The Crystal Ball Run staff gathers to debate one of the big topics in college football. This week we take a look at two struggling programs not far removed from national title contention.
Texas and USC played for the last BCS Championship not to be claimed by a member of the SEC. To some of us that ay not seem all that long ago, but that epic 2006 Rose Bowl is now more than one and a half full recruiting cycles removed. If Saturday was your first time watching college football you may have never guessed these two storied programs went head-to-head for college football's championship. It was an ugly weekend, seeing USC get upset at home by Washington State while earlier in the evening Texas was being gashed by BYU's running game so bad the school made a change at defensive coordinator less than 24 hours later. Two pretty straightforward questions here for you to address: Which program is worst off for this season, and which program turns things around quicker to become a player in the national championship scene in the more long term picture?
Andy Coppens: Both are really interesting questions to say the least, but I will take them in order here. USC has it worse off for this season and it's not even close. At least Texas has a quarterback that can put up some points for his team against relatively good competition. USC has two quarterbacks that add up to no quarterback if you catch my drift and in the Pac-12 you better have a quarterback to win. Not only that, but for my money the Pac-12 is a much more loaded conference at the top of the heap, especially with what Washington and UCLA have put on the table early this season.
As for the long term answer I think it's the exact opposite in Texas. However, that is dependent on the folks in Austin getting rid of Mack Brown, which I'm not entirely convinced they will do. Texas football is an all-time brand and have had major success in nearly every decade they've played football. Also, a renewed interest in going after some of the top of the top talent inside the borders of Texas a lot harder will help immensely. USC could do good things as well, but they aren't as equipped to make a run faster than Texas is in my book.
Aaron Torres: The answer of "which program is worse off for the long-term" is so obviously USC, I frankly don't know why we're even having this question.
At the end of the day, what Texas' problems boil down to is one word: "Coaching." Texas has the talent on their roster right now to win 10 games and compete for a Big XII title. Yet they won't, because the guy (or guys) pushing the buttons are clearly overmatched every time they step on the field. If Mack Brown isn't back to coach next year (and it's looking more and more like he won't be), this program is just one good hire away from being back in contention next year. Look at UCLA last year, Texas A&M last year, Michigan two years ago, or how Tennessee is shaping up this year. When the talent is there and a new coach comes along with it, success can happen immediately.
I wish the same could be said for USC.
Look at the end of the day, it seems more and more likely that Lane Kiffin won't be back next year. If you can't beat Washington State at home, when Wazzu doesn't score A SINGLE OFFENSIVE TOUCHDOWN, things don't bode well for the rest of the year. And if things don't bode well for the rest of the year, they don't bode well for Kiff's long-term staying power either.
Yet at USC, the answer to the problem isn't simply "hire a better coach" like it is at Texas. After all, how does a better coach solve the problem of being down 30 scholarships to any and all competitors?
Speaking of which, while "Fire Kiffin" sounds catchy and rolls of the tongue nice, who exactly will be in a rush to take over this program? All things being equal, this unequivocally one of the five best jobs in the country….but the problem is, all things aren't equal. So what elite coach will be willing to sacrifice three years of his prime just to get USC back on an equal playing field with their opponents, let alone above and beyond them?
I'm not absolving Kiffin for the Clusterf*** that was Saturday night. Although I'm not sure that many could do much better than what he's working with right now. You can't say the same about Mack Brown and Texas.
Kevin McGuire: Aaron, you say Texas has the talent on their roster to win 10 games right now as if USC is fielding a roster full of junior college and FCS players themselves. I understand USC has been hit by sanctions, but USC has had a highly rated recruiting class each season going back to 2010 that have been on par or better than what Texas has been hauling in over that same time period, so that would suggest to me that coaching is every bit as much to blame for what's developing at USC than it is at Texas. And if you want to go overmatched coaching, allow me to introduce you to Lane Kiffin. I'm not disagreeing with your points about Mack Brown, but I could copy and paster Lane Kiffin's name over your Mack Brown references and feel like we're talking about the same coach.
I think the same CAN be said about USC.
I get the scholarship concerns, I do, but the Trojans have still been bringing in plenty of talent to make what has happened over the last year pretty much unacceptable.
Aaron: Kevin, let's start with this: I never said that USC doesn't recruit incredibly talented players. They do. At the same time, ask any recruiting expert about their profession, and here are some bare bones facts they'll tell you:
A good success rate in recruiting is between like 60-70 percent. Understand that injuries happen. Guys can't handle the academic workload. Guys get home sick. Guys simply aren't as good as you thought they'd be. The math is simple: Ask any college coach (and I've asked at least a few of them) and the hope is that if you sign 25 guys in a class, you hope that 15 guys pan out. Sometimes it's a few more, sometimes a few less. But you hope for 15.
This is a universal thing. Remember, even Nick Saban doesn't bat 100. Crap, he just lost a guy for the season TODAY. He lost four guys to arrest this off-season, including two five-star recruits (Brett Calloway and Eddie Williams). This stuff happens everywhere. It's a lot less easy to overcome when you're down 20 players from every other team.
So by your hypothesis, it would take USC going 100 percent in recruiting (15 guys out of 15 panning out) for the last two years, just for them to be on equal footing with their opponents. If no injuries happened, no academic casualties happened, no guys got home sick or just sick of football, then yes, USC would not have an excuse to lose a game ever.
Obviously that can and will never happen. And that's where your argument has holes in it.
The simple fact is that USC is sitting there with just 65 guys (58 were healthy enough to suit up for the Hawaii game). Understand that having 20 less guys not only have obvious effects (shit, you've got 20 less guys than the opponent!!), but less obvious ones too. It limits the way you can practice (a balance Kiffin has been unable to find since he started at USC four years ago). It limits the packages you can run and the substitutions you can make. It forces you to play younger players that aren't physically or mentally ready, simply because you have no other options.
Look, I'm not making excuses for Kiffin and admittedly Saturday was the first time that I said to myself "I don't care what the numbers game says, they needed to be better than they were." You can't lose at home to Wazzu when they don't score a single offensive touchdown. You just can't.
At the same time, saying that they're somehow in the same position as Texas right now is laughable.
To put it a different way, let me ask you a very serious question: We've all heard the incredibly idiotic hypothetical that maybe, just maybe Nick Saban will get so tired of winning at Alabama that he begins to look for another job.
Let's say that happens (which it won't) and let's say both USC and Texas are open this off-season.
Which one is he more likely to win, and win quickly at?
Honestly, I think it's Texas and it isn't even close.
Jonathan Biles: USC has it worse, but it isn’t as bad as some think.
Texas will be fine. They have the largest program in the country, in a 5-star recruiting dreamscape with an instant talent pipeline within the Texas high school system. Mack Brown’s grip on the team may be slipping, but when he is replaced, Texas will be fine.
USC’s situation is a bit different, and worse off, but are not dead.
California is also great at high school football and the private university in Los Angeles is still a national draw. The Trojans just happen to possess a head coach who has had many high-profile jobs but only one 10-win season as a college head coach. The Norv Turner of college, Lane Kiffin needs to climb upstairs and start calling plays again as an offensive coordinator, though the 25 bubble screens or draw plays on 3rd and 16 he calls every game may not even give him that opportunity. Kiffin is an excellent recruiter, though he continues to show an ineptitude and cluelessness for the position of head coach. For the coach who always fails upward, USC should be his last head coaching gig for a long time.
But the argument that USC’s problems can’t be solved with superior, competent coaching is ridiculous. I could get Marqise Lee or Nelson Agholor into the endzone.
NCAA sanctions prevent USC from having 10 fewer players than other schools each year for the next two years but that won’t cripple the program. The offense is a blatant issue but talent isn’t. USC has two of the nation’s top receivers, two to three supposedly competent quarterbacks (who may have been overrated out of high school), with solid tight ends and running backs.
Also, is the USC defense, who are incredibly improved since last year, hard to coach due to lack of depth? The defense was miserable last year, but they have compiled seven turnovers in the first two games. They create havoc, constantly rush and look like a completely different team than last year. It’s a scheme change and a style of play to fit the talent assembled.
Why can’t the offense and the team in general have the same turnaround? Look at Texas A&M, Michigan, UCLA, even Ohio State and the promise of Auburn and Cal. All of those schools were turned around by quality coaching, and USC can do the same. Pete Carroll did it.
To answer the question posed, USC has it worse this year and are in a worse situation than Texas, but they are some good coaching away from a higher level of success. While the remaining sanctions may scare some coaches away from USC, it is still one of the best jobs in college football.
And, say it with me now, #FireKiffin.
Allen Kenney: I have a hard time saying that either of these teams is in trouble in the long term. I tend to think of Texas and USC as jobs that can get screwed up by incompetence, but even a solid coach can win big there. That said, Texas is facing some threats that you might miss if you're not watching the situation closely.
First, while having a TV network is a nice and all, the Longhorns have planted their flag in a conference that has taken some big hits in terms of prestige. As the SEC brand continues to take over college football, its schools are starting to encroach on the Big 12's recruiting bread basket. UT is seeing some of the top-flight players in the state decide to look elsewhere, which doesn't happen that often.
Of course, while programs such as Alabama and LSU seem to be having more recruiting success in the Lone Star State, Texas A&M is turning into the biggest thorn in UT's side. Kevin Sumlin has energized the program and given it a major boost in high schools around the state. The Aggies can offer the cachet of playing in the SEC and appeal to the (gratingly obnoxious) sense of state pride that permeates Texas culture.
As for right now, USC has somehow managed to look even more hapless than Texas. As poorly as the Texas D played against BYU, I have more faith that the Longhorns can scrape together some wins in shootouts than I do that Lane Kiffin can fix the Trojans' broken offense.
David Singleton: The answer to both questions right now is USC, although Texas has been in decline for a few seasons now. Texas needs to get the defense fixed somehow but I think they have enough on offense to make things work. I realize that the Longhorns got gashed on the ground but BYU basically ran option football on them and did it with 99 plays. I'm inclined to call it a bad night but given how bad the D looked at times last year, it had to be an area of concern and the removal of Manny Diaz is probably justified.
USC, though…oy. It's a mess. Lane Kiffin made his bones as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. So to have quarterback play as putrid as what I've seen over the last two weeks is staggering. I don't think either Cody Kessler or Max Wittek has an ounce of self-confidence right now under center. Maybe Kiffin doesn't trust either of them right now, because otherwise I can't explain the barrage of bubble screens and laterals that I saw Saturday night.
Yes the scholarship reductions hurt and it does mean that the margin for error is much narrower than it is for other programs in the country and in the Pac-12 in particular. But given the raising of the level of coaching talent in the league, I feel that it is going to be harder for USC to overcome the hurdles before them unless something changed drastically.
Aaron: AK, I think you bring up some tangible points about UT, the Big XII and the SEC creeping into their recruiting turf. However these effects, still come back down to my original hypothesis: It's all about coaching.
Let's remember the following: LSU has gotten guys out of Texas before. Russell Shepard was a five-star guys who crossed the border five years ago. Alabama's presence is simply a byproduct of being a juggernaut. Beyond A'Shawn Robinson (from Texas) last year, they got Robert Foster from Pennsylvania (Big Ten), Cooper Bateman from Utah (Pac-12) and Jonathan Allen from Virginia (ACC). All were five-star guys. All left the comforts of home to be the eighth-stringer in Tuscaloosa. That's not an "SEC" thing. That's an Alabama thing.
To me, saying Alabama and LSU are "getting guys from Texas' recruiting breadbasket" is no different than saying that Notre Dame and Ohio State are getting guys from the SEC's breadbasket (which is true, by the way). The best players want to go where they can win big, whether that's Tuscaloosa, South Bend, Columbus or Baton Rouge. Right now Austin (or anywhere in the Big XII, really) doesn't offer that.
At the same time, all Texas needs is the right coach, with the right recruiting pitch and they're right back in the mix getting most of the best players that they want in-state. To me, Mack has to take the Urban Meyer approach. Last year Meyer was telling guys "You go to the SEC, you might compete for a title once in your career. You come to Ohio State you'll be in the mix every year."
Why can't that work at Texas too?
Allen: Aaron, after following the Big 12 for a while, I've never seen the recruiting dynamic in Texas shift the way it has in the last couple years. UT has generally had its pick of the top players in the state, with competitors occasionally picking off one or two guys (e.g., Oklahoma with Adrian Peterson and Rhett Bomar in 2004). They've signed the guys they wanted early and let other schools pick the scraps. That has changed dramatically. Even with the guys he lands, Mack Brown is finding himself in dogfights over prospects that he would have had no trouble getting in the past.
That said, I think you're right that a new coach could regain the mojo there pretty easily. The big question will be how much ground UT has permanently ceded to A&M and the rest of SEC during this period when the program has been flailing.