USC’s last regular-season game of 2023 is this Saturday against UCLA. As soon as that game ends in the late afternoon versus the Bruins, Lincoln Riley’s full attention will shift to a very important task, arguably the most central one in his USC career: Replacing Alex Grinch with a new defensive coordinator.
This week, Riley has to figure out how to beat UCLA and salvage something from this failed season. When game week ends, USC won’t be worried about the Las Vegas or Sun Bowls. Riley won’t have a Heisman Trophy ceremony to worry about, either. The transfer portal window opens on December 4. USC, in order to attract the best possible defensive players in the portal, needs a home-run hire at defensive coordinator.
With Texas A&M firing Jimbo Fisher, Boise State firing coach Andy Avalos, Mississippi State firing coach Zach Arnett, the head coaching part of the coaching carousel is already spinning wildly. Penn State also fired offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, as Nittany Lions Wire noted. Jobs are opening up, which means USC has a lot more to consider in the carousel as it searches for its next defensive coordinator.
We will walk you through the various newsworthy developments from the past weekend and update you on the possibilities which need to be studied by Jen Cohen and Lincoln Riley:
TEXAS A&M AND HOW IT COULD AFFECT THE CAROUSEL
Texas A&M has an open head coaching position. A few names to consider are Mike Elko of Duke, who worked under Jimbo Fisher before taking the Duke head coaching job, and Lane Kiffin, currently at Ole Miss. There are other prominent candidates, but those two names are good conversation starters for reasons we will explain below.
IF MIKE ELKO TAKES THE A&M JOB
If Mike Elko leaves Duke for Texas A&M, Duke defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci might join Elko in College Station. However, he might consider going to USC if the Trojans offer him the job. Santucci might also be a candidate for the job at Duke if Elko leaves. This is one very interesting plot point to think about. Santucci has done a great job at Duke and, at 35, would be a very energetic recruiter for Riley at USC.
IF LANE KIFFIN GOES TO A&M
If Lane Kiffin goes to Texas A&M, the Ole Miss job comes open. Plenty of people would want the Ole Miss job. What if another head coach moves to Ole Miss? That could leave open a job in the Big Ten or ACC, somewhere Jim Leonhard might want to go. That would affect USC’s decision. The carousel is a study in moving parts. USC has to have a plan in place to pounce on its top choice but also be ready to move on second or third choices if specific candidates suddenly find the jobs they are looking for in other parts of the country.
TOM ALLEN LIKELY TO BE FIRED AT INDIANA
After Indiana lost to Illinois this past Saturday, coach Tom Allen is even more likely to be fired by the Hoosiers. Allen is a very good defensive coordinator. He isn’t a good head coach, but if he gets USC-level talent, he will do a very good job with it. Having Big Ten knowledge is a huge plus for USC, given the school’s move into the Big Ten. If it can’t get Jim Leonhard, Tom Allen is a strong second choice. He’s going to be available. He’s not likely to be in the market for another head coaching job. USC needs to be on the phone with Allen’s agent before too long.
BAYLOR GETS BLOWN OUT
Dave Aranda is in trouble at Baylor after the Bears were absolutely demolished by Kansas State on Saturday. Is it enough to get Aranda fired? We will see. Our view is that Baylor probably gives Aranda one more year. He did win the Sugar Bowl in 2021. However, a firing would not be shocking. It would be a slight to mild surprise, but not a stunner, given how badly the program has cratered.
If Aranda is fired, he might want a head coaching job somewhere else, but USC could certainly make a sales pitch and stand a reasonable chance of luring him to Los Angeles.
If Jim Leonhard says no, and Aranda becomes available, this is the best Plan B on the board, even better than Tom Allen.
MISSISSIPPI STATE FIRES ZACH ARNETT
Zach Arnett is not a good head coach. This 2023 season at Mississippi State has been a disaster. Arnett was outstanding, however, as MSU’s defensive coordinator in 2022. An attractive element of hiring Arnett is that he isn’t looking for another head coaching job. The market isn’t there for him as a head coach. He would not leave USC after one or two years if hired. He would probably be in a position to spend at least four or five seasons with the Trojans.
Lincoln Riley is a member of the Mike Leach coaching tree. Arnett coached with Leach. This might be the guy Riley zeroes in on. Don’t be surprised if that happens.
Syracuse beat Pittsburgh this past Saturday to move one win closer to bowl eligibility. If the Orange win one more game, they will play in a bowl game and probably take coach Dino Babers off the hot seat. If Syracuse doesn’t make a bowl game, Babers probably will get fired, leading to another job opening and another carousel plot point for USC to evaluate.
Northwestern beat Wisconsin this past weekend. Interim coach David Braun has done an amazing job, to the point that he will likely be made permanent head coach at the end of the regular season. This job will not come open.
Arkansas got blasted by Auburn, putting Sam Pittman on an even hotter seat. If he gets fired, another job comes open. Jim Leonhard might throw his hat into the ring for the Arkansas job. He wouldn’t be the first man to coach at Wisconsin and then Arkansas. Bret Bielema did that.
BOISE STATE JOB
Boise State fired head coach Andy Avalos. Does Jim Leonhard want to explore this job opening? What about any other USC defensive coordinator candidate? It will be fascinating to see what happens here.
PENN STATE OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR
With Penn State’s offensive coordinator spot coming open, one wonders if a Group of Five head coach might take the job. If a Group of Five coaching job opens up, that’s another place where Jim Leonhard might think about going, which would be something USC has to account for.
A few reminders, removed from anything which happened this past Saturday: One is that Michigan State’s job is open. Mike Elko, mentioned above, figures to be considered by Michigan State. Kansas coach Lance Leipold and Iowa State coach Matt Campbell will probably get a look from the Spartans. If the Kansas or Iowa State jobs come open, USC’s defensive coordinator candidates might pursue those openings. All these plot twists merit attention.
PHIL PARKER OF IOWA
On our YouTube shows, USC fans often mention Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker as someone they would love to have in Los Angeles. We would love to have Phil Parker, too, but he and Kirk Ferentz are joined at the hip. It’s not worth considering Parker as a realistic candidate. There are a few other coordinators USC would love to have who are simply not realistic possibilities.
CHIP KELLY DRAMA AT UCLA
If UCLA fires Chip Kelly, the Bruins would need to fill their job opening with someone who is made to go up against and thwart Lincoln Riley. USC would then wonder if any of its defensive coordinator targets might instead choose to go to Westwood. That would be a headache.
IF CHIP KELLY GETS FIRED AT UCLA
If Chip Kelly does get fired, UCLA could consider promoting defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn to head coach. Lynn has done a great job this year with UCLA’s defense. He would merit consideration as permanent head coach.
Another scenario: With Kelly being cut loose, Lynn might think about simply moving across town and joining USC. A lot of Trojans would love that scenario.
OUR PREVIOUS COACHING CAROUSEL PRIMER
— USC Trojans Wire (@TrojansWire) November 7, 2023
OUR EARLY LIST OF CANDIDATES FROM A FEW WEEKS AGO
— USC Trojans Wire (@TrojansWire) November 5, 2023