Kiffin's critics should take another look - NBC Sports

Kiffin's critics should take another look
Reviled coach not only has revived USC, but his offense has what it takes to end SEC's run
AP
Lane Kiffin is only 37 - the fourth-youngest coach in major college football - but he's alreadyÿgot a long list of critics.ÿKiffin, however, has done a solid job leading USC during a two-year bowl ban, and the preseason No. 1 team has a legitimate shot at winning a national title.
August 28, 2012, 11:08 am

No, he didn't beat an avalanche down a mountain, or defend himself in the Alaskan wild with just a pen knife, although either of those would have been easier than exiting the state of Tennessee a step ahead of the tar and feathers.

Kiffin managed to take a football program torn asunder by Reggie Bush and the NCAA and return it to the No. 1 position in the land. And he did so in two years, or roughly half the time it took the NCAA's crack rapid-response team to conduct the investigation into the Trojans' football program in the first place.

The USC program was supposed to be devastated by a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships. Instead, it was merely annoyed by them. The bowl ban is kaput, the scholarship restrictions are still being managed, yet Kiffin has been able not only to keep his team focused, but to polish the USC brand. Rather than fade from national prominence, USC is again the glamour pick among high school recruits, especially after the recent dedication of its eye-popping $70 million John McKay Center athletics facility.

Today he is a senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy favorite. But back in 2010, he was a sophomore who could have skipped town without having to sit out a season when the sanctions came down. Instead, he remained, and Barkley is the major reason why Pundit Nation is so smitten with the Trojans.

The USC offense is the envy of most NFL teams. That's not to say it's good enough to beat NFL defenses, only that it's stocked with premium talent at just about every position in a way that is the envy of any coach at any level.

Barkley threw for 3,528 yards last season, at a completion rate of 69 percent. In each of his three previous seasons, he improved in the TD-to-INT ratio: As a frosh, he tossed 15 touchdowns and had 14 picks; as a soph, 26 to 12; last year, 39 to only seven.

For 2012, he not only has his two favorite targets - wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee - but they're ably backed up by junior De'Von Flournoy, sophomore George Farmer, redshirt freshman Victor Blackwell and true freshman Nelson Agholor. Tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer and fullback Soma Vainuku add to the embarrassment of receiving riches.

The tailback position had been a source of concern, until Kiffin convinced Silas Redd to transfer in from Penn State to compete with Curtis McNeal for the starting job. Now the Trojans have two veteran first-string ball carriers, with Buck Allen and D.J. Morgan vying for additional reps.

The Vikings made Matt Kalil the No. 4 overall pick in the NFL draft, but the Trojans still have four returning starters from an offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks in the nation last season.

Yes, SEC fans, Kiffin could ironically be the one to lead a team that ends the conference's impressive run of national titles, which stands at six straight.

To do so, the offense obviously can't do it all for the Trojans.

For the first half of last season, the USC defense was a work-in-progress that didn't work. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin struggled to adapt his scheme to a young and inexperienced crop of players. But the defense found its footing over the last seven games, and even though that included giving up 56 points in a triple-overtime loss to Stanford and 35 in a victory over Oregon, the collective unit was more cohesive and effective. That bodes well for a sturdier 2012.

All-America safety T.J. McDonald and cornerbacks Nickell Robey and Torin Harris anchor the secondary, linebackers Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard are among the best in the country, and linemen Wes Horton, George Uko and freshman Leonard Williams should wreak havoc. Depth on the D-line is an issue - especially with defensive end Devon Kennard possibly out for the season - but the Trojans are moving bodies around from different positions in order to create an iron patchwork that should get the job done.

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USC's schedule is another plus. The Trojans play at Stanford in the third game of the year, but there will be no Andrew Luck on the field. And although there are possible trap games at Utah (Thursday night has been "Fright Night" for USC in the past), Washington and Arizona, most of the slate is manageable, with both the Oregon and Notre Dame games in the Coliseum.

The man who wielded the machete that cut through all the impediments and restrictions and brought the Trojans to this point is Lane Kiffin, a name that didn't always have a positive ring to it.

After he bolted Tennessee to take the USC job, many Volunteers volunteered to escort him out of the state the hard way. While at Knoxville, he gave "brash" a new name, riling up Florida and other SEC schools in an effort to rally the Tennessee faithful. He also didn't make any new friends in his short stint with the Oakland Raiders; the late Al Davis blamed Kiffin for everything save for the high price of scabbards.

That reputation followed him back to USC. Many other college coaches hoped he'd flop. And initially they seemed to get their wish. In 2010, he finished 8-5, the Trojans' worst record since Pete Carroll went 6-6 in his first season of 2001. But last season's 10-2 finish and No. 6 ranking was more to the liking of USC fans and alumni.

The two defeats included one flat and inexcusable performance on September 24 at Arizona State, 43-22, while the Trojans were still searching for a rhythm and an identity, and the 3OT thriller against Luck and the Cardinal. Without a bowl game, USC put an exclamation point on the season - and sent a "We're Back!" message to the college football world, especially recruits - with a convincing 50-0 rout of crosstown rival UCLA.

When you consider how quickly Kiffin was able to resuscitate the USC program after the NCAA tried to put a pillow over its head, maybe survivalist isn't an accurate enough description. Maybe he's more revivalist.

Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/MichaelVentre44.

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