USC shows signs of 'maybe'

The noise was deafening around USC last week after a 10-7 loss to Washington State, but it wasn't an argument among two bloviating parties. It was the media and Trojans fan base practically speaking with one voice: The Trojans under coach Lane Kiffin are a burning train wreck and Kiffin is a fired man walking, his hot seat now fully enflamed. A pink slip is inevitable.

Then the Trojans whipped Boston College 35-7, looking good in all areas, most notably behind center. A number of pundits -- Kirk Herbstreit on ESPN's College GameDay, for one -- had picked them to lose. But they didn't. They instead played really well.

And so "maybe" re-entered the discussion that never seems to abate around Kiffin and USC. "Maybe" might remain a minority opinion, but it's there. If USC beats a dangerous Utah State team on Saturday and then wins at South Division rival Arizona State on Sept. 28 and improves to 4-1, "maybe" will gain traction. The Trojans then might get a nervous scattering of votes in the national polls. They would play host to Arizona on Oct. 10, and the storyline would be what it means in the South race.

A week ago, the Trojans were not only dealing with the aftermath of being repeatedly booed on their own field and the fans at the Coliseum chanting, "Fire Kiffin!" there was a tempest in a teapot about whether receiver Marqise Lee and other team leaders held a players' only meeting. When Kiffin and Lee seemed to be on a different page as far as whether the meeting happened, an official kerfluffle was declared during a week when Kiffin could have done without one.

Yet the performance Saturday suggested the players -- and Kiffin -- were able to block out the negativity and focus on preparation and then playing.

"I think they did a great job keeping the noise out," Kiffin said. "It was a classic week of [after] playing really bad and getting upset at home, all the negativity started swirling around. They did a really good job of blocking that out and practicing extremely hard and extremely well and going out and playing really well."

The key was QB Cody Kessler. While the Trojans defense has been dominant in all three games under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast, the offense had stagnated in games one and two, in large part because it couldn't throw the ball. That fell on Kiffin -- he calls the plays -- with the Point A for Kiffin criticism being his handling of the quarterbacks, Kessler and Max Wittek, who played like they were afraid of making mistakes.

Last week, Kiffin decided to name Kessler his starter. Kessler responded by completing 15 of 17 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles. He looked like a different player.

Kiffin attributed that to him getting more practice reps as the designated starter, Kessler's supporting cast playing better around him and his confidence growing as he experienced some early success throwing the ball.

"I felt a very different player by the time we got to the end of the second quarter than had been the first couple of games," Kiffin said. "From a confidence level, he was very comfortable. He was having fun. He was very loose. He really seemed different."

Of course, just as there's now a "maybe" there's also a "maybe not." In fact, the majority of folks are in the "probably not" and "no way" camps. If the Trojans lose to the Aggies, or just look sloppy while winning, the grumbling will begin anew. And a loss at Arizona State could bury the Trojans in the South race before it much begins.

Still, things are much better now than they were a week ago.

"Winning versus losing makes Sundays and Mondays a lot easier," Kiffin said.

That's, at the very least, a potential starting point for turning things around.