EL PASO — A football season that once swaggered through the warmth of a No. 1 ranking has curled up and expired in a cold, remote desert, buffeted by a chilled and foreboding wind.
The kid coach is bundled in a black hoodie and wearing sunglasses. He is standing 10 yards from most of his team. He is hunched over a play card, huddled into himself, alone.
The kid quarterback is battered by the wind, perplexed by the defense and wandering the sidelines looking for comfort or instruction. He receives neither and wanders alone.
The athletic director who has said he is "150%" behind this mess is on speed dial, but he cannot be reached for comment, which could mean nothing or everything. In offering his unwavering and unconditional support of the most underachieving team in college football history, he, too, could be alone.
Happy New Year's Eve, USC football fans. Are you ready for the mother of all hangovers?
Playing a losing team from a weakened conference in a secondary bowl game Monday, the Trojans did worse than simply lose. They didn't even show up.
In a 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech, Coach Lane Kiffin was distant, quarterback Max Wittek was despairing, the defense was battered for nearly 300 rushing yards, and even their scarf-swaddled fans finally had enough. In the final minutes of the game, Trojans fans rained boos down upon Georgia Tech for having the nerve to call timeout and extend their agony.
This wasn't just one bad game; this was the end of a season filled with bad games, the last milepost in arguably the most unsightly journey ever taken by a football team in NCAA history.
The Trojans went from No. 1 in the country to out of the rankings entirely, the first time this has happened in 48 years. The Trojans went from talk of an undefeated season to six losses, including five in the last six games. The Trojans went from Hollywood to El Paso to a tiny Sun Bowl conference room in which Kiffin tried to explain it all.
"A very surprising day," he said. "Obviously, it starts with the head coach."
Many believe this should be the end of the head coach. Even though Athletic Director Pat Haden assured me on Nov. 17 that Kiffin was returning next season and that he was "150%" behind the coach, many think he could and should change his mind.
Since that statement — oddly coming on the day of the loss to UCLA — the Trojans suffered through questionable play-calling in a loss to Notre Dame and then experienced an awful week here. Georgia Tech walked out of a Sun Bowl banquet because the Trojans showed up late, two Trojans tweeted nasty things about the city of El Paso, and even a giant Trojans thank-you ad purchased for the back page of the sports section of the El Paso Times couldn't fully make amends.
Although USC claimed bowl officials knew about its late banquet arrival, and although USC players aren't the first kids to tweet dumb things, there are no easy explanations about what happened in the week's culminating event. How on earth does a Trojans team supposedly loaded with NFL prospects gain only 205 total yards against a Georgia Tech team that gave up 510 yards to Middle Tennessee State? Or have only two more first downs than punts? Or commit three turnovers, giving them 34 for the season, the most ever for a team with a winning record?
"We had two great weeks of practice. ... I thought our guys were really into it," said Kiffin, shaking his head, showing again the apparent fraying in his connection with his team.
Kiffin later said he was huddled under the hoodie because he didn't want to wear a ski cap. He also said he was wearing sunglasses to hide a tiny bandage, which he said was covering a scrape caused by some horsing around with linebacker Hayes Pullard.
"C'mon, you know that how I looked is not the reason we lost this game," he said.
But all of it contributed to the perception of a coach who is not a strong leader, which is another reason Haden could ultimately change his mind and make a change. This lack of leadership spread to his players, even quarterback Matt Barkley, who began the season as a Heisman Trophy favorite and ended it as a no-show.
Yes, Barkley's season ended when he suffered a sprained shoulder against UCLA. But where was the quarterback on the sidelines Monday when Wittek could have used his counsel? Where was any veteran to support the redshirt freshman when he was clearly lost while completing 14 of 37 passes for 107 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions? And where were the veterans at the start of the fourth quarter, with the Trojans still trailing by only a touchdown, when USC trudged down the field while the Yellow Jackets bounced and danced in unified excitement?
"I never saw this coming," said senior defensive end Wes Horton. "With the talent and coaches we had, I thought we'd have a much better record."
Statements like that, and games like this, are all damning to Kiffin's cause. But remember, the two things that Haden said he liked about Kiffin are still true. Haden said he loves Kiffin's commitment to academics, and two Trojans were sent home from El Paso for academic reasons. Haden also said he loves Kiffin's recruiting, and the Trojans are still scheduled to have one of the nation's top hauls.
"We'll sign the No. 1 class in the country and go back to work," Kiffin said.
For now, that is true, and I wouldn't be surprised if it remained true. But I also wouldn't be surprised if Haden suddenly changes his mind and changes everything. By now, all shock has been drained from college football's most stunning team, its season ending Monday in the chilliest and most desperate of climes, with an embarrassing loss that was no surprise to anybody.