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Silly season arrives early at USC, UConn

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The silly season has arrived earlier than usual in college football.

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Lane Kiffin and Paul Pasqualoni didn't make it through September before being fired, and now Southern California and Connecticut have to start searching for new coaches - and dealing with the speculation that comes with the hunt.

Firing coaches during a season is rare in college football and even rarer this early.

From 2002-2012, only three FBS programs changed coaches after five or fewer games.

Mike Locksley was let go by New Mexico after an 0-4 start in 2011. John Mackovic resigned at Arizona in 2003 with the Wildcats 1-4. Bobby Keasler resigned as Louisiana-Monroe coach in 2002 after an 0-3 start.

In the cases of UConn and USC, already tenuous situations quickly became toxic. Fans who came into the season skeptical of their respective head coach's ability to get the programs headed in the right direction were already bailing. Facing the prospect of half-full stadiums and constant questions about the status of the coach, USC athletic director Pat Haden and his counterpart at UConn, Warde Manuel, put an end to all the speculation.

But do they gain anything by getting a head start in the search process?

Agents Russ Campbell and Patrick Strong of Balch Sports in Birmingham, Ala., represent dozens of coaches. They said an early move lets an AD hire a search firm and gather financial resources without having to hide their intentions.

It can also be a way to change the subject at a time when there's little positive news.

``By being one of the first openings, universities also potentially reverse field on negative media discussion,'' Campbell and Strong said in an email. ``Instead of discussing how far the team has fallen, the weekly gameday discussion now focuses on what a great opportunity it is for the next head coach.''

Chuck Neinas, the former Big 12 interim commissioner who has been working as headhunter for schools looking for new coaches since 1997, said he tells athletic directors to try to get the pulse of the players before making a coaching change in season.

``On one hand if the team is under pressure because the coach is on the brink it may be better to relieve him because that could release the pressure and the players might play better,'' Neinas said in a phone interview. ``If the feeling is the team is close to the coach, then they may let down.

``I have told the AD you need to subtly talk to the captains. Don't tip your hand but try to gauge the current atmosphere within the football team.''

Any potential candidate to fill either the USC or UConn opening most likely already has a job. And most coaches don't want to deal with the possibility of another job during the season.

Already on Monday, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian and Vanderbilt's James Franklin were asked about USC.

``I'm kind of glad you asked. We can get the giant elephant out of the room,'' Sarkisian joked.

Both coaches quickly steered the conversation to their own teams. Generally, coaches aren't fielding phone calls from athletic directors about jobs. That's why they have agents.

``Depending on the situation, a coach might be willing to listen at the right time and in the right way but not at the risk of jeopardizing his current position,'' Campbell and Strong wrote. ``We advise coaches that you can't ride two horses with one rear-end, those that try risk falling off both. There is a right way - and a right time - to navigate this process.''

Often the first step for a search firm is to gauge a potential candidate's willingness to leave his current job, even before a specific job opens. In other words, it would be the search firm's job to let Haden and Manuel know who on their candidate wish list is even worth going after.

``Most search firms are proactive, relying on many years of due diligence and relationships,'' Campbell and Strong wrote. ``They do not wait for a sudden change in the market to signal there is work to be done. Done the right way, any dialogue between a search firm and agents during a season is high-level, designed to avoid interrupting a coach's focus and respects his current situation and contract.''

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ROGER THE DODGER ON JOHNNY FOOTBALL: Count Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach among the fans of Johnny Manziel.

Staubach won the Heisman for Navy in 1963 and went on to become a star with the Dallas Cowboys as a dual-threat quarterback. He's now working with USAA, which provides financial services and insurance to military veterans, to promote the company's programs to honor veterans at NFL games.

Staubach marvels at the development and skills of young quarterbacks these days, and said he can't wait to see Manziel hit the NFL.

``Johnny's a good kid. He's definitely going to have to mature,'' Staubach said. ``He's got this ability and these instincts, it doesn't seem like this negative publicity or his lifestyle is affecting how he plays football.

``I just really like watching him play.''

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QUICK HITS

- Groups representing eight sites have submitted bids to host the second and third College Football Playoff Championship Games. Expect Tampa, Fla., to get one of them, likely the one to be played following the 2015 season. Raymond James Stadium was a stronger runner-up to host the first title game in the new postseason system that starts next year, but lost out to the lavish AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. With the first game being played in Texas, and Tampa a leading contender for the next one, California seems like a logical next stop. A group from Northern California's Bay Area has bid to host the title game for the 2016 season at the 49ers' new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

- With Marqise Lee struggling to get going for USC and Amari Cooper off to a slow start for Alabama, the title of best receiver in the country is up for grabs. Texas A&M's Mike Evans has made a good case, but nobody beats Oregon State's Brandin Cook so far. The junior leads the nation in catches per game (10.2), is a close second behind Colorado's Paul Richardson in yards per game (161.4) and leads with nine TD catches.

- Southern Mississippi's losing streak hit 16 in a 60-7 loss at Boise State on Saturday, but there is hope that the nation's longest skid could end this week. The Golden Eagles host FIU (0-4), which has been outscored 187-13, including a loss to FCS Bethune-Cookman.

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OFF-THE-RADAR GAME OF THE WEEK: Illinois at Nebraska. Penciled in as an easy win for the Huskers before the season, the Illini have an offense that could push a Cornhuskers' defense that ranks 107th in the nation in yards per game at 464. Another stumble by the Huskers, and Bo Pelini can take Lane Kiffin's place on the hot seat.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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