USC’s Thanksgiving Coaching Derby…

USC coaching search heat check: Matt Campbell and Kyle Whittingham gaining steam

USC HC candidates, from left, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell.

J. Brady McCollough (LA Times)  —  Finally, we’re mere days from the end of college football’s regular season, which means a coaching carousel that is expected to be one of the wildest in recent memory is about to start spinning. Over the weekend, Florida jumped on the ride, joining USC and Louisiana State as schools looking for fresh leadership and considered top-10 jobs. Washington, Virginia Tech and Texas Christian are open, too, and there’s reason to believe Miami is next. The dominoes will surely fall quickly, and we’ll see if USC athletic director Mike Bohn’s early move on Clay Helton set the Trojans up to get ahead of the impending chaos and be ready for winning time.

It’s been more than 10 weeks since USC fired Helton and embarked on its first coaching search since 2013. The Los Angeles Times will perform a temperature check right here as developments occur. This fourth “Heat Check” is informed more by our own reporting and intuition about the search’s direction than previous installments, and, just as in Heritage Hall, our list has narrowed at the top with the dynamics around each coach becoming more crystallized.

HOT

(Colin E. Braley / AP)

MOVING UP: Dave Aranda, Baylor head coach: In late October, the Heat Check registered what was then a bold reading when I placed Aranda as the most likely next leader of the Trojans. “This may not be a projected winner that excites the average USC fan, and if you’re disappointed Aranda is here instead of James Franklin, Luke Fickell, or Matt Campbell, treat this as just that — a projection,” I wrote.

That projection has only gained in strength the last three weeks, as Aranda’s Baylor team knocked off Texas and Oklahoma in Waco and Kansas State on the road to put itself in Big 12 title contention heading into Thanksgiving (if the Bears beat Texas Tech and Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma, they’ll play in the conference championship game Dec. 4 against the Cowboys). With Aranda and USC, warm has now boiled into HOT, but the Trojans would almost certainly not be able to finalize his hiring until Baylor is out of the Big 12 championship race.

It should take more than one good season to become USC’s head coach, but Aranda’s impressive track record as a defensive coordinator at Wisconsin and LSU deserves weight too. Aranda’s unit at LSU was a vital part of the 2019 national championship run, and, with Ed Orgeron now on his way out, it’s hard not to shift even more credit Aranda’s way. That makes Aranda an appealing candidate in Baton Rouge, too, but there’s reason to believe LSU won’t hire a former member of Orgeron’s staff.

My gut tells me that USC could get him to Los Angeles. Bohn pursued Aranda to be the Trojans’ defensive coordinator after 2019 and nearly had him signed before Baylor swooped in. Think Bohn hasn’t been paying attention to what Baylor is doing this year? Unlike other top names in the search, Aranda has strong local ties and could be looking to come home. The son of Mexican immigrants, he grew up in Redlands and played football at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, where he also got his start as a college coach.

WARM

MOVING UP: Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach: Throughout the last 10 weeks, I’ve been waiting for Campbell’s name to build some real buzz with USC. I kept him simmering on medium heat because I believe he could turn around the Trojans and wasn’t willing to move him down the list simply because it’s quiet. Well, last weekend, Campbell’s name actually started buzzing in dark corners of the web where such matters are discussed. Maybe it was the Cyclones’ latest defeat against Oklahoma — they are now 6-5 after starting the season ranked No. 7 — creating the sense that he has maxed out the program in Ames (although good luck convincing a competitor like him of that). Or maybe it’s just late November and the search needed a little spice?

After doing some reconnaissance, I am confident in saying that USC has interest in Campbell. What I do not know — which has been the case all along — is how he feels about USC and moving his young family to Los Angeles. (This may sound familiar, if you have been following our coverage of Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell’s candidacy. Who would have thought it would take such convincing for USC to get good coaches out of places like Iowa State and Cincinnati? Times, they’re a-changing).

Like Fickell, Campbell is an Ohio guy, raised in Massillon which is one of the beating hearts of Ohio’s football obsession. His first head coaching job was at Toledo, and he quickly moved on to coaching the Cyclones.

Campbell’s revival of Iowa State is the closest thing I’ve seen to the miracle Bill Snyder worked at Kansas State. Snyder was much older than Campbell and decided to stay in Manhattan, and now he has a stadium named after him. Campbell could do the same in Ames. Only he knows how much of an itch he has to coach at a school where the expectation is competing for a national championship (I wouldn’t read too much into his comment last week that his goal was never to win a Big 12 title — sounds like some misunderstood coach-speak gobbledygook more than anything to alarm USC fans).

This current frustrating season should not take the shine off Campbell at all. In fact, a mediocre 2021 campaign could be just what Bohn needs to persuade Campbell it’s time to move on.

Campbell can flat-out coach, and USC should want him based on his track record alone. But can it get him? That mystery keeps him from rising to Aranda-level heat — for now. Plus, according to FootballScoop, Campbell is gaining steam in LSU’s search at the moment too.

MEDIUM

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati head coach: I went to Cincinnati in late September to learn more about Fickell and assess whether he would be able to uproot his wife and six kids from their happy Ohio rhythms to step into the adventure of a lifetime in Los Angeles. I left feeling like it was unlikely —  but still possible because Fickell’s wife, mother and coaching mentors did not slam the door on USC.

After Cincinnati beat Notre Dame in South Bend, I wrote a column pointing out why I think the Bearcats’ emphatic win made it even more unlikely. That said, due to the connection between Fickell and Bohn, who hired him at Cincinnati, he’s going to be perceived as a candidate up until the moment Bohn says it’s someone else.

USC fans who still have their heart set on Fickell should be rooting for Cincinnati to miss the College Football Playoff, sending Fickell the message he needs to move to a major program to win the big prize. That still wouldn’t guarantee he would say yes to USC, though.

The Bearcats are likely to be ranked No. 4 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, putting them in position to be the first Group of Five conference team in the playoff if they win their next two games to stay unbeaten.

Given his family dynamics, Fickell is likely to decide — if he hasn’t already — he’s better off continuing to build Cincinnati during its move to the Big 12 and waiting for Ohio State or Notre Dame to open in the coming years.

NEW TO THE HEAT CHECK: Utah coach Kyle WhittinghamI’ll admit it. I made a mistake not including Whittingham in the Heat Check to this point. In fact, I included the Pac-12’s best coach high up in my initial list of 13 candidates on the day Helton was fired. My logic then: Who better to clean up Helton’s mess at USC than a coach within the Pac-12 South division who has prided himself on player development, discipline, tough defense and a strong running game?

But I let someone talk me out of his candidacy in the weeks that followed, and I let recency bias creep in after the Utes lost to Brigham Young and San Diego State. Now we look up and Utah is 8-3, the South champs for the third straight nonpandemic-shortened season, and coming off a blistering blowout of Oregon Saturday.

Whittingham is more proven as a program builder than the men above him on this list, but, at age 62, that also makes him much older than Aranda, Campbell and Fickell, who are each younger than 50.

There are other reasons I’m not convinced Whittingham is a perfect fit — namely, his offensive scheme that does not accentuate the kind of skill talent that must thrive at USC — but if Bohn can’t get one of the above trio, he would be smart to give Whittingham a call.

COOL

MOVING DOWN: James Franklin, Penn State head coach: I moved Franklin down from warm to medium last time after the Nittany Lions’ unsightly loss to Illinois, but the decision was more about whether USC would consider him strongly given some red flags from his past. Franklin may not be worth the risk for USC, and I still feel that way today.

Any vetting of Franklin by Bohn and the USC administration would include a thorough review of Franklin’s handling of a gang rape by four Vanderbilt football players while Franklin was coach in 2013. There are still many questions, most of which are probably unanswerable. Plus, Franklin would be the most expensive of the candidates, and that was the case before it came out last month he added big-gun Jimmy Sexton as his agent.

There is a lot of chatter that Penn State and Franklin are about to announce a contract extension. If so, given the Nittany Lions’ 7-4 record, Sexton earned his rate.

Bill O’Brien, Alabama offensive coordinator: Nobody talks to the Alabama offensive coordinator due to Nick Saban’s rules, so the buzz on USC and O’Brien, the former Penn State and Houston Texans head coach, is likely to stay quiet by default. The Crimson Tide’s offense hasn’t lost much under his stewardship thus far, even with the losses of quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. He’s worth keeping an eye on, but O’Brien doesn’t seem to be a fit.

Jonathan Smith, Oregon State head coach: Hardly anybody noticed during the pandemic-plagued 2020 season when Oregon State beat rival Oregon. Many more people are picking up on how good of a coach Smith is this year with the Beavers 7-4 and 5-3 in the Pac-12 and challenging the Ducks in the North division. Washington’s best offenses under Chris Petersen had Smith holding the controls as offensive coordinator. He was born in Pasadena and is a Glendora High School grad.

Kalani Sitake, BYU head coach: The Cougars lost to Baylor and Boise State this month but have an impressive 4-0 record this year against the Pac-12. They will have the chance to go 5-0 by beating USC in Saturday’s season finale, which would be quite a statement by Sitake.

COLD

MOVING DOWN: Dave Clawson, Wake Forest head coach: Clawson has the Demon Deacons 9-2 in his eighth season in Winston-Salem. He’s shown he can build a program from the ground up, and he’s done it at a private school with higher admissions standards than most of his competitors in the ACC. Clawson isn’t exactly going to fire up the faithful, though.

MOVING DOWN: Raheem Morris, Rams defensive coordinator: Morris got his start coaching college but has been in the NFL for most of the last two decades. There’s been some talk about Morris, who was head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2009-11, but I find it highly unlikely Bohn ends up hiring from the professional ranks for what may be his one shot to get this right.

MOVING DOWN: Mark Stoops, Kentucky head coach: The Wildcats are 8-3, and nine wins may be Stoops’ ceiling at Kentucky. But he does make $5 million per year to coach a school with zero expectations of winning the conference. That’s cushy.

MOVING DOWN: PJ Fleck, Minnesota head coach: Fleck recently signed a big contract extension to remain with the Golden Gophers.

Jeff Hafley, Boston College head coach: I had a sense Hafley could have moved up the list with a good season, but Boston College lost its starting quarterback and hasn’t been the same.

Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator: Other than being from Southern California, there’s no logical reason to think he leaves the comforts of his life calling plays for Patrick Mahomes.

NEW TO THE HEAT CHECK: Dan Quinn, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator and former Atlanta Falcons head coach: Quinn is a name I’ve seen bandied about, the latest mention coming Monday from Jon Wilner of the Bay Area News Group. I just don’t see Bohn going with an NFL coach at this critical juncture for the program.

latimes.com

_________

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Alex
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Alex(@alex)
November 26, 2021 5:05 pm

I hope Low Key is the next coach.

TrojanRJJ
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TrojanRJJ(@trojanrjj)
November 25, 2021 8:43 am

Happy Thanksgiving to Y’All from Frisco TX. Interesting developments in college football. This is as good a time as there has ever been to be a quality (not even elite) head coach HC. Look at what we know: Mel Tucker parlayed this crazy market (which may never be repeated) to force Mich State to pay a ransom for his services. Please remember, Mich State was the first HC job for Nick Saban and I think LSU poached him. Tucker is clearly a very good coach. He is also minority (which helps immensely in this market – although I doubt Tucker… Read more »

Steveg
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Steveg(@steveg)
November 24, 2021 6:03 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

I would like to see Mario stay at Oregon. The Pac12 needs all the good coaches it can get.

Steveg
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Steveg(@steveg)
November 25, 2021 7:44 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Thing is they would more than likely be going after the same group that USC is going after. Hopefully we have a name before to much longer.

TrojanRJJ
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Mt Rushmore
TrojanRJJ(@trojanrjj)
November 25, 2021 8:51 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

As I post above, if I were Phil, I would figure Mario is going to leave unless I pay him a fortune. Justin Wilcox is available and would take the job for probably 25% less and probably views it as his dream job. Really, makes a lot of sense for Mario to return to FL (and becomes filthy rich) and for Oregon to hire Wilcox. If UW gets Wilcox, he is probably going to make that his career landing spot.

TrojanRJJ
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TrojanRJJ(@trojanrjj)
November 25, 2021 8:48 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

My guess is all this means is Mario is going to get at least $8 Million a year. If Oregon will not pay it to him, FL or Miami probably will. The issue is where does he want to live? He is from FL and I would much rather live in FL than Oregon. And, there is no state income tax. If Mario leaves, look for Wilcox to return home (he is from Eugene – his dad played for the Ducks) and take over the Ducks. If Cristobal goes to one of the FL teams and Wilcox moves to Eugene,… Read more »

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 24, 2021 5:44 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

It’s doesn’t mean much. If the new head coach comes in and wants more of a dial threat guy, he wouldn’t fit the mode anyway. I’m pretty sure all of our recruits would be smart to wait it out until after new coach is hired and open it back up. If we hire late (too close to or after early signing) this class will be really bad. Good thing there is a transfer portal, not that anyone wants to hit that too hard.

Last edited 7 days ago by Chris
Steveg
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Steveg(@steveg)
November 24, 2021 6:07 pm
Reply to  Chris

I can see the portal going wild after this season. Every team is going hunting, looking for talent while at the same time telling their guys they may want to transfer if they want to play at all

San Diego Trojan
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San Diego Trojan(@san-diego-trojan)
November 24, 2021 3:14 pm

I hope that everyone on TDB and their families have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving

San Diego Trojan
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San Diego Trojan(@san-diego-trojan)
November 24, 2021 3:11 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

If true, that really would be out of left field. I’m thankful that my “Hunch” and “Gut Feeling” that James Franklin is going to be the coach” is way wrong. I guess I shouldn’t be playing poker any time soon. Ha! He sure used the rumors to get that massive contract extension

volunteerTrojan
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volunteerTrojan(@volunteertrojan)
November 24, 2021 5:12 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

https://trojanswire.usatoday.com/2021/11/23/rumor-mill-out-of-nowhere-nfl-candidate-emerges-in-usc-coaching-search/

Have to sleep on this one. If he’s so great, why hasn’t he been a head coach since with the Falcons? Just pondering this news.

volunteerTrojan
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volunteerTrojan(@volunteertrojan)
November 24, 2021 7:24 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

I just read through his coaching history on Wikipedia. I’m not impressed. Entire experience is defense (not a bad thing). Career results are right at 50/50. Also known for that epic collapse against Brady’s Patriots in the SB.

Not the world class I was told we should expect. I’ll pass. 😉

Still all in on Aranda, even though he has less experience and results than DQ. I think his ceiling is much higher.

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 24, 2021 11:19 am

Jeff Tedford throwing hit hat back in the ring. Maybe he ends up at Cal again if Wilcox goes to UW.

RialtoTrojan
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RialtoTrojan(@rialtotrojan)
November 24, 2021 8:49 am

I am looking at this coaching hire as a late Christmas present, but I expect a high end store and not Walmart. USC cannot afford a lowest bidder coach. We had an over priced eBay coach for too long. Bohn needs to get the school’s money’s worth with his choice.
He has already blown the shot by not booting Helton last year. Now he’s stuck with endless speculation and daily derby coach assessment from the media, who nothing new to write about.

TrojanRJJ
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TrojanRJJ(@trojanrjj)
November 24, 2021 7:37 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

LSU, USC, UW, UT, Miami, Florida and Indiana are all bad teams. The worst pick was Indiana. Stephen Carr went to Indiana to play; he is the starter on a 2-9 team. It is a shame that he was injured. He was sensational as a true frosh until he was hurt. How about Franklin getting $8.5 Million? For going 8-4. He clearly used the market to his advantage. I think Texas A&M and UNC are mediocre.

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 24, 2021 9:14 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Franklin has been terrible in close games. He blew late leads to Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan. Not a great sign. Good coaches and teams find ways to win them, not the other way around.

Steveg
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Steveg(@steveg)
November 24, 2021 5:48 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

I agree with Donte, these young men have learned adversity, losing, and being down. How they work out of it is the life lesson. Nobody wants to endure the feeling these guys feel right now, being as bad as they are. I hope they accept the fact they were not taught well or led well and continue to strive to be the best they can each be.

TrojanRJJ
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TrojanRJJ(@trojanrjj)
November 24, 2021 6:09 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Donte is done! Winning or losing do not matter. What matters is character development. He was around Clay Helton far too long. If he is using that sales pitch to explain coaching the worst team in SC history, he should move on to using his sales ability to sell stocks, cars, or houses. If winning or losing do not matter, why do we play the games? I read that this team has a lot of kids injured. If I were on this team, I would stay injured. Did you notice that Drake Jackson did not play against UCLA at all?… Read more »

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 24, 2021 7:26 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

A huge thank you for Jackson underperforming needs to go to Orlando. He and his zone blitz scheme has Drake dropping back into coverage often, standing up on the edge, and rotating him out so he only plays about 60-70 percent of snaps. He’s certainly not progressed, but wow has he been poorly utilized.

TrojanRJJ
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TrojanRJJ(@trojanrjj)
November 24, 2021 7:28 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Allen, I give the kid a break. He is a DE, not a LB. He should have been used primarily as a DE. He is a talent comparable to Thibodeaux (spelling?) at Oregon. IMO, Jackson was simply never challenged or developed and was played out of position. He needs to move on. He is all world talent, but was simply in the wrong program. I think Corey Foreman is another issue. He was played in the correct position and has a good position coach. He is young, so maybe he will develop over time, but personally, given how poorly he… Read more »

Rock2112
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Rock2112(@rock2112)
November 24, 2021 8:59 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

If there are historic lows still out there to be collected, it is hard to believe this team will fail to collect them. Wake me up when we hire a new coach.

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 23, 2021 7:37 pm

Don’t know if anyone is watching, but Gonzaga is destroying the bRuins tonight. Yikes.

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 23, 2021 6:50 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

If that’s the case we will know by Saturday.

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 23, 2021 4:45 pm

Once again we do not get into the top 4 of the playoff committee rankings. It’s an outrage! What more do we have to do to impress these people? We just put up 33 points.

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 23, 2021 5:28 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

From everything I read there is little to no chance we will wait until January to make the hire. If Cincinnati keeps winning do you believe it makes Fickell less and less likely to be our coach?

HOF19
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HOF19(@hof19)
November 23, 2021 3:24 pm

I suspect there is one person in the State of California that already has heard (behind closed doors) how much Luke Fickell is interested (or NOT interested ) in the USC position .And that person is a gentleman name ………………..Bohn…….. As in they have already have had (a brief at least) behind closed doors conversation on the matter.

Steveg
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Steveg(@steveg)
November 23, 2021 2:06 pm

One guy not named much on here has been Whittingham. Ya he is 62. So what. Saban is 70. Guys don’t forget how to coach at a certain age. What Whit has done with Utah has had me sold on him for several years. He like Campbell, gets more out of his players than most coaches. I just think that perhaps the prime time to have gotten Whit has passed. The names of the top coaches are all good, but I am wonderig if Bohn has gone elsewhere, with a huge surprise for all of us. This is exciting. Could… Read more »

UtahTrojan
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UtahTrojan(@utahtrojan)
November 23, 2021 8:54 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

I’m not sure why Whitt has been added to this list. There are so many things why this would be a bad fit. He is about as far away from being an LA kind of guy as you can get. Great defenses and pedestrian at best offenses. But the biggest one is he has been talking retirement

Steveg
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Mt Rushmore
Steveg(@steveg)
November 24, 2021 5:51 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

I do remember hearing rumors of somthing along these lines, but it appears nothing has ever come of it. Yet.

ATL D.D.S.
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ATL D.D.S.(@atl-d-d-s)
November 24, 2021 11:38 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Just because Mormons don’t drink, it doesn’t means that they don’t like to chase a little tail on occasion just like any other NCAA football coach. Hey now!

Steveg
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Mt Rushmore
Steveg(@steveg)
November 23, 2021 1:50 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

YES!!!! My prayer has been answered.

ATL D.D.S.
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ATL D.D.S.(@atl-d-d-s)
November 24, 2021 11:42 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

PSU–pervs AND flamin’ idiots. Sounds like we know where Lynn Swann has been hangin for the last couple of years–advising the lions about contract negotiations.

usc50
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usc50(@usc50)
November 23, 2021 12:25 pm

Fickell has Cinn in CFP. After that he would not want to leave or Cinn will not let him leave.
Aranda has Baylor up there again.
Matt Campbell may be best net. Where he is he cannot recruit to keep
up with OS, Mich, Iowa, Wis ND and he like. At USC he can recruit 5 star players and bring USC back.

UtahTrojan
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UtahTrojan(@utahtrojan)
November 23, 2021 9:01 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

I would say in our case it was both. Even if they weren’t really 5 stars, other coaches coach up their 3 star players. In many cases our players have regressed.

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 23, 2021 11:28 am

We are going to have a crazy few weeks! Thanks for the info.

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 23, 2021 1:05 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

I agree about having confidence in Bohn. I also think we can hire one of three or four guys and get back to ring really good- Fickell, Aranda, Campbell, or Quinn. I have zero idea who would makes us great, which is the million dollar question (or about 10 mil for our next coach).

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 23, 2021 1:31 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

The only reason I would want Quinn is he is elite on one side of the ball. He’s as good or better D coordinator than Aranda. Partner that with a really good OC who is complementary and he could be really successful.

ATL D.D.S.
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ATL D.D.S.(@atl-d-d-s)
November 24, 2021 11:46 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

He sucked big time as the coach of the Falcons. Allowed the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history against the Brady Patriots.