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Friday, August 9, 2013
Best case-worst case: USC

By Ted Miller

This is the sixth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-12 teams.

Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction. You can read last year's versions here.

We're going in reverse order of my post-spring power rankings (which might not be identical to my preseason power rankings).

Up next: USC

Best case

Lane Kiffin glowers at the ocean from his Manhattan Beach home. He is disquieted, even with his favorite Eric Clapton song playing in the background. The waves roar at him under an unusually cloudy August day in Southern California.

"Now is the season of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of Bruin," he says. "And all the clouds that Mora'd upon our house, in the deep bosom of the ocean buried."

Kiffin picks up a copy of the LA Times. He throws it onto a pile where ESPN Magazine, Sports Illustrated and the Orange County Register lay. "Hot seat, hot seat, hot seat!" he says. "I have been rudely stamp'd!"

He turns on the TV and with an exaggerated, irritated emphasis, he flips the channels until he arrives on ESPN.

"And therefore — since I cannot prove a media favorite -- to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain," Kiffin says.  "And hate the idle pleasures of these Pac-12 days!”

He watches interviews of UCLA coach Jim Mora, Stanford coach David Shaw and Oregon coach Mark Helfrich.  He smirks.

He says, "Winning is the thing wherein I'll catch the catch the conscience of the Pac-12 kings! And keep my job."

A few days later, on Aug. 23, Kiffin stands before reporters.

"Cody Kessler is going to be our starting quarterback," Kiffin says. "He doesn't have the biggest arm and he's not built like an NFL quarterback, but he played this best during fall camp. I like his moxie. Sometimes even USC needs moxie."

USC rolls over Hawaii and Washington State, dominates Boston College and thrashes Utah State. Kessler throws just one interception against 10 touchdown passes, while the defense dominates, not yielding more than 20 points during the 4-0 start. The Trojans rise to No. 10 in the national rankings.
Kevin Gemmell: Boy, the Trojans drowned those first four teams in malmsey butt.

Ted Miller: What's malmsey butt?

Gemmell: It's ... I have no idea. I was just trying to stick to your Richard III deal.

Things, however, go off the tracks at Arizona State. The Trojans are flagged eight times for 85 yards and turn the ball over three times in the first half as they trail the Sun Devils 21-3.

"Have we eaten of the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?" Kiffin barks in the locker room. "Men, settle down. We only need to focus on one thing. Win the next play. Stop over thinking this. Win the next play. Beat the guy in front of you. Win the next play and then do it again. That is all."

Kessler throws three touchdown passes to Marqise Lee in the third quarter, and Silas Redd, Justin Davis and Tre Madden wear down the undersized Sun Devils defense in the fourth, as the Trojans roll to 42-24 win.

During the bye week, a column on the front of the LA Times sports page asks: "Is Kiffin becoming a good coach?"

Scoffs Kiffin, "Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving."

The Trojans blow out Arizona and head to Notre Dame at 6-0. Lee turns South Bend into his own little play pen, catching four touchdown passes and going the distance on a kickoff return.

The fourth-ranked Trojans roll over Utah and then, with Lee on the cover of Sports Illustrated, head to Corvallis.
Gemmell: Just tapping some things into the "Uh Oh Calculator" here. We've got USC going to Corvallis and USC on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Miller: And don't forget my 3,000-word story on the certainty that the Trojans would play for the national title this week!

The Trojans miss a 27-yard field goal with 20 seconds left and Oregon State prevails 28-27, which is USC's fourth consecutive loss in Corvallis.

USC bounces back with a win at California. Then No. 7 Stanford comes to town, fresh off a loss to No. 2 Oregon. The Cardinal have won four in a row in the series with USC and five of the last six matchups.

"Stanford has just dominated us," Kiffin says in his Tuesday news conference. "They are a more physical team than we are. So we're going to need to find ways to make this game less about the line of scrimmage."

On the first play after the kickoff, Kessler lines up behind center and hands off to Redd. On second and 6, he lines up in the shot gun. On third and 1, he rushes the Trojans to the line of scrimmage, takes the shotgun snap and connects with Lee for a 30 yard gain.
Announcer: It appears that Lane Kiffin is going to run an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. Basically his two-minute offense.

Color analyst: Of course, Stanford saw the nation's best up-tempo offense last week against Oregon, and it faces a lot of up-tempo schemes, but you have to think this is a bit of a curveball for defensive coordinator Derek Mason.

USC takes a 14-10 lead into halftime.

The Trojans get a stop on Stanford's first possession of the second half. They take over on their 31. Kessler is back under center. On first down, he pitches to Redd for six yards. On second down, he pitches to Redd for four yards. On first down, he pitches to Davis for three yards. On second down, he pitches to Davis for 10 yards.
Announcer: Well, cut off my legs and call me shorty. After running a no-huddle offense and throwing 29 times in the first half, Kiffin has pulled a page from John McKay's old playbook.

Color analyst: Student body right, student body left. An I-formation, a simple toss with big linemen and a fullback leading the way. It seems Kiffin, after calling Stanford physically dominant all week, might have been playing opossum.

The Trojans rush for 210 yards in the second half against the nation's No. 1 run defense and win 35-20.
Miller: That was genius, Lane! Like I've said all along, you should call your own plays. It's your team and I've always thought you were a great play caller.

Kiffin: That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain — At least I am sure it may be so with the Pac-12 blog.

Miller: Lane, you need to lighten up. That's the next step. Maybe you should read some Christopher Moore?

Kiffin: Knavery's plain face is never seen till us'd!

The Trojans, who climb to No. 4 in the national polls, batter Colorado and improve to 11-1. Up next: No. 10 UCLA, which is 9-2, having only lost to Oregon and Stanford. The battle for the Victory Bell also will decide the Pac-12 South Division title.

"Do I remember my non-block that allowed Anthony Barr to sack Barkley and end his USC career?" Trojans offensive tackle Aundrey Walker says, rephrasing a reporter's question. "The one in which Barr made fun of me at Pac-12 media day? The one that typified our 2012 season? The play that should haunt me until I redeem myself? No. I've not thought about that once."

The Trojans score on their first five possessions and blow out the Bruins, who turn the ball over five times. Barr doesn't even touch Kessler all day. With 2:30 left, Kiffin goes for 2 to make the final count 51-0.
Kiffin:  Well, we beat them 50-zip in 2011, so I didn't want the same final number again.

Reporter: It will be construed that Lane Kiffin was running up the score, that he has no conscience.

Kiffin: Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe.

No. 2 Oregon beats the Trojans 33-31 in the Pac-12 championship game when Alejandro Maldonado kicks a 58-yard field goal with no time left on the clock.

Lee wins USC's eighth Heisman Trophy.

The Ducks whip Alabama 40-10 to win the national title. The Trojans dominate previously unbeaten Ohio State 42-17 in the Rose Bowl. The final polls rank Oregon No. 1 and USC No. 2.

UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington also win bowl games, with seven Pac-12 teams finishing ranked in the final polls.

"Good," says Kiffin. "We want Oregon and UCLA and the rest of the conference to be strong. It's no fun to rule the weak."

Worst case

On Aug. 23, Kiffin stands before reporters.

"Max Wittek is going to be our starting quarterback," Kiffin says. "He didn't play as well as Cody Kessler in the spring or in preseason camp, but he's big and tall and has a good arm. He looks the part. You media sorts don't understand that it's better to look good than to be good."

Wittek plays fairly well during a 4-0 start -- Marqise Lee leads the nation with 768 yards receiving -- and he needs to because the Trojans new defensive scheme is inconsistent, yielding an average of 30 points in the season's first third.

The Trojans rise to No. 13 in the rankings.
Kevin Gemmell: We'll get a better measure of USC at Arizona State, Wittek's first road start against an A-list defense.

Ted Miller: The Sun Devils will certainly test the Trojans play caller.

Arizona State leads USC 24-20 with one minute left, but a long Wittek pass to Lee gives the Trojans a first and goal at the Sun Devils 1-yard line.

Consecutive QB sneaks are stopped for no gain by Will Sutton, Kiffin perhaps thinking he could fool the Sun Devils by running his quarterback at the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12.

After the Trojans final time out, Silas Redd is stopped by Sutton for no gain on third down. The clock says: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... baaaa! Game over. Arizona State wins.
Announcer: Three words: Clock freaking managment.

Color analyst: Just wow.

Kiffin: I'm still going to call plays.

After an off-week, the Trojans are flat in a 28-24 home loss to Arizona. They get buried 28-10 at Notre Dame, with Wittek throwing three interceptions.

USC athletic director Pat Haden release a statement saying he's "100 percent behind Lane Kiffin and there is no hot seat."

The Trojans slip Utah 20-17, go down at Oregon State but improve to 6-4 with a road win at California.

"Being bowl eligible while under NCAA sanctions is a good thing," Kiffin says. "USC fans are too greedy, always believing they can win championships."

Stanford runs over USC 30-10, but the Trojans pick up a seventh win at Colorado.

Up next: No. 10 UCLA, which has already clinched the Pac-12 South Division crown.
Miller: Did you know that when Richard III was whipped in the Battle of Bosworth Field it ended the Wars of the Roses and began the Tudor dynasty?

Gemmell: And for your purposes here, setting up an obvious connection, with Jim Mora/Richmond besting Lane Kiffin/Richard III and taking over the football dynasty in LA.

Miller: You want to do these best-case, worst-case stories next year?

Gemmell: No.

The Bruins batter USC 35-0, despite Mora clearing his bench in the fourth quarter and only calling running plays and no blitzes over the final five minutes. Anthony Barr has three of the Bruins five sacks, and Wittek is picked off twice.

"I know some Bruins fans want us to be merciless, but this program is about winning with class," Jim Mora says. "In Westwood, we hope to enrich this time to come with smooth-faced success, with smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!"

USC goes on to lose to Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl, thereby finishing 7-7.

Bruins QB Brett Hundley leads the Bruins to an upset of No. 2 Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. Hundley, after winning the Heisman Trophy, announces he will return for his redshirt junior season. He then leads the Bruins to a Rose Bowl win over Ohio State.

A news conference is called in Heritage Hall.

"It's been a tough year," Haden says. "But I continue to believe Lane Kiffin is the coach who will lead the Trojans back to greatness."

Previous "Best case-worst case" posts

California

Washington State

Colorado

Utah

Arizona