USC coaching search will include the biggest names and best teams in college football playoff chase

The only prospective candidate for the Southern California opening to issue a hard denial of interest is Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer, who gave a terse two-word response to questioning on Wednesday: “No chance.”

Given Meyer’s history, it may be easy to roll your eyes at the idea that the three-time national champion would remove himself from consideration for any opening, especially for one at the longtime West Coast powerhouse and Football Bowl Subdivision blueblood. Nonetheless, it’s very hard to picture Meyer stepping away from Trevor Lawrence and his nascent rebuild with the Jaguars.

Rumors will swirl instead around a bevy of notable college coaches, potentially triggering a rippling effect of moves in every one of the FBS leagues and serving as the dominant off-field storyline of the regular season.

Penn State head coach James Franklin looks on from the sideline during a game against Ball State.

Just days after firing Clay Helton, the biggest question in coaching doesn't ask who is an option for USC but instead who isn't — a very short list consisting only of those coaches with a recent national championship on their resumes.

With so many names pegged as candidates — and the high likelihood that even more pop onto the radar, at least some motivated by the opportunity to extend or rework existing contracts — the USC opening will be the thread that links together the biggest coaches and best teams in the chase for the College Football Playoff.

  • James Franklin has No. 12 Penn State back in the playoff mix after a messy pandemic season. After beating Wisconsin in the opener, the Nittany Lions' next test comes Saturday night against Auburn.
  • Mario Cristobal is one of the hottest names in coaching after No. 4 Oregon upset No. 11 Ohio State on the road, putting the Ducks into the driver's seat in the postseason chase and breathing life back into the Pac-12.
  • Luke Fickell brought No. 8 Cincinnati higher in the playoff rankings than any Group of Five coach in the format's history last season, and now has the Bearcats surging into key games against Power Five opponents Indiana and Notre Dame. Fickell's connection to the opening is deepened by his relationship with USC athletics director Mike Bohn, who previously held the same position at Cincinnati.
  • Despite last weekend's disappointing loss to No. 7 Iowa, the massive gains made by No. 15 Iowa State has made 41-year-old coach Matt Campbell one of the trendiest contenders for any major opening on the college and NFL levels.
  • Among current assistant coaches, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien represent solid fallback options given each coach's reputation: Elliott as a key piece of the Tigers' dynasty and O'Brien as a ready-made program builder given his outstanding work across two seasons at Penn State.
  • Even among retired coaches, that USC could gauge the interest of Bob Stoops could raise the scrutiny on Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who has thus far avoided any comparisons to his predecessor in leading the Sooners to four straight conference championships and three playoff berths.

"I want to be exceptionally clear: our university and its leadership are committed to winning national championships and restoring USC to football glory," Bohn said.

There is obvious attractiveness in the position, particularly given the school's major investment in the program since Bohn's arrival in 2019; USC has spent millions to entice stronger assistant coaches and upgrade its recruiting efforts. Added to the Trojans' 30-mile talent base and national draw, this investment bolsters the argument for USC being considered one of the top five jobs in college coaching.

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For the Trojans, however, taking aim at many of the defining figures in the sport comes at a possible cost: How can USC land a coach with a team in championship contention when his season may extend deep into December and January with high stakes?

At this point, predicting where the search eventually lands would be pure conjecture — and it might be an equally greater stretch to say USC will nail the landing after a run of missed hires since Pete Carroll's departure in 2009, though Bohn may succeed where others have failed.

What's certain is that USC will stand at the center of the national conversation despite the Trojans standing well outside the playoff picture two weeks into the regular season. That same conversation will embroil coaches and programs in the playoff hunt, bringing unwanted distractions and attention as coaches preach the importance of remaining focused on the task at hand.

At some point, every name under consideration will have to answer: Are you interested in USC? The debate may come to define the course of the 2021 season.