The day’s biggest headlines were written Saturday morning in America’s heartland before a minute of football had been played, when a confluence of unfortunate events led to a rowdy crowd of Nebraska fans feeding the ever-hungry ego of college football’s most controversial iconic former head coach.
“We want Urban!” they chanted toward the smug and smiling Urban Meyer, who had his back to the adoring throng on the set of Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff” weekly pregame show in Lincoln, Neb.
Like everything that happens in the sport these days, some of this scene was simply made-for-TV. Even the Fox crew egged on the Big Red faithful, who entered Saturday’s meeting with old rival Oklahoma still reeling from their team’s loss to Clay Helton’s Georgia Southern Eagles a week prior. The result triggered the immediate firing of Nebraska alum Scott Frost.
But some of the love showered upon Meyer, the former national championship-winning coach at Florida and Ohio State, was also very real. They. Do. Want. Urban. This, despite all of his past issues — and the inevitable baggage that comes with him.
If you found yourself confused, it should have started to make more sense as the rest of Saturday’s slate unfolded — especially how it ended, with Lincoln Riley’s No. 7 USC Trojans methodically putting down one of the most ferocious underdogs out there — the Fresno State Bulldogs — 45-17 in front of a national audience.
In just its third game under Riley, USC was cold in its precision, which, of course, is exactly what it paid for last November when it pried Riley out of Oklahoma in the dead of night.
The Trojans, who will travel to play fellow unbeaten Oregon State on Saturday, appeared to get better from Week 2 to 3. Like at Stanford, the game was never in doubt — USC jumped to a 21-3 lead by scoring on its first three drives — but this time there was no second-half letdown. The Trojans are now winning the turnover battle 10-0.
Three weeks into this season, the judgments of which coaches are elite — and, therefore, worth the astronomical investment — are no longer a snap.
USC, no matter what happens from here in 2022, is evidence that the right head coaching hire can paint an entirely new and refreshing trajectory after one strategic offseason. Watching Riley’s team at 3-0, you have to squint to see 4-8 in the rearview mirror.
Saturday, there were many examples to the contrary. Once again, Notre Dame struggled under first-year coach Marcus Freeman. If not for a dropped Hail Mary pass from California quarterback Jack Plummer in the Notre Dame end zone, the Fighting Irish would have been headed to overtime against the Golden Bears. Instead, Notre Dame held on 24-17. That’s how Freeman won his first game as the program’s head coach after three losses to begin his tenure, including one a week earlier at home to Marshall, which lost Saturday to Bowling Green.
“It’s hard to win football games,” a relieved Freeman said afterward.
Thus far, it hasn’t looked hard for USC. That moment will come, but it has arrived much faster at Louisiana State, which lost its debut under Brian Kelly to Florida State, and at Florida, where Billy Napier’s Gators were a South Florida field goal away from a terrifying trip to overtime Saturday.
No such fear has entered the atmosphere among USC fans just yet.
“My Saturday nights are so much better now,” tweeted Fox radio host Colin Cowherd, an ardent follower of the Trojans. “True happiness #FightOn.”
It should be noted that his tweet came in the first quarter. That’s how quickly the game was over against a respectable Fresno State team that beat UCLA at the Rose Bowl last season.
Riley’s turnaround of the Trojans, as tantalizing as it probably looks from afar, could be a toxin disguised as an elixir for a program in Nebraska’s situation.
Sure, Nebraska and USC share a trait as traditional blue bloods that fell on hard times in the 2010s. As of June, they also left their conference to join the Big Ten, albeit a decade apart. The commonalities end there, truly.
Ironically, a year after the Trojans canned Clay Helton because of an embarrassing Week 2 loss, the Huskers waved goodbye to Frost because he lost to Helton, now the coach at Georgia Southern.
Nebraska could have bought out Frost for $7.5 million on Oct. 1 but was so desperate to move on, it agreed to pay him $15 million early last week.
For many reasons — proximity to talented recruits first among them — Nebraska is unlikely to rebuild as quickly as USC has under Riley. Everyone knows this, which is why the Cornhuskers won’t be able to go poach a can’t-miss coach from a big program the way the Trojans did.
Frost, a native son, was the home-run hire and he whiffed. The desperation for relevancy — to feel the way USC fans get to feel now every Saturday — has only increased. And Meyer — despite getting fired less than a full season into his disastrous tenure leading the Jacksonville Jaguars and questions about how he handled domestic violence allegations involving his Ohio State staff — is the clearest path through the corn maze.
Nebraska has other intriguing options to pursue. Intriguing, not intoxicating.
Washington’s Kalen DeBoer, in much quieter fashion than Riley, has revitalized his program in one offseason. The Huskies sped past No. 11 Michigan State 39-28 on Saturday night in Seattle.
Kansas’ Lance Leipold, who has won in every head coaching job he has had, has the Jayhawks 3-0 for the first time since 2009 after back-to-back impressive road wins at West Virginia and Houston.
These kinds of traditional candidates could end up being great hires for Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts, but they won’t get a crowd lustily chanting.
Because Nebraska won’t be appealing to a guy like Lincoln Riley, who already has it made, the school will feel pressure to consider a guy like Urban Meyer to achieve the same effect.
The Pac-12 championship race got a lot more interesting Saturday when Washington knocked around Michigan State and No. 25 Oregon pounded No. 12 Brigham Young 41-20.
The Huskies, led by Indiana transfer quarterback Michael Penix Jr., look capable of competing with Utah and USC. DeBoer, who came from Fresno State, deserves a ton of credit for bringing that offense back to life after years of boring, predictable play.
Dan Lanning got his first big win as Oregon’s coach just two weeks removed from a humbling beatdown against Georgia. Auburn transfer quarterback Bo Nix might have played his best college game.
Add in Washington State, which improved to 3-0 and has a win at Wisconsin in its back pocket, and this is the best the top of the Pac-12 has looked as a whole since 2016.
UCLA verdict still out
UCLA sure looks as if it’s in trouble after needing a last-second field goal to beat South Alabama. After all, this is Year 5 for Chip Kelly.
The Bruins will have to clean up their execution. The game would not have been that close if not for the laughable unforced errors.
We’ll find out whether Kelly deserves a sixth season when the Bruins play Washington, Utah and Oregon in a row. As of now, that looks like an 0-3 stretch.
But first, the Bruins face an awful Colorado team.
Next coaches out
UCLA fans remember how nice Karl Dorrell is. They also remember how that wasn’t enough.
Colorado lost to Minnesota on Saturday 49-7 and is now 0-3. Dorrell’s ouster seems a foregone conclusion.
The same can be said for Georgia Tech’s Geoff Collins after Mississippi beat the Yellow Jackets 42-0 in Atlanta.
Auburn coach Bryan Harsin’s days are probably numbered, too, after Penn State dominated the Tigers 41-12.
Future Big Ten rankings
1. Ohio State
4. Penn State
5. Minnesota (up 2)
6. Wisconsin (up 3)
7. Michigan State (down 2)
8. Maryland (up 2)
9. UCLA (down 1)
10. Purdue (down 4)
12. Iowa (up 1)
13. Indiana (down 1)