Best case-worst case: USC

July, 23, 2010
7/23/10
1:37
PM ET
The final post in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.

Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction.

Up next: USC

Best case

It starts with a Tennessee football helmet.

Perhaps it is fitting that Lane Kiffin, who always took the high road after his completely reasonable departure from Tennessee, would use the symbol of a program that hated him to solve a major environmental crisis. Where the oilmen and scientists failed, Kiffin, with an assist from USC quarterback Matt Barkley, successfully plugs the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

"It was pretty cool," Barkley says. "I don't know where the Tennessee football helmet came from, but he just swam right into the middle of the oil flow -- it was really jetting out of there -- and slammed the helmet in the hole. I was a little worried about him for a second, but all of the sudden -- slam! -- and the oil stopped. And then, of course, there was that trip to the White House."

The trip to the White House turns eventful when Kiffin invites President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader John Boehner and Rush Limbaugh out for a beer.

"Pelosi is a riot -- you don't get that on TV," Kiffin says. "She and Limbaugh start singing "99 Red Balloons" together, and the President manages to extract this pesky splinter from Boehner's thumb. Dude just brightened. Great smile. Everybody got along famously and agreed to stop bickering over fatuous things and actually solve problems. I joked that a good start would be NCAA sanctions against the Trojans."

While USC enters the season as a slight Pac-10 favorite, much of the preseason talk centers on Kiffin's skill as a diplomat and humanitarian.

"Look guys," Kiffin tells reporters after the Trojans open with a 42-7 win at Hawaii. "This isn't about me. I've never been a 'me' guy. I'm about team, whether you're talking about the world, the United States or USC. But I'm the USC coach and let's keep the focus on USC and not Lane Kiffin. Darn it! Did I just talk about myself in the third person! That's terrible. Sorry."

USC doesn't allow a touchdown in wins against Virginia and Minnesota. Barkley throws his 11th TD pass of the season at Washington State before sitting out the second half of a blowout victory. USC needs a late scoring run from Allen Bradford to beat Washington and Steve Sarkisian.

"Steve is a friend first and rival second," Kiffin says afterwards. "Men of character can compete and compete hard but still break bread together. I would hope that's a lesson for my team. We're not just about winning at USC, though we do a lot of that. We're about family and character and building leaders."

USC whips Stanford 33-10.

"I don't know anything about 'What's your deal?'" Kiffin says afterwards. "Revenge? That's not why we play football at USC. We play for the pure joy of sport and competition. We should share that with our opponent. So we should always strive for a respectful relationship with our foe. That's the deeper meaning to me."

The Trojans beat California and a ballyhooed showdown with No. 5 Oregon becomes just another blowout win. USC rises to No. 1 in the AP poll.

There simply is no stopping the Trojans. Their defense ranks No. 1 in the nation. Barkley leads the nation in passing efficiency. They are the nation's least penalized team. Meanwhile, on the student side of things, players switch majors from criminal justice and recreation science to pre-med, English and political science.

"Unusual to hear players talking about theoretical physics?" linebacker Chris Galippo replies to an eavesdropping reporter's question. "Really? We talk about stuff like that all the time here in the locker room. Coach Kiffin encourages it. You should hear [fullback Stanley] Havili. He's obsessed with movies. He's always going on about 'mise en scène'. You should have heard him after movie night at the Boys & Girls Club when we saw 'The 400 Blows.' Dude really has a thing for François Truffaut."

USC rumbles past Arizona State, Arizona, Oregon State and gets a standing ovation from Notre Dame fans after a flawless performance in South Bend.

A column appears on UCLA blog "Bruins Nation": "Is it wrong from Bruins to respect Kiffin?" Writes "Nestor": "It's like John Wooden and USC fans. Wooden's greatness transcended the bitter rivalry. So it's possible to acknowledge that a great man is the leader of your hated enemy. Of course, I'm not yet ready to compare Kiffin to Wooden after just one season. But the idea obviously has hatched."

USC beats UCLA 30-17. Kiffin and Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel share a warm handshake afterwards.

Once-beaten Florida wins the BCS title game. The AP crowns unbeaten but NCAA-sanctioned USC national champions.

"Are we the true champions?" Kiffin says. "Well, I like our team. I like its character. But Florida is a great team with great character, too. [Gators coach Urban] Meyer has done such a great job down there. I called him yesterday to congratulate him. I feel bad about how things started between us. I feel like we're both ready to move past that. I think doing so would be a great example to our players and our fans."

In the spring, the NCAA apologizes to USC and gives it all of its scholarships back.

Worst case

Four games. Four blowout victories. It doesn't look like USC has taken a step back. Perhaps it's taking a step forward under Lane Kiffin?

And, yes, Trojans players, knowing they are banned by the NCAA from the postseason, start to crow. The general theme is: "We're the best and everybody knows that."

Such talk gets a bit quieter when Washington quarterback Jake Locker takes a Heisman Trophy turn in the Coliseum during a 35-21 Huskies victory. Kiffin runs off the field yelling at the officials instead of meeting his friend, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, at midfield for the postgame handshake.

Last year, Toby Gerhart dominated USC during Stanford's blowout win. This year, it's quarterback Andrew Luck, who tosses four TD passes in a 41-24 victory.

"Do I think [Jim] Harbaugh ran up the score on us?" a steaming Kiffin says. "Absolutely. His quarterback throws TD passes. Ours throws interceptions. His guys are physical. Ours quit when things get tough. We had a good plan. Our players just didn't execute it. Harbaugh's got a good thing going. But we won't always be down. We'll get our guys in here and then let's see how things go."

After said speech, even those who are just learning English become familiar with all the nuances of the phrase, "throwing under the bus," a cliche that appears in nine out of 10 columns about the game.

"We're playing for ourselves, for our teammates, not for Kiffin," an anonymous player is quoted in the LA Times after the Trojans beat California.

Oregon rolls up 510 yards in a blowout win in a half-empty Coliseum. After the game, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin announces that he will retire at the end of the season.

The Trojans beat Arizona State 10-9, an effort that's attributed to a show of respect for the elder Kiffin. But the Trojans drop their next three games before visiting arch-rival UCLA.

"Any of you guys think it's funny UCLA plays in the Rose Bowl?" Kiffin asks reporters during his weekly press conference. "What's the word I'm looking for? Ironic? Isn't it ironic that the Bruins play in the Rose Bowl? The Rose Bowl is the Trojans home. We'll be back playing in the real Rose Bowl soon enough."

Replies UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, "Whatever."

The Bruins prevail 21-3, holding Kiffin's offense to 215 total yards.

"I'm not going to talk about [Kiffin]," Neuheisel says after the game. "This is about us, not them. This is about building classy hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. We don't care about the other guys. Just as long as they pay rent when they land on our squares."

After UCLA trounces Missouri in the Holiday Bowl, Christian Westerman, George Farmer, Todd Barr and Antwaun Woodsannounce they will sign with the Bruins, who finish 9-4 and ranked 14th.

UCLA finishes a consensus No. 1 in the nation in recruiting. With its last full class before scholarship limitations are invoked, USC finishes fifth in the Pac-10.

"Recruiting rankings don't mean anything," Kiffin tells reporters. "We didn't want any of those guys that went to UCLA. Sure, we recruited a lot of them. But when I looked in their eyes, I could tell they weren't Trojans."

The NCAA rejects USC's appeal of sanctions.

Tennessee fans put up 15 billboardsaround the USC campus.

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