EL PASO, TEXAS - And to think, USC started this season with dreams of a National Championship.

As we now know that fantasy was nothing but fool's dust, the Trojans quickly being exposed for the pretenders they were during a season in which all their bitter rivals had their way with them.

And after watching the listless Trojans sleepwalk their way through to a 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in Monday's Sun Bowl, it almost seems ludicrous to think they started this year the top-ranked team in the country.

But while the beginning ranking turned out to be absurd, the ending is no longer a surprise.

USC was about as prepared to compete for a National Championship as Middle Tennessee State was - and that comparison is more a putdown against the Blue Raiders than the Trojans.

At least Middle Tennessee managed 49 points against Georgia Tech this year, which dwarfs the measly one touchdown a bunch of lethargic Trojans produced against the Yellow Jackets.

It was the same underprepared team we've seen all year, just a different set of problems.

Monday it was the offense that struggled. Against Oregon and UCLA it was the defense.

At times the Trojans had issues with turnovers. Other times it was the ineptitude of the offensive line.

The play calling was too one-dimensional. The defense couldn't tackle, or defend against the spread. There were team-wide problems with penalties and discipline.

Bottom line, the Trojans never once looked like a well-coached, well-prepared team.

And their 7-6 record reflects that.

But while we've run out of fingers counting the problems, there is no longer any doubt where to drop the blame.

The answer is as clear as the bright blue El Paso sky once the gray clouds cleared above Sun Bowl stadium.

That would be USC coach Lane Kiffin, who seemed more interested in burying his nose in his laminated play sheet Monday rather than strain even one vocal cord to inspire, challenge or motivate his obviously struggling team.

In a game in which redshirt freshman Max Wittek played every bit like the inexperienced quarterback he is, Kiffin barely communicated with him - or anyone else for that matter - choosing instead to stand by himself with his head covered by a black hoodie and his eyes shielded by a pair of sun glasses most of the afternoon.

Rather than put a reassuring arm around Wittek, who replaced the injured Matt Barkley, or offer words of encouragement or instruction, Kiffin let his assistants do all the communicating.

As usual, his focus was on that fancy play sheet of his rather than the players themselves.

A lot of good it did, the Trojans managing an embarrassing 205 yards and 10 first downs.

Meanwhile, his young quarterback sunk deeper and deeper into a funk.

It all adds up to odd leadership behavior for a college head coach.

But it's no longer out of the ordinary for Kiffin, whose apparent indifference and detachment is reflected in his rudderless team.

USC seemed bothered by having to play in the Sun Bowl from the outset, its disdain for spending a week in El Paso spilling over into impolite tweets about the city.

And after arriving here Wednesday they big-leagued the Yellow Jackets and organizers by showing up more than an hour late for the annual kick-off dinner.

It was rude and embarrassing, but it fits into the detached, paranoid culture Kiffin has created in which hiding the truth about injuries and playing childish games with jersey numbers or under-inflated footballs is more prevalent than playing inspired football with class and discipline.

USC's performance Monday was just a continuation of that behavior.

Again, that falls on Kiffin, whose primary job is to prepare his team mentally and physically to play each game but failed miserably on both fronts in a nightmare season in which the Trojans lost six of 13 games and became the first team since 1964 to start the year No. 1 and finish it unranked.

Kiffin was man enough to admit blame, offering a stern "all of it" when asked how much responsibility he accepts for the way things turned out this year.

And he promised to immediately begin assessing what went wrong and devising ways to fix them heading into 2013.

"We're going to take a look at everything, across the board," he said.

He can start by re-connecting with his players, even if it means surrendering some control of his offensive duties.

He can drop the paranoid act and end the silliness of deviously ordering players to change jersey numbers and focus on conducting himself like the face and conscience of a program as prestigious as USC.

And he can make a pivotal decision by hiring a defensive coordinator reflective of the kind of talent USC reels in.

There is no way the Trojans should be giving up as many yards and points as they did this year, and that's not on the players it's on the coaching.

And that starts at the very top.

"I understand that," Kiffin agreed.

It's time to do something about it, though.

It's time for Kiffin to grow up.

USC athletic director Pat Haden insists Kiffin's job is not in danger, already promising to bring him back for 2013.

But on a day when a slew of NFL coaches who failed to guide their teams to the playoffs were given their pink slips, Monday's performance - and Kiffin's aloofness and disconnected sideline demeanor - makes you wonder if Haden should re-think his position.

Or at least start drawing up contingency plans in case the same issues repeat themselves next year.

If not, that bad dream the Trojans just went through will turn into a prolonged nightmare.

Vincent.bonsignore@DailyNews.com; twitter.com@DailyNewsVinny