It's been more than seven weeks since USC fired football coach Clay Helton and embarked on its first coaching search since 2013. The Los Angeles Times will perform a temperature check as developments occur. This third "Heat Check" is informed more by our own reporting and intuition about the search's direction than previous installments, which were based mostly on the general buzz around each candidate. The closer we get to the end of the regular season in five weeks, the more information we'll have to zero in on the next leader of the Trojans.
We're still too far from Thanksgiving to smell the turkey cooking. It won't be long, though.
— MOVING UP: Dave Aranda, Baylor head coach: There's been a shakeup at the top since our previous list from early October when Aranda made his first appearance. This may not be a projected winner that excites the average USC fan, and, if you're disappointed Aranda is here instead of James Franklin, Luke Fickell or Matt Campbell, treat this as just that — a projection.
Coming off a rough 2-7 first season under Aranda that was played in a pandemic, Baylor is 6-1 and ranked No. 16 entering a three-game stretch when the Bears host Texas and No. 4 Oklahoma in Waco, Texas. Baylor already boasts wins over top-25 teams Iowa State and Brigham Young, is allowing fewer than 200 yards passing per game and has the No. 9 rushing attack in the country at 238 yards per game.
It should take more than one good season to become USC's head coach, but Aranda's impressive track record as a defensive coordinator at Wisconsin and Louisiana State deserves weight too. Aranda's unit at LSU was a vital part of the 2019 national championship run, and, with Ed Orgeron now on his way out, it's hard not to shift even more credit Aranda's way.
That makes Aranda an appealing candidate in Baton Rouge, too, but there's reason to believe USC could get him to Los Angeles. USC athletic director Mike Bohn pursued Aranda to be the Trojans' defensive coordinator after 2019 and nearly had him signed before Baylor swooped in. Think Bohn hasn't been paying attention to what Baylor is doing this year? Unlike other top names in the search, Aranda has strong local ties and could be looking to come home. The son of Mexican immigrants, he grew up in Redlands and played football at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, where he also got his start as a college coach.
— Luke Fickell, Cincinnati head coach: I went to Cincinnati in late September to learn more about Fickell and assess whether he would be able to uproot his wife and six kids from their happy Ohio rhythms to step into the adventure of a lifetime in Los Angeles. I left feeling it was unlikely but still possible because Fickell's wife, mother and coaching mentors did not slam the door on USC.
After Cincinnati beat Notre Dame in South Bend, I wrote a column pointing out why I think the Bearcats' emphatic win made it even more unlikely.
That said, due to the connection between Fickell and Bohn, who hired him at Cincinnati, he's going to be perceived as a serious candidate up until the moment Bohn says it's someone else.
USC fans who still have their heart set on Fickell should be rooting for No. 2 Cincinnati to miss the College Football Playoff, sending Fickell the message he needs to move to a major program to win the big prize. That still wouldn't guarantee he would say yes to USC, though.
— MOVING DOWN: James Franklin, Penn State head coach: Since the search began, Franklin sat at the top of our list, and he is still considered the favorite to land the USC job by many observers. But after Penn State's humiliating defeat to Illinois as a 24-point favorite last Saturday, the leader of the Nittany Lions has lost some of his luster.
Any vetting of Franklin by Bohn and the USC administration should include a thorough review of Franklin's handling of a gang rape by four Vanderbilt football players while Franklin was coach in 2013. There are still many questions, most of which are probably unanswerable. Plus, Franklin would be the most expensive of the candidates, and that was the case before it came out this week he added big-gun Jimmy Sexton as his agent.
My gut says USC has legitimate reasons to cool on Franklin. We'll see.
— Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach: The Cyclones began the season ranked No. 7 but have lost to Iowa and Baylor. Here's the thing, though: The shine should not come off Campbell at all. What he's accomplished in Ames is so impressive a disappointing start does not remotely overshadow it.
Campbell's revival of Iowa State is the closest thing we've seen to the miracle Bill Snyder worked at Kansas State. Snyder was much older than Campbell and decided to stay in Manhattan, and now he has a stadium named after him. Campbell could do the same in Ames. Only he knows how much of an itch he has to coach at a school where the expectation is competing for a national championship.
A mediocre 2021 season could be just what Bohn needs to persuade Campbell it's time to move on, but Iowa State recovered last week by beating previously undefeated Oklahoma State and still controls its destiny in the Big 12.
Campbell can flat-out coach, and USC should want him. But can it get him?
— MOVING DOWN: Bill O'Brien, Alabama offensive coordinator: Nobody talks to the Alabama offensive coordinator due to Nick Saban's rules, so the buzz on USC and O'Brien, the former Penn State and Houston Texans head coach, is likely to stay quiet by default. The Crimson Tide's offense hasn't lost much under his stewardship thus far, even with the losses of quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. He's worth keeping an eye on, but O'Brien doesn't seem to be a fit.
— NEW TO THE HEAT CHECK: Jonathan Smith, Oregon State head coach: Hardly anybody noticed during the pandemic-plagued 2020 season when Oregon State beat rival Oregon. Many more people are picking up on how good of a coach Smith is this year with the Beavers 5-2 overall, 3-1 in the Pac-12 and challenging the Ducks in the North division. Washington's best offenses under Chris Petersen featured Smith holding the controls as offensive coordinator. He was born in Pasadena and is a Glendora High School grad.
— NEW TO THE HEAT CHECK: Dave Clawson, Wake Forest head coach:Clawson has the Demon Deacons 7-0 in his eighth season in Winston-Salem. He's shown he can build a program from the ground up, and he's done it at a private school with higher admissions standards than most of his competitors in the ACC. Clawson isn't exactly going to fire up the faithful, though.
— MOVING UP: PJ Fleck, Minnesota head coach: I don't see Bohn deciding it's USC's turn to "row the boat" with the energetic Fleck, but the Golden Gophers have recovered nicely from their upset loss to Bowling Green with three consecutive wins and are in the mix for the Big Ten West crown once again.
— MOVING DOWN: Kalani Sitake, BYU head coach: The Cougars lost to Baylor and Boise State this month but improved to 4-0 against the Pac-12 by beating Washington State last weekend. They will have the chance to go 5-0 by beating USC in the season finale, which would be quite a statement by Sitake.
— NEW TO THE HEAT CHECK: Raheem Morris, Rams defensive coordinator: Morris got his start coaching college but has been in the NFL for most of the last two decades. There's been some buzz about Morris, who was head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2009-11, but I find it highly unlikely Bohn ends up hiring from the professional ranks for what may be his one shot to get this right.
— Mark Stoops, Kentucky head coach: The Wildcats are 6-1 and there's a clear path to 11-1 and a New Year's Six bowl game. That may be Stoops' ceiling at Kentucky, but he does make $5 million per year to coach a school with zero expectations of winning the conference. That's cushy.
— Chris Petersen, former Washington and Boise State coach: It's so quiet on Petersen the silence has become deafening. Nobody seems to think he wants back into the game at USC. Too bad.
— Bob Stoops, former Oklahoma head coach:Stoops is even less likely than Petersen to come out of retirement in the L.A. pressure cooker.
— MOVING DOWN: Jeff Hafley, Boston College head coach:I had a sense Hafley could have moved up the list with a good season, but Boston College lost its starting quarterback and hasn't been the same.
— MOVING DOWN: Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator:Other than being from Southern California, there's no logical reason to think he leaves the comforts of his life calling plays for Patrick Mahomes.
— MOVING DOWN: Anthony Lynn, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator: I'm sure Bohn is flattered that Lynn would love to coach USC. But it's not happening.
— NEW TO THE HEAT CHECK: Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers head coach: This seemed impossible a month ago, but things are going south quickly with the Panthers losing four in a row. If he's on the outs by season's end, he will have a frenzy of college athletic directors calling.
— NEW TO THE HEAT CHECK: Jeff Fisher, former Rams and Tennessee Titans head coach: It's clear from reports that Fisher wants to be in the mix for his alma mater's head job, but expect the interest to remain one-sided.