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USC coaching candidates: Luke Fickell, Bob Stoops, Chris Petersen among names to replace Clay Helton

USC coaching candidates: Luke Fickell, Bob Stoops, Chris Petersen among names to replace Clay Helton

Clay Helton is gone and there is one obvious candidate to replace him. Luke Fickell was the best hire of athletic director Mike Bohn’s career. That was at Cincinnati. Now Bohn has a chance to bring Fickell to USC at the height of his career.

At age 48, Fickell has won 37 games in four years-plus with the Bearcats. They played Georgia to its knees in the Sugar Bowl earlier this year before a narrow loss. Fickell has elevated the program to the point it was desirable enough to be invited to the Big 12.

He also offers discipline that Helton’s program seemed to lack. Only once since Helton arrived have the Trojans finished above 101st in average penalties per game. That’s what drove fans crazy. Well, that and erratic performances like the one Saturday against Stanford. The week before the Cardinal were ineffectual offensively against Kansas State.

Fickell is obvious, but it doesn’t mean it will happen. Urban Meyer was available a couple of years ago, but USC president Carol Folt did not show interest.

This is a transcendent moment for USC and the Pac-12. The league is getting ready for a new television contract. An aggressive new commissioner, George Kliavkoff, is desperate for a turnaround. Helton’s case probably wasn’t helped with Oregon and UCLA off to good starts.

Good, bad or indifferent, USC is the center of the Pac-12 and West Coast football. It is the league’s premier program.

At this point, the next hire has to be someone with head coaching experience, right?

Promoting assistants has gotten old at USC. Pete Carroll’s old offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, was fired on the tarmac in 2013 and replaced by Steve Sarkisian. Sark flamed out in 2015. Helton, an assistant on Sarkisian’s staff, took over. Associate head coach Donte Williams is current interim coach but hasn’t so much as been a coordinator.

Too early to fire a coach? We’re way past that point now. UConn’s Randy Edsall resigned last week, no doubt under pressure. Last year, Southern Miss’ Jay Hopson was fired after Week 1. Les Miles was fired by LSU just four games into the 2016 season.

The biggest question going forward for the USC administration is whether it is giving up on this year. If Helton was on such thin ice, why not fire him after last season? Pulling the ripcord after a 5-1 season is as questionable as doing it two games into the next season.

But here we are looking for a replacement coach at one of the top five programs in the country for the fourth time since 2010. Here are the top candidates.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati coach: Fickell has to be the No. 1 candidate considering Bohn hired him at Cincinnati in December 2016. Fickell has almost single-handedly put the Bearcats on the map and into the Big 12. Without that excellence, Cincinnati would still be a place that hired Tommy Tuberville. Ryan Day isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. That’s Fickell’s alma mater. USC is the next best fit at this point.

Bob Stoops, former Oklahoma coach: The thought has always been that Stoops would only return — if he ever does — at a place already set up to win. That’s why the ex-Sooners coach was thought to covet a place like Notre Dame, USC or Florida if they ever came open. The longer Stoops doesn’t take his name out of the running, the more he is interested. Maybe the only reason Stoops isn’t first is because he’s out of coaching and currently working as a TV analyst.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State coach: Perhaps the No. 1 developmental coach in the country. Think what he could do with the talent USC attracts. Campbell has turned down significant NFL interest. Insiders say he’d be interested Notre Dame and Ohio State. USC is certainly in that orbit.

James Franklin, Penn State coach: Another coach whose name comes up for every significant opening. It was Franklin’s Penn State squad that lost a bitter 2017 Rose Bowl to USC. Franklin plays in arguably the second-toughest division in the sport, the Big Ten East.

Mario Cristobal, Oregon coach: The question is why Oregon AD Rob Mullens hasn’t extended Cristobal already after the Ohio State win. Cristobal will get that extension but could add a few hundred thousand dollars using interest from USC as leverage.

Chris Petersen, former Boise State coach: I’m told Petersen wants back in, bad. Petersen’s came up prominently in the past when USC coaches were on the hot seat. Like Stoops, he’s currently biding his time as a TV analyst.

Kyle Whittingham, Utah coach: The disciplinarian USC needs. Before Stanford began smacking people in the mouth, Utah was the most physical team in the Pac-12. Whittingham continually overachieves at a place that is challenged by geography and resources.

Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars coach: Meyer is leading an NFL team with the No. 1 overall pick in Trevor Lawrence. So, why would he leave after one season? Well, simply put, the NFL is not for everyone. CBS Sports insider Jason LaCanfora reported Monday that there are already problems within the Jaguars organization: “The inability to adjust to the pro game. … Belittling coaches. Treating every setback as if it’s the end of the world. Morale was so low going into that [Week 1] game, and there has not been cohesion among that staff, particularly between the college guys and the pro guys.”

Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban both spent just two seasons in the NFL with Saban eyeing his exit to Alabama before his second year was even complete. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Meyer to pull the ripcord given his departure history at Florida and Ohio State. USC would be more than a comfortable landing spot for Meyer if he decides his NFL experiment is not worth continuing.

Cover 3 Podcast analyst Bud Elliott breaks down the firing of Clay Helton below.


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