USC Football: Why Cody Kessler Needs to Start at QB over Max Wittek

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2013

USC coach Lane Kiffin narrowed the quarterback race down to two last week, but has remained non-committal on who his starting guy will be. Cody Kessler and Max Wittek have continued seeing close-to-even first-team reps and appear standing close-to-even in Kiffin's regards.

Having two capable quarterbacks is a good problem to have—but it's a problem nonetheless. For every successful timeshare in college football's annals, another 10 have failed. Only one man can handle the starting load in Southern California.

And Kessler has to be that guy.

It's not hard to parse through each man's pros and cons. Wittek (6'4'') is bigger and stronger and able to make throws Kessler can't. But he's also been less productive on the field—a sample that includes both last year's late-season stint and this year's offseason practices.

Kessler, on the other hand, doesn't have Wittek's measurables or arm strength. But what he lacks in stature he makes up for in competence. Running with the second-teamers in last Friday's scrimmage, Kessler completed 20-of-28 passes and showed supreme self-assurance. Wittek ran with the ones and looked anxious, finishing just 2-for-7 with 15 yards.

The result of that dichotomy is an age-old question: Who gives USC a better chance to win: The more productive quarterback or the more traditional?

The answer has as much to do with the state of football than the state of USC's program. In the '80s or '90s, Wittek would be the easy (and correct) choice to start. The game then revolved around things like height and arm strength and vertical extension.

But today's game is different. Today's game allows for not-as-strapping quarterbacks to succeed (if not thrive). The field can be extended East-to-West, not just North-to-South. At both the NFL (Russell Wilson) and college (Johnny Manziel) levels last season, sub-six-foot QBs were among the leagues' top stories.

Kessler (6'1'') isn't quite as diminutive, but next to Wittek he often looks it. And though he might also not be as good as Manziel and Wilson, next to Wittek—again—he's quickly starting to look it.

More than anything, though, USC needs a fresh start from last year's debacle. Particularly late in the season—and specifically when Wittek was playing—the Trojans barely looked like an FBS offense. Despite playing with Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, college football's premier receiving duo, Wittek mustered just 20 points combined in the final two games.

The 21-7 Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech was his most egregious sin. Wittek completed just 14-of-37 passes for 107 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. A fringe-ACC contender (which allowed 49 points to Middle Tennessee State) made USC look like Presbyterian.

It was the on-field nadir of Kiffin's tenure.

The Trojans need to wash their hands of that memory, gargle some Listerine and call it a new day. If ponderous No. 13 comes traipsing onto the field, it might start a riot on Figueroa. Kessler has looked better all offseason, Kessler has the accurate arm and Kessler has never authored any painful memories.

With his job already on thin ice (no matter what AD Pat Haden says) Kiffin cannot afford to provoke public opinion. He shouldn't kowtow to its whim, but he should at least take it into account.

The spirit of a fanbase can be felt from the field, and that spirit will be poison behind Wittek. The season would feel too dirty, too tainted, too eerily like 2012. It's easy to see why Wittek is enamoring—again, his physical tools are impressive—but Kessler is the one who's never done wrong. In the year 2013, production should always trump potential.

Even if that production came in practice.