Recently, two of college football’s premier jobs have just become available: the head coaching positions at both LSU and USC. Both schools decided to cut ties with their head coaches; USC straight-up fired Clay Helton a few weeks ago, and LSU has reached a mutual agreement with Ed Orgeron to part ways at the end of the season.
Immediately, the chatter has begun regarding who will be the next to head coaches at those two schools. Names are being thrown around left and right, and because LSU and USC are such prestigious programs, there is a ton of overlap in the names being rumored for each school’s top job. It seems reasonable to assume that LSU and USC are going to be competing with one another to lure some of the top names on the market.
Given that both schools have job openings and they’re going to be choosing from the same elite pool of head coaching candidates, there’s been a lot of debate in the sports media and in the blogosphere over which of the two jobs is actually more attractive.
Popular opinion seems to have settled on LSU, although by no means is that a consensus view.
In this post I’m going to try to figure out which job is actually more attractive: LSU or USC.
To make a long story short, there’s no easy answer. While they’re both college football coaching jobs, there are lot of important factors that make the LSU and USC jobs wildly different from one another, and thus almost impossible to compare when you’re viewing them from the perspective of an elite head coaching candidate trying to choose from job offers from both of them.
It’s going to depend a lot of the coaching candidate, honestly. Baton Rouge and Los Angeles are two wildly different cities, and LSU and USC are two wildly different college football programs. Just completely different vibes.
And a guy who will work at LSU may not be a guy who will work at USC, and vice versa (although ironically Ed Orgeron has a history with both schools).
But still, before we get too far into this part of the discussion, let’s identify some objective criteria for trying to figure out which program is “better” and thus the better job.
Off the top of my head, the first thing that came to mind is organizational stability and competency–you want a good athletic director, a good university president and just a well-run, lucrative program in general. After all, while the head coach of a college football team may be the CEO of the football program, is usually the highest-paid public employee in the state (assuming the university is public, which USC is not), and in general possesses a great deal of power within the university and even the city the university is in, he does have a boss: the AD. And the AD answers to the college president. Plus you’ve got the booster network, who collectively have a very high degree of pull.
However, I would say that if the football team is winning, this stuff doesn’t matter quite as much. The better the team is, the more sway the head coach has. The money will pour in from the boosters, too.
Really, this part just boils down to money: how much money does the university have to spend on the coach’s salary, and, equally important, his assistant coaches?
The next thing would be recruiting talent in the surrounding area: is your school in close proximity to consistently good high school football recruits? Recruiting is probably the single most important factor in a college football team’s success, and success in recruiting is influenced heavily by in-state talent.
Location is also an important factor. While this is always going to be subjective to some degree based on the background of the head coaching candidate, it does matter to recruits. Being in a warm-weather state is simply an advantage, and it’s hard to claim otherwise. Beyond that, a school being located in a place that people generally consider desirable and a good place to live and raise a family helps lure in not only good football talent, but also good coaches and staff.
The final item on the objective criteria list is tradition and historical record. Does the program in question have a long history of winning and producing great players? While this may sound irrelevant–we’re talking about the present and the future here, not the past–historical success is important because it is your brand. If you are a historically good program, then you have a strong brand that is attractive to recruits. It means you have a large, nationwide fanbase and sometimes this can make the difference between getting in to the playoffs and getting left out. After all, college football is a televised sport, and ratings are important.
So I would say these are the five most important criteria when comparing college football programs:
Let’s go down the list.
The amount of high school talent in a given state obviously varies somewhat from year to year, but in general, over the years certain states have simply proven to be better at producing football talent on a consistent basis. This has a lot to do with sheer population numbers: the bigger the state’s population, the better the more high school football players, the better the odds of producing standout players.
And this is why, in general, Florida, Texas and California, the three most populous states in the nation, are recognized as having the most football talent year in and year out.
But it’s more than just sheer population size: it’s about culture. In some states, football is just a bigger part of the culture than in others. New York, for example, is the 4th most populous state in America, and almost the exact same population as Florida, but it produces nowhere near as much football talent as Florida does. This is because football isn’t nearly as big in New York as it is in Florida. New York state isn’t even in the top-10 in football talent. New York is more of a basketball state–it produces a ton of high school and college basketball talent. This is probably because most of New York’s population is crammed into a giant urban area, NYC, which isn’t conducive to playing a lot of football. It is, however, conducive to playing basketball, which requires far less space and can be played indoors.
At any rate, let’s try to figure out which states are the best for football recruiting.
This article at Athlon Sports is from 2013, but it tracked recruiting of the top 900 football recruits by state over a 5-year period, from 2008-2012:
Florida, Texas and California were the top dogs by far, then came Georgia, Ohio, Alabama and Pennsylvania.
I’m sure you’re already starting to see the connection.
Let’s get a little more recent. This post from Bleacher Report in 2017 ranked the top states for producing talent over a 7-year period, from 2010-2017, and the results were as follows:
So Texas, Florida and California are your clear-cut top-3. Texas and Florida are the clear-cut top-two, and it’s debatable which state is actually superior, but they’re close enough on a year-to-year basis that it doesn’t really matter which is 1 and which is 2. California is the clear #3.
Then you have Georgia as a pretty clear #4, and then 5-8 is some combination of Alabama, Louisiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. I’d probably rank them in that order myself. Then you have Virginia, and then the states of Illinois, North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan, Maryland/DC, and Mississippi are all in that 10-15 range.
So from this data, you’d probably say USC has to be the better job since it produces more high school talent than Louisiana. Even though Louisiana does quite well, especially given its population relative to California, there is simply more talent available in California.
But it’s not quite that simple. Because USC has to compete for recruits in California with other schools, like Stanford and UCLA most notably, but also Pac-12 schools in the surrounding states, like Oregon, Utah, Washington and Arizona State. Plus, because California is so talent-rich, coaches from all around the country go there to recruit. Right now, the starting quarterbacks at Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson all come from California. Ohio State’s best receiver, Chris Olave, is from California.
USC doesn’t automatically get first dibs on all the best players in the state. They used to, back when Pete Carroll was coaching, but USC has been down for a while, and the allure of USC just isn’t as strong for recruits as it was back in the heyday of USC in the mid-2000s.
Same thing with Texas: you’d expect the Longhorns to clean up in the state, but keep in mind they also have to compete with Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Tech, Houston and TCU–and that’s just in-state. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Arkansas also recruit hard in Texas. Ohio State and Bama, who are probably the two most “national” schools in terms of their recruiting reach, routinely come down into Texas and pluck away 5-star recruits.
Florida is another tough state to monopolize: you’ve got UF, Miami, FSU, UCF and USF all in the state. Plus, Bama and Ohio State recruit Florida hard. Pretty much every big-time program has a recruiting pipeline in Florida.
But in Louisiana, LSU has no real competition in-state. LSU is the only Power Five program in the state of Louisiana, and high school football players there grow up dreaming of playing for LSU. If a top recruit in the state of Louisiana doesn’t end up playing at LSU, it’s probably because he wasn’t offered a scholarship in the first place. LSU has a virtual stranglehold on the recruiting in Louisiana.
I’m looking at Ohio State’s current football roster and I see players from Ohio, California, Florida, Texas, Virginia, New Jersey, Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Missouri, New York, Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma, Washington, Indiana, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and even Australia (lots of punters and kickers come from Down Undah).
But nobody from Louisiana.
Bama, like Ohio State, has players from all over the country. They have an unlimited reach in recruiting. And they have 5 players from the state of Louisiana. (That’s also where they got the Heisman winner DeVonta Smith). But Alabama is also in closer proximity to Louisiana than Ohio State is, so it’s understandable.
Still, though, if even Bama can only manage to get 5 guys on their entire roster–comprised of freshman through seniors–from Louisiana, that just goes to show you how locked-down the state is.
You go and look at LSU’s roster and sure, they’ve been able to recruit from all over, but it is predominantly guys from the state of Louisiana. That’s why they always have guys with Louisiana names: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kayshon Boutte, Carter Arceneaux, Ricky Jean-Francois (a throwback from back in the day). They even have a dude named Pig Cage, and I need to know more about this guy.
Georgia is a similar situation to LSU, where it’s a talent-rich state and UGA has a pretty solid lock on it. But Georgia doesn’t have as much of a lock as LSU does on in-state talent. Georgia is more of a national recruiter than LSU, but less so than Bama and Ohio State.
I’m getting a little carried away here, but the point is, even though California produces more top football recruits by volume than Louisiana, LSU might be the better recruiting situation since they have such a monopoly on the state of Louisiana. USC does not have a monopoly on California–not even close.
Would you rather have a huge piece of a smaller pie, or a smaller piece of a bigger pie?
Now, this is not to say LSU is the better recruiting situation.
It’s the better recruiting situation right now, but if the guy who takes over at USC can really get that program rolling, and start to get a stranglehold on California recruiting, then USC could easily turn into the better recruiting situation.
We saw how dominant USC was under Pete Carroll back in the day, and that dynasty was built with predominantly California guys: Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Troy Polamalu, Rey Mauluga, Clay Matthews, Carson Palmer, Lofa Tatupu, Keith Rivers, Mark Sanchez, Frostee Rucker–all home-grown talent. Sure they had some out-of-state guys like Brian Cushing, LenDale White, Dwayne Jarrett and Taylor Mays, but the vast majority of those guys we remember from the “Trojan War” era were California natives.
If USC really gets rolling, and gets into the national title picture on a yearly basis, watch out. Because all the California kids will be lining up to play there once again. We know that USC has the potential to become a complete juggernaut on almost an Alabama level. It is absolutely possible.
But the problem, which no one has been able to solve in the post-Pete Carroll era, is that it’s almost a paradoxical/catch-22 situation: In order to get good recruits, you have to be a good football program. But in order to be a good football program, you have to have good recruits.
It’s like the problem a lot of people face coming out of college and looking for a job: you need experience to get a job, but you can’t get experience without a job.
This means that whoever takes over the USC job is going to have to sell recruits–who are being courted by Bama, Ohio State, Georgia, Clemson and all the rest–on the idea of being part of bringing USC back to its glory days. Bama and Ohio State are telling these kids they’ll be playing in the biggest games, competing for National Championships and going to the NFL, while the pitch USC’s new coach will have to make is basically that we’re in a rebuild, but if you sign with us, we’re going to turn USC into a powerhouse again.
That’s a hard sell to make.
This is a big part of why so many of these once-great college football programs like USC, Texas, Miami, Michigan, Florida State and Nebraska haven’t been able to come back after down periods. The whole landscape has changed. Kids nowadays don’t want to play for a has-been program; they want to play for the programs that are winning right now. They want to play for Bama, Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma now.
In a lot of ways, the USC job is almost an impossible task: the head coach there has to beat out Ohio State, Bama and Clemson for these recruits while USC just doesn’t have anywhere near as much to offer as those schools do currently.
Top high school football players first and foremost want to go to the NFL. And you do that by going to a premier program where you’ll be developed by the best of the best coaches, and where you’ll get a lot of national exposure by playing in the biggest, most important games (i.e. the playoff).
USC hasn’t even sniffed the playoff once. The Pac-12 is basically irrelevant as a conference in the national picture. This is a big part of the reason why the playoff needs to expand ASAP, but until that happens, it puts USC at a tremendous disadvantage compared to the Big Boys of college football.
You might be able to find some top recruits out there who are interested in the idea of being a part of reviving the USC program, but the vast majority of them are going to say, “Look, coach, that sounds awesome and everything, but my goal is to win a National Championship and then go to the NFL. And the best place for me to do that is at Bama/Ohio State/Georgia.”
Whoever takes over the USC job is going to have to be able to do more with less. It’s unavoidable. He’s going to have to be an elite “Xs & Os” coach who can out-scheme opponents. He will not be able to win on talent alone, at least against the good teams. He will have to out-coach opponents rather than overwhelm them with 4 and 5-star players.
He’s going to have to hire a phenomenal coaching staff with proven track records of developing NFL-caliber talent, because that’s the #1 thing these kids are looking for.
It’s going to be an uphill battle from day one.
That’s why in the recruiting category, I give the advantage to LSU. The reason Ed Orgeron got fired wasn’t because he couldn’t recruit. Just the opposite; Orgeron was a fantastic recruiter. Always has been. Just look at the guy. Who wouldn’t want to play for him? The problem with Orgeron was that he couldn’t maximize his talent. He wasn’t a great game day coach. He wasn’t a great Xs & Os coach.
The new LSU coach is going to have to be a guy who can take advantage of the wealth of talent already on the roster.
Let’s move on to the next category.
As I wrote above, if you start winning a lot of games, the money will come flowing in naturally.
But it helps to already have a well-established network of boosters, as well as a respected and competent AD and university President.
As far as the most valuable college football programs go, who’s got the most money? Well, you probably already know Texas is #1. But we’ll get into the next-richest programs here. I’m going off of this article from the Wall Street Journal, which uses numbers from 2018-2019, and obviously that’s pre-Covid, but if we’re thinking long-term here, we can assume these numbers are pretty accurate and up-to-date. Plus everyone had to deal with Covid. I’m going to list off the top-25 as well as the estimated value of each school’s football program as of 2018-19.
- Texas, $1.1 billion
- Ohio State, $1.05 billion
- Alabama, $1 billion
- Michigan, $924 million
- Notre Dame, $913 million
- Georgia, $891 million
- Oklahoma, $885 million
- Auburn, $871 million
- LSU, $727 million
- Tennessee, $727 million
- Florida, $634 million
- Texas A&M, $540 million
- Penn State, $518 million
- Wisconsin, $474 million
- Nebraska, $471 million
- Arkansas, $462 million
- South Carolina, $460 million
- Iowa, $459 million
- Washington, $440 million
- Michigan State, $354 million
- Oregon, $349 million
- Ole Miss, $341 million
- USC, $326 million
- UCLA, $302 million
- Arizona State, $300 million
Surprisingly, Clemson isn’t among the top-25 most valuable brands in college football. They’re #26 at $298 million.
But clearly LSU is the richer program right now.
USC has really fallen on to some hard times. In terms of revenue, USC ranks just 33rd at $53.4 million, while LSU is all the way up at 11th with revenues of $95.1 million.
It’s really no contest in the money category. LSU is far ahead of USC in both brand value and revenues.
This means that you’re going to be able to pay your assistant coaches more at LSU. You’re going to be able to upgrade your facilities whenever you need to. You’ll be able to jet all over the country on recruiting visits. And you’re going to get paid handsomely yourself as the head coach.
It’s not about how committed a program is to winning. All college football programs want to win.
It’s about how committed your program can be to winning, in terms of dollars.
You want to know what money gets you? Do you want to know what a wealthy program committed to winning looks like? Facilities tell the story. Over the past decade or so, college football programs have built up some absolutely unbelievable football facilities, complete with lounge areas, sleeping pods, barber shops, cryotherapy, arcades, deluxe food courts, ridiculous weight rooms, and so much more.
Take a look at LSU’s new $28 million locker room–it looks like the interior of a damn spaceship:
And that’s not even the half of it. All the top programs these days have facilities that would blow your mind.
247 Sports ranked the 25 best back in March of this year, and LSU’s came in at 7. USC’s was 25. There are no pictures of USC’s facility, but they have a lot of photos of the other schools’, and most of them are truly impressive–almost like spas.
This stuff really matters. It keeps players happy, and it floors high school recruits who come for a visit. It’s all about keeping up with the Joneses in college football, and the only way to do that is with money.
Again, as with recruiting, money is either a virtuous or vicious cycle. If you’re good, you get more and more money, which will enable you to remain good.
But if you’re not good, then revenues drop and it becomes harder and harder to maintain an elite football program.
However, I would say it’s a lot easier to win on a tight budget than it is to win with 2 and 3-star recruits. Look at Cincinnati right now: they’re winning tons of games and they’re not even in the Power 5. A great football coach can win even on a smaller budget.
In terms of money, advantage LSU.
This one sort of goes hand in with money, but I want to focus a bit more on the institutional aspect here. It’s important to have a great boss if you’re a college football coach, and that means the Athletic Director.
Now I personally don’t know much about the various Athletic Directors of college football, so I’m going to outsource this one to Stadium.com’s list from last year of the top-20 FBS ADs:
- Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma
- Gene Smith, Ohio State
- Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin
- Danny White, UCF
- Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame
- Scott Woodward, LSU
- Rob Mullens, Oregon
- Gene Taylor, Kansas State
- Whit Babcock, Virginia Tech
- Ray Anderson, Arizona State
- Mark Coyle, Minnesota
- Vince Tyra, Louisville
- Mack Rhoades, Baylor
- Greg Byrne, Alabama
- Todd Stewart, Western Kentucky
- Tom Holmoe, BYU
- Blake James, Miami (FL)
- John Hartwell, Utah State
- John Currie, Wake Forest
- Terry Mohajir, Arkansas State
A big factor here in these rankings is longevity. Castiglione has been at OU since 1998. Gene Smith has been the Ohio State AD since 2005. Jack Swarbrick has been in charge of Notre Dame since 2008.
Now, while LSU’s Scott Woodward, who ranks 6th on the list, has only been there since 2019, he does have a good track record from his previous tenures as AD at Washington and then Texas A&M. Woodward hired Chris Petersen when he was at Washington, and Jimbo Fisher when he was at A&M.
This means Woodward has a track history of making “blockbuster” coaching hires, and we should probably expect the same from him at LSU.
As for USC, they’ve gone through quite a bit of tumult in the athletic department. During the Pete Carroll era, Mike Garrett was the AD, and he had that position from 1993-2010, when he was forced to resign due to the Reggie Bush scandal that also caused Pete Carroll to bolt to the NFL to avoid the fallout.
They replaced him with Pat Haden, but Haden had somewhat of a rocky tenure. He was the guy who hired Steve Sarkisian, and of course Sarkisian had an absolutely disastrous tenure as USC head coach that culminated with this being fired in late 2015 after appearing drunk at a booster banquet. Haden announced his resignation the following February.
Haden was replaced by Lynn Swann, who played wide receiver for USC in the 1970s, won 4 Super Bowls with the Steelers, and ultimately was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. But Swann only lasted 3 years on the job at USC. His tenure was plagued by scandal, as well as some disappointing football seasons.
Mike Bohn is the current AD in Troy. Previously, he was the AD at Cincinnati from 2014-2019, Colorado from 2005-2013, San Diego State from 2003-2005, and Idaho from 1998-2003.
So Bohn has a lot of experience as an AD, but has never been in charge of a program quite as high-profile as USC.
Still, though, it’s an encouraging sign they’ve hired an AD with actual AD experience. Pat Haden and Lynn Swann both had no experience in administrative work. I feel like USC hired Haden and Swann because they’re both USC football legends on the field from the 1970s. It’s great that they wanted to hire “USC guys,” but just because you were a great football player for USC in the past doesn’t mean you’ll be a great AD.
This will be by far the biggest moment of Mike Bohn’s short tenure at USC, hiring the new head football coach. It will make or break his career, and he knows it.
Bohn may well go on to be a great AD for USC and be remembered one day as the guy who turned things around and helped bring USC back to its former glory.
But until then, I have to give the advantage here again to LSU.
While it might seem like a no-brainer that Los Angeles would win out in this category over Baton Rouge, keep in mind that coaching college football in LA is not for everyone.
Most college towns are small and located in the middle of nowhere, essentially. Sure, you’ve got your UT-Austins and Miamis, and even Columbus, Ohio is a fairly large town (surprisingly the 14th-biggest city in America).
But most college towns are small, and life there revolves around the university, specifically the football team.
I went to Iowa in Iowa City. It’s a pretty small town, only about 75k people if I remember correctly. Kirk Ferentz was a god in that place. He was easily the most famous, well-known person in the city. College football coaches are often larger than life in the small towns where they live and work. Can you imagine being at a grocery store and bumping into Nick Saban?
That’s kind of how Baton Rouge is. People in that city live, eat, sleep and breathe Tiger football. Most of Louisiana is the same way, honestly. The head football coach at LSU is easily the most famous person in the city, and with fame and influence comes power. Now I’m not saying if you’re the head football coach the mayor calls you every day for your input or anything like that (although I wouldn’t be shocked if that does happen in some towns).
But, assuming he’s winning games, the college football coach is the toast of the town in most places. And that’s a big part of why it’s pretty awesome to be a college football coach.
Plus, and I know this is somewhat of a taboo subject, but we all know it happens: players go out on the town, do a little drinking, maybe get in some trouble, and lot of times in these small towns, the police department sweeps it under the rug as long it’s nothing serious. Maybe give the players a ride home instead of slapping them in cuffs and booking them for DUI. Nobody wants any bad publicity or anything like that. Obviously there are some really bad examples of this, like Aaron Hernandez’s shooting incident in Gainesville that was basically covered-up at the time and didn’t become public until like 2014.
There are a lot of benefits to being a college football program in small town, is my point here.
LA is a different story. The head coach of the USC football team is, like, the 7,000th most famous person in the city, and that might even be high. LA is the city of stars. I bet Clay Helton could go out to eat with his wife and nobody would even notice him sometimes.
It’s not a college football town. LA has the Lakers, the Rams, the Dodgers and many other pro sports teams. They have Hollywood. They have the beach. They have the mountains. There is so much to do in LA. Plus, the culture is a lot more laid-back and therefore not as passionate regarding football as it is in a place like Baton Rouge. LSU fans sell Tiger Stadium out pretty much every Saturday (although there were some noticeable empty seats in the Florida game this past weekend).
USC over the past 5 seasons (excluding last year) averaged about 66,000 fans per game, but the Coliseum can hold over 77,000 fans. And before the renovation, which was completed in 2019, it held over 93,000. USC only averages about 85% capacity in its stadium these days. LSU, on the other hand, averages about 100,000 fans a game over the past 5 years, or 98.4% capacity.
The only time USC football really took center stage in LA was the Pete Carroll era. So it is possible for USC to be the biggest show in town, even in LA. But those days are long gone, and we’ll probably never see anything quite like it again, even if USC does start winning National Championships again.
This is not to say there’s no pros to coaching college football in LA. Far from it, actually.
When USC was good in the 2000s, they had Snoop Dogg coming to practices. There were celebrities in the stands all the time. Everybody wanted a piece of the USC football team. If you ever listen to Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush talk about what it was like to be on those USC teams, it sounds like it was absolutely wild.
When you’re winning games and competing for championships, everything changes. Fans pack the house, everybody’s talking about you, money is flowing in from the boosters, recruits are begging for spot on the team–it’s a whole different ballgame.
We have seen what it looks like when USC is on top of college football. It’s unlike anything else in sports.
Now, again, I highly doubt we’ll ever see anything quite like the Pete Carroll era at USC again. LA has two pro football teams now. And Reggie Bush was a once-in-a-generation talent.
But the potential is there in that town. There are tons of USC fans out there waiting for their team to be great once again–plus plenty of other people who will hop on the bandwagon because it seems like the place to be.
Plus, now that college athletes can profit off of name, image and likeness, what’s a better place for an up-and-coming football player to play than Los Angeles? The NIL possibilities are endless, and that’s a major selling point going forward for USC recruits. LSU players might be able to sign a lucrative deal with a local car dealership, but USC players could get put into a Hollywood movie. That’s a game-changer. Money talks, and no place in college football has more of it than LA.
The point is, LA is a radically different setting to be a college football coach or player than Baton Rouge. That doesn’t make it worse, that doesn’t make it better, but it does mean that it might take a different kind of coaching personality to succeed in USC than in a place like LSU.
This is why I can’t really give the advantage to either school here. LA offers a ton of attractive selling points, but so does Baton Rouge, albeit in a very different way.
However, there is one major factor in this category that we haven’t considered, although I did touch on it a bit above in the recruiting section: region.
LSU is located in the most talent-rich part of the country for football. Right next door is Texas, Mississippi and Arkansas, and then within a day’s drive is Florida, Alabama and Georgia. It’s easier for southern schools to recruit southern players.
USC is certainly in a recruiting hotbed in Southern California, but when you zoom out to the entire region, the west doesn’t come anywhere close to the South.
Right now, LSU is definitely the stronger brand.
But if you asked this question 10-15 years ago, it would’ve been USC with the way stronger brand. USC was probably the best brand in college football in the 2000s, which means it has the potential to become the best brand in college football again.
As far as the stats go, LSU claims 4 National Championships, while USC claims 11, although only 8 of them happened in the poll era (1936-present).
USC has 7 Heisman winners in its history (and yes, I’m including Reggie Bush because fuck the NCAA), while LSU has 2 (Joe Burrow, and Billy Cannon in 1958).
All-time record-wise, USC is 13th in wins with a record of 852-352-34, while LSU is 16th with an 817-420-47 overall record. They’re pretty similar in terms of pedigree. USC is better historically dating back to the 1960s and 1970s and even earlier, while LSU has been better lately, with 3 National Titles since 2003 (2003, 2007, 2019).
The million dollar question, though, is which school is more impressive in the eyes of a recruit, and I think the answer to that right now is LSU. Not only is LSU a good program in its own right, but they play in the SEC, and that matters a lot to recruits. Recruits want to play in the SEC. There’s a reason Texas and Oklahoma are joining the conference. It’s the place to be in college football.
The Pac-12, meanwhile, is one of the weakest brands in college football. The conference is now basically a non-factor in the playoff picture, and that turns recruits off big-time.
But as I keep saying, USC has the potential to elevate its brand into that Alabama/Ohio State territory.
I don’t know that LSU can get to that level. LSU is one of the premier programs in the country, but it’s never been the premier program in the country. That hasn’t stopped LSU from pulling in elite recruiting classes, of course. LSU is regularly in the top-10 and lately in the top-5 every year.
But for some reason, I just see USC’s brand “ceiling” as a bit higher than LSU’s. The reason, I think, is that USC has better potential to recruit nationally–coast-to-coast. I know LSU pulls in players from all over, but if USC was firing on all cylinders, I think they’d have a better brand nationally. LSU’s brand is better in the south, for sure, and that matters a ton, but I don’t think they could ever reach the national brand power that USC could (and had).
Plus, while LSU has won 3 National Titles since 2003, they have had some down years in between. For some reason LSU just hasn’t really been able to sustain greatness the way USC did in the 2000s.
Now LSU has had 11 seasons since 2000 where they’ve won 10 or more games, and that’s mighty impressive. But there’s quite a few 8 and 9-win seasons sprinkled in there. They went just 5-5 last year.
Alabama, on the other hand, since Saban arrived, has had 13 seasons in a row of at least 10 wins. In fact, they only have 1 10–win season since 2008: they’ve won at least 11 games or more in 12 of their last 13 seasons.
From 2002-2008, USC had 7 straight seasons of at least 11 wins or more. That’s staying power; that’s consistent greatness. LSU, though, has had spurts of greatness.
If you take out the one season where they had Joe Burrow and went 15-0, LSU hasn’t really been a truly great program over the past decade:
See what I mean? LSU loses way more games than a program that recruits at the level they recruit at should lose.
I’m scrolling through this page on Sports Reference of every LSU season since 1902, and LSU has never been more successful than they have since 2000, when they hired Nick Saban as head coach. Even in this golden era of LSU football historically, they’ve never been able to string together more than 4 10-win seasons in a row.
They’ve got 1 playoff berth in the CFP era.
And in the BCS era, from 1998-2013, only once did LSU make back-to-back BCS bowls in consecutive seasons: 2006 and 2007, when they won the National Championship.
They’ve only got 5 top-5 finishes in the AP Poll since 2000, and the most they’ve ever had in a row is 2, in 2006 and 2007. Ohio State has 14 top-5 finishes since 2000, including 4 in a row currently, and Bama has 9 top-5 finishes in the past 13 seasons.
In terms of number of weeks ranked in the AP Poll, LSU sits at a respectable 640, but that’s still way behind Ohio State (942), Michigan (879), Oklahoma (869), Notre Dame (841), Alabama (833), USC (787), and Texas (748).
LSU can be elite for a season at a time once every 5-7 years, but they’re never able to sustain it. They’re never consistently elite. Not even when they had Nick Saban as head coach!
I think USC, however, has the potential to be a year-in, year-out powerhouse like Alabama and Ohio State.
USC has the higher ceiling.
Does it matter right now? No, not really. Again, I think LSU has the better brand right now. How could they not being just 2 years removed from Joe Burrow and the National Title, and with dudes like Burrow, Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase lighting it up in the NFL?
But if USC gets moving in the right direction, and recruits start to sense that, it will matter.
Of the 5 categories I laid out, LSU has the clear advantage in three of them: recruiting, money and institutional strength/competency.
It was hard to determine a clear winner in the location category, because I can see arguments for both schools being superior, however given the fact that LSU is in the South, I think I’d give the slight edge to LSU there as well.
And LSU has the superior brand right now, as I just went over, which means that technically LSU wins 5 out of the 5 categories and is the better head coaching job right now over USC.
But as I said in the last two sections, I think USC has the higher ceiling as a program.
We all know what USC can be when they’re at their best. And if USC is at their best, then they have the locational advantage–not just over LSU, but over everybody else, too. Who wouldn’t want to win National Championships while mingling with the stars? You can become a full-blown celebrity if you do great things at USC.
NIL is a game-changer for everybody, but especially USC being in LA. That’s the x-factor here because USC could represent the unique opportunity for players to capitalize like crazy given all the money floating around in that town.
The conference aspect is another big part of the equation, although I barely even touched on it above. Players want to play in the SEC. It’s why Texas A&M was so mad about Texas joining the conference: A&M wants to be the only SEC school in the state of Texas. It’s a major selling-point in recruiting.
But from a coaching perspective, being in the SEC also has its downsides. For one, you have to play Bama. And you have to recruit against them, too. Plus, Georgia has become an elite program, so that’s another massive obstacle.
On the other hand, if you’re in the Pac-12, you can dominate that conference the way Clemson dominates the ACC, and to a lesser extent the way Ohio State dominates the Big Ten (although the Big Ten is much tougher than both the Pac-12 and ACC). You look at the way USC ran through the Pac-12 on a yearly basis back in the Pete Carroll era: if USC ever got back to even close to its former glory, they’d be in the playoff automatically every year. Nobody in that conference would be able to beat them.
Ultimately, though, USC and LSU are very different schools in terms culture and vibe. And that’s why it’s almost a moot point to even compare the two jobs: a guy who’s a great fit for LSU might not be such a great fit at USC, and vice versa.
At first with LSU I was thinking they’d need a southerner to be able to really latch on in Baton Rouge, just because of how Ed Orgeron is basically Louisiana personified, but I’m not so sure about that now. The greatest football player in LSU history, Joe Burrow, was an Ohio State transfer. Les Miles was born in Elyria, Ohio, played at Michigan, and spent his entire coaching career before LSU, from 1980-2005, in either the north or somewhere not in the deep south. He was coaching Oklahoma State before jumping to LSU, and it’s a well-known fact that he’s wanted the Michigan job basically his entire life.
Nick Saban, the man who really elevated LSU to the place it is today in the early 2000s, is from West Virginia and spent basically his entire pre-LSU coaching career from 1973-1999 in the north outside of a 2-year stint with the Houston Oilers from 1988-1989. Saban was the coach of Michigan State before taking the LSU job.
So I don’t think you have to be from Louisiana or from the South to succeed at LSU, not at all. You just have to be able to recruit and win football games. I really think LSU has a long list of options for their head coaching position, be it current Michigan State coach Mel Tucker (currently the favorite at +200), Lane Kiffin, Luke Fickell, James Franklin, etc. I don’t know if they’ll be able to steal any of those guys away other than maybe Fickell, but there’s plenty of options right now.
USC, I think, is one of those jobs that really needs The Right Guy. I think USC does need a guy who’s more laid back and not as much of the prototypical hardass college football coach. I’m not saying they need a guy who’s exactly like Pete Carroll–laid back, California cool, big personality, infectious smile, etc.–because I’m not sure there’s another Pete Carroll out there.
But USC does need someone who understands that coaching at USC is just different from everywhere else. Being a college football coach in Los Angeles is not the same as being a coach in College Station or Tuscaloosa or Knoxville. A west coast background would be nice, but not required–after all, half the people in LA moved there from somewhere else in the first place.
I’m not sure about names like James Franklin or Mario Cristobal or PJ Fleck. They’re really fiery and intense guys–again, the prototypical hardass college football coach.
I could see a guy like Dave Aranda, the guy who’s got Baylor playing so well right now, being a fit. He’s a Southern California native with decades of coaching experience. Thing is, he’s got more ties to LSU than USC–he was LSU’s defensive coordinator from 2016-2019 including that National Championship team (and LSU’s defense has been a trainwreck since he left.) It wouldn’t preclude him from taking the USC job by any stretch, it’s just that LSU might also be coming after him.
Luke Fickell could work, too. He’s obviously a really good coach, and he’s had years of experience at Ohio State, even being being thrust in as the head coach in 2011 after Jim Tressel had to resign in disgrace. Although that season didn’t go so well, he was only 38 at the time and had zero head coaching experience, plus the whole program was reeling in the wake of the scandal. He’s gotten so much better and more experienced as a coach in the decade since then. Fickell might not be from the west coast but he’s definitely more of a laid back guy, at least he comes off that way in interviews. Would he be able to handle Los Angeles? I don’t know about that. I doubt there are many guys out there who could, honestly. Sure, he’s in Cincinnati, which is a big-ish city, but LA is a whole different beast.
A name I keep coming back to is Lane Kiffin. I don’t know why, but I think he might be the best fit for the USC job. Now, granted, the biggest problem with Lane Kiffin is that he’s already had the USC job and it didn’t work out. I’m not sure it would go over well with the fanbase if they were to bring him back, and it’s also possible he wants nothing to do with USC himself.
But the guy was thrust into a no-win situation at USC when he was the head coach from 2010-2013. For one, he was the immediate successor to Pete Carroll and was tasked with cleaning up one of the biggest messes in college football history. The NCAA absolutely nuked USC in 2010: 2-year bowl ban, the loss of 30 scholarships over a 3-year period, and USC had to vacate basically everything they won during Reggie Bush’s career. Despite all this, Kiffin still managed to go 28-15 at USC, although he was fired after a 3-2 start in his 4th season.
Kiffin was only 35 when he took the USC job. It was a long time ago, but if you remember back in those days, Lane Kiffin was basically the Sean McVay of that era: the boy-wonder of coaching who everybody wanted a piece of. He had the “meteoric rise” and in 2007, he was hired as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders at just 31, and until McVay was hired by the Rams 10 years later, Kiffin was the youngest head coach in NFL history.
It didn’t work out with the Raiders, partly because Kiffin was young and overconfident, but also partly because the Raiders were an absolute dumpster fire of an organization back then. This was back when Al Davis was still alive and he was widely regarded as the worst owner in the league. The Raiders kicked off the Kiffin era by drafting JaMarcus Russell, arguably the biggest bust in NFL history, which was, according to Kiffin’s Wikipedia page, a decision that Kiffin “vehemently opposed.” He lasted basically one season in Oakland, and Davis fired him early into the 2008 season.
Kiffin then got the Tennessee Vols job in 2009, but only lasted a year there, and probably because the USC job opened up after the season and was offered to him.
Maybe Lane Kiffin was immature and not ready to be a head coach starting at the age of 31. Or maybe he was put into some pretty awful situations, whether it be working for Al Davis, or taking over USC in the wake of the sanctions. Maybe it was a little bit of both.
But Kiffin is now 46. Immediately after USC, he spent 3 years at the Nick Saban School of Coaching Rehabilitation, serving as the OC for Bama and winning a National Championship in 2015. Bama probably would’ve three-peated during Kiffin’s tenure if not for Ezekiel Elliott in 2014 and DeShaun Watson in 2016. He then got the head coaching job at FAU, going 11-3 and winning the C-USA Conference Title his first year (2017). It was literally the greatest season in FAU history. Although he went 5-7 his second year, the following year, 2019, FAU went 10-3 with another Conference Title. After three years he was offered the Ole Miss job, where he is now. He went 5-5 in the Covid year last year, but now he has Ole Miss at 5-1 and ranked #12 in the AP Poll.
I have no idea if USC would be willing to give Lane Kiffin another shot, or if he would be willing to give them another shot, for that matter. But I do know that the guy who fired him at 3:00am on the tarmac of LAX airport, Athletic Director Pat Haden, is long gone. It’s been 8 years since Lane was at USC.
USC is where Lane Kiffin got his start and made his name in the coaching world: he started as a tight ends coach at the very beginning of Pete Carroll’s tenure there in 2001, and rose through the ranks until becoming the offensive coordinator for the 2005 and 2006 seasons. This man was there for almost the whole Golden Age of USC football–the Carson Palmer Heisman season, the Matt Leinart Heisman season, the Reggie Bush Heisman season, the Bush Push Game, and not to mention both National Championships.
If there’s anyone out there who can bring USC back, wouldn’t it be Lane Kiffin? He knows what it was like back then. He was a part of the glory days. He saw how it worked from the inside. Plus, Lane Kiffin is the guy who brought Nick Saban’s Alabama offense into the 21st century–prior to Kiffin Bama was all running, defense and QBs like AJ McCarron. Clearly the guy is an offensive genius.
Kiffin wasn’t ready back in 2010. The program was in disarray. It was a no-win situation for anybody.
I really think USC should give Kiffin another chance. He’s older and way more experienced now. He’s learned from the best of the best. He’s even referred to his firing at USC as a “humbling experience.” Plus, who wants to coach in the SEC and compete against Saban year in and year out? Not to mention Georgia. Get out of there, go to the Pac-12, turn USC into a contender and then meet Bama in the playoff.
It would be like some shit out of a movie, though. The hotshot up-and-coming young coach gets the job of his dreams at a young age, only he fails spectacularly due to both his hubris and inexperience. Humbled, he is then forced to reevaluate himself. He travels the land in search of redemption. He learns from a wise
kung fu coaching master, and grows as a man in the process. Applying the lessons he’s learned, he slowly begins working his way back up the coaching ranks, until one day he is at last ready to try again where he previously failed.
Only this time, he succeeds.
Will it actually happen? Probably not. Oddsmakers have Kiffin as a longshot +5000 to be the next USC coach.
But neither he nor USC should rule a reunion out. Imagine what an incredible story it would be!