Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the biggest topics in the game, in and around the SEC:

The non-denial denial

In the past 2 weeks, we’ve seen the power of two top-5 job openings, and how it can reverberate throughout college football.

USC and LSU are looking for coaches, and everyone not named Saban or Smart is a candidate.

Don’t think so? Check out these non-denial denials from 3 of the game’s biggest coaches:

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney: “This is the only Death Valley I’m concerned about right here. That’s for sure.”

Penn State coach James Franklin: “I think I’ve shown over my 8 years my commitment to this university and this community, and that’s kind of my statement.”

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker: “My focus is on our upcoming game vs. the school down the road. That’s where my focus is, and I really appreciate you understanding that.”

Translation: Of course they’re intrigued by one or both jobs – that’s right, even Dabo – but there’s no way they’re going to disrespect their current university by saying anything remotely close to that.

If you’re at the top of your profession – Swinney and Franklin are, Tucker is rising – it’s nearly impossible to ignore the distraction.

“I tell my guys all the time there are only so many of these type jobs. Don’t immediately dismiss it,” an agent told me.

LSU AD Scott Woodward has a track record of taking big swings with coaching hires (Chris Petersen at Washington, Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M), and the industry is buzzing with the idea that he’ll do it again.

USC, meanwhile, is at a crossroads moment. The Trojans have missed on 3 straight hires since Pete Carroll left for the NFL after the 2009 season.

Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton have combined for 86 wins in 14 seasons – just over 6 wins per season. Think about that.

USC, with arguably the greatest built-in recruiting advantage of any program in college football (both high school talent and the LA/Hollywood scene), has all of 86 wins over the last 14 years between Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton.

It’s shockingly bad any way you look at it.

This is what AD Mike Bohn must fix. If he doesn’t, he’ll follow former AD’s Mike Garrett, Pat Haden and Lynn Swann out the door.

That’s why the hire of Luke Fickell – whom Bohn hired at Cincinnati – isn’t the slam dunk you think. In the last 3 hires, USC has reached for Kiffin (Garrett thought he had a younger Carroll), and settled for Sarkisian (Haden wanted Chris Petersen) and Helton (Haden wanted Fisher).

Franklin, despite Penn State looking at a potential November swoon, would be a terrific hire for USC. Another: Oregon coach Mario Cristobal.

Brian Kelly on the move?

There’s a growing feeling in the coaching fraternity that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly might be in play for the LSU job. Or any other major job that could open this offseason.

Kelly recently passed Knute Rockne as the winningest coach in school history, and has led the Irish to the College Football Playoff 2 of the past 3 years.

That he hasn’t won a national title isn’t exactly a deterrent. That he brought ND to the top of the sport – and in 2012, to the BCS National Championship Game – considering the inherent academic obstacles he faces while recruiting, is as big a draw as anything.

Notre Dame still recruits consistently among the top 10 in the nation, and currently has the No. 5 overall class according to the 247sports composite rankings.

“If you’ve done everything you can (at Notre Dame), why not see what you can do at a mega school?” an FBS coach said of Kelly. “Honestly, I think he’d do really well there. You can’t tell me the pressure there, even in the SEC, is any worse than what he deals with on a day-to-day basis at Notre Dame. You’re talking about an elite coach and an elite job. That could be a lot of fun.”

Lining up to take a shot

Since Oklahoma and Texas announced they would join the SEC, more and more coaches are beginning to look at the SEC as the Promised Land of college football.

The money, the prestige, and the chance to compete against the best players and coaches on your own television network (ABC/ESPN).

“They were already the sun in the middle of the solar system, you know?” one Power 5 coach told me. “Now you’re talking about a 16-team conference where it’s cutthroat, and if you ever wanted to truly test yourself, jump in that thing and take a spin for a few years.”

The question: Where’s the access point? The blue-bloods are, for the most part, locked in with coaches. There’s the opening at LSU and a potential crack at Florida, depending on how Dan Mullen responds to the first significant adversity of his tenure.

Texas and OU are scheduled to join the league in 2025, but likely will do so much sooner. Both should have their current coaching setup.

Other than that, any test drive in the SEC will come at a mid- to lower-tier program.

“You call it lower tier, I call it a program that gets $50-60 million in TV money and has an administration that’s dying to win,” another Power 5 coach said. “No matter the perceived ills of big-time football, there are some (university presidents) who recognize how important football is — not only to the overall athletic program, but the front porch of the university.”

Dawgs on parade

We haven’t even hit November, and already the narrative is Georgia can lock up a spot in the College Football Playoff with a win Saturday against Florida.

Looking at the remainder of the Bulldogs’ schedule, it’s not really a stretch: Missouri, at Tennessee, Charleston Southern, at Georgia Tech.

If Georgia reaches the SEC Championship Game at 12-0, they’re likely in the CFP win or lose. Yet there’s something about the first two months of the season that’s unnerving about how this is playing out.

“I’m trying to figure out who (Georgia) has beaten,” one Power 5 coach said.

And he’s not wrong.

The all-important Clemson win to begin the season is more of an anchor than a buoy to Georgia’s argument. Clemson has had its worst season in years, and is 0-7 vs. the spread.

The Georgia defense scored its only touchdown in a 10-7 win. Meanwhile, the rest of the schedule looks a lot like overmatched and overvalued teams.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Florida is primed for an upset (the Gators fall in the overvalued category), but it does mean Georgia’s first legitimate test this season won’t happen until the SEC Championship Game against likely West Division champion Alabama.

“I’d hate to have to go an entire season without playing someone who has the ability to beat me,” a Power 5 coach said. “Then play nothing but big dogs for however long you last in the (SEC) championship game and Playoff. Responding to adversity is a good thing. I’m not sure (Georgia) has had to do that yet, and that’s not a good thing for what’s ahead.”