs -- Pac-12

November, 9, 2012

Taking a look at four major issue for the Pac-12 in Week 11.

What we learned about USC at Utah

October, 5, 2012
SALT LAKE CITY -- It took the Utah Utes 165 seconds to score 14 points in Thursday night's game against No. 13 USC. It took them more than 56 minutes to score 14 more, as the Trojans' offense and defense both tightened up for a 38-28 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Here are five things we learned about USC in the win:

1. This team has some fight

Fourteen points in 2 minutes, 45 seconds? USC essentially gave itself a real-life spread to fight back from in this game -- and, fittingly, the Vegas spread for this one hovered around 14 points.

The Trojans handled it with aplomb, weathering the storm to an impressive extent and taking back the lead before halftime in a hostile environment. Coach Lane Kiffin said it was a situation that he'd be glad happened by the end of the year. That makes sense.

USC is going to face tougher teams than the Utes, for sure, but it's probably not going to face a tougher start than that all season.

Star receiver Marqise Lee said the 14-point deficit gave the Trojans "an opportunity to fully understand our team as a whole."

"Is SC going to break down or pick it back up?" he envisioned people around the country asking after that. "There you see: We pick it back up."

2. USC's defense is better than people realize

[+] EnlargeUSC defense
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireAside from points off turnovers and those scored against backups, USC's D was solid against Utah.
In Lane and Monte Kiffin's first season with the Trojans, the USC defense was downright awful at times. And the Trojans still had some bad moments in 2011.

But the truth is, this unit hasn't had a bad game, yet, this year. They're actually starting to become a force.

Taking away Utah's first two touchdowns that USC's defense had almost nothing to do with and the fourth-quarter score against the backups, the Trojans allowed only seven points and created seven points of their own with a Nickell Robey pick-six.

A Lane Kiffin-coached team being good on defense? Yes, it's true.

Kiffin admitted after Thursday's game that his defense was playing the best it has in his 30-game tenure at USC.

3. Woods can still play

His numbers weren't fantastic, but Robert Woods was a big part of USC's offensive performance in the Trojans' win.

He and Lee were both given more room with which to work on Thursday night, probably because Utah saw from the tape of the Cal game that USC's ground attack can be effective. And both guys did a lot with it, Woods pulling down six grabs for 69 yards and a score and Lee flirting with 200 yards on 12 catches.

Woods had a first-half scare when he tried to deliver a block on Utah's Brian Blechen during a punt return, then stumbled to the turf while trying to run off the field.

His explanation said a lot, though.

"I just got dazed for a little bit and tried to get up, not stay down," Woods said. "For pride."

The junior receiver has a lot of that.

4. Holmes is an ideal leader

It's unusual in football to be able to correctly fault a single player for an opposing touchdown, but USC center Khaled Holmes really was directly responsible for both of Utah's early scores.

He had bad snaps on two of the Trojans' first five to give the ball to the Utes and a holding penalty mixed in there on a failed run play.

Here's the thing, though: From then on, he played great. And he took full responsibility for his mistakes afterward, apologizing to his teammates in the locker room after the game before Kiffin even had a chance to speak.

He said he made a point to forget the plays after Utah scored twice in the first three minutes.

"You have to," Holmes said. "Quarterbacks have to forget it if they throw a pick, cornerbacks have to do it if they get beat deep. Unfortunately I had two terrible plays. But I was able to past them, and the guys never faltered with their confidence in me. And I couldn't be any more grateful for that."

Holmes didn't offer any excuses. He's had to come out of games twice in the last four weeks due to injury, but he didn't even mention that.

5. Barkley might yet have a chance at the Heisman

Based on his early-season play, experts around the country had been rapidly dropping USC's Matt Barkley on their Heisman Trophy leaderboard, and deservedly so: He hasn't really been playing as well as he did late last year.

But he had a fantastic game in Salt Lake City, completing 23 of his 30 passes for 303 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. He made only one or two bad decisions the entire game ... and two drops by his receivers prevented his numbers from really looking supreme.

Sure, if West Virginia Mountaineers' Geno Smith keeps putting up "video-game numbers" -- as Barkley called it this week -- he'll be the Heisman favorite.

But to count Barkley out would be premature.
No need to rehash all the gory details of the past five USC-Stanford matchups. We know them by now.

We know about Tavita Pritchard's last-minute touchdown to Mark Bradford in 2007, giving the Cardinal (41-point underdogs) a shocking victory and ending USC's 35-game home win streak. We know the Trojans stomped the Cardinal a year later. We certainly remember Toby Gerhart's three-touchdown performance, the 2-point conversion attempt and the Pete Carroll/Jim Harbaugh "what's your deal?" moment.

Well, would you look at that ... we're rehashing the gory details. Oh well, no reason to stop now.

We remember Nate Whitaker's field goal with four seconds left in 2010 and the triple-overtime thriller in 2011.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck, Stanford Cardinal
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergAndrew Luck (12) leads a Stanford stampede after the Cardinal's triple-overtime victory in 2011 -- their third in a row in the series.
In short, Stanford-USC has provided us with some of the most entertaining football -- not just college football, but football -- over the past half-decade. From the on-field heroics to off-field jabbering, this matchup has blossomed into one of the better non-traditional rivalries in the conference. And it continues Saturday in the first league contest of the 2012 season at Stanford Stadium.

"I think it's a little more friendly rivalry and respectful rivalry maybe between the coaches than the last couple of coaches," USC coach Lane Kiffin said with a laugh. "Any time you go to the last play of the game two years in a row -- in what I think were extremely well-played games by both teams, very exciting games, great quarterback play -- yeah, it's become a rivalry. ... That's a lot of credit to Stanford. For a few years it wasn't. Obviously, Coach Harbaugh came in and really changed it and Coach [David] Shaw has picked up the flag and ran from there."

You probably won't see any mid-field fireworks between Kiffin and Shaw. The two go back a long time.

"The thing you have to remember about me and Lane, our dads worked together for years and we've known each other for a long time," Shaw said. "I have the utmost respect for Monte and since I've known Lane, he's been nothing but upfront and straight-forward with me. There is no animosity between us except for those 60 minutes on Saturday."

Of course, we also remember the playful jab Kiffin took at Shaw in the spring.

The No. 21 Cardinal have won the past three meetings and four of the past five. And it's no surprise that a guy named Andrew Luck was at the helm for those three. But Luck is gone and Matt Barkley returns at quarterback for the No. 2 Trojans. He's back to settle that unfinished business. And though he'll never admit it, part of it is probably getting a win over Stanford, the only Pac-12 team he has failed to beat in his career.

And he has as good a chance as any this year. His wide receivers -- Robert Woods and Marqise Lee -- are the best in the country. Something that Shaw is very aware of.

"In all the years I was in the NFL and studied college wide receivers, and since I’ve been here studying different offenses, I’ve never seen a college team with two guys like this. There’s never been [a pair like them] in the modern era," Shaw said.

"There are three ‘explosions’ for a receiver. There’s explosion off the ball, explosion into the cut, and explosion after the catch. Usually, they decrease, with the last one not as big as the two before. With Woods, all three are explosive. It’s like Joey Galloway in his prime. You see the same thing from Marqise Lee, except a bigger version.”

Heading into this week the Cardinal are allowing the highest completion rate of any defense in the conference. But that doesn't concern Shaw, who said he'll give up short passes all day. It's about third-down defense, red-zone defense and making tackles.

It's the making tackles part that could be troublesome, especially when dealing with Lee. The sophomore sensation has gained 73.4 percent of his 263 receiving yards this year have come after the catch.* Worth noting, too, that Stanford safety Ed Reynolds leads the conference in interceptions (3) and is tied for second in passes defended (4).

And the Cardinal have their own offensive concerns in the post-Luck era. Last year, the Cardinal had the fewest three-and-out drives in all of FBS when Luck was running the show. So far this year, they rank 75th* while converting just 28 percent of the time on third down. The Cardinal have to keep drives alive to keep Barkley off the field. No easy task against Monte Kiffin's defense.

"You can't put him in a box and say he's a Tampa-2 guy because every known blitz to man, he's done at some point," Shaw said. "Whether it's strongside blitz, weakside blitzes, secondary blitzes, three-down nickel blitzes; he's got it all in his bag and it's just what he chooses to do that week. We're preparing for a variety of things."

For Kiffin and the prep-not-hype-motivated Trojans, a lot of them are trying to treat this just like any other game as they continue to make a push toward a national championship.

"I think when you come to a place like SC, you end up being a lot of people's rivals," Kiffin said. "I guess that's the best way to describe it. We end up being everyone's rivalry. Obviously, the most historic rivalry out of conference is Notre Dame. Then UCLA is cross-town. Now Oregon and Stanford within the last few years have become big rivalries as well."

Saturday marks another chapter in what has been a fantastic run between these two teams. Vegas puts the Trojans as a 10-point road favorite. On paper, that makes sense. If you check this morning's blog predictions, I have the Trojans winning by two touchdowns. But just be prepared for anything to happen. Because lately, in matchups between these two teams, anything does.

* ESPN Stats & Information

Video: USC's Monte Kiffin

September, 2, 2012

USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin talks about the Trojans' 49-10 victory over Hawaii.
LOS ANGELES -- No story about USC safety T.J. McDonald would be complete without talking about the suspensions, his aggressive style of play and the reputation he has around the conference.

No problem, says McDonald. Let's clear the air and put it out there front and center.

"I've been playing this game the same way for so long," McDonald said. "I've been growing up watching guys like my father [six-time NFL Pro Bowl safety Tim McDonald]. Watching guys like Ronnie Lott. Watching big hitters. Playing safety, we don't get to do too much. It's not like we can go out there and catch touchdowns or take a handoff and make a highlight. It's either you get an interception or you are hitting somebody. That's the part of the game I love, is being physical, and being able to make those plays.

"But at the same time, you have to stay within the rules. I never tried to hit anybody in the head or the helmet or even lead with my helmet because that's going to hurt me. I'm not going to try to knock myself out.

[+] EnlargeT.J. McDonald
Chris Williams/Icon SMI"He's heading for a really, really good year," USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said of safety T.J. McDonald, entering his senior season.
"It's one of those things that you have to accept. It's the rule. The only thing I can do is try to change technique-wise in terms of bringing my arms and not making such a big collision. But you can't sit there and say I'm going to aim lower, because that's when you start thinking too much and I don't have that time to think. When that ball is in the air, you're gone. It's hard. I don't think it's fair to say I'm a dirty player. You can ask anybody in my locker room and they won't say I'm a dirty player. Am I physical? Yeah, I'm a physical player. And I'm not going to change my physical play. But I'm going to play within the rules."

Sufficient? Good. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get to what McDonald has planned for his USC swan song in 2012.

It's going to be tough build on his already-stellar resume. In 2011, he was first-team All-America, made almost every defensive-honors list in the country and was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. But McDonald knows he can get better.

"I want to take my game from being a playmaker to a game-changer type of player," McDonald said. "I feel like there is a lot I can improve on. There is a lot of stuff left out there that I want to get better at. And as a defense as a whole, we haven't put up great numbers. As far as the score and wins and losses go, we did a better job. But we need to get more turnovers. We need to stop the pass better. I want to be the captain of the defense and be able to fix that."

In 23 career starts, McDonald enters 2012 with 163 tackles and six interceptions. Last season he led the team with three picks. And it's not like he's using this spring to slow down, either. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said McDonald has been one of the most motivated players on the field.

"He's having a really, really good spring," Kiffin said. "He was fast last year, but he's getting better and better and faster and faster. Sometimes guys come back for their senior year and they take a kick-back approach to spring. Been there, done that, you know? He's not doing that. He's heading for a really, really good year."

Last season USC ranked third in the conference in scoring defense (23.6 points per game), second in rush defense but ninth in pass defense, where the Trojans surrendered 263.3 yards per game in the air. The good news is that they led the Pac-12 in fewest touchdown passes allowed with 17. Another year in the system plus an excess of talent returning in the back seven leads Kiffin and McDonald to believe USC will be better against the pass this season.

"It's my third year in the system and other guys it's their second and third," McDonald said. "You have a good feel for what we're trying to do and being able to play fast. We're at that level right now where we can play fast and coaches can throw adjustments at us and it's not going to faze us."

Not surprisingly, there was a tremendous amount of buzz when quarterback Matt Barkley announced his return. McDonald's announcement wasn't met with quite as much fanfare -- at least outside of the USC locker room. But the guys he plays with know how important it is to have McDonald back for one more season.

"Yeah, they were all pretty excited," McDonald said of his teammates. "I sent them all a text before I made my announcement. Hopefully it's a confidence boost for the team and we can go out and do something with it."
1. Add Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez to the advocates of moving official visits back to May of a recruit’s junior year. As of now, by the time recruits take their visits, many of them already have committed. Rodriguez would pare the number of official visits a school may dole out from 56 to 45. But he also would invite the recruit’s parents or guardians to make the trip on the university’s dime.

2. The Big East invited Temple to return several years after tossing it out for not measuring up to the league standards. The Owls raised their game; the conference lowered its game, and all is forgiven. You have to think that Temple’s return means Villanova will never move up from the FCS to the Big East. If Villanova couldn’t find a way to make the numbers work before Temple came to league, what happens now that the Big East will have another Philly team in the fold?

3. Shane Beamer works for his dad at Virginia Tech. Monte Kiffin works for his son at USC. And now Brian Ferentz works for his dad at Iowa. I can think of a couple of reasons why there aren’t a lot of sons coaching for their fathers. One, it’s rare in today’s game that coaches last long enough to have a son become old enough and experienced enough to coach at the FBS level. Two, given how many hours a head coach works, how many spend enough time with their children to infuse them with a love of the game?