Has any QB faced more adversity than USC's Cody Kessler?

Has any quarterback in college football history had to deal with the distractions Cody Kessler has faced over his five-year USC career?

For the third time in three games, Cody Kessler was lining up behind a different center. A center, Khaliel Rodgers, who hadn't even snapped the ball in practice the week of the Utah game. And his left tackle, the guy protecting his blind side, Zach Banner, had never started there before in his four years at USC.

But Kessler has been there and done that before. He almost won a game at Notre Dame two years ago despite running out of scholarship wide receivers and tight ends to injuries. He was MVP in the first bowl game he ever played in -- the Las Vegas Bowl -- on a USC team that had just 44 scholarship players suited up against Fresno State, 41 under the number allowed. Kessler earned MVP honors with the game of his life and made it look easy. He survived a season a year ago with three true freshmen starters in the offensive line -- an unheard of challenge against a USC-level schedule.
 
As he has all throughout his career, the USC senior has handled so many challenges that have come his way with poise well beyond his years. Often he's been required to show more maturity than the head coaches he was playing for, and come out standing tall.
 
But to appreciate what Cody Kessler has managed to make look easy, here are some of the landmark moments he's been a part of up close and personal over the last five tumultuous years at USC:

  • As a freshman in 2011, USC won the Pac-12 South with a 10-2 record but because of NCAA sanctions the Trojans could not participate in the post season, including the conference championship game.
  • In December, 2011 quarterback Matt Barkley surprisingly announces his return to Troy, leaving Kessler and Max Wittek another year of competing for the backup spot.
  • That August, head coach Lane Kiffin said he wouldn't vote USC No. 1 in the coaches poll. Later it was revealed that he did, in fact vote the Trojans No. 1 and Kiffin later gave up his vote.
  • In August, 2012 former USC defensive tackle Armond Armstead sued USC, accusing team doctors of giving him an improper Toradol shot that caused him to have a heart attack. The lawsuit was settled in April, 2015.
  • In 2012 against Colorado, Kessler's jersey number was switched from 6 to 35, the same number as punter Kyle Negrete. Kessler was used on a two-point conversion in the first half wearing No. 35 and later moved back to No. 6 for the second half. The NCAA rulebook states: "Numbers shall not be changed during the game to deceive opponents."
  • In 2012 in the second half of USC's loss to Oregon at the Coliseum, the Trojans were determined to have deflated the game balls and were later fined and reprimanded by the Pac-12 for doing so. Kiffin maintained that a student manager acted alone deflating the footballs.
  • Despite Barkley returning and a preseason No. 1 ranking, USC struggled to a 7-6 finish with a 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.  The Trojans were the first team in history to start the year No. 1 and finish unranked.
  • In 2013, despite Kessler's superior performance during spring football and fall camp, Kiffin would not name him the starting quarterback. Through the first two games of the season, Kessler played the first half and Wittek played the second half, resulting in a win over Hawaii and an inexplicable 10-7 home loss to Washington State. Kessler started for the remainder of the season.
  • After flying home from a 62-41 loss to Arizona State, Kiffin was fired on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport.
  • Cody Kessler remained the starting quarterback for the rest of the season, playing eight games for interim head coach Ed Orgeron and one game for interim head coach Clay Helton.
  • Orgeron led the team to a 6-2 record down the stretch including an upset of No. 4 Stanford. Despite winning over the players and the fans, Orgeron was told by AD Pat Haden that he would not be retained as the head coach. Orgeron met with his players for a tearful goodbye, leaving Kessler without a head coach in-season for a second time.
  • USC appointed Helton as interim head coach for the Las Vegas Bowl after announcing it had hired Steve Sarkisian from Washington. A controversial hire, Sarkisian was seen as "Lane Kiffin 2.0" by many.
  • In August, 2014 fellow captain Josh Shaw sprained both of his ankles and created a story to explain the injuries. Several days later, despite serious doubts, USC released a story declaring that Shaw was a hero after saving his drowning nephew. It was later revealed that story was a complete fabrication and Shaw was suspended by the team.
  • In September, 2014 former USC cornerback Brian Baucham filed a lawsuit against USC and Kiffin claiming they were negligent by forcing him to play when he was ill, leaving Baucham with cardiopulmonary damage and a brain injury.
  • In May, 2015 star tight end Bryce Dixon was expelled by USC following a Title IX sexual misconduct investigation.  A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge put a stay on Dixon's expulsion, but USC would not allow the 19-year-old back on the team.
  • In August, 2015 Sarkisian announced that Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, USC's only other returning scholarship tight end, would miss the season to focus on academics.
  • Later that month at Salute to Troy, an apparently intoxicated Sarkisian addressed the crowd of nearly 3,000 people cursing and slurring his words. He later apologized for his behavior and suffered no punishment from the USC administration.
  • Three days after a 17-12 upset loss to Washington, Sarkisian was a no-show for football practice. An hour and a half later Haden announced he had put Sarkisian on an indefinite leave of absence with Helton taking over again as the interim head coach. Less than 24 hours later, Sarkisian was officially terminated.

 

Quite the list and certainly not ideal conditions for Cody Kessler's development as a college quarterback. But somehow he still managed to put together the most efficient passing season in USC history last year, completing nearly 70% of his passes with 39 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.

So far in 2015 Kessler has moved to No. 4 on USC's all-time passing yards list, passing Rodney Peete and Rob Johnson. He also passed Carson Palmer for career touchdown passes and is now third on that list behind Matt Barkley and Matt Leinart. His seven touchdowns against Colorado last year is the most ever thrown by a USC quarterback in a single game.

And the most interesting record Kessler is poised to set this season makes all of his other accomplishments that much more impressive. If over the next three games Kessler remains the starting quarterback and USC does not hire a fulltime coach, Kessler will hold the unofficial national record for quarterback starts with an interim head coach.

In 2013 Kessler was the starting quarterback for nine games with an interim head coach, eight with Orgeron and one with Helton. So far this season he has added two more starts for an interim head coach, again with Clay Helton.

In 2011 after North Carolina fired Butch Davis before the start of the season and named defensive coordinator Everett Withers as interim head coach. He coached the entire season for the Tar Heels and his quarterback  Bryn Renner started all 13 games.

The NCAA doesn't keep official stats for quarterback starts with an interim head coach, but after researching FBS interim head coaching tenures, we found no one made more starts than the 13 Renner had for North Carolina.

When USC kicks off against Colorado on November 13, Kessler could break that record. And if the Trojans make a bowl game with no changes to the coach or quarterback, Kessler will have amassed 17 quarterback starts for an interim head coach. That is more starts than Mark Sanchez had in his entire USC career.

We asked Kessler this week if having two extended stints with multiple interim head coaches was a challenging proposition for him.

"Nah, especially with coach Helton, I've been with him for so long," Kessler said. "it's just picked up where we have always been. I've dealt with it before so it's nothing too new for me."

There simply has not been much Kessler hasn't seen over his five-year USC career.

His has put up impressive, record-setting numbers despite record-setting distractions. Yet he still has faced harsh and often unfair criticism all along the way.

Kessler was part of something special in 2013 when the Trojans were able to win 10 games with three different head coaches.

Now following an impressive home victory over No. 3 Utah, Kessler has another opportunity to clear away all of the turmoil and do something special.  If he gets hot and runs the table, the Trojans could get back to double-digit wins, and with a little help deliver USC's first Pac-12 championship since 2008.

It won't be an easy road, starting with a faceoff against his good friend Jared Goff and ending with a UCLA team Kessler has yet to beat.

Just don't count this kid from Bakersfield out because he has had the odds stacked against him before and has persevered.

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Ryan Abraham has been the publisher of USCFootball.com since 1996. You can follow him on Twitter at @InsideTroy or email him at ryan@uscfootball.com.


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