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College football Saturday review: Why Luke Fickell and USC are drifting apart

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell watches a replay during the first half.
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell watches a replay during the first half of the Bearcats’ 24-13 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
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One of the things Luke Fickell said last week during my visit to Cincinnati really stuck with me Saturday as I watched his star quarterback, Desmond Ridder, wave the Bearcats’ flag in the end zone of Notre Dame Stadium.

“Whether it’s right or wrong, I don’t take in a lot of the sights,” Fickell said of the South Bend experience. “My former players and coaches call me and remind me, ‘Hey, make sure to take in the opportunity you have and enjoy it, look around at some point.’ That doesn’t happen until there’s zeros on the clock for me.”

When the zeros hit, No. 7 Cincinnati had 24 points to No. 9 Notre Dame’s 13, and we can only hope he was able to snap out of his trance to soak up the sight of what looked like thousands of Cincinnati fans draped in red cheering on Ridder and his teammates as the defeated Notre Dame student section sang the alma mater.

Drake London was spectacular, Kedon Slovis was lethal, Keaontay Ingram was swift, and the Trojans’ defense was stout in a one-sided victory over the Buffaloes.

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I went to Cincinnati to profile one of college football’s best stories of recent years — and, of course, to gauge the likelihood that Fickell could be USC’s next head coach. Before Saturday’s game, I felt it was unlikely, due to his deep Ohio roots and family pressures, but still possible. Nobody, even his reluctant wife, Amy Fickell, was willing to close the door on USC.

Though beating the Trojans’ rival Saturday made Fickell more coveted by USC fans who were already intrigued by him, my gut tells me Cincinnati’s historic victory lessened the chances of a Fickell-USC match.

The Bearcats were clearly better than the Fighting Irish on both sides of the ball. They led 17-0 at halftime and answered Notre Dame with a clutch touchdown drive in the fourth quarter when the Irish pulled to within 17-13 and the echoes were waking. This was an emphatic result that proved to Fickell that he does not need to coach at a blue blood to beat one.

Cincinnati should be ranked in the top five this week and will be a heavy favorite in every game it plays in the American Athletic Conference. With wins at Indiana and at Notre Dame in nonconference play, it will have the resume to become the first Group of Five team to be invited to the College Football Playoff if it runs the table.

Look, nobody is suggesting that Fickell is going to finish his career at Cincinnati. He’s 48 and eventually Ohio State (his alma mater), Notre Dame, Michigan or Penn State will come open again and better fit his Midwestern ethos. In the meantime, there are reasons beyond his team’s recent performance to stay put, keep building and not rock the boat with his happy family.

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Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell and USC might not be an obvious match, but if Mike Bohn calls again, Fickell has a rare chance to lead a blue-blood program.

Amy Fickell told me that she is hopeful Cincinnati’s upcoming move to the Big 12 and the Power Five will show Luke there is more to be done right where he is. Throw in an expanded playoff, and there’s a legitimate chance for the Bearcats to have more seasons just like this one, particularly with Fickell running the show.

USC athletic director Mike Bohn, who hired Fickell at Cincinnati and gets his family dynamic, probably already knows whether he has a real shot at Fickell. He also knows that if his top candidate makes the playoff he won’t be able to make a hire until January, which could make it harder on USC to keep its recruiting class together through December’s early signing period.

Trojans backers who have their eye on Fickell should hope for just a wee little bit of adversity to befall the Bearcats in the coming weeks. Based on Saturday, though, I wouldn’t count on a Cincinnati letdown — or Fickell switching out Cincinnati red for USC cardinal.

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Cristobal craters Pac-12

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal shouts during the Ducks' overtime loss to Stanford on Saturday.
(Andy Nelson / Associated Press)

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The next USC coach should see a clear runway to dominate the Pac-12 and rack up playoff appearances. Sure, Oregon may seem like a threat, but it appears the Ducks under Mario Cristobal will always live on the edge of self-destruction late in games.

No. 3 Oregon did the hard part for the Pac-12 this year, going into Columbus and upsetting Ohio State in Week 2. And Saturday at Stanford the Ducks had the game in hand, leading 24-17 in the final minutes, until Cristobal mismanaged the ending, allowing trademark Pac-12 officiating to push the game into overtime.

With the Ducks trying to ice the game away, Cristobal called a pass with undependable quarterback Anthony Brown on second down, and it fell incomplete, stopping the clock for Stanford. When the Cardinal got it back and were driving into Oregon territory, Cristobal called a timeout with the clock running down to 40 seconds on Stanford, presumably to settle his defense (but still).

A key defensive stop by Arizona State on fourth down played a significant role in sending UCLA to a 42-23 loss that stymied the Bruins’ bid for first place.

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The Cardinal finished off an improbable 95-yard, game-tying drive on the final play of regulation — a play that would not have happened if not for a questionable pass interference call — and won it in the first overtime 31-24.

Cristobal is a tremendous recruiter, but he still has a long way to go as an in-game tactician. That’s forgivable for now, and Oregon will rightfully show patience with him. But the right USC coach should be able to quickly vault the Trojans over the Ducks in the conference pecking order if Cristobal can’t reverse this trend.

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A 1-2 punch

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, right, hugs running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. after beating No. 10 Florida on Saturday.
(Michael Clubb / Associated Press)

Six top-15 teams lost Saturday. That was fun, but it also just served to reinforce how much better No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Georgia are than everybody else.

The Crimson Tide’s 42-21 victory over No. 12 Mississippi wasn’t as close as the final score. Whatever Alabama’s defense was doing wrong two weeks ago at Florida, Nick Saban got it cleaned up just in time to humble his former assistant Lane Kiffin. Georgia, playing without starting quarterback JT Daniels, spanked No. 8 Arkansas 37-0. The Bulldogs may just have an all-time defense.

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Later in the day, Kentucky moved to 5-0 by upsetting No. 10 Florida in Lexington, 20-13, and Mississippi State went into College Station and knocked off No. 15 Texas A&M, which has now lost two in a row.

The expectation should be that Alabama and Georgia will run the table in the regular season and that the loser of their SEC championship game will also make the playoff.

With Cincinnati in position to crash the party, that could leave one spot for teams from the other four Power Five leagues.

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Coach O sadness

LSU coach Ed Orgeron walks on the sideline during a timeout against Auburn on Saturday.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Less than two years after winning a national championship at Louisiana State, Ed Orgeron may be in serious trouble of being out of work. That may sound crazy, but if it does, it means you haven’t spent much time in Louisiana.

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LSU lost in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night to Auburn, 24-19, moving its record to 3-2, a year after going 5-5.

This was a game the Tigers had to have if they’re going to avoid another season hovering around .500.

Joe Burrow and Joe Brady aren’t walking through that door. Orgeron will always be a legend in his home state for 2019, but they won’t have much patience in Baton Rouge.

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On to Week 6

A sneak peek at next week’s big games because I can’t help myself:

No. 6 Oklahoma vs. Texas (in the Cotton Bowl)

No. 8 Arkansas at No. 12 Mississippi

No. 2 Georgia at No. 22 Auburn

No. 4 Penn State at No. 5 Iowa

No. 14 Michigan at Nebraska

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