Deep Dive: Which is the better coaching job - LSU or USC?


Credit: @LSUFootball (Instagram)

There may not be two more polar opposite jobs in the top tier of college football than LSU and USC. With Clay Helton’s monotone tenure, a mood that is a stark contrast from the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, over, and Ed Orgeron looking more and more likely to be dismissed at LSU following the season, it appears these will be the two best jobs on the market this offseason. Sure, A Ryan Day or Lincoln Riley could bolt to the NFL, two possibilities I think are more likely than common wisdom suggests. The most likely outcome, though, is LSU and USC are the two big jobs on the market. Both are places where you can win national titles in the modern era. Both are located in recruiting hotbeds, albeit very different types of hotbeds. Both have booster support.


However, the devil is in the details. This article will not discuss who will and who will not be good fits at both schools. Rather, after spending the last few days talking on background with high school sources, parents of elite players and other people well-connected in the industry, it will examine each school’s situation, going into nuanced details, to determine what job is more appealing.


As I’m writing this sentence, I have not made my mind up about what job I would rather have. It’s that complicated, nuanced, and close.


Also, for more on this topic - Aaron hit it on Wednesday's Aaron Torres Podcast, which you can listen to here


Location and Demographics


Baton Rouge


(This is not recruiting-specific. Rather, this is a look at the culture and demographics in each area)


Though Baton Rouge isn’t as rural as some other locales of top programs (its population is around 220,000, a number that would shock many) the cultural differences are stark compared to Los Angeles.


Louisiana is as unique as any state in the country. Yes, there is some mainstream southern culture that overflows into Louisiana, especially Northwest Louisiana near Shreveport. But the state has a culture of its own that is heavily influenced by the French that originally settled there. It may have the most colorful political history of any state.


With a population of nearly a quarter million, there is no shortage of things to do in Baton Rouge compared to other more traditional college towns like Tuscaloosa, State College and Athens. New Orleans is one of the most culturally unique places on the planet and is a little less than a ninety-minute drive from LSU campus. Houston, a huge LSU alumni base is only four hours away. The household median income of Baton Rouge is around $45,000 a year, and cost of living is reasonable, especially as you move away from the city center. Zillow reports the median home price in Baton Rouge to be $204,000. It’s racially diverse as well, as Louisiana is around 1/3 African-American, second behind Mississippi.


LSU, and in turn, LSU football, is king in the state of Louisiana. The politics of LSU, whether it is funding levels or admissions standards are near the top of the list of important political issues in Louisiana. The only institution in Southern Louisiana that rivals LSU in reverence is the New Orleans Saints.


Unlike so many of their SEC rivals, there is no other in-state power five team. We'll get to recruiting later, but the fact that every kid grows up in the state seemingly wanting to be a Tiger is one of the school's primary attractions.


Of course, severe weather comes into play in Southeastern Louisiana. Football season is during peak hurricane season, and the program has been displaced frequently due to severe weather in the past.


Los Angeles


While anthologies have been written about the culture of Louisiana, the culture and demographics of Los Angeles are much more well-known to the general public and much easier to understand. The LA metro boasts a population of nearly 20 million, making it the second largest in the nation behind New York. When you take into account anywhere within 150 miles, that number increases to nearly 25 million. It is one of the most diverse cities in the world, with only ¼ of the population identifying as non-Hispanic Caucasian.


Los Angeles is considered to be the entertainment capital of the world. Some of the world’s best restaurants, concert venues and museums are at your disposal. That can work against USC football, though, as there are a lot of better things to do in Los Angeles than watch mediocre USC football. Even the great USC teams of the mid 2000s didn’t always sell out the LA Coliseum. The Lakers and Dodgers will always take center stage in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a winner town, but not necessarily a football town.



Most USC alums stay local, but if they do leave the metro area the most common destinations are the Bay Area, New York City and Seattle.


The Los Angeles area features some of the best K-12 schools anywhere in the world, both private and public. That seems silly, but it is absolutely a factor for young coaches with kids.


The cost of living is, of course, much higher in Los Angeles. According to Zillow, the average home price comes in at around $900,000 and everything else is just more expensive in Los Angeles in general.


Edge on Location and Demographics: TOSS-UP


Recruiting Base and Geography


USC


(This does not take into account things such as facilities, which will be talked about later)


Anyone who watches college football knows that both programs lie in places with an exorbitant amount of high school talent. For LSU, it has much to do with the intense love of football in the south. If you’re a good athlete in the south, you’re playing football. For USC, it’s merely a factor of numbers. It’s not a football-crazy state by any means. There are simply so many people that, in an area where the demographics are less than ideal for producing a high rate of blue-chip prospects, a lower rate still means a lot of top prospects.


In the last five full recruiting classes (2017-2021) California has produced 57 top 100 recruits in America according to the 247 Sports composite rankings. How bad of a job was Clay Helton doing? Out of those 57 players, Helton only landed 23 of them. Players like Kayvon Thibodeaux, Bryce Young, Jaelen Phillips and Najee Harris, to name a few, spurned Helton and USC for their respective schools.


A fair question to ask is if playing at USC and in the PAC 12, with a terrible TV deal and a poor conference is enough of an appeal to land more than the 40 percent rate of in-state top-100 prospects that Helton has got through the door.


However, Pete Carroll did it in in the 2000s, as for the most part Southern California was his to pick and choose from. The program’s three Heisman Trophy winners in that decade, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, all attended Southern California high schools. In a five-year period from 2004 to 2008, Carroll brought roughly 30 top 100 players to USC. This was at a time where USC was able to recruit much better nationally as well, as big-time recruits like Brian Cushing (New Jersey and Joe McKnight (Louisiana), to name a few, came from across the country. If Carroll were merely focusing on recruiting just California players, it’s not hard to think that number would have been much higher.


Just as important, signal callers more or less fall into USC’s lap. The last ten recruiting classes (2012-2021) have produced nearly two-dozen overall top-100 quarterbacks in Southern California. That number doesn’t include former Trojan star Sam Darnold, who was a top-200 prospect. Just in college football right now, the starters at Alabama (Bryce Young), Clemson (DJ Uiagalelei), Ole Miss (Matt Corral), Ohio State (CJ Stroud) and Georgia (JT Daniels) all hail from what should be USC's recruiting footprint. It's been well-documented that Daniels played there before transferring, and Young was committed to the Trojans until the emergence of Kedon Slovis during his senior season. But it doesn't change the fact that the quarterback talent is just absurd in Southern California. And USC hasn't done a good enough job locking down, retaining and developing those players in recent years.



It’s not just quarterbacks, either. California, with its beautiful weather lending to throwing the football dating back to the early evolution of the West Coast offense nearly fifty years ago, also produces a ton of skill talent on both sides of the ball. Edge players are also a strength of the state. The aforementioned Thibodeaux is nearly a lock to be a top-five pick this fall. Korey Foreman was 247’s top player in the class of 2021 before Ohio State quarterback Quinn Ewers reclassified. In 2017, California native Jaelen Phillips was the nation’s top player.


However, there are some deficiencies in the immediate USC recruiting base. While it has produced some good offensive tackles like Tyron Smith and Matt Kalil as well as the previously discussed edge rushers, it produces way fewer interior linemen on both sides of the ball. Whether that’s due to the style of play in California high school football, demographics or a myriad of other reasons are up for debate, but it becomes quite evident when you look at past recruiting rankings at those positions. The trenches aren’t as good and important in the PAC 12 compared to the SEC. But, if you want to win a national title, you’ll have to be able to play up front with almost certainly one southern opponent, and maybe two.


Of course, if a coach is going to take the USC job, he has to think he can dominate the West Coast outside of California. Arizona and Washington play strong high school football. Utah punches above its weight as well, though it’s important to note that many of those prospects are members of the LDS church and are likely to stay in-state at BYU.


That same prospective Trojan coach will want to bring the level of USC’s recruiting nationally to where Carroll had it. It can certainly get back there. In the age of NIL, there may not be a place with more NIL opportunities than USC. Bush, Leinart and co. were treated like A-listers when USC was on top of the football world, and what 17-year old football player doesn’t want to rub elbows with Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner etc etc. However, getting USC back to a place where blue-chippers from all over the country dream of being Trojans is almost surely more difficult than it was as recently in 2013, the last time USC was going through a true nationwide coaching searching. Current high school juniors were infants at best when Reggie Bush was making USC football must-watch television. They simply do not remember the aura that USC once had.


The in-state recruiting competition for USC is not very good. UCLA will get the occasional top prospect, but Stanford and especially Cal are more or less non-factors when it comes to the majority of California prospects for no reason more glaring than the academic standards at both institutions. In conference, Oregon has made serious inroads in Southern California especially in the last decade, and that is something a new coach would have to neutralize to take USC to its full potential. Nationally, as USC has declined in stature over the past decade and the geographical center of college football has planted itself firmly in the southeast, schools like Alabama have started to poach top players out of Southern California, as well.


It must be noted that while their admission standards aren’t as high as Stanford and Cal, they are higher than nearly every other top program nationally. It is rare, but there are kids that USC would like for their athletic programs to take that simply do not qualify for admittance. That is, unless you used to stage kiss John Stamos.


LSU


The LSU recruiting base has some similarities to USC, but also some stark differences. The State of Louisiana certainly punches above its weight in terms of producing blue-chip prospects. The state has produced eighteen top 100 prospects in the last five cycles. Ed Orgeron has done a much better job of keeping those players home than Clay Helton did. He kept fifteen of them home at LSU, an 83% clip. Many of those prospects attend Baton Rouge high schools, giving LSU consistent layups in recruiting top-tier players. There’s a lot of pride around the program in general, and unlike the situation at USC with California kids, it’s near sacrilegious to beat an in-state player and not choose LSU. Alabama was making serious inroads into the state near the end of Les Miles’ tenure at LSU, but Orgeron flipped that around pretty quickly.


With USC, it’s easy to make a contrast between what their recruiting should be and what the recruiting has been because Orgeron, known for his elite recruiting for decades now, has done a nice job at LSU. His first class after being named permanent head coach was only 15th best in the nation. However, his last three classes have been fifth, fourth and third in all of America. Unlike Helton, though, a really good recruiter could quite easily do worse than Orgeron. It would be fair to say LSU is operating as well as they ever have on the recruiting front the last few classes .


Of course, it would not be fair to talk about LSU recruiting without mentioning the talent nearby. Yes, there are a lot of power programs in the south, but there are enough great players to go around. According to research done by Banner Society, five of the top six blue-chip-producing states for the 2020 class were in the SEC footprint, as Florida, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama all found their way into the top half-dozen. Only California broke up the SEC stranglehold. Tennessee and Mississippi also are in the top fourteen. In the last three years LSU has brought in top 150 players from all of those states. It’s an appealing place to play for a multitude of reasons for kids from all over the South, and the relative geographical compactness of the region makes flights from all over the south easily accessible for families of out-of-state players. The south produces its fair share of skill position players, but where it excels is in the trenches. The physicality of football in the southeast is unmatched and it produces, big, fast and physical football players better than any other region in the nation.


Where USC probably holds and edge over LSU is in terms of potential national reach and perception. Alabama has done a great job recently of getting kids from states like Maryland and New Jersey to make the trip south, but the perception certainly exists that it’s an entirely different world there, compared to USC, as Los Angeles is a more similar metropolitan area culturally to New York, Philadelphia and the DMV compared to New Orleans and other large population centers in the south. LSU has had some success going out of region, but it’s just a much tougher ask.


LSU’s admission standards for athletes


Edge on Recruiting Base: USC


* Note: It’s not that the recruiting base at LSU is mediocre. There aren’t a dozen programs in the country with more inherent recruiting advantages than LSU. However, no other school in America has the concentration of talent without the lack of recruiting competition that USC does. Even Clay Helton, who is known as a dismal recruiter around college football, landed top five and ten classes at USC. Pete Carroll’s background was in the NFL. He notoriously didn’t like recruiting. He maybe had the best three-year stretch of recruiting prior to 2008 in the sport’s history. Anyone with a pulse is going to recruit at a top-three level consistently at USC. Quite the indictment of Clay Helton.


Facilities


The facilities arms race has been one of the main topics of college football discussion the last ten years. The top facilities in major college football are better than all but a few NFL teams. I think its effect on program success is overrated at the top. Yes, there’s a big difference between, say, Oregon’s $68 million facility and Washington State’s facility. But, the difference between Oregon’s facility and, say, Ohio State’s facility, which just underwent a nearly $20 million facelift, is minimal in function and is mostly cosmetic. However, we would be remiss if we didn’t discuss them in the context of the two jobs.


LSU’s football-only-facility is as good as it gets. I will let the video do the talking, but to contrast it in the simplest terms, LSU legend Tyrann Mathieu has a 2300 square foot entertainment center in the building, completed in the recent renovations. A property featuring a similar entertainment center in Los Angeles would go for eight figures.


LSU’s home stadium is Tiger Stadium, which seats 102,000. The amenities are nice, but they have little to do with the actual performance of the program. Players don’t run faster because there are nicer luxury boxes and better concession options. It, however, an on-campus stadium that serves as the lifeblood of the LSU campus.


USC has the John McKay Center, an $80 million facility that opened in 2012. That $80 million price point is inflated as it’s just significantly more expensive to do such a project in Los Angeles. Again, I will let the video do the talking, but it’s more than competent. You can develop good football players in that building, and they will enjoy hanging out in it, too.


Perception may be that USC plays far away from campus. While the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is technically not on campus, it’s a short ten-minute walk from USC’s campus. For perspective, I walked further from my on-campus dorm room at Penn State to Beaver Stadium than that. Crosstown neighbor UCLA, who plays at the Rose Bowl, has the stadium issues people think USC have. The Coliseum has undergone recent renovations and will host the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2028 Summer Olympics. To me, it doesn’t have the charm and the sense of history that the Rose Bowl has, but it doesn’t lack for either.


Edge on Facilities: LSU


* Note: It’s close, but LSU’s football building is a little newer and a little nicer and we’re splitting hairs here.


Path to Success


This is maybe the most complicated topic of all of them.


The simplest way to look at it is who each team has to play every year. Here are the opponents that both teams play every year. Note that while Notre Dame is on USC’s list and they did not play last season, that was due to COVID-19 reasons.


LSU: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M

USC: Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Notre Dame, UCLA, USC


That’s quite the contrast. You could argue that each of LSU’s yearly opponents are as good or better historical programs, and in better shape currently, than anyone on USC’s list outside of Notre Dame.


The Pac 12 does play a nine-game conference schedule, meaning that USC has to play half of the Pac 12 North each season, but that division is not much better than the Pac 12 South.


LSU, along with Auburn, whose permanent crossover is Georgia, has the toughest group of teams they much play every year. Those are seven schools that, while some of them are down at any given time, will have multiple top ten teams year-in, year-out. What puts the cherry on top of the grinder for LSU that is the SEC West is the permanent crossover game with Florida. There has been talk about the permanent crossover games going away in the next decade, but it will be tough to convince fans that classic rivalries like Tennessee-Alabama and Georgia-Auburn do not need to be played anymore.

Another factor is the addition of Oklahoma and Texas. It is not yet known how that would affect LSU’s schedule in the future. One common thought is to move Alabama and Auburn to the SEC East. That would move two great programs out of LSU’s division, but Texas and Oklahoma aren’t exactly slouches themselves. An LSU team that is truly a top 10 team in America can go 9-3 with that schedule pretty easily. 9-3 doesn’t get LSU going to where they want to go.


The Pac 12 is, well, not good. They look to be on the outside looking in of the College Football Playoff for the fifth consecutive season. How USC is not dominating that schedule for eleven- and twelve-win seasons every year is a true mystery. The conference was actually better fifteen years ago when USC was running rampant through it, yet Clay Helton’s USC has been far from dominant. If you’re a big-time coach, though, you have to look at that chart and love the easy road of the Pac 12 South, arguably the Power 5’s worst division. Brian Kelly has Notre Dame at a level that program has not seen consistently since the Lou Holtz era, a fact that many college football fans refuse to admit. However, it’s impossible to fear USC’s group of permanent opponents more than LSU’s.


Straightforward, right? USC has to be the easier place to win. Well, it’s not that simple. Yes, there are more landmines on LSU’s schedule. However, with talk the playoff is getting ready to move to eight or more teams, 10-2 SEC West teams will be strong contenders for those extra spots every year. The perception, though debated by college football fans outside of the south, is that SEC football is just that much better. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where a 10-2 LSU would get a playoff spot over an 11-1 USC team that somehow does not win the Pac 12 South. You can say that if USC is rolling like they should, they won’t drop Pac 12 games. Even during the Carroll era, they were notorious for dropping puzzling Pac 12 games, such as to Cal in 2003, Oregon State in 2006 and 2008, UCLA in 2006, and most famously, losing to Stanford in 2007 as 41-point favorites. It’s hard to win all of your games! Don’t believe me? Look how much Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have done it the last decade. It’s less than you think.


The biggest point in LSU’s favor in this particular sector of the argument lies with Les Miles and Ed Orgeron. Neither one of them are considered elite college football coaches. Neither one of them had the entirety of the LSU program firing on all cylinders year after year. Yet, those two along with Nick Saban, who preceded Miles have won a national championship. It’s the only program in the nation to have their last three coaches win a national championship, though it seems that Ohio State could make that happen in the near future if you don’t count interim head coach Luke Fickell. If you’re a coach looking at the job, you have to be thinking that if those two coaches that got run out of Baton Rouge could win it all, surely I could.


Contrast that with USC. Yes, they’re a blue blood (and no, LSU is not. Tier II). Their success, both historically and recently, has been pretty up and down. Lane Kiffin was probably too young to really get it going there and had to deal with scholarship restrictions, but he failed. Steve Sarkisian, who, like Kiffin, was a Pete Carroll disciple, could not get it done, before being relieved of his duties due to issues surrounding his alcoholism. Clay Helton was not some superstar coaching prospect like those other two, but he was given more than enough time to get it going at USC and never did.


Of course, to get it going you have to have time. To have time you need job security. The simplest argument against LSU on this front is that they’re about to fire a coach who may have coached the greatest team in the history of college football just two years ago. However, they gave Les Miles quite a long rope. One great season every few years, when the program should really aim for consistent eleven-win seasons, was enough for Miles to keep his job for over a decade.


The situation is actually quite similar in ways at USC. Yes, they ran Lane Kiffin out too quickly in my opinion, given the circumstances out of his control. The Sarkisian firing was not a football decision, and he would’ve almost certainly gotten a third year if it wasn’t for his personal issues becoming too much for the university to ignore. Helton, though, surely had too long of a leash. How a program like USC doesn’t fire a coach that goes 5-7 in his third full year is beyond me, but Helton got two and a half more years.


The booster situation is something to consider, as well. LSU alums love giving the football program money. However, the reputation of boosters in the south is that they want to meddle in everything. That meddling made many coaches sour on the Texas job in the past, and while LSU’s boosters surely aren’t as dysfunctional as that group, they aren’t exactly working together with German efficiency either.


The USC booster situation is very different. It can be hard to raise money at USC. That may seem crazy, but Los Angeles loves winners, and if USC isn’t winning, there are plenty of other tax write-offs available in the LA metro. In the south, if a coach wants funding for something, he more or less gets it. At USC? It’s a process that is also complicated by the fact that while football has institutional support, it views itself through other lenses as well, as opposed to the football-centric way SEC institutions present themselves both to boosters and the public at large. That lack of football focus can be a positive, however. It could give a coach who wants to do a full rebuild at USC more time than he’d get a place where the only show in town is football.


It is important to note that, while LSU does have three national titles in the last two decades, the same amount as USC, we have seen USC evolve into a true dynasty in the modern era, something that not even Nick Saban could get LSU to.


Verdict: USC


Note: There are valid points to be made on both sides, but it’s pretty hard to ignore who each team has to play every year. Sign me up for the schedule where I don’t play Nick Saban.


The Final Verdict: USC


Going into this project, I was truly torn between the two schools. As I wrote, it became clear to me that USC was the more attractive job. In fact, I think USC is the second-best job in the sport behind Georgia, where if Kirby Smart does not win a title in the next five years he should be fired. The recruiting base, the lack of competition both in recruiting and on the field, are too much for LSU to overcome. That’s not to bash on LSU. It’s a job that is certainly a top ten job in the country. They will have really good coaches begging for it, and could certainly hire a better coach than USC. Ultimately, just like the other 128 FBS programs, it comes down to fit, and both programs would do well to consider more than just who is the flashiest name on the market and instead concentrate on who is the right fit for THEIR program.


For more college football insight, follow Garrett Carr on Twitter @GarrettCarr


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