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

Bill O’Brien and the Trojans

An industry source told me this week that Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien is gaining traction in the USC search.

O’Brien rebuilt the Penn State program after the Sandusky scandal, and then won 4 division titles as coach of the Houston Texans before getting fired. He has the pro mentality the USC job demands and has flourished under.

It’s that mentality – that hasn’t been around since Pete Carroll’s golden years of the early 2000s – USC couldn’t recapture with the hires of Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton. All 3 tried to run the program with that mentality, and all 3 failed.

Many in the industry believe Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, who has a connection with current USC AD Mike Bohn (Bohn hired him at Cincy), could be waiting for a big job in the Midwest (Notre Dame, Michigan) because it’s a better fit for his family.

ND coach Brian Kelly recently broke legendary coach Knute Rockne’s record for career wins at the school, and the Irish job – more than most in college football — is a brutal grind of national title or failure. Kelly is only 58, and his Irish teams are 46-8 since 2017.

He has been pursued numerous times by the NFL, and could be again after this season.

Stay or go? Derek Stingley soon will decide

I spoke to 2 NFL scouts about injured LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr., the No. 1 player at his position in the 2022 NFL Draft, and a likely top 10 overall pick, and both had serious reservations about Stingley returning to LSU at any point this season.

Stingley has had problems with his left foot since the summer, and this week had a medical procedure performed to clean up the injury.

He is listed by LSU as out indefinitely, but both scouts say what happens over the next few weeks will dictate any decision that Stingley makes about returning. If LSU begins to win and put itself in position to play for the SEC West Division title and a shot at the SEC Championship Game, Stingley will have a difficult decision to make.

“If it were me advising him, I’d say depending on the severity of the injury – if you’re having surgery, there’s a problem – I’d sit,” one NFL scout said. “I’m just not sure there’s reason to come back. He has shown all he needs to show. Do you come back and risk further damage?”

Said another NFL scout: “To me, it has always been about the health of the player. If he’s healthy, play. Get out there and get more good tape for your résumé. But that’s for most guys, not a top-5 guy. You can do more harm than good in that situation.”

The rise of Pitt QB Kenny Pickett

The concept of Super Senior seasons doesn’t exactly translate to the NFL Draft.

If players are staying for a fifth – or in some cases, sixth – season under the NCAA’s extra season of eligibility because of the pandemic, they’re more than likely not serious NFL prospects.

Then there’s Kenny Pickett.

“It’s fun as hell to see guys who dramatically change from season to season,” an NFL scout told me this week. “(Pickett) is one of those rare guys who is doing it with his last chance.”

More like another last chance.

Nothing about Pickett said high draft pick after four seasons at Pitt. A four-year starter who had pockets of success, he was a late-round projection after the 2020 season – some NFL scouts had him as a free agent – and a future in professional football was iffy at best.

So he used the one-time extra season the NCAA approved, and the idea that he has made the most of it is a wild understatement.

“He has never been a guy who was going to wow you with his arm,” another NFL scout told me. “But he’s showing things he couldn’t do for 4 years, or couldn’t do consistently.”

Like throwing on time and with anticipation. Like moving in the pocket and buying time – and not bailing on progressions and plays. His football IQ or desire has never been a question.

Now the development of his physical skill set has scouts completely rethinking his NFL potential. In 5 games, Pickett has 19 TDs and 1 INT, and 1,731 yards. Those numbers are impressive enough, but they don’t tell the story.

In his first 4 years, Pickett struggled to complete 60% of his passes, and 7 yards per attempt. He’s completing 72% of his passes this season and is No.3 in the nation in yards per attempt (10.3).

His draft grade, according to 2 NFL scouts I’ve spoken to, has risen from late-round or free agent to as high as Day 2. And maybe higher.

“I expect this season to continue to evolve,” an NFL scout told me. “He’s going to be one of those quarterbacks who will have teams fall in love with him if he has a strong Combine and individual workout.”

The QB connection

Another Thompson has stepped into the storied Oklahoma-Texas rivalry. Only this time, he’s not wearing Crimson and Cream.

Casey Thompson has revitalized the Texas offense since taking over for Hudson Card after a Week 2 loss to Arkansas. The son of former Oklahoma great Charles Thompson – who legendary Sooners coach Barry Switzer once said was one of the greatest players to ever wear an OU uniform – Casey has accounted for 9 TDs and has the Longhorns at 2-0 in the Big 12.

He’s not making the critical mistakes that hurt the Texas offense the first 2 weeks of the season, and his ability to stress defenses with his legs has given the offense another weapon.

In fact, a case can be made that Thompson – not heralded OU QB Spencer Rattler – is the hottest quarterback heading into the Red River Rivalry. Thompson is completing 71% of his passes and has 12 TDs (3 rushing).

Rattler has taken too much criticism this fall for what looks like a regression from last season. But the OU offensive line is a mess, and that has led to problems in protection and the run game.

This week, though, is typically the time when OU plays its best game. The Sooners have won 5 of the last 6, and are averaging 40.8 points per game over that span (one of the games was the Big 12 Championship Game in 2018).

But take away a 76-point game against overmatched FCS Western Carolina this season, and OU is averaging 29 points a game.