Like dominoes falling, the coaches of the four teams that finished at the bottom of the SEC 2012 dogpile all received their pink slips in rapid-fire sequence: Joker Phillips at Kentucky, John L. Smith at Arkansas, Derek Dooley at Tennessee and, last but not least, Gene Chizik at Auburn. Additionally, two head coaching jobs also opened in the ACC with the terminations of NC State's Tom O'Brien and Boston College Frank Spaziana.
None of these dismissals were unexpected, of course - with the possible exception of the Tom "The Notorious T.O.B." O'Brien - but they've sent shock-waves across the breadth and length of southern football. Who will be staying and who will be going? And what will it mean for recruiting - both short and long term? To date, only UK has signed a new coach - ex-FSU defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. For the others, the only thing crazier than the wish lists (Gruden to UT? Really?) are the rumors flying left and right.
Hand in glove also come a new wave of conference realignments. Maryland (a charter ACC member, who along with Clemson and USC was one of the main proponents of forming the ACC back in 1952-1953) has bolted for the Big 10. The ACC has picked the Big East's pocket to bring on Louisville as a replacement for the Terrapins, with Cincinnati and UConn begging at the door. In turn, the Big East has snatched Tulane and East Carolina (football only) out of C-USA, and C-USA has raided the Sunbelt for Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic. The rumor mill also has the Big XII making one more play for Clemson and Florida State to bolt the ACC - who may or may not be waiting to see whether the ACC settles with Maryland for less than the $50m buy-out.
When will the madness stop? More importantly, what impact will have it on South Carolina. Let's examine the situation on a school-by-school basis.
Arkansas. John L. Smith's chances to hold onto the head spot in Arkansas probably crashed and burned around the Rutgers game, and were plowed under and replanted when it was revealed just how much debt he was under in his bankruptcy proceedings. By the time of his "smile" and "it's an Alabama thing" pressers, he was a dead man walking. Hog fans are rightly concerned why A.D. Jeff Long hadn't lined anyone up. Sources say talks with TCU head coach Gary Patterson collapsed a few weeks back; Patterson is clearly the best man for the job with serious head coaching experience. But then Arkansas humiliated itself by letting Les Miles use the Razorbacks as a foil to beat more money out of LSU. Will the Hogs throw big money at Patterson? If he says no - and assuming Charlie "Third and Long" Strong sticks at Louisville - then Louisana Tech's Sonny Dykes is realistically the best guy out there - from both a recruiting geography and resume standpoint.
What does it mean for USC? Probably one more year of success against the Hogs. Arkansas will certainly lose QB Tyler Wilson, RB Knile Davis and WR Cobi Hamilton to the 2013 NFL Draft - which will be huge shoes to fill for a program that didn't recruit as well under Bobby Petrino as their success would have led you to believe. A new coach can turn around morale, but there are big holes to fill on both sides of the ball which won't be rectified in just one year. The Cocks travel to Fayetteville in 2013. Hopefully, we'll have the upper hand over whoever is hired to pace the sidelines at Razorback Stadium in what will likely be our last tilt wit the Hogs as "permanent cross-division rivals." After that, we'll be worrying about Johnny Football.
Kentucky. Joker Phillips got kind of a bum deal. Having to start four different QBs, among the plethora of injuries that plagued that 'Cats in 2012, handicapped him from the beginning of his "hot seat" year. Wildcat fans probably only now realize just how good they had it under Rich Brooks. Can Mark Stoops - the little brother of OU head coach Bob Stoops and OU D.C. Mike Stoops - right a ship that is torpedoing to the bottom like the RMS Titanic? It's a fair question. Mark's FSU defense didn't look particularly impressive against Clemson, NC State or Florida - despite a rash of 4 and 5 star talent across the Seminole starting eleven. Kentucky may have one defensive star every four or five years (e.g. Danny Trevathan) but Stoops has a lot of ground to cover in recruiting, and it will be at least two or three years before we can tell if the rebuild is working.
What does it mean for USC? Status quo ante. We've only lost to UK on the gridiron once since 2000 (after going 3-5 against them in our first eight seasons in the SEC). Talent-wise, we're going to be better than UK for the foreseeable future; our main 2014 recruiting QB target is from the Bluegrass State. The success of Strong's Louisville and James Franklin's Vanderbilt will only make Wildcat recruiting that much more difficult over the next few years. Plus, from a coaching standpoint, Steve Spurrier will have the advantage over first-time head coach Mark Stoops. UK may steal a game perhaps, but they won't be favored. We get the 'Cats at W-B in 2013, too.
A possible wrinkle. The Stoops and Spurriers are still friendly. Steve Spurrier, Jr. coached under both Bob Stoops at OU and Mike Stoops at 'Zona. Would it be a good career move for him to take a job with Mark in Lexington, out of his father's shadow? Would Mark want/need him - after all, Mark knows Southern recruiting pretty well after three seasons in Tallahassee, and three at Coral Gables in the early 2000s. With his triplets + one, "Bubba" Spurrier may not want to bolt Columbia. I personally think he doesn't get enough credit as our WR coach, not to mention the fact he's done really well as recruiting coordinator over the past few seasons.
Tennessee. Think Jay Graham is a happy camper? Thanks for nothing, Peyton! Seriously, there are big problems on Rocky Top. QB Tyler Bray is certain to bolt for the NFL, along with NFL-eligible WR's Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter. Would you stick around to watch the dumpster fire in Knoxville. Amazing that a program that was a model of sustained excellence could fall so far, so fast. Like Auburn, it shows you want a couple of bad coaching decisions can mean. It also explains why South Carolina wallowed so long in mediocrity. The hardcore Vol faithful were sure Jon Gruden would come that it must be only setting in that they never had a chance. Will AD Dave Hart land a "big name" after the Vols struck out just three years earlier in a similar search (when Lane Kiffin ran away to coach Southern Cal). Tennessee will be back one day ... but it won't be in the next few years, either. Who will end up coaching at Rocky Top? Probably someone good (e.g., Sonny Dykes) but not as big a name as they had hoped - unless Hart can really put a rabbit out of his hat (e.g., Al Golden). Which is good for us - while it lasts.
What does it mean for USC? Ditto with UK - status quo ante. Under Spurrier, we've completely "reeled in" UT - going 5 and 3 during the HBC's tenure in Columbia, plus we're also keeping talent in-state that would have been playing for Big Orange just a decade ago. That's not to say the Vols won't be a tough out, or a team that we can overlook. But they're stuck with a 3-4 defense that needs to be changed back to a 4-3 or 4-2-5, and they need to go back to the drawing board on offense. Rocky Top's recruiting budget will give them a hand-up, but unless they come poach an assistant from us, I don't see any major impact. We should be favored in 2013 and, hopefully, in 2014.
Possible Wrinkle - will a new UT coach hire Ellis Johnson? Maybe. That would sting a bit on the recruiting trail. But so would E.J. at NC State and especially Clemson (if FSU hires away Brent Venables).
Auburn. I have to admit to a level of schadenfreude to see Gene Chizik's tumble from King of the Hill in 2010 to last-week's fish-wrapper in 2012. I still feel that Auburn got a sweetheart deal in '10 that let Cam Newton remain eligible when he clearly wasn't. We should have faced the Hogs in the 2010 SECCG - and while the Razorbacks likely would have won, at least they played eligible players. Ultimately, the truth-will-out about Cammy Cam, now that Trooper Taylor is in the NCAA's sites. Who knows what beans Trooper will spill to avoid a show cause? In the meantime, there's talent on the Plains - no doubt about it - but the team is in as bad a shambles as Arkansas? So who would be the best fit to fix it? Why Bobby Petrino of course. He's just as toxic as War Eagle. They'd be a good fit, and for all his personal shortcomings, Petrino runs clean programs from a recruiting standpoint.
What does it mean for USC? We're not likely to play Auburn for years, so what happens on the Plains is really of little impact to Carolina in terms of scheduling. Obviously, Auburn is a dangerous recruiting foe, but in their present condition, we might get an advantage over the Tigers for a couple of cycles.
ACC Openings and Realignment. I don't see this having any discernible impact on USC. I would prefer that Ellis Johnson, who was a key recruiter and knows all the coaches in the South Carolina High School League, not end up in Knoxville, Clemson or Raleigh, but that's out of our hands. Realignment won't touch the SEC for 2013. After that, who knows. In the meantime, we're the bully-boys of the Carolinas. And that's fine by me.