Sept. 28, 2013, goes down as the date Lane Kiffin's fate as USC's head football coach was sealed. The Trojans' 62-41 loss at Arizona State brought to a crescendo a ballad that began Nov. 19, 2011.
That date marked the apex of the Kiffin era, a 38-35 defeat of two-time defending conference champion Oregon. The Ducks went on to win a third straight Pac-12 title that season.
However, the win in Autzen Stadium seemed to send a resounding message—Oregon may have held the crown while USC was down, but the Ducks were merely keeping it warm for the Trojans' return.
For the pundits and pollsters who voted USC No. 1 atop the preseason Associated Press Top 25, it came through loud enough to silence what should have been otherwise glaring deficiencies.
Though the 2011 season was the end of the bowl ban, the true impact of NCAA sanctions was just beginning. And, in many ways, that 2011 team was the last of the pre-sanction Trojans, in that numerous key contributors were recruited and developed prior to the NCAA lowering its heavy hand on Heritage Hall.
Players like Chris Galippo, DaJohn Harris and Nick Perry left tremendous voids on the defense. Between the three, USC was losing 23.5 tackles for loss alone.
Of course, all attention before the 2012 campaign was focused on an offense returning a dynamic receiving duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, as well as 1,000-yard rusher Curtis McNeal.
And that's to say nothing of the return of the most recognized player at the most recognized position.
Beating Oregon was not in and of itself reason enough to declare USC back as a national powerhouse. For many, that moment came a month later when quarterback Matt Barkley announced he would eschew the NFL draft for a year to take care of his "unfinished business."
Barkley was outstanding his junior season and arguably deserved a spot among the Heisman Trophy finalists. However, there was one very big reason to suggest he might take a step back—a 6'7", 308-pound reason.
Of all the departures from the 2011 Trojans, none was more critical than that of tackle Matt Kalil. Barkley without Kalil felt a bit like John Stockton without Karl Malone.
With him anchoring the line, USC allowed just eight sacks all season. Without him, that number more than doubled to 17. This year through five games, it's up to 13.
Offensive line play has been the most vexing issue for USC amid its 3-2 start. Developing a new quarterback is a tall order when he is under constant duress, and that's been the case for Cody Kessler.
Too much stock was put into Barkley's return last season, and likewise, too much has been invested in placing the blame of this year's struggles on his successor.
Neither Kessler nor Max Wittek is 2011 or even 2012 Matt Barkley. Since taking over the job exclusively in Week 3, Kessler has looked more like 2009 Barkley—which makes sense, considering that was Barkley's first year of college football competition much as this season is Kessler's of any meaningful game action.
Kessler has progressed each week, including in Saturday's 20-of-29, two-touchdown and career-high 295-yard performance. He should continue to get better with more experience.
Unfortunately for Kessler and his USC teammates, they are bearing the burden of their predecessors' disappointments.
The expectations that started with that win in Autzen and carried over into the summer of 2012 set an unrealistically high bar for a program just beginning the arduous march through historically significant sanctions.
Programs face an uphill climb when rebuilding from sanctions, regardless of brand name.
Alabama suffered sanction-induced growing pains during the mid-2000s that carried over into the first year of the Nick Saban era.
The penalties handed down to Auburn in the mid-1990s were the most severe since SMU's death penalty, and the harshest prior those given to USC. The Trojans' 10-2 season is reminiscent of Auburn's 11-0 finish its first year serving a bowl ban, but the Tigers came out of the era with a couple 8-4 finishes, a 10-3 burst, then a 3-8 flameout.
Despite its struggles, USC has not trended in the same direction of a sub-.500 bottoming-out before beginning its return to the upper echelon. However, the school announced it was firing Kiffin early Sunday morning, according to CBS Sports.
Maybe had Oregon finished its game-ending drive 22 months ago to complete the rally and beat USC, the sky-high bar set for 2012 would have been lowered a bit closer to Earth and a 7-6 finish would not have been dire straits.
Conversely, the natives may have grown restless sooner with four straight seasons falling short of the double-digit win barrier, which 2012 would have marked.
Neither theory can be definitively be proven. Far more certain is that, even amid turmoil, USC has high expectations and in the eyes of many, Kiffin failed to meet them—save that November night in Eugene, Ore.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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