With Kiffin canned, to whom does USC turn?

51 Comments

Shortly after Arizona State had put the finishing touches on an yet another embarrassing loss for the storied USC football program, the questions surrounding the future of head coach Lane Kiffin once again surfaced. Less than three hours later, at 4:28 a.m. PT, the athletic department posted the following on its Twitter account:

“Breaking news: Lane Kiffin has been relieved of his duties as USC’s head football coach per AD Pat Haden.”

And with that, the Kiffin Era in Los Angeles came to a (merciful) end in an LAX parking lot.

Despite extremely punitive NCAA sanctions slapped on the program… despite very steadfast support from his athletic director… the physical act of canning the 38-year-old Kiffin was the easy part.  Beginning in 2012 and after being picked by many as the No. 1 team in the country heading into the new season, the admittedly undermanned Trojans have stumbled and tripped their way to a 10-8 record, including a 5-6 mark in Pac-12 play.  Oregon and Stanford have far surpassed USC in the Pac-12 football pecking order; perhaps more importantly, hated cross-town rival UCLA has done the same.

No, the hard part will be just who Pat Haden hires to replace the man hired by his predecessor.  Haden was tabbed by his alma mater in August of 2010 to replace Mike Garrett, and this will easily be the biggest hire the former Rhodes Scholar makes and will leave the most lasting impact on his résumé.

The good news for Haden specifically and the Trojan fan base in general is that USC still has a helluva lot to offer any potential Kiffin replacement.  From sparkling new facilities to well-heeled boosters to a fertile recruiting base to lasting brand name, USC remains one of the top jobs at the FBS level.

With just a couple of hours to digest the stunning (but yet not-so-stunning) news, here’s a quick-hit look at just whose name will be mentioned — realistically or not — as Kiffin’s replacement, knowing full well that the actual permanent successor likely won’t come from this initial pool of possibilities.

CHRIS PETERSEN
Regardless of how big of a pipe dream this may be, anyone and everyone knows full well that USC officials will back the Brinks truck up to the Broncos head coach’s door and dare him not to answer.  Prior to Kiffin’s hiring, Petersen was reportedly contacted by USC about their opening and rejected the overtures.  In December of 2011, Petersen reportedly rejected UCLA — for a second time — when they offered him $4 million annually at a time he was making just over $1.5 with the Broncos.  Petersen has had myriad opportunities to leave Boise, and has yet to take the financial bait.  Don’t expect him to do it this time, either.  Probably.

JACK DEL RIO
The former USC All-American’s name is already being bandied about as perhaps the top candidate to replace Kiffin.  Currently the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, Del Rio was also mentioned as a possibility to replace Pete Carroll.  Del Rio has never been a coach — head, assistant or otherwise — at the collegiate level and it would be stunning if the Trojans went in this direction.  Speaking of which…

JEFF FISHER
Another former USC All-American, Fisher’s name, as expected, surfaced (again) earlier this month even before Kiffin was officially booted in an LAX parking lot.  Like Del Rio, Fisher has never been a coach at the collegiate level.  Would Fisher give up a head coaching job in the NFL to return home and rescue his college program?  Don’t look for USC to even give him an opportunity to make such a choice despite a segment of the fan base that would love to see it happen.

JAMES FRANKLIN
Four names in, and this might be the most realistic and viable option.  While Franklin has very few ties to the West Coast — one year at Washington State (1998) and one at Idaho State (1999) — he’s one of the best young head coaches in the game and turned Vanderbilt into a competitive football program in the best football conference in the country, no small feat that won’t go unnoticed by those at this level looking for a new coach.  Franklin is one of the top recruiters in the game, and has done well on that battlefield in the SEC; one could imagine what he would do on the fertile California recruiting grounds with “less-intense” competition plus his ties in that arena to the South.

STEVE SARKISIAN
Sarkisian is just 30-25 in his four-plus years at Washington, but he has the Huskies undefeated and ranked (at the moment) No. 16 in the country.  He was a USC assistant for seven of the eight years prior to his hiring by UW and grew up in Torrance, Calif., less than an hour’s drive to Los Angeles.  It would be beyond surprising if Haden didn’t at least reach out to Sarkisian let alone not make a full-blown effort to land him.

GREG ROMAN
Roman was the offensive coordinator at Stanford for two seasons before following Jim Harbaugh to the San Francisco 49ers.  He has previously been linked to openings at Cal and Penn State.  With the success Harbaugh had in the Pac-12, and with Roman playing a role in it, this could be a direction in which Haden turns.  Keep an eye on this name.

KIRBY SMART
As far as coordinators, it wouldn’t take long to call roll on those more respected than Alabama’s defensive (co-) boss.  He’s had numerous opportunities to leave Nick Saban’s side the past couple of years but has remained in Tuscaloosa as the situation simply wasn’t right.  Smart’s entire coaching career has been east of the Mississippi; would the bright lights of LA scare him off if the Trojans came knocking?

CHAD MORRIS
If Haden is looking to go outside the box, you wouldn’t get much further out than this.  Not only has the Clemson offensive coordinator never been a head coach at the collegiate level, he didn’t take his first college job until 2010 at the age of 42 after a highly successful run as a high school coach in Texas.  Despite that lack of experience, Morris is one of the brightest and most respected offensive minds in college football — Urban Meyer tried to lure him to Ohio State upon his hiring — and has turned the Tigers’ offense into one of the nation’s best.  With college football leaning more and more toward up-tempo offense, especially in the Pac-12, kicking the tires on Morris might make sense on some level.

Mike Riley
USC’s offensive coordinator from 1993-96, the 60-year old Riley has spent the past 11 seasons as the head coach at Oregon State.  While it would seem unlikely that a coach of his age would make a move, he did reply “you never know” when the Los Angeles Daily News asked a couple of years ago about a potential return to the Trojans.  That same paper is already listing Riley as a possibility, although that would be hard to see becoming a viable option if for nothing more than the age factor.

KEVIN SUMLIN
I’m not saying USC will reach out to the Texas A&M head coach, but I’m saying they damn well should.  And they’d better do it before the NFL gets its hooks into one of the brightest coaches at the FBS level.  It won’t be easy for anyone to pry Sumlin out of College Station, though, as A&M officials will rightly do anything and everything to blunt even flirtatious overtures let alone full-blown pursuits.  It wouldn’t seem like Sumlin would leave an SEC job to plow new ground out west, but stranger things have happened.

DAVID SHAW
See above.  The Stanford head coach’s name has already been mentioned as longshot possibility, although it seems more likely that he would leave The Farm for the NFL rather than another college job.

JON GRUDEN
In accordance with federal and state regulations, we’re required to include Chucky on any and all lists related to major head-coaching vacancies.  Seeing as his wife was not a cheerleader at USC, though, we highly doubt this one has a torso much less legs.

Get ready for the best College Football Playoff yet

Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images
5 Comments

Entering its sixth season of existence, this year’s College Football Playoff may have its deepest field of playoff participants yet. Oh yes, this one is going to be good.

A system that has yielded what appeared to be a definitive two-team race the last handful of seasons with continued dominance by Alabama and Clemson, this year’s field feels as wide open as it has been under this new format. With one undefeated national champion riding a 28-game winning streak (Clemson), an undefeated SEC champion with the likely Heisman Trophy winner (LSU, with Joe Burrow), and an undefeated Big Ten champion with a trio of players that have been mentioned as worthy Heisman candidates (Ohio State), the main ingredients for a dynamic College Football Playoff are locked in. Throw in a one-loss Big 12 champion with one of the hot young names in coaching and a terrific story in the making (Oklahoma with Lincoln Riley and Jalen Hurts), what could there possibly be not to like about this year’s playoff field?

The College Football Playoff will once again have a fairly straightforward decision to make with the top four teams in this year’s playoff. There hasn’t really been much debate about which four teams have been worthy of inclusion in the playoff since its inception outside of the first season depending whom you ask (TCU and Baylor). When it has come time for the committee to make the decision they are put together to do, it’s been pretty easy. That seems to have worked out again this season with undefeated conference champions from the ACC (Clemson), Big Ten (Ohio State) and the SEC (LSU) and just one other 1-loss conference champion in the running (Oklahoma) after Utah stumbled before crossing the finish line Friday night in the Pac-12 championship game. Utah’s loss was the Big 12’s and Oklahoma’s gain once Georgia was handled by LSU in the SEC Championship Game.

Clemson is making its fifth straight appearance in the College Football. The Tigers now own the longest active streak of playoff appearances after Alabama fell short of the playoff this season. Clemson’s five appearances now ties Alabama for the most playoff appearances in the brief history o the College Football Playoff, and the pursuit of a 3rd national title in the era would give Clemson the lead in all-time College Football Playoff national titles. With offensive stars in Trevor Lawrence, Tee Higgins, and Travis Etienne, it’s difficult not to like Clemson’s chances to put some points on the board this year. That’s good because this could be the most explosive College Football Playoff yet. Ohio State (49.9 ppg), LSU (48.7 ppg), Clemson (44.3 ppg), and Oklahoma (44.3 ppg) were ranked in the top five in the nation in scoring at the close of the regular season. Defense wins championships? Not this year, it would seem.

Transfer quarterbacks are also all the rage this year, showing how valuable the transfer market can be for a team hoping to reach the College Football Playoff. Ohio State’s Justin Fields was the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year in his first season after transferring from Georgia a year ago. Ironically, it is former Ohio State quarterback Joe Burrow who has been the catalyst for a playoff run at LSU. Jalen Hurts of Oklahoma is in his fourth College Football Playoff after transferring from Alabama. There is a storybook ending being scripted for any of those three right now, although Lawrence and Clemson are working on their own sequel as well.

We have yet to see a real good showing from the College Football Playoff in terms of the national semifinals. Aside from Ohio State’s upset of Alabama in 2014 and Georgia’s overtime thriller in the Rose Bowl against Oklahoma two seasons ago, the semifinals have largely been a relative bust in terms of entertainment. With this year’s field, however, that should not be the case.

So let the games begin! We should have a dandy of a College Football Playoff on our hands.

No. 1 Ohio State kills Selection Sunday suspense by rallying past No. 8 Wisconsin for Big Ten title

Getty Images
21 Comments

For about 20 minutes on Saturday night, it seemed we were in for an interesting Selection Sunday. No. 8 Wisconsin led No. 1 Ohio State 21-7 and, with the 12-0 Buckeyes bid already secured, it became a discussion point as to whether the winner of an Ohio State-Wisconsin Big Ten Championship could jump a 1-loss Big 12 champion at the 11th hour, a la 2014.

And then the second half kicked off.

Ohio State accepted the ball to open the second half and rolled 75 yards in five plays, as Justin Fields found Chris Olave for a 50-yard gain and tight end Jeremy Ruckert for a 16-yard touchdown. Then the Buckeye defense forced a three-and-out, Wisconsin punter Anthony Lotti dropped the ball, and the College Football Playoff selection committee might as well have shut their television sets off and gone home. Ohio State only turned that dropped punt into a field goal, but the writing was on the wall in Sharpie.

Zach Hintze missed a 48-yard field goal that would’ve stretched the Wisconsin lead to 24-17, KJ Hill (who, earlier on the drive, became Ohio State’s all-time leading pass catcher) put Ohio State on top with a 16-yard grab with 2:23 to go in the third quarter, and then put the game away for good with a 13-yard scoring catch with 12:09 to play.

While time will tell if it’s enough to hold off No. 2 LSU for the right to avoid No. 3 Clemson, Ohio State raced past the Badgers with a 27-0 second half to win its third straight Big Ten championship game, 34-21.

After slow starts each, Fields finished 19-of-31 for 299 yards and three touchdowns, while JK Dobbins carried 33 times for 172 yards and a score. After rushing 13 times for 135 yards and a score in the first half, Jonathan Taylor mustered just 13 yards on seven carries in the second half — including a loss of six on a 4th-and-2 pitch from the Ohio State 32 with 2:39 remaining, as Chase Young swallowed the Wisconsin running back and ended the comeback effort before it truly started.

Though it didn’t end well, Wisconsin did indeed come out swinging.

Paul Chryst‘s team won the toss, elected to receive, hit Quintez Cephus for a 27-yard completion on the first play of the game and scored on a 44-yard Taylor run.

Ohio State moved into Badger territory on its first possession, but Fields was stuffed for no gain on a 4th-and-7 run from the Wisconsin 34. The Buckeyes moved into Wisconsin territory again on their second try, but Fields was sacked on 3rd-and-10 from the Wisconsin 34 and this time Ryan Day punted.

Taking over after the punt at its own 20 with 1:20 to play in the first quarter, Wisconsin pieced together a vintage Wisconsin drive: 14 plays, 80 yards, six and a half minutes and capped by a 6-yard Taylor run, who became the seventh player to top 6,000 yards in the process of putting the Badgers up 14-0 with 10:19 to play in the first half.

Wisconsin again sacked Fields on 2nd-and-10 on the ensuing possession and Ohio State appeared headed for a three-and-out, but Day dialed up a pass from punter Drue Chrisman to Luke Farrell for 21 yards, keeping a drive alive that eventually reached the Badger 4, where Fields fumbled the ball away on a 3rd-and-goal run.

However, Ohio State forced a Wisconsin punt and then finally got on the board when Dobbins leaped into the end zone with 42 seconds left in the half. Wisconsin might’ve been content to take its 14-7 lead to Lucas Oil Stadium’s home locker room, but Taylor popped a 45-yard run to the Ohio State 30 — in the process becoming the first 100-yard rusher against Ohio State all season. Another Taylor run pushed the ball to the 25, and then Jack Coan hit Cephus for a leaping 24-yard grab, and Coan did the rest, putting Wisconsin back up 14 with 10 seconds left before halftime.

No. 3 Clemson wins fifth consecutive ACC championship as they return to College Football Playoff

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
2 Comments

The defending national champions are back for some more. No. 3 Clemson (13-0, 8-0 ACC) locked up a fifth consecutive ACC Championship Game victory Saturday night with a 62-17 victory over No. 23 Virginia (9-4, 6-2 ACC), and with that all but officially submitted their R.S.V.P. for this season’s College Football Playoff. What’s not to respect?

Trevor Lawrence passed for 302 yards and four touchdowns before getting an early exit in the fourth quarter, with Clemson leading 45-14 at the time. Travis Etienne rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown and star receiver Tee Higgins hauled in nine passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns. Virginia’s Bryce Perkins had some positive moments with 265 passing yards and two passing touchdowns with 52 rushing yards, but he was picked off twice. His first interception came at the end of the game’s opening possession in the end zone.

Clemson’s 62 points are the most point scored by a team in the ACC Championship Game, which was first played in 2005. Clemson has now outscored its opponents in the ACC Championship Game by a cumulative score of 229-102 over the last five seasons. Clemson has held each of their last three ACC Championship Game opponents to 30 points (3 vs. Miami in 2017, 10 vs Pitt last season, and 17 against Virginia). Clemson is now 5-1 all-time in the ACC Championship Game with their only loss coming as an underdog in 2009 against Georgia Tech.

After 13 consecutive wins this season, on top of the 15 straight wins Clemson had last season en route to a national title, Clemson is going to be riding a 28-game winning streak back into the College Football Playoff. With Alabama being knocked out of the playoff race last week, Clemson will now own the longest active streak of playoff appearances with five straight. That matches Alabama’s record set last year with the Crimson Tide’s fifth consecutive appearance. This will be the first College Football Playoff without Alabama. All that is left to determine is what seed the defending champs will have. Whether Clemson is ranked No. 2 or No. 3 ultimately wouldn’t matter as the Tigers wouldn’t get to have a say which bowl destination they’d prefer, nor would it change the opponent. While Clemson will feel they made a case to be considered as the No. 1 team in the field, that decision now rests with the selection committee, which will make their final decisions on Sunday. A matchup with either LSU or Ohio State is likely the pairing for Clemson. Dabo Swinney will certainly have his team ready for whatever comes next, as his fight for respect will continue even if nobody is actually disrespecting his program these days.

Virginia’s bowl outlook is also likely fixed. Win or lose, Virginia was likely to be in the Orange Bowl, either as the ACC champion or the bowl’s pick from the ACC. When the ACC champion is in the College Football Playoff and unavailable for the Orange Bowl, the next highest-ranked ACC team fills the slot. Virginia being the only other ranked ACC team this week by the committee seems to suggest Virginia will be the locked pick for the Orange Bowl, although if Virginia manages to slip out of the playoff rankings, the Orange Bowl could choose from any available ACC team that is bowl eligible. But even in that scenario, Virginia would likely still be the pick. Virginia would play a team from the SEC or Big Ten, with the opponent being the highest-ranked available team from either conference. The Florida Gators may be the most likely opponent, with Penn State as the alternative. Regardless of how the first experience in the ACC Championship Game went for Virginia, Bronco Mendenhall continues to be doing a terrific job in building the Virginia football program, and a chance to play in the Orange Bowl is a significant step forward.

North Dakota State breaks its own FCS record for longest winning streak

Getty Images
2 Comments

The bad news for North Dakota State? Its record for the longest winning streak at the FCS level was broken. The good news? NDSU was the one doing the breaking.

Saturday, top-ranked and undefeated North Dakota State beat 19th-ranked Nicholls State 37-13 in the second round of the FCS playoffs.  The Bison held the Colonels to a season-low in not only points but total offense (265).

The win was North Dakota State’s 34 in a row.  It breaks the record of 33 in a row previously held by the same Bison in 2012-14.

NDSU can extend its streak to 35 straight when they face Illinois State (10-4) in the quarterfinals next weekend.