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USC Trojans: Potential candidates who make sense for one of college's royalty programs

The USC Trojans' football job is among the best in the land. Here's an early look at some potential candidates, from some of college's top current coaches to a former NFL head man and more.
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This … this is one of college football's premier postings. Heck, there's an argument it's one of football's best coaching jobs – college or pro.

The University of Southern California post is open, following the school's announcement earlier Monday of its firing of Clay Helton 70 games into his tenure.

USC, though it does not have the facilities of some of its peers among college football's elite program, features a home-grown talent base that's the envy of many and a ready-made element for a quicker return to college football prominence.

Additionally, in the onset of the Name, Image and Likeness era of NCAA athletics, the Los Angeles market is the No. 2 broadcast market in the United States with more than 5.7 million households in the market.

Another key factor: athletics director Mike Bohn has beefed up support staff and resources for the Trojans' program, an area severely lacking behind many of its peers in the years leading into Bohn's arrival.

So, who makes sense for the Trojans? Who might want to make sense for the Trojans?

FootballScoop dives into the potential candidates here, with many being current, established head coaches and others being assistants – with multiple sources indicating a former NFL and college head coach now at the nation's top program is expected to have interest.

BILL O'BRIEN

Just 51 (he turns 52 next month), O'Brien is well-regarded as an offensive-minded coach and showcased the poise necessary to rebuild Penn State in the aftermath of Joe Paterno's retirement in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

O'Brien then took the Houston Texans franchise to its most successful stretch in history before he failed in the dual roles of both head coach and general manager.

Still, when Nick Saban needed a replacement for Steve Sarkisian after Sarkisian left his post as the Tide's offensive coordinator to take over at Texas, Saban moved quickly to tab O'Brien for the role.

All of O'Brien's collegiate experience and success has arrived on the Eastern half of the United States, but his NFL time gives him national appeal.

JAMES FRANKLIN

Franklin worked miracles at Vanderbilt, and he's enjoyed sustained success at Penn State – though he hasn't quite gotten the Nittany Lions on a consistently equal footing with Big Ten bully Ohio State.

Nonetheless, Franklin has a number of traits that make him a potentially ideal fit for the Trojans.

Perhaps first, Franklin is an incredible program-marketer. He made folks pay serious attention at Vanderbilt and got things done from a facilities standpoint – when nothing had been done for decades.

Similarly, he won on the field at Vanderbilt. At Penn State, where he replaced O'Brien, Franklin has captured one Big Ten title (2016) and engineered a four-year stretch where the Nittany Lions won 43 games.

After a lackluster 4-5 2020 COVID-19 season, one that ended with four-straight wins, Franklin has PSU off to a 2-0 start early in 2021.

However, Franklin has a rather large salary – reportedly north of $8 million – and did just renegotiate his deal with Penn State. 

Of course, every coach has a contract with a buyout – and if it something needs to get done, it usually does.

LUKE FICKELL

The former standout Ohio State player launched his head coaching career as the Buckeyes' interim, greatly stabilizing the program in the transition from Jim Tressel to Urban Meyer last decade.

Once Fickell took over at Cincinnati prior to the 2017 season, he's led that program to arguably unprecedented heights – and it's a place where, among others, Brian Kelly did great work.

Fickell took the Bearcats to a New Year's Six bowl last year, narrowly losing to Georgia, and has them again ranked in the nation's top 10 with a pair of opportunity games – this week at Indiana, Oct. 2 at Notre Dame – to further enhance his value.

Important also to note: Fickell and Bohn have a close, preexisting relationship from their shared time together at Cincinnati.

Fickell's been incredibly selective in his evaluations of potential jobs, much like another candidate we'll get to on this list.

Plus, Cincinnati is poised to join the ranks of the Power 5 leagues with an agreement to accept membership into the Big 12.

Still, Fickell seems destined for one of the sport's premier programs – while turning Cincinnati into an increasingly attractive spot in the process.

MARIO CRISTOBAL

Oregon's head coach never has been hotter, coming on the heels of his Ducks' win over the weekend at then-No. 3 Ohio State.

Plus, Cristobal has South Florida roots and experience under Saban at Alabama. He took Oregon to a nine-win season in his first full year and then boosted that win total to a dozen, including a Rose Bowl triumph, in Year 2. That also came when Cristobal & Co. helped develop quarterback Justin Herbert into a first-round NFL Draft pick.

One key thing to consider on Cristobal, per industry sources as it pertains to his current contract with Oregon (which was smartly reworked as Auburn, among others, pursued him during the last cycle): If Cristobal elected to leave Oregon for USC prior to Jan. 22, 2022, Oregon would be owed a $9 million buyout.

Helton, per sources, also is owed approximately $10 million on his buyout.

That's a long of coin for an USC program that has been long on image but shorter of financial resources in recent years.

BILLY NAPIER

Napier has turned down more SEC schools in recent years than the class nerd's prom rejection list.

Why? Because he's built Louisiana into a stable program capable of going toe-to-toe with almost anyone in college football. It was evidenced in what the Cajuns did last year, and they opened this season at Texas with a game that was tight until Texas pulled away in the second half.

Auburn, Tennessee, South Carolin and Mississippi State are just a few of the schools known to have talked or researched Napier for their openings in recent years.

Additionally, Napier has experience under both Clemson's Dabo Swinney and the king of college football, Saban.

He isn't Hollywood flashy, but he is a program builder.

MATT CAMPBELL

There is only so long Campbell can stay at Iowa State, right? And only so much he can do for the Cyclones' program (with the biggest omission at this point an ability to beat big brother, Iowa)?

Iowa State under Campbell has played for the Big 12 title, it has taken down Big 12 kingpins (and soon-to-be-exiting) Oklahoma and Texas – two times in a row in the case of the Longhorns.

Campbell also has steadfastly developed the Cyclones' talent, and he's been a popular candidate in collegiate and NFL circles in recent years – being vetted by those same Longhorns this past cycle, before Texas went all-in on Sarkisian.

Campbell won nine games three of his final four years at Toledo, and he's won eight or more games at Iowa State in three of the past four seasons.

CHRIS PETERSEN

At both Boise State and most recently Washington, Petersen did big-time things at both places. He made the Broncos an annual Cinderella squad and then-BCS bowl contender.

At Washington, he took the Huskies to the 2016 College Football Playoff and engineered a three-year run in which the program won 32 games.

It was somewhat surprising when Petersen stepped down from the Huskies after the 2019 season, focusing on family and health at that time.

But there's no question he's an innovative coach and a proven winner, someone who also has been in USC's eyes before.

Consider this remarkable stat: In 14 years as a head coach, Petersen has 10 seasons of 10 or more wins.

That's consistency. And he did so while developing talent, something the Trojans absolutely must enhance.