I remember the 2006 Rose Bowl game vividly for a few reasons.
For one, I was in Brazil at the time, forcing an entire room of indifferent onlookers to guzzle coffee to stay awake until sunrise to watch a football game.
What made this watching experience memorable, however, wasn’t the location, or the delectable Brazilian beer, or the exotic birds chirping just as Vince Young glided inside the pylon, but the sheer brilliance of the game itself. It was perfect.
Hype and star power rarely collide in a moment of such magnitude, but Texas and USC proved to be the rare exception. It was a football masterpiece—the closest thing to a perfect game we may see in our lifetime—with the biggest stars on the biggest stage imaginable.
Fast-forward to 2013, and 2006 feels like 1976. The two programs that created the ultimate football showcase have fallen on hard times, and two of the game’s most identifiable brands have seemingly lost their identities for the time being. It wasn’t a rapid descent to mediocrity, however.
Texas, of course, was poised to win the BCS National Championship in 2009, and then Colt McCoy’s shoulder ran smack-dab into Marcell Dareus, knocking him out of the rest of the game.
USC lost only two games while serving the second year of its bowl ban in 2011. This set up incredible expectations (and eventual disappointment) the following season, despite having a roster rich with talent.
The potential aftermaths could be head coaching changes at both schools at the end of the season—if not sooner. And while the programs took vastly different paths to get to this point, each with its unique circumstances, there are both similarities and differences in how they arrived here.
Recruiting (and Player Development)
The perception, of course, is that the overflowing stream of talent for both USC and Texas has gone dry. That’s not exactly the case.
Between the 2007 and 2012 classes, USC and Texas never fell out of the Top 10 on 247Sports’ composite team recruiting rankings. In 2013, both USC and Texas finally dipped below the Top 10, with the Trojans falling to No. 12 and the Longhorns dipping to No. 17.
This was the first real identifiable break in a rather impressive run when it comes to attracting young talent, at least according to the experts who cover this year-round.
The rankings, of course, mean little. The correlation between highly ranked recruiting classes and subsequent victories is weak. There’s also a noteworthy difference between successful recruiting and player development, something that is lost from time to time.
For Alabama, this is what has made Nick Saban’s tenure at head coach so impressive. It’s one thing to consistently attract marquee talent to your program—something a handful of schools, including USC and Texas do. It’s another to regularly develop these 4- and 5-star prospects into 5-star talents.
Both programs under fire simply have not done enough of it in recent years.
Does it boil down to an extended and pronounced run of recruiting misses for USC and Texas, or does the blame fall on the coaches unable to maximize the abilities of their players?
Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
The Story For USC…Sanctions, Injuries and a Solid Helping of Lane Kiffin
The roaring USC football siren has reached deafening levels, although blaming this solely on Lane Kiffin is unfair. That won’t stop the masses from doing it regardless.
Kiffin has played a significant role in these struggles, of course. This much is obvious. But the sanctions handed out by the NCAA following the school’s lack of institutional control have loomed large. It’s not necessarily an excuse—and it certainly won’t buy him any more time following this season—but it has undoubtedly factored in.
To Kiffin’s credit, he was able to recruit surprisingly well while coping with a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships. The lack of depth, however, has started to rear its ugly head over the past few seasons, and injuries were widespread at the worst possible moment.
The defensive line was absolutely crushed with impactful injuries a season ago, and the team didn’t tackle in this year’s spring game because the issues surfaced again. But the excuses stop there.
In a results-oriented business at a results-oriented school, Kiffin has fallen drastically short of expectations despite ample recruiting success and resources during a challenging time.
Whether it’s his play-calling or his inability to settle on a starting quarterback until the third week of the season, the blame can be spread around. It used to be the defense, although that’s not the case at the moment, at least at the start of the season. The Trojans' defense is the bright spot on a struggling team.
There is absolutely no reason, however, that a team with a wide receiver of Marqise Lee’s caliber should pass for 54 yards against a Washington State defense—or anyone for that matter—as it did last week. Or better (well, worse) yet, USC is the only team in all of college football to have this dreaded stat attached to it after two weeks:
#USC is the only FBS school in the country that hasn't completed any pass plays of 20+ yards.— USC Football News (@USCFootballNews) September 9, 2013
To some, regardless of the struggles at quarterback and on the offensive line, these stand alone as fireable offenses.
The Story For Texas… Mack Brown’s Quarterback Slump and the Inability to Tackle
If you’re part of the strange college football cult on Twitter, you’ve undoubtedly seen the joke by now.
“Mack Brown recruited [insert player here] as a safety.”
It’s a gag that has outlasted its intended shelf life, although it remains relevant because the original player that sparked this strange Internet meme is still a large part of our viewing experience. And that player, of course, is Johnny Manziel.
There are plenty of viewpoints on whether Brown recruited the now-Heisman winning quarterback at another position, whether he decided to pass on him altogether, or whether Manziel simply decided on A&M. But it doesn’t change an issue that has hampered this team since the departure of Colt McCoy. Texas has missed out on a lot of big-time QBs.
Manziel, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III all played their high school football in Texas, and all ended up at different schools. Florida State sensation Jameis Winston also expressed his desire to play at Texas at one point, and while there is haziness over whether Texas pursued him, he ended up elsewhere.
Now, evaluating quarterbacks is the ultimate recruiting wild card, and hindsight, of course, is 20/20. Still, landing just one of these players could have drastically altered the course of the program. Again, this is easy to say now with ample evidence to draw from.
What it couldn’t have done, however, is improve the defense, which is in complete disarray once again following a historically bad performance against BYU. And truthfully, it’s been trending in this direction for the last few years.
On Saturday, the Longhorns gave up 550 yards… rushing, which prompted the firing of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz on Sunday. Unless something changes drastically, the changes won’t end there.
The defense has been an enormous problem in recent years, but the collective team has not played well in many areas.
The End Game—What Happens Next
At his press conference on Monday, Mack Brown said it best, per Fox Sports Southwest's David Ubben:
Mack Brown says Texas has "better players than we have production."— David Ubben (@davidubben) September 9, 2013
He’s absolutely right about this, although that doesn’t make the future any more reassuring. In fact, Brown’s assessment of the program accurately describes what is now hampering both USC and Texas.
Will Mack Brown and Lane Kiffin be Coaching at Their Current Schools in 2014?
There is ample talent—nothing close to the usual cast of stars and eventual pros—but enough to win the games they should not be losing. More specifically, these are teams that shouldn’t (and cannot) be giving up 500 yards rushing and throwing for fewer than 100 yards passing in any football game. Ever.
It’s not just about a knee-jerk reaction in one week, either, an easy target at the perfect moment. Bad performances happen. It’s the lack of improvement with programs that can no longer preach patience. This lack of production falls back on a select few. Unfair or not, this is how it is, how it’s always been.
In the end, it's not a matter of why or how. It's about results. If they are absent, nothing else matters. The end result, barring a dramatic improvement, will be change, as 2006 drifts further and further away.