Is the Steve Sarkisian era at USC already over after 18 games?
USC athletic director Pat Haden put Sarkisian on indefinite leave Sunday to seek treatment for personal health issues, handing the reins on an interim basis to offensive coordinator Clay Helton. According to unconfirmed reports Sarkisian's drinking problems had grown worse during the season, spilling over into games, and the last straw was Sunday's practice.
Sarkisian's issues first surfaced in August at the "Salute to Troy" booster event during which he showed up inebriated and acted inappropriately, including his use of language. But Haden chose to take no action at the time except to say that Sarkisian would seek unspecified treatment.
But now, with USC's season on the brink after Thursday night's debacle against Washington -- in which the listless Trojans lost at home, 17-12, despite being double-digit favorites -- Sarkisian's relapse may offer just the opportunity for USC to sever ties with him.
Make no mistake, Sarkisian is Haden's guy. The AD picked the former USC assistant despite his less-than-glittering 34-29 record at Washington. Sark was brought back to Troy even though there was pressure on Haden to keep popular interim coach Ed Orgeron or hire other candidates. From Day 1, Haden had been Sarkisian's staunchest defender even as USC went through an uneven and disappointing 9-4 campaign in 2014.
But now it might be time for Haden to finally cut bait.
USC's boosters and fan base have lost confidence in Sarkisian, the ugly loss to Washington was the final confirmation anybody needed. Despite two top-10 recruiting classes and being the media's pick to win the Pac-12 this season, the Trojans have squandered their immense amount of talent and now are reduced to play for another second-tier bowl berth.
If Haden wasn't ready to pull the trigger after the Washington game, Sunday's bombshell likely forced his hand. While the school isn't officially cutting ties with Sark, it seems highly likely that he's coached his last game at USC.
That leaves Haden with another chance to get the coach who can return Troy to glory, a chance he can ill afford to whiff on again. Given what's happened at Michigan and the amazing job Jim Harbaugh has done in Year 1, USC fans will demand similar results, especially with the Trojans' loaded roster.
Can Haden deliver? Given his track record as USC's AD, that's hardly a sure thing.
Pac-12's Faltering Playoff Campaign
By picking off Cal quarterback Jared Goff five times, Utah survived the showdown of the remaining Pac-12 unbeatens in a 30-24 nail-biter Saturday night. While the Utes (5-0) are the highest-ranked Pac-12 team with a 2-0 conference record, they have yet to play a single opponent in the Pac-12 South, considered by most the toughest division in college football.
For now, Utah deserves its place in the top 5 and that season-opening win over Michigan is looking better every week. But will the Utes survive the gauntlet that still includes wounded but talented USC, UCLA and Arizona State? And if not, what does that leave the Pac-12?
Commissioner Larry Scott, who attended the Cal-Utah game at Salt Lake City, sounded like someone very concerned. In fact, he didn't hold back in attacking the scheduling disparity among Power 5 conferences.
"There's always going to be differences between conferences in terms of strength of schedule," Scott told the media at the game. "I think that would be a big step forward for college football if every conference had to play nine conference games, play at least one marquee non-conference game and have a conference championship game. It'd be great if we could mandate that, but that’s not the way the governance works right now."
With preseason favorites USC and Oregon already out of the playoff picture, will the playoff selection committee pick a surprise Pac-12 champion with one or even two conference losses for the four-team playoff?
Scott is already lobbying: 'Certainly this season there’s no champion that will emerge from conference with a tougher pathway than what we’ve got."
He hopes the committee agrees.
Heisman Race Is Already Over
The biggest upset of the weekend -- aside from Texas shocking Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl -- was that Leonard Fournette failed to rush for 200 yards. LSU's sensational sophomore running back ran for a season-low 158 yards on 20 carries, but played only three quarters in the Tigers' 45-24 rout of South Carolina.
The reality is that Fournette, who already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark through five games, is going to win the Heisman Trophy this season, barring injury. About the only other player who's still faintly in the race is TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, who continues to put up video-game like numbers out of necessity.
Game of the Week
TCU 52, Kansas State 45: The once-vaunted TCU defense was shredded once again, giving up at least 37 points for the third time this season. Trailing 35-17 at halftime, the Frogs had to overcome a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to pull out the victory in Manhattan. Boykin passed for 301 yards and ran for another 124, connecting with Josh Doctson on a 55-yard strike with 1:10 to play to run TCU's record to 6-0.
Player of the Week
Michigan defense: We're awarding this to an entire unit, under the charge of defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who deserves a mountain of credit in Jim Harbaugh's fast turnaround job in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines defense pitched its third consecutive shutout in a 38-0 demolition of Northwestern. It's the first time Michigan has shut out three straight opponents since 1980. The nation's top defensive unit now has not allowed a score in 41 consecutive possessions.
1. Utah, 2. Clemson, 3. LSU, 4. TCU, 5. Baylor, 6. Ohio State, 7. Michigan State, 8. Michigan, 9. Notre Dame, 10. Florida, 11. Texas A&M, 12. Florida State, 13. Ole Miss, 14. Alabama, 15. Northwestern.