top of page

9 potential candidates for the USC head coaching job

There is no other way to put it: We got ourselves a shocker in college football on Monday afternoon, as Clay Helton was fired by USC. While the news itself wasn't shocking - not after the Trojans lost by 14 as a 17-point favorite to Stanford on Saturday - the timing was, as it came just two games into the season.

Still, it was clear USC was heading in the wrong direction, and this was off an uninspired 19-14 stretch over the last three seasons since Sam Darnold left campus for the NFL Draft.

Now that Helton is gone, who could replace him? Here are a few names to consider:

Luke Fickell, head coach, Cincinnati: This is the obvious one, and probably the first name AD Mike Bohn will eventually call.

Why is that? Well one, Fickell is a damn good coach, coming a 9-1 season last year in Covid (with the loss coming to Georgia in the Peach Bowl) with two 11-win seasons prior to that.

Oh, and the other reason: Bohn actually hired Fickell to take the Cincinnati job back in 2017.

At this point, no one is questioning Fickell's qualifications, just whether he'll be the first person offered and if he'll take it. It's worth noting that, as a former Ohio State player and assistant coach, he has essentially never lived outside of Ohio, except for one season with the New Orleans Saints. Two, with Cincinnati now going to the Big 12, they should be in a position to compete routinely for an expanded College Football Playoff. So he might not have to leave to build a consistent playoff contender.

Still, at Cincinnati, he'll always be in Ohio State's shadow.

After turning down plenty of second-level Power 5 jobs in the past - including Michigan State two years ago - this is one Fickell will at least have to listen here.

James Franklin, head coach, Penn State: Franklin has seemingly been tied to this job every time it's opened the last few years, most notably when Helton got to keep it on a full-time basis back in 2015.

And with good reason: One, he's a proven winner at the highest level. While he hasn't made a College Football Playoff, he does have a Big Ten title under his belt, and three 11-win seasons since he arrived in Happy Valley. He also has the recruiting chops to turn USC back into the national power they crave to be.

It also feels like his time at Penn State might come full-circle. If he can't get by Ohio State this year - when the Buckeyes have a new quarterback and clear deficiencies on defense - it might never happen.

How many times can you run into Ohio State, before you just decide that you'll go build your own Ohio State in the Pac-12?

For more reaction, make sure to follow along on the Aaron Torres Pod YouTube page. Here is my immediate reaction - and the candidates I believe USC should call, here.

Mario Cristobal, head coach, Oregon: We all saw what Cristobal is building this past weekend when Oregon beat Ohio State in the Horseshoe. And he's done it with a ton of talent out of Southern California.

The question now: Rather than convince a bunch of recruits from Southern California to take a four-hour plane ride up North, why not convince them to just stay at home in Los Angeles.

On the flip side: If Cristobal gets Oregon to the playoff and establishes the Ducks as a true national championship contender - which looks like its in the process of happening - why bother going to USC to do it all over?

Matt Campbell, head coach, Iowa State: What Campbell has done, building Iowa State into a perennial Top 15 team in college football is incredible. This weekend also kind of showed the limitations of what that program might be. If they can't beat Iowa in this season, are they really anything resembling a playoff contender? And with his roster full of seniors and guys who got an extra year with the Covid waiver, will he ever have a better shot than this season?

Well, imagine what Campbell could do with the talent he could recruit at USC?

Two things that might dissuade him from the job though: With the departure of Oklahoma to the SEC, the Big 12 will all of a sudden be much more winnable going forward.

On the flip side, Campbell has often been more linked to the NFL than he is taking another college job. Would that intrigue him more?

PJ Fleck, head coach, Minnesota: Can you imagine Fleck, Mr. Positivity, in the land of sunshine, 365 days a year?

Admittedly, it seems like he'd be towards the bottom of the list of active head coaches. Yes, he won 11 games two years ago, but the Gophers went 3-4 last year and have struggled out of the gate in 2021.

Still, we're only two games into 2021.

If he can keep Minnesota in the conversation in the Big Ten West - and prove his staying power as a Power 5 coach - he's a name you'd think USC would have to consider.

Bob Stoops, former Oklahoma head coach: Two years ago when it took Bohn two full weeks following the season to announce Helton was coming back, rumors were that he tried to convince Bob Stoops to take the job in the process. When Stoops said no, only then did Bohn circle back and retain Helton.

Well, two years later, Stoops is still available and the USC job is open.

Stoops is still just 61-years-old, almost a decade younger than Nick Saban. He's also now four years removed from coaching.

If he's ever going to come back, he's plenty refreshed and this could be the job to do it.

Chris Petersen, former Boise State/Washington head coach: Petersen is basically Bob Stoops light, a program-builder who retired early to get out of the rat race of coaching. Now in his second year removed from the sport, would a return interest him?

Like Stoops he's working for Fox.

But he also turned down multiple jobs during his time at Boise, and doesn't seem to care about the limelight of a program like USC nearly as much as others.

But if he's refreshed and re-energized this could be the kind of job that could pique his interest.

Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals head coach: Don't laugh here, there is a natural tie between Kingsbury and USC. Remember, he was - for legit, like two days - USC's offensive coordinator in the 2019 off-season. Then the Arizona Cardinals called and he accepted the head coaching position, leaving 'SC to hire Graham Harrell instead.

Well, now two years later, Kingsbury is on the hot seat in Arizona. Yes, they dominated the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, but as the fourth best team in their own division, it's an uphill battle to make the playoffs.

If he's let go, he has plenty of flash and plenty of head coaching experience.

He doesn't seem like the first call. But doesn't seem like the worst call either.

Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach: Again, don't laugh here. It's a real long shot since you know, Urban Meyer has coached one NFL game. But, did you see that game? Meyer's team got boat raced and he looked like he was going to faint on the sidelines.

If this guy couldn't handle losing one game a year, when his team had more talent than 10 of his 12 opponents every season, how is he going to handle a rebuild in the NFL?

I know he said when he took this job that he was done in college forever. But USC has a lot of "Ohio State when he took the job" vibes, mainly an elite job, in a league where there is a path towards winning right away.

It sounds crazy, but you just never know.

We'll continue our reaction from the Clay Helton firing here as more information comes out.

bottom of page