USC started 1-2, with losses to Alabama and Stanford. Those losses don’t surprise – The Trojans have a heinous schedule – but the utter incompetence during them did. USC’s defense got rolled over. The Trojan offense managed one touchdown over those two games.
Trojan players have done more lashing out than “fighting on.” Star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster threw punches during practice. Tackle Chuma Edoga was ejected for trying to fight his way through a referee. Clay Helton denied rumors that departing lineman E.J. Price punched him.
USC has had the sort of clumsy, disordered start to the season that places a coach on the hot seat. Is that fair for Clay Helton in his first full season? Not yet, but things could be heading that way.
This is Clay Helton’s first full season as the definite head coach. It’s far from his first season at USC. Helton has been on the USC staff since 2010. He has been offensive coordinator since 2013. He was head coach most of last season. He has been around long enough to be interim head coach, twice.
Helton was hired for continuity, to ease the transition, and to keep USC’s culture in place. He has NFL-caliber talent all over the field. He lured a proven defensive coordinator. He recruited and reared every quarterback on USC’s campus to run his system.
It’s hard to see how a “first-year coach” could have been better set up for a quick start. USC had some depth issues on the defensive line. But the major question mark entering the season was “head coach.”
If selecting the wrong starting quarterback was the problem, that is entirely on Helton, who is still USC’s quarterbacks coach.
Since taking over last season, Helton is 5-6 against P5/ND. That includes big wins at home over Utah and UCLA. That also includes one-score wins over Cal, Arizona, and Colorado who were in the conference’s bottom half last year. Helton is 0-4 against those opponents since USC removed the interim tag.
His track record thus far may not be red button worthy. But, USC’s schedule could be dangerous for him. The Trojans play at Utah next week. After their bye week, they finish the season with Cal, Oregon, at Washington, at UCLA, Notre Dame. Their easiest game left looks like either Arizona State or Colorado at home, which won’t be easy. How are things looking if USC finishes 4-8 or 3-9?
Great coaches have taken a season or two to get things going. But, they generally inherit worse situations with far more transition than Helton did. Those teams also show signs something is happening. Jim Harbaugh went 4-8 his first year with Stanford. That was a three-game improvement from the 1-11 team he inherited. That team also upset Pete Carroll’s USC in the Coliseum.
An athletic director change tends to be foreboding for an under fire head coach. Though Lynn Swann, one presumes, would be more stable than Pat Haden, who pulled Lane Kiffin off a bus at the airport to fire him and fired Steve Sarkisian via e-mail when he was on his way to addiction treatment.
College football coaches needing time to succeed is an accepted mantra for programs in transition. It was not too long ago firing a head coach still struggling in his third year was considered hasty. A first year firing (even if not quite the first year) would be bold.
But, if Sam Darnold isn’t the savior and USC continues to tire fire its way through the 2016, that mantra may be put to the test. Maybe worth noting: multiple media members in our preseason survey had USC being the best coaching job available this offseason.