There was no shortage of crazy games this weekend in college football. Of course, that’s to be expected of any weekend in college football.
But this was a particularly packed weekend of important games for USC fans outside of the Trojans’ showdown with the Buffaloes in Colorado. Thankfully, the Trojans’ matchup was on a Friday night, leaving all of Saturday to channel surf, both across and outside of the Pac-12.
For the sake of this season, the most significant game for the Trojans was definitely Utah’s loss to Arizona. The Wildcats came up big for USC, handing the Utes their second loss in conference play this season. The second loss tied the Trojans up with Utah in the conference standings, and with USC’s big win over Utah a couple weeks ago in the Coliseum, USC controls the head-to-head tiebreaker.
But the game I was most interested in outside of USC’s was not a Pac-12 battle, or even a Power Five conference matchup. For me, the most intriguing conference battle was in the American Athletic Conference between Houston and Memphis.
Of course, these aren’t two big-name college football programs — Memphis has had some strong history in basketball, but that hasn’t amounted to much since John Calipari left the program for Kentucky. And the AAC certainly isn’t the premier stop for high-level, super competitive college football featuring future NFL talent.
However, both programs made big splashes this year with very extended undefeated starts. Memphis also had a marquee win with its upset over Ole Miss of the SEC, the only team so far this year that has beaten another powerhouse rendition of Alabama. Both have climbed into the top 25 of the AP poll, so there was a small chance the two could factor into the national championship conversation.
But the real reason why I thought it was interesting was because of the two head coaches at the respective programs. Speculation over who would become the next full-time head coach of the USC football program began once it was announced that former head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired just a day after being placed on administrative leave. Just as the USC program was being swamped in turmoil again, Houston and Memphis were both making their ascents into the national polls.
Both Memphis and Houston were led by young, dynamic, up-and-coming coaches. And sure enough, both of those names frequently popped up on potential candidates to coach the Trojans. Justin Fuente, the head man at Memphis, had just come off a three-year stint as the offensive coordinator at TCU, another mid-major team that emerged as a legitimate national power with the help of some conference realignment. Houston is led by Tom Herman, who was fresh off a national championship at Ohio State as the team’s offensive coordinator before taking over Houston this year. He helped orchestrate the Buckeye’s title run in 2014 despite losing their starting and backup quarterback during the season due to injuries.
So I had circled the matchup between Houston and Memphis on my calendar a while back. The two teams and coaches were certainly worried about more important things for their program, but I viewed it as a potential audition for our head coaching vacancy.
Memphis actually dropped a game before heading into the big conference showdown. The Tigers were shut down by Navy, another very strong mid-major team that’s cracked the top 25 rankings. So the matchup wasn’t quite as exciting as I had originally thought a couple weeks earlier. But I was already leaning toward Herman before Memphis dropped to Navy, and the real test for me was whether or not he should move from the long list of candidates to the short list. And personally, I think the answer is yes.
My initial intrigue into Herman had to do with his prior work at Ohio State. He was an assistant under Urban Meyer, arguably just behind Alabama’s Nick Saban for the biggest name in college football coaching. As a fan coming from the Pete Carroll days, I hope for a return of the USC dynasty, and this next hire will decide whether that happens. Of course, the last two times USC has gone with assistants from the Carroll era, it hasn’t worked out well. But I think a branch off a different coaching family tree could be the key to the next Trojan national championship team.
And Herman’s Cougars impressed against Memphis. Down 20 points just before halftime, and then again just after the start of the fourth quarter, Houston rallied behind a backup quarterback to win 35-34. It wasn’t pretty, but the Cougars got it done. That’s what it takes in college football, and that’s what you want out of a head coach.
Coincidentally, USC’s win over Colorado showed just that of interim coach Clay Helton. There was plenty of criticism for USC letting leads slip last year, but Helton and the Trojans held on to a tight, ugly win against the Buffaloes after going down early, and that’s a great sign for the team going forward this season. Whether this means he’ll be able to hold on to his job title for the long term is still to be seen.
It’s too early to really say what will happen in the head coaching search. All we can say is that USC now has a legitimate shot at the Rose Bowl, and controls its own destiny toward that goal.
Houston, on the other hand, could still win out and probably miss the CFP, much like the three-loss Trojans. I’m rooting for that, too, to give Herman some extra motivation to possibly jump ship if the USC job is open.