Posted: Wednesday August 1, 2012 12:39PM ; Updated: Wednesday August 1, 2012 12:39PM
Stewart Mandel

Lane Kiffin now a strength for USC, not a hindrance; more Mailbag

Story Highlights

Trojans coach Lane Kiffin has proven he's more than a headline-maker

West Virginia's preseason hype largely stems from its big bowl showing

Widespread sanctions could result in too few teams being bowl eligible

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Lane Kiffin displayed great coaching skill in leading a young and depleted USC team to double-digit wins in 2011.
Lane Kiffin displayed great coaching skill in leading a young and depleted USC team to double-digit wins in 2011.
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The calendar has turned to August, which means preseason polls are nearly here, and it's a 99.9-percent certainty the top spot on each ranking will go to either LSU or USC. After a two-year hiatus, and while still in the midst of NCAA sanctions, the Trojans have returned to their annual role of short-list national title contender. But unlike in the past, their head coach is no longer a primary reason.

In fact, many probably view him as a hindrance.

Stewart, USC is receiving a lot of preseason attention as one of the favorites for the national championship. No question the Trojans have a lot of talent coming back from a team that performed well last year. But, in your opinion, is Lane Kiffin a good enough football coach to lead them to a championship? How much of last year's success can be attributed to player talent as opposed to Kiffin's coaching?
-- Jake Dawson, Reynolds, Ill.

I know there's a large contingent of you that doesn't want to believe it, but after bungling his first season at Tennessee, Kiffin is blossoming into a very good college head coach. Obviously he hasn't won anything of consequence yet, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest he knows what he's doing.

First of all, Pete Carroll didn't leave behind a finely tuned roster on his way to Seattle. Carroll and his staff made recruiting mistakes near the end of his tenure, and the talent drop-off was evident when the program went from producing 11 combined first- and second-round draft picks in Carroll's last two years (2008 and '09) to three in the two springs after he left. Attrition and the NCAA's transfer freedoms left Kiffin well short of 85 scholarships during his 8-5 debut season. It's a credit to his and his staff's recruiting prowess that USC was able to restock in such a short time, but it still took some serious coaching to get to 10 wins.

Last year's Trojans were incredibly young. By season's end they were starting eight first- or second-year players. Even when those youngsters are as gifted as receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Lee, there's bound to be growing pains, and USC looked fairly average during the first half of the season. But all a coach can ask for is that his team get consistently better, and the Trojans did just that. The defense allowed 17 or fewer points in five of their last seven games, and Matt Barkley and the offense were virtually unstoppable aside from an unfortunate end zone fumble in triple overtime against Stanford.

USC may not win the national championship, but I don't envision coaching being its downfall. I had two major preseason questions about the Trojans. One of them, running back depth, magically turned into a big strength with the addition of Penn State's Silas Redd. However the other, an inexperienced defensive line, looms even larger in the wake of starting defensive end Devon Kennard's torn pectoral muscle. USC's season may come down to its two possible meetings with Oregon, the one team in the country against which the ability to rotate fresh linemen is essential. Remember, USC is still under sanctions and still down 10 scholarships from its competition. The Trojans may or may not be able to overcome that, but Kiffin will manage the situation as well as any coach could. Really.

As a West Virginia alum, I'm excited about all the preseason publicity the Mountaineers have garnered, but I'm wondering how much is warranted and how much is a product of the Orange Bowl victory. This is still a team that was blasted by Syracuse, needed three late-season close victories to win the weak Big East, has numerous defensive changes in personnel and coaching and is making a huge step up in competition. Is WVU really a legitimate Big 12 title contender or should I anticipate something more along the lines of an Alamo Bowl berth instead?
-- Chris Errington, Largo, Fla.

Every year there's at least one team that gets a bump in the preseason rankings from a particularly impressive bowl showing, so it should be no surprise that the first team ever to score 70 is enjoying a particularly hefty spike. Big 12 media members were so deferential to the newcomers that they picked the Mountaineers to finish second to Oklahoma in their preseason poll, making them the only team besides the Sooners to earn multiple first-place votes. Chris is right, though: The Orange Bowl has made everyone forget that West Virginia finished the 2011 regular season 9-3, in a three-way tie for first in the Big East and behind five current Big 12 teams at No. 22 in the final BCS standings.

There's no question Dana Holgorsen's team has the makings of a lethal passing attack; I agree with those same media members' choice of Geno Smith over Landry Jones as the Big 12's top quarterback, and Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey may be the league's two best receivers. But in the Big 12, unlike in the Big East, WVU is now one of many teams that can zing the ball around and score in a hurry. I'm skeptical of the Mountaineers' ability to stop the others. Last season WVU finished dead last in scoring defense during Big East play (28.9 points per game), in a conference where no team other than WVU averaged 30 points. In the Big 12, six did. And that poor average came before WVU lost longtime coordinator Jeff Casteel and first-round pass-rusher Bruce Irvin.

West Virginia's games should be highly entertaining. But in terms of wins and losses, I have a hard time believing the Mountaineers will post a better record in their first year in a tougher conference than they did in their last year in the lighter one.

Alabama QB AJ McCarron is often referred to as a "game manager." Is it better to be a "game manager" or a "system quarterback"?
-- Keith, Enterprise, Ala.

It depends -- are we using "game manager" as a compliment or a criticism? I've seen both.

I'll admit it, I didn't fully appreciate McCarron's contributions at the time last season. Like most people, I associated Alabama with a powerful running game and a dominant defense, so it was easy to think McCarron mostly stayed out of the way (at least until the BCS championship game, where he shined). In reality, McCarron was a highly effective quarterback all season. While he threw for a relatively modest 2,634 yards, McCarron averaged 8.03 yards per attempt, good for 24th nationally, and higher than some surprising names (Matt Barkley, Kirk Cousins and Aaron Murray among them). Throw in a 66.8 completion percentage and a 1.52 interception percentage (about the same as Robert Griffin III's 1.49), and you could argue McCarron excelled in his team's chosen system as much as some of those other "system" quarterbacks whose offenses throw more often. It goes without saying, then, that he was also an outstanding game manager, but I'm guessing most people who reference him that way aren't doing so as a compliment.
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