When USC lost to Notre Dame and UCLA last year, head coach Lane Kiffin's job was thought to be in immediate peril, but USC athletic director Pat Haden spared him the pink slip.
Subsequent staff changes—defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is out, and Clancy Pendergast is in—have led to peculation that if the defense doesn't improve, Lane Kiffin will probably be out of a job.
But the defense's performance won't decide Kiffin's future. If USC's defense underachieves, yet the team goes to a BCS bowl, all is forgiven, isn't it?
Kiffin's cloudy future has more to do with USC losing to its two rival schools and failing to secure a higher-tiered bowl berth.
The last time USC lost to Notre Dame and UCLA in the same season was in 1995. So if USC were to repeat that feat this year, it would mark the first time in 19 years (1993-94) that the Trojans will have lost to Notre Dame and UCLA in back-to-back years.
Would Kiffin be out at USC if that happened?
Surprisingly, the answer is no.
If USC goes 10-2 in the regular season, with losses to Notre Dame and UCLA, that would leave the Trojans with only one Pac-12 loss. That would probably be good enough to put USC in the conference championship game as the winner of the Pac-12 South. Already, that's an improvement over last year's 7-6 season. And if USC beat the North champion, that's an automatic berth in the Rose Bowl.
The Rose Bowl is USC's goal every year. So having met that goal, Kiffin would be safe, especially since he would have done so with only 69 scholarshipped players, barring any prospects signing with USC this summer.
But the conversation changes if USC loses to UCLA and/or Notre Dame as well as a few other schools.
USC's November schedule looks like this: at Oregon State, at Cal, Stanford, at Colorado, UCLA. Coming out of that month with a 4-1 record (assuming a loss to Stanford) would be a marked improvement compared with last year's 1-3 record. But Oregon State and UCLA are swing games, and Cal—under new head coach Sonny Dykes—could give USC's secondary fits. Realistically, only Colorado is most likely a win.
Losing to UCLA in the last game of the regular season isn't going to sit well with Trojan fans if there are other conference losses. Neither will embarrassing losses.
USC plays at Hawaii, at home against Washington State, Boston College and Utah State, and at Arizona State in September. USC should go 5-0 with that slate. But coming off a 7-6 season, all of a sudden that schedule doesn't look as forgiving.
USC's secondary is suspect, and playing against a Norm Chow offense (Hawaii) and an Air Raid offense (Washington State) translates to gut check time for USC fans. And what about Utah State?
The Aggies beat Utah last year and gave Wisconsin fits before finally losing 16-14. Quarterback Chuckie Keeton is back and is on at least one prominent 2013 Heisman watch list. You can count on Utah State being fired up when it faces USC at the Coliseum.
If Haden does cut Kiffin loose at the end of this season, he will have dismissed a coach who only had one full recruiting class (2011). The last two classes were reduced due to scholarship restrictions resulting from NCAA sanctions. That Kiffin hasn't been able to coach with a full deck may be one of the reasons why Haden has professed his full support for him.
This year marks Kiffin's fourth year coaching at USC. And the four-year mark is usually when athletic directors take stock of a football program and decide whether a different direction is warranted.
Haden is a former Trojan quarterback and understands how important it is to beat Notre Dame and UCLA. Another season of consecutive losses to the Irish and the Bruins may be enough for him to search for a new head coach.
Unless USC is playing in Pasadena on Jan. 1.