Five things we learned Saturday about USC football’s head coach candidates.
1. Dave Aranda has built Baylor with a backbone.
USC fans looking to evaluate Baylor head coach Dave Aranda couldn’t have asked for an opportunity more rich and emotionally stirring than Saturday’s game against Steve Sarkisian’s Texas Longhorns.
Sark hasn’t been USC’s coach for more than six years now, but his name remains a trigger from the Trojans’ campus to the South Bay to Orange County. There may be some Trojans who were mature enough to be happy for him as he rebuilt his career to the point he could be hired as Texas’ head coach, but many credit Pat Haden’s whiff on Sark for their misery that extends to today and are still hurt.
How many cardinal-and-gold diehards knew who Aranda was until this season? Hard to say. But the Bears have been so surprisingly impressive that Aranda, the former Louisiana State and Wisconsin defensive coordinator, has risen to the top of my latest USC coaching search “Heat Check” released Friday. It’s time for all of us to get better acquainted with the native Southern Californian.
Baylor entered Saturday ranked 16th, with solid wins over Iowa State and Brigham Young and a respectable road defeat at Oklahoma State by 10 points. Texas is always the biggest game on the schedule for Baylor, so among Aranda’s constituents the Longhorns’ three losses were meaningless. Saturday in Waco, Texas, Baylor may as well have been hosting Alabama.
The Longhorns took a 21-10 lead early in the third quarter, and the doubts began to creep in. Aranda is only in his second season as a head coach, so he’s too green for a blue-blood like USC. And he can’t even beat Sark?
Well, Baylor rallied to win the game 31-24. The Bears are in the top 15 and have a great chance to play in the Big 12 championship game.
Here are two things to file away about Baylor’s win over Texas that reflect well on Aranda’s acumen. First, the Bears held Texas running back Bijan Robinson, who entered the game as a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate, to 17 carries for 43 yards. Second, in the offseason, Aranda converted a starting linebacker, Abram Smith, to running back. Smith carried 20 times for 113 yards and a touchdown, and his absence hasn’t seemed to affect the defense all season.
Smith has been Baylor’s bell cow, and he is a reflection of Aranda’s ability to take a roster that isn’t loaded with four- and five-star players and get the pieces in the right places. If he takes over at USC, he won’t need to move any linebackers to running back at Tailback U.
Baylor has won in a way USC fans say they’d like to see at the Coliseum — with a dependable defense and a mean run game. The Trojans will always have quarterbacks and receivers at their disposal in this town. The evidence says Aranda can coach toughness. Yes, the sample size is limited.
We’ll get another relevant data point for evaluation when Baylor hosts No. 4 Oklahoma Nov. 13.
2. If USC wants Luke Fickell, it should root for 13-0 Cincinnati to be left out of the playoff semifinals.
No. 2 Cincinnati — wow, that is so fun to say — led lowly Tulane 14-12 at halftime Saturday a week after escaping Navy 27-20. The Bearcats shut out the Green Wave in the second half and won 31-12, but we know where this is headed.
ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit gave a preview Saturday night, listing Cincinnati No. 4 behind one-loss No. 2 Alabama and one-loss No. 3 Ohio State in his College Football Playoff rankings. The CFP selection committee will release its first top 25 Tuesday, and Cincinnati’s ranking will be under intense scrutiny.
I could write all night on the indignity of Ohio State, which lost to Oregon at home and has one legitimate win (33-24 Saturday against No. 20 Penn State at home) being ranked ahead of unbeaten Cincinnati, which won at No. 11 Notre Dame. But the relevant matter for USC is that there’s a chance even 13-0 Cincinnati could be left out of the playoff five weeks from now.
If the Trojans have Fickell at the top of their list, they sadly have to root against him. For reasons I pointed out in my profile of Fickell, he will need to feel like he has hit his ceiling at Cincinnati and has to go to a major program in order for USC to have a real chance of hiring him.
Fickell is such an intense competitor that if Cincinnati loses, he will convince himself that it’s his fault the Bearcats missed the playoff, which would give him an incentive to stay and make up for the setback. But if Cincinnati goes 13-0 and is kept out of the playoff semifinals, he may see the writing on the wall.
3. The way Penn State competed at Ohio State makes the Nittany Lions’ loss to Illinois look even worse for James Franklin.
Penn State took No. 5 Ohio State late into the fourth quarter Saturday in Columbus, a week after suffering the worst defeat of the college football season — a 20-18 nine-overtime loss to Illinois in State College.
Sure, that’s just the nature of a sport being played by 18- to 22-year-olds, but the difference in competency over one week just means James Franklin has more explaining to do about why the Nittany Lions were so ill-prepared for the Fighting Illini.
I’m not trying to pile on Franklin. I said enough last week about why he should not be viewed as a slam-dunk hire for USC. But Penn State’s uneven performance week to week should raise concerns.
4. Remember, Mel Tucker is about the money.
USC fans who watched No. 8 Michigan State’s thrilling 37-33 win over No. 6 Michigan on Saturday and decided Mel Tucker should be the next coach of the Trojans should remember one thing: He’s all about the money.
Tucker came to Colorado for one season in 2019 and went 5-7. Michigan State rightly pursued him to succeed Mark Dantonio despite his record and offered him $5 million per year, and Tucker disappeared into the Rocky Mountain night.
Tucker is a real candidate now to leave Michigan State after two seasons, but LSU would be the likely destination, not USC. I can’t see USC forking over the money it would take to get Tucker, but I can see him in Baton Rouge come December, leaving Spartan hearts broken in his wake.
5. Don’t overreact to Matt Campbell and Jonathan Smith losses.
No. 22 Iowa State lost 38-31 at West Virginia on Saturday to drop to 5-3. Oregon State lost 39-25 at California to drop to 5-3.
As helpful as it is for USC to see Aranda at 7-1, Matt Campbell and Jonathan Smith should be viewed with a big-picture lens.
The turnaround Campbell has led at Iowa State is one of the best coaching jobs of the last decade. This season has been frustrating for Cyclones fans, but the fact that Campbell has raised expectations in Ames to a conference championship level says it all.
Oregon State still has a shot to win the Pac-12 North if it can win out and beat Oregon. Smith isn’t as far along as Campbell, but he’s already proved he can do more with less.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.