The Rose Bowl
He's sitting on the hottest seat in college football.
So, what's it going to take to power down those rocket boosters under Lane Kiffin's chair?
A bowl berth in the 2013 post season is a good starting point, but before USC can even think about that it must concentrate on winning the Pac-12 South.
That's not going to be easy. While the league's North seems fairly contentious between Stanford and Oregon—but don't count out Washington or Oregon State—the league's South looks like the SEC West in terms of brutal competition.
This fall, Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and USC will make the Pac-12 South look like college football's black-and-blue division. The winner of the South may likely come down to the use of tie-breaking rules to determine who plays the winner of the North—in fact, count on it.
And, most likely, the winner's prize will be facing Oregon or Stanford for the right to go to the Rose Bowl game. Or beyond.
A Rose Bowl berth would certainly temper the heat Lane Kiffin will be feeling this season, as USC has maintained over the years that the Rose Bowl game is the team's postseason goal. Trojan fans probably have higher aspirations of a BCS Championship game berth, but that isn't something the team can control.
Only pollsters and computers can control that destiny.
USC can, however, control its own destiny by winning the Pac-12 Championship game and thereby guaranteeing itself a date in Pasadena on January 1. But what if the Trojans don't achieve their goal of playing in the Rose Bowl game?
Exactly which bowl berths would fuel the flames under Kiffin's seat?
The answer may be subject to determining why the Trojans didn't get a Rose Bowl berth in the first place. Injuries are always a part of the game, but with USC it's particularly worrisome since it is still serving out its scholarship reductions from the NCAA's 2010 sanctions. After the 2014 recruiting class, USC can go back to full strength with 85 scholarships.
If the team was dinged up and had depth problems in positions that were affected by injury, Kiffin shouldn't be blamed for that. More on that in a minute.
If the team fails to improve defensively, that's a different story—cue your lighters.
USC finished the 2012 season ranked 71st nationally against the rush. For better perspective, consider this: Oregon scored 70 points on Colorado, 63 points on Tennessee Tech and 62 on USC. Did Oregon basically find no difference between USC's defense and an eventual 1-11 Colorado team? Or an FCS team?
Ducks running back Kenjon Barner torched USC's defense with 321 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Earlier in the year, Barner was limited to only 57 rushing yards against Tennessee Tech. Granted, Barner only had 13 touches in that game, but the caption under this photograph of Barner yields some tough-to-swallow words for USC fans:
Oregon running back Kenjon Barner, right, fights for yardage against Tennessee Tech defender Howard Griffin during the first half of their NCAA college football game in Eugene, Ore., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Barner didn't have to fight for yardage against USC's defense.
OK, enough of the gory details. The defense has to improve. If it doesn't, it's a lower-tier bowl for USC and moving time for the Kiffins.
Generally speaking, lower-tier bowls are played before Christmas. However, because of the amount of bowls we now have, any bowl that is played before January 1 is played in a non-warm-weather state venue or features a league's third-place (or lower) team considered a lower-tier bowl by some fans.
The Pac-12's tie-ins to its bowls are selected in this order:
1- BCS Championship Series (Rose Bowl game, etc)
2- Alamo Bowl
Which bowl berth will cost Kiffin his job this season?
3- Holiday Bowl
4- Sun Bowl
5- Maaco Bowl Las Vegas
An Alamo Bowl berth is probably the only non-BCS bowl berth that would keep Kiffin as head coach if the team had injuries that depleted the roster. The Alamo Bowl, after the BCS makes its bowl selections, gets first choice of available Pac-12 teams and second choice (after the Cotton Bowl Classic) of available Big 12 teams.
But even if injuries were an issue this season, an Alamo Bowl for USC may not save Kiffin's job if other mitigating factors contributed to an under-achieving season.
Was the team blown out by any team this year? Any rout won't be tolerated by USC fans and thus, an Alamo Bowl berth probably won't save Kiffin's job.
Was a game's outcome due to suspect play calling? Again, play calling has been an issue, but not necessarily because the calls themselves were bad, albeit some of them sent Trojan fans calling for Kiffin's head. The problem of his play calling goes a little deeper.
With his play sheet in hand, Kiffin seems almost oblivious to what's going on around him—like the play clock winding down. He also appears almost disconnected, but that's perhaps because he's all by himself and not interacting with his staff on the sidelines. Isn't it difficult to coach a team when your head is hidden behind a laminated play sheet?
The most successful leaders generally tend to macromanage, not micromanage. A four-star general watches the arena's warfare from a distance and calls for needed adjustments via his officers—he doesn't jump into a foxhole and tell each of his platoon sergeants what to do.
If these issues don't improve and USC loses a game due to bad clock management, vanilla play calling or a defense mimicking a matador holding a red cape against an offense, then depleted roster or not, Lane Kiffin may no longer have USC athletic director Pat Haden's support.
That may not sit well with a lot of USC fans, but consider what UCLA basketball just did over the weekend. Head coach Ben Howland was dismissed after seven trips to the NCAA tournament and three Final Four appearances.
UCLA is setting the bar high.
Shouldn't USC as well?
Rose Bowl game or bust.