TEMPE, Ariz. -- USC president C.L. Max Nikias sought out AD Pat Haden on the sideline late in the Trojans' 62-41 blowout loss to Arizona State, and the two chatted for about 10 minutes not far from where I was standing.
It certainly seemed like an ominous sign for Lane Kiffin’s job security at the time (and knowing what we now know, they may well have been discussing how to handle Kiffin’s firing), but even so, the news that Kiffin is out as the Trojans' head coach before the end of September qualifies as a surprise -- no matter how hot his seat had been since the offseason.
However, after seeing how USC’s defense -- the one thing the team was able to hang its hat on through four games -- performed against the Sun Devils, it was clear that Kiffin’s days were numbered. ASU coach Todd Graham used the words “dominated” and “dismantled” to describe what the Devils did to a defense that was second in the country in yards per play allowed through the four games. A couple of more losses like that one, and the players could have begun to punt on the season (sort of like last year).
One Trojans staffer texted me well after the game last night: “Missed opportunity.” He was likely referring to the loss, but the same could be said about the entire Kiffin tenure in L.A.
With the focus for the Trojans now clearly pointed toward the future, let’s take a look at what kind of a turnaround the program is facing and the coaches who could emerge as candidates to replace Kiffin.
Who are the candidates?
There’s no question that the next USC coach will be facing some significant challenges, as the team's scholarship restrictions have already clearly taken an on-field toll. (I thought Trojans SID Tim Tessalone was joking when told me that a receiver in the game interned for him last year, but he wasn’t. Robby Kolanz, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound redshirt freshman, really did work in the sports information office last fall -- and he looked like a kicker compared to the other guys on the field.) The Trojans traveled to Tempe with just 55 scholarship players, five of which were redshirting, and injuries to the likes of Marqise Lee and Su'a Cravens could knock that number down even further. And the scholarship restrictions will continue for another season.
That said, this is still one of the premiere coaching jobs in college football because of the tradition, resources, recruiting base and other factors, and you can expect several big names to be brought up in connection with the job opening.
In talking with coaches for the past few months about the possibility of the USC job becoming available (I went over a lot of this in my blog on Friday, as well, but I’ll reiterate it here), here are some potential candidates who could emerge:
Chris Petersen, Boise State Broncos head coach: If Petersen is ever going to leave Boise, this could be the time. The Broncos aren’t the national player they were just a couple of seasons ago, when they were beating Virginia Tech and Georgia in season openers and being considered legitimate BCS title contenders (as made apparent by season-opening losses in 2012 and 2013 to Michigan State and Washington).
The questions of whether L.A. is a good fit for Petersen and whether Petersen is a good fit for L.A. will come up often when discussing his candidacy, but it could be a better match than some realize. Petersen has long had to recruit in the state of California, and one former member of Petersen’s staff told me this summer that Petersen has long been enamored with the recruiting turf and in particular with the USC program. Moreover, Petersen might be a better fit with Haden’s approach for building the program than Kiffin was.
Would Kevin Sumlin be willing to leave College Station for the USC job?
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M Aggies head coach: I've debated with a few different coaches recently over whether Sumlin would consider leaving Texas A&M, which is already a very high-level job, for USC. Sumlin has the Aggies on the rise, but the question is how much quicker he could he get to a national title game if he were at USC -- especially since he would no longer be coaching in the same division as Alabama and LSU.
My take has been that if Sumlin were to leave College Station, it’d be for the NFL, but USC is one of those very few programs where you’d have to listen to an offer. If USC did make a play for him (and there are many reasons why Sumlin would be an attractive candidate for the job), A&M wouldn’t let Sumlin leave without a fight.
Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams head coach: I was initially skeptical when I heard Fisher’s name come up this August when I was visiting L.A., but those close to the USC program believe there's a legitimate possibility Fisher will leave the NFL to take the head coaching job at his alma mater.
The timing would be difficult, with Fisher still finishing up the Rams’ season around the time Haden would likely be looking to make his decision, but you never know. The Rams have gotten off to a rough start, and perhaps Fisher would welcome the change of pace that comes with running a college program.
Jack Del Rio, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator: According to ESPN colleague Adam Schefter, league sources have told him that Del Rio, a USC alum, is expected to emerge as one of the leading candidates for the Trojans’ head-coaching job. As would be the case for Fisher, the timing could be bad, and in Del Rio’s case he’d likely have to leave a team that is in the midst of a potential Super Bowl run, but Schefter reports that the Broncos have “braced for the idea” that they could eventually lose Del Rio, and USC would almost certainly have some appeal for him.
Steve Sarkisian, Washington Huskies head coach: Sarkisian might have been flirting with the hot seat himself this season had the Huskies struggled at all, but following an impressive 4-0 start, UW and Sark are on the rise.
Haden might not want to go with another rising offensive coach who was on Pete Carroll’s former staff, but there are plenty of reasons to give Sarkisian a long look. From what I’ve seen and heard, Sarkisian and his smart, versatile staff at UW could do very well in L.A., especially on the recruiting trail.
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State Bulldogs head coach: DeRuyter is a level below the other candidates on this list, but there are plenty of examples in which programs have to go to their second or third options in finding a head coach. And if the high-profile attempts don’t work out, DeRuyter could emerge as a good option.
His name has come up in part because he’s 12-4 in two seasons at Fresno State after Pat Hill finished 4-9 in his final season there, and last year’s seven conference wins is more than the Bulldogs had in any of Hill’s 15 (largely successful) seasons. DeRuyter’s stock could rise in the coming weeks if Fresno State makes a run as this year’s BCS buster.
Lol an Alabama COACH (I repeat: COACH) lent Clinton-Dix money and all that's happened so far is both have been temporarily suspended. Not surprisingly, not a big deal is being made of it albeit the fact that it's only 500 and Clinton-Dix paid it back. It's amazing how Alabama and other top SEC teams are/will be allowed to get away with these things.