Lane Kiffin's last stand

Coach Lane Kiffin enters a stretch of games that will determine his future at USC. Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

Say what you want about Lane Kiffin -- and many have said their share -- he never really seems affected by the noise. After a number of interactions with the USC head coach, I'd say "calm" is the word that best describes his outward persona. In the best and worst of times, and his USC run has entailed both, he remains consistent and without any visible temper in his approach to most everything, including one-on-one conversations with reporters like me.

I say this because that makes Kiffin, at least outwardly, perfectly equipped to handle the pressure he now faces.

“You’re on the hot seat from Day 1 at USC,” he told me in July. It had the earmarks of a canned message, one that he would repeatedly trot out to reporters and boosters in the coming months. And as much as that would be correct to describe most high-end jobs, it’s a little different at USC. It’s different, and more difficult, when you follow a successful coach who left of his own volition.

Throw in significant scholarship reductions on top of that? Kiffin might end up the butt of a lot of jokes, but this wasn’t the easiest situation to walk into.

Yet it also doesn't inspire much pity because Kiffin also left for USC of his own volition. He departed Tennessee after one season for his “dream job” -- and USC is a dream job for a lot of coaches. In a results-driven business, Kiffin is now 35-20 as a college coach. That includes a 7-6 year at Tennessee, and last season's 7-6 record at USC when the Trojans were a preseason No. 1. The Trojans are an unimpressive 3-1 so far this season, and it seems clear to all that Kiffin's job is officially on the line.

So, can he keep it? And, if USC does make a move, where would it look for his successor?

I’m writing this high above America, in transit to see USC and Arizona State in Tempe. Saturday night is an important game in the race for the Pac-12 South. It’s also important, as every game is right now, for Kiffin’s future at USC. Perhaps Kiffin’s seat has cooled a little after wins against Boston College and Utah State -- at least relative, perhaps, to Bo Pelini’s and Mack Brown’s -- but those were games the Trojans were supposed to win.

Here are four areas where challenges to Kiffin's future remain:

Coaching chops

This season, there’s only one loss but, as you know, it wasn't a good one. It was galling to see USC, with a reputation for explosive offense, held to 54 passing yards and seven points by Washington State in a night game at The Coliseum.