When Lane Kiffin took over as USC's head coach in early 2010, the Trojans hoped that the fiery young coach would help the program move past the controversy surrounding Reggie Bush and the departure of celebrated coach Pete Carroll.
During his first two seasons leading the Trojans, Kiffin did a reasonably good job, helping USC to an 8-5 season in 2010, and an impressive 10-2 record last year, but with the Trojans banned from postseason play, he didn't receive ample opportunity to prove himself.
That's why this season was supposed to be Kiffin's coming-out party.
With preseason Heisman favorite Matt Barkley under center, the Trojans were ranked No. 1 in both the AP and USA Today Polls, and appeared poised to make a compelling run at an invitation to the BCS National Championship Game.
Unfortunately, USC's national title aspirations were quickly dashed when the team fell to Stanford in its third game of the season and subsequently dropped three of its final five games of the season to Arizona, Oregon and UCLA, respectively.
Now, with the Trojans set to take on No. 1 Notre Dame at home in their season finale, Kiffin's job security isn't what it was a year ago.
Yes, it sounds like USC has guaranteed Kiffin another year, as Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times said following USC's loss to UCLA on November 17.
In answering a question about his job security moments after an embarrassing 38-28 loss to UCLA on Saturday, the increasingly embattled USC coach said his position for next season had been assured and later told me to call Athletic Director Pat Haden to confirm.
I did, and he did, Haden delivering the news that will stun many Trojans fans as much as their formerly top-ranked team's absorbing only its second beating by the Bruins in 14 years.
"Lane is my head coach, 150%, now and hopefully for a long time," Haden said in a phone interview. "I see the future. I see the potential. I know what he's been fighting through and I like what he's done."
Despite the reassurance from Haden, Kiffin must be realizing that his leash will be short next season, especially if the Trojans get blown out by the Fighting Irish at home on Saturday.
That is, of course, unless Kiffin's Trojans can wrestle the Jeweled Shillelagh away from the Irish during their all-important showdown today.
A win over Notre Dame wouldn't erase all this season's embarrassing losses from the minds of USC fans and alumni, but it would be a shiny consolation prize for the Trojans, and maybe enough of one to earn Kiffin a greater degree of confidence and security heading into 2013.
It won't be easy without Barkley on the field, but at the very least, backup quarterback Max Wittek will have one of college football's most impressive receiving corps at his disposal, as Robert Woods and Marqise Lee have been among the nation's best all year long.
Regardless of who's throwing the ball for the Trojans, Kiffin needs to start winning, and fast, if he wants to remain head coach at USC.
And with a win tomorrow, his team could earn him some breathing room heading into next season.
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