The case for Bill O'Brien as USC's next head coach

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It was the second quarter of the 2020 NFL divisional round playoff game and Bill O'Brien and the Houston Texans led 24-zip, on the road, against Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs.

Yes, 24-0. Super Bowl dreams were fair at that moment.

Then Mahomes became Mahomes, O’Brien called for a fake punt that was doomed for failure and an avalanche of everything led to an epic Chiefs rally. K.C. won 51-31 and went on to win the Lombardi Trophy. For O’Brien and Houston, nothing was ever the same.

O’Brien, after a disastrous offseason while also serving as the team’s general manager, was fired just four games into the 2021 season.

It was an ugly end to an otherwise successful run as an NFL head coach, which shouldn’t be forgotten as USC begins its search to replace Clay Helton.

The "College Football Enquirer" podcast breaks down the USC job opening in every conceivable manner this week, including discussing candidates such as Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, Penn State’s James Franklin, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell and even Urban Meyer of the Jacksonville Jaguars and former Washington/Boise State coach Chris Petersen.

Consider this, however, the case for O’Brien, currently the offensive coordinator at Alabama. Or at least a plea that his time as an NFL head coach be put in proper perspective. 

O’Brien was a bad general manager. He was a good coach, though. He went 52-48 with the Texans across six-plus seasons. That included five winning seasons, four AFC South championships and four playoff appearances, where he won a couple of games.

His NFL record is dragged-down by a 4-12 campaign in 2017, but the team was 3-4 before then-rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson was lost to a knee injury. The team finished on a 1-8 run.

The guy can coach. One year he reached the playoffs with his starting quarterbacks consisting of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallet, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden. He won a playoff game with Brock Osweiler under center.

He may be back in college football, but it wasn’t because he was overmatched and bombed out in the NFL.

Prior to Houston, O’Brien took over Penn State in the throes of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and NCAA sanctions. He saved the program, going 15-9 overall and providing impressive stability.

Before that he spent five seasons with New England, including stints as offensive coordinator and Tom Brady’s position coach. His early career college coaching work includes being an assistant at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke.

USC has struggled since Pete Carroll, lured to college from the NFL, returned to the pros in 2009 to take over Seattle. Since then, a parade of Carroll disciples — Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Steve Sarkisian and Helton — have come and gone.

The Trojans have lacked a head coach who can keep top local talent home and then competently coach them up. While landing a proven college winner such as Cristobal, Franklin or Petersen makes plenty of sense, so too does kicking the tires on O’Brien, who would almost certainly take the job.

USC is a job with immense potential. It should contend, if not reach, the playoffs on an annual basis. And if it gets everything moving in the right direction, it can rule the sport the way Carroll did in the 2000s.

Is O’Brien the next Carroll? That’s impossible to say, but he would arrive in L.A. with a better NFL track record and more NCAA experience. Yes, he and DeAndre Hopkins got sideways with each other, but plenty of former players swear by the guy.

He’s certainly a worthy name for debate, which is what occurs on the podcast … so give it a listen.

Also discussed on this edition of the College Football Enquirer:

  • The SEC West is an impressive 13-1 so far, will this result in a wild season?

  • A look at Alabama-Florida, Auburn-Penn State and Nebraska-Oklahoma.

  • A marriage proposal in Tallahassee sparks questions, plus an examination of their wedding registry.

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