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Potential replacements for Clay Helton at USC

The campaign is on to fill one of the best jobs in college football. Who will end up as the head man in Heritage Hall?

Head coach Lane Kiffin of the Mississippi Rebels reacts to a call during a game against the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium on December 19, 2020 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Update September 15 9:20 a.m. Urban Meyer has publicly said “no chance” when regarding him and the USC job.

The USC Trojans officially pulled the plug on head coach Clay Helton Monday, ending his run after six years and two games at the helm. Athletic director Mike Bohn cited the expectations for USC as the reason for letting Helton go. Associate head coach Donte Williams will see this season out for the Trojans, but college coaches around the country will be monitoring the developments in University Park for what is one of the most desirable jobs in the sport.

The Trojans have plenty of resources, talent pools and history to entice any coach to take over the program. USC has fallen from its Pete Carroll days, but is still widely regarded as a destination job among college football circles. Here’s a look at the top candidates to replace Helton at USC.

UPDATE — Eric Bieniemy has emerged as a strong candidate to replace Helton at USC, Adam Schefter reports. Bieniemy is currently the OC for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Lane Kiffin

A return of the prodigal son after stints as an assistant at Alabama, a successful run with two conference championships at FAU, and getting an Ole Miss program back on track is almost too perfect. Kiffin was once famously fired on an airport tarmac, and there might still be lingering bitterness on either side, but there’s no doubt he’s matured and his image and perception has skyrocketed since joining the Nick Saban Home for Wayward Coaches.

Would Kiffin bail on an SEC program for University Park twice in a career? Let’s not forget him leaving Tennessee after one (1) season to replace Pete Carroll in 2010. A more mature Kiffin might not do such a thing again, but until someone takes the job, the speculation about Joey Freshwater returning to the #BestCoast will continue unabated.

James Franklin

Franklin has the very personality that would re-inject life into USC, something that Clay Helton lacked. If you can create buzz and noise around Vanderbilt of all schools, you can certainly get people in Southern California excited about USC once again. His credentials as a head coach speaks for itself, doing the impossible task of taking Vanderbilt to a bowl game for three consecutive years before walking Penn State back into Top 15 territory following the heinous Jerry Sandusky scandal.

He’s recruited really well and particularly at running back, where Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders are the crown jewels he can point to for his time at Happy Valley. He’d continue the long, storied tradition of dominate backs at USC. Franklin makes this move because he may have already hit his ceiling at Penn State, being in the same division as a death star program in Ohio State. He’d have the opportunity to once again weaponize the Trojans in a pretty mediocre Pac-12 that’s ripe for the taking.

UPDATE — Franklin addressed the rumors linking him to the USC head coaching job and said mentioned he doesn’t want to deal with any distractions and will address the issue with the team’s leadership council. Franklin did not confirm or deny any interest in the position, which is usually how this type of thing plays out.

Mike Gundy

One thing is for sure; Gundy will absolutely use this job as leverage to get a raise at Oklahoma State if his alma mater doesn’t decide to let him go instead. There’s a chance Gundy’s antics, along with the recent controversy involving his political views, have run their course with the brass in Stillwater. Those are some red flags, but the Cowboys head coach still has a great resume.

He’s 139-67 at Oklahoma State, with six double-digit win seasons in his tenure. He’s turned the Cowboys into a perennial Big 12 contender, even though the team has only one conference title in two championship game appearances. With conference realignment in full swing and the Big 12 losing its money programs Texas and Oklahoma, now is the perfect time for Gundy to make a move.

Urban Meyer

Let’s just say that from the outside, Urban doesn’t appear to be having the most fun being in charge of an NFL program. He’s complained about the rules, violated the rules, and doesn’t have the near-dictatorial control that the BMOC gets at a major football university.

It doesn’t help that the Jags looked incompetent in their 37-21 loss to the Houston Texans on Sunday. You can be a winning college coach and a lousy pro one. Sometimes it happens.

Urban never coached in the Pac-12 while having two great seasons at Utah in 2003-04. He’s also got no California ties. But if anyone can overcome such details, it’s one of the winningest coaches in college football history, and a man that could be the first to a three national championships at three different schools.

Again, this is if he were to pull the plug on the Jaguars sometime this season. Which .. yeah, it’s Urbz. He would totally do this.

Luke Fickell

Who fired Clay Helton today? Athletic Director Mike Bohn. Where did Mike Bohn come from? Cincinnati, where he hired Luke Fickell in 2017 to turn around a program that had been driven into a ditch by Tommy Tuberville.

Fickell has quickly turned the Bearcats into a Group of Five juggernaut, winning 31 games over a three-year stretch and capturing the American Athletic Conference championship to earn a trip to the Peach Bowl in 2020. He also has experience running a major program under turbulent times, serving as the interim head coach for his alma mater Ohio State in 2012. The Bohn connection is there but Fickell is a Midwest guy through and through and it’s said that the only jobs he’d leave in a heartbeat for are Ohio State and Notre Dame.

Combine that with Cincinnati being bumped up to the Big XII in a few years, and and he has the luxury of being picky about what his next move will be. Bohn would have to sell him on a very specific vision to come out west.

UPDATE — Fickell was the early favorite and the job is his to turn down according to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports. He addressed the situation and like Franklin, Fickell said he doesn’t want to deal with any distractions. It’s very rare you’ll hear a complete denial in situations like these, and this doesn’t change much about Fickell potentially being the next USC head coach.

Graham Harrell

Harrell is currently USC’s offensive coordinator, a position he’s held since 2019. An internal hire probably won’t be enough for the fanbase, especially given Harrell’s tenure is during the Clay Helton era. However, there are some reasons to be optimistic about the young offensive mind.

The Trojans ranked 20th in total offense under Harrell in 2019. They were sixth in passing offense and 35th in scoring offense, meaning Harrell’s schemes were successful. The 2020 season is somewhat of a wash when it comes to statistics as USC only played six games, but the numbers for that season aren’t terrible. USC ranked 11th in passing offense and 31st in scoring offense, but there was a big drop in passing offense with the Trojans ranking 62nd in the nation. Harrell isn’t the big-name hire, but he’s an internal candidate with some experience building strong offenses.