September 14, 2021

Ranking the 5 Best Coaching Candidates to Replace Clay Helton at USC

One of the top jobs in college football opened up Monday after USC dismissed Clay Helton following an embarrassing 42-28 loss to Stanford on Saturday.

Helton was never a popular choice for USC. He compiled a 46-24 record, a 2017 Pac-12 championship, and a classic Rose Bowl victory over Penn State that same season, but was a massive disappointment for a program looking to re-establish itself as a powerhouse. 

Obviously, this begs the question, who will be the next head coach at USC? This is one of those coaching jobs that when it opens, anyone and everyone would love to have. It's California, it's the Coliseum, it's the colors, it's just USC.

Here are the five best candidates to be the new head coach at USC.

Honorable Mention: Urban Meyer

I just had to do this. Of course he is not going to leave the NFL for this job.

Or would he?

5. Bob Stoops

Current Job: Fox Pregame Host

Career Record: 190-48

Bowl Record: 9-9

National Championships: (1) 2000, Oklahoma

The former long-time Oklahoma head coach proved that he still has the itch to coach after accepting the head coaching job with the XFL's Dallas Renegades. While that was short-lived due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that Stoops still loves the game, and will always be available for any job.

Stoops replaced Urban Meyer on Fox's "Big-Noon Kickoff Show" as an analyst this season. This may be a long shot for many reasons. One, he is 61 years old, and two, he has not coached the college game since 2016.

However, USC would love to bring in a national championship-caliber coach. 

4. P.J. Fleck

Current Job: Head Coach, Minnesota Golden Gophers

Career Record: 57-42

Bowl Record: 3-2

National Championships: None

Before taking the head coaching job at Minnesota in 2017, P.J. Fleck led the Western Michigan Broncos to an undefeated regular season, the 2016 MAC championship, and a Cotton Bowl appearance.

While his Minnesota tenure started off rocky, he quickly rebounded in 2019 and led the Gophers to an 11-2 record, and nearly sent Minnesota to the Big Ten championship game, and a shot at the college football playoff.

Fleck is always going to be a candidate for big-time openings because of his fast rebuilds at each program he has run. Even though it is unlikely he will leave Minnesota after signing a contract extension that will keep him with the Golden Gophers through 2026, it is absolutely worth it to pick up the phone and ask.

3. Kyle Whittingham

Current Job: Head Coach, Utah Utes

Career Record: 135-67

Bowl Record: 11-3

National Championships: None

One of the more underrated coaches in college football, Kyle Whittingham's kept the successes of Meyer's Utah teams rolling since replacing him in 2005. Utah has won one conference championship (2008, MWC) and three Pac-12 South Division championships under Whittingham.

While it might be tough to pry Whittingham out of Utah as he has been with the program since 1994, an attractive job like USC will not only pique anyone's interest, but it will come with a significant pay increase.

Whittingham has coached in two New Year's Six games. Once in 2004 when he was "co-coaching" the 2004 Fiesta Bowl with Meyer, and then again in 2008 when he led the Utes to a 13-0 record, a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, and finished the season ranked second in the AP poll. They have not been back to a New Year's Six bowl game since the Sugar Bowl, but Utah has been ranked in the top-25 in each of the last eight seasons.

There is no coach more underrated in college football than Whittingham, and it might be time to take that big offer.

2. Matt Campbell

Current Job: Head Coach, Iowa State Cyclones

Career Record: 71-44

Bowl Record: 4-3

National Championships: None

The stars are aligning for Matt Campbell to take this job. He is coming off a Fiesta Bowl victory over Oregon and the greatest recruiting class in Iowa State football history is in its final year. If there is any time to jump ship, it's now. 

After having a lot of success at Toledo, where he won two MAC West Division titles, Campbell inherited a rebuilding Iowa State program. While his career record of 36-29 at Iowa State leaves a bit to be desired, his impact and ability to build up struggling programs at such a young age is impressive.

The most impressive part about Campbell's career is that he has had to do more with less. Toledo and Iowa State are not attractive recruiting destinations and he has done a fine job at both programs. Rumors swirled around in 2019 that Campbell, who is an Ohio guy, was a heavy candidate to replace Meyer at Ohio State. Obviously, that didn't happen but a new top-tier program has an opening.

1. Luke Fickell

Current Job: Head Coach, Cincinnati Bearcats

Career Record: 43-21

Bowl Record: 2-2

National Championships: (1) 2014, Ohio State (Defensive coordinator)

Luke Fickell is by far the top candidate not only for USC but for any high-profile job that opens up.

He got his first shot at being a head coach in 2011 when Jim Tressel resigned after the tattoo scandal at Ohio State. At the time, Fickell was serving as the co-defensive coordinator and was given the interim head coaching job for Ohio State. It did not go well as Ohio State finished the season 6-7 and lost to rival Michigan for the first time since 2003.

After Ohio State hired Meyer in 2012, Fickell went back to his co-defensive coordinator position and won a national championship in 2014 with the Buckeyes.

In 2017, Fickell got his next shot when he was hired by Cincinnati. All he has done is make the Bearcats a relevant program, a powerhouse in the AAC, a college football playoff contender, and now Cincinnati has officially received an invitation to join the Big-12. I would say, Fickell has reached his peak at Cincinnati.

Much like Campbell, Fickell's most successful class will be leaving following the 2021 season and the opportunity is now to pounce on a high-profile job like USC.

Photo: Getty Images