Things usually have a way of working out for Lane Kiffin.
Even NCAA sanctions that prevented USC from playing in the postseason the last two years may have saved Kiffin’s job and bought him another season with the Trojans.
While enraged alumni and fans are calling for Kiffin's job with USC entering Saturday’s game against No. 1 Notre Dame at 7-4, a few calmer heads, including that of USC athletic director Pat Haden, continue to preach patience. Haden and others point to USC’s 10-2 record last season and No. 5 regular season finish in the AP poll as reasons why Kiffin has USC headed in the right direction.
But would our perception of USC last season have been different if USC were eligible to play in the postseason?
Think about it. Instead of finishing the season with a 50-0 win over UCLA at the Coliseum, the Trojans would have had to travel to Eugene to play Oregon six days later in the Pac-12 Championship Game. USC fans will point to the fact that USC had beaten Oregon, 38-35, at Autzen Stadium two weeks earlier, but anyone who watched that game would admit Oregon simply ran out of time after making some second-half adjustments.
After USC jumped out to a 38-14 lead in the third quarter, Oregon scored 21 unanswered points and was primed to send the game into overtime before Alejandro Maldonado's 37-yard field goal attempt went wide left on the game's final play. The loss snapped a 21-game winning streak for Oregon at Autzen Stadium, which was the longest in the nation, and also snapped a 19-game winning streak in conference games. It was also USC's first victory in the state of Oregon since 2005.
Expecting USC to duplicate the feat two weeks later would have been a tall order, especially when you consider Oregon responded to the loss by scoring at least 45 points in their last three games en route to winning the Pac-12, Rose Bowl and finishing No. 4 in the BCS standings.
If USC had lost in the Pac-12 title game, it would have finished the season with three losses, out of the Top 10 and out of the BCS with Oregon and Stanford representing the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl, respectively.
In that scenario, USC would have played Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. Against Washington, which runs a similar offense and defense as USC, Griffin accounted for 350 yards and two touchdowns as Baylor won, 67-56. Seeing how USC’s defense has fared over the past three seasons against lesser quarterbacks, it’s not hard to imagine the Trojans’ suffering a similar fate against Griffin and Baylor.
So, instead of finishing the season at 10-2 and in the Top 5, you’re looking at a possible 10-4 finish which would have put USC in the 20-25 range of the Top 25. That’s not exactly the feel-good ending the Trojans hung their hat on this off-season and helped get them a No. 1 preseason ranking.
Perhaps the only positive of a 10-4 finish would have been lowered expectations heading into this season. First of all, Matt Barkley would have likely left for the NFL after playing in a Pac-12 title game and a bowl game. His departure would have set the stage for Max Wittek to make his debut in September, rather than this Saturday, and USC would have likely been ranked outside of the Top 10.
Who knows how USC would have done this year without all the preseason hype. But a closer look at how last year would have played out without the postseason ban shows the NCAA sanctions may have helped and hurt Kiffin more than he ever would have thought.