No. 4 USC faces Texas on Saturday in the teams' first matchup since the Longhorns beat the Trojans in the legendary 2006 Rose Bowl for the BCS national championship. The rematch, of course, has conjured memories of that epic game: Pete Carroll vs. Mack Brown. Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush vs. Vince Young. No. 1 vs. No. 2.
It has been over 11 years since the crown jewel of the BCS era was played, and yet it still resonates with fans of college football — and the players and coaches who participated in it.
And so it goes for Lane Kiffin.
Kiffin, co-offensive coordinator on that 2005 USC squad, helped the Trojans amass 574 yards of total offense and 30 first downs in the Trojans' 41-38 loss, one that still resonates with him to this day.
Sporting News caught up with Kiffin, now head coach at Florida Atlantic, to get an insider's perspective on that famed 2006 Rose Bowl — and what he thinks of the current USC team.
Sporting News: To start off, as that game went along, did you get the feeling that it was going to come down to the wire and be as epic as it ended up being?
Lane Kiffin: I thought early, but then I didn’t when we took, I don’t know what it was, a 12-point lead maybe? I thought that it was definitely kind of going our way. We’d won 34 straight games at the time, so all we knew was winning, and we were a great fourth-quarter team over those three years. Obviously we played a really good team with a phenomenal player (in Vince Young) I think made all the difference. He touched the ball every snap. The play that always haunts us is the fourth down, we don’t make it, probably would have ended the game at that point. A play that had been very successful all year — and in that game, had already scored a touchdown. So a great job on that defensive stop — we needed to convert that.
SN: What was the atmosphere like in that locker room after the game?
LK: Just shock and awe. You got to remember, 34 straight games. That’s a lot of games. So you got kids that have been with you two years, three years, that hadn’t lost a game. And to lose a game like that — it was so close, basically was a one-play game — was very difficult. You win three straight national championships. I don’t see how long it’ll be before a team gets to a place like that ... playing for three straight national championships. It may never happen again. It was tough.
SN: How tough was it to put that loss behind you the following season?
LK: It was hard. It was a long time. I think that, when we won a national championship at Alabama two years ago, it was 10 years. Because I remember it being, finally 10 years later, back in a national championship game.
SN: You coached in that 2015 championship game, a game that was close between Alabama and Clemson. Are those two games even comparable to you?
LK: It felt like it. There were some times later in that game, where you can’t tackle Deshaun Watson, he’s outrunning us all over the place. And it was kind of eerie, like it had kind of a Texas feel like, "Here we go again, playing a high-scoring game. We’re not going to be able to get this guy on the ground."
SN: What was it like for you, 10 years later, coaching in another national title game and coming out on top?
LK: It was great. It wasn’t like it erases that bad memory. It was just that we’d won a national championship. It wasn’t really much in helping that bad memory.
SN: Would you say that bad memory’s still with you?
LK: I don’t think it ever will (leave). People say, ‘It was a 41-38 game, you did pretty good on offense’ but there’s always one play that could have gone different to win the game.
SN: Did you ever hope, either the following year or as a head coach at USC, that you’d get another shot at Texas?
LK: I didn’t really think about it like that. ... I never had this dislike against Texas, it was nothing like that. It was more that we lost the game. We should have won the game. It wasn’t about them, it was about us and what we should have done better.
SN: What do you think made that game so spectacular?
LK: Well, three Heisman finalists, two of them winning it, arguably whether Vince Young should have won one. (Matt) Leinart, (Reggie) Bush, it was just that alone: star power. You had the L.A. team, a lot of L.A. kids here, versus the Texas team. And it just happens to be at the Rose Bowl. It was No. 1 vs. No. 2. It was just a unique combination of things. I think you had two Hall of Fame coaches (in Pete Carroll and Mack Brown). You’ve got phenomenal quarterbacks playing, and the Reggie factor builds in there. It was just a unique, unique day of great players and two great head coaches.
SN: You had great players in Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White. What do you think of USC’s trio of Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr?
LK: We played early, so I did get to catch a few drives (against Stanford) on Saturday. They do kind of have that flavor to them. The back, I saw him run and dive into the end zone, kind of had some Reggie to him. And we played that team last year when we were at Alabama, so obviously they’ve come a long way from that opening game a year ago. And quarterback’s a big part of it. Quarterbacks make coaches good; quarterbacks make coaches bad sometimes too. They lost 52-6 or something and then they switched quarterbacks. (Darnold's) really special, I heard about him for a long time. Heard people talking about him like he’s a program-defining, top-10 pick — and that was when he was still in high school.
SN: Obviously you’re focused on your own team, but based off what you’ve seen, do you think USC is back in that conversation of contending for a national title?
LK: I love those guys, love the coaches. Basically the staff is almost the same staff we had when we were there. ... I love those guys but before we start comparing that to those runs of those teams, they’ve got a long way to go. That team won 34 straight games.