After an incredible first season as the USC head coach, Clay Helton now faces an even tougher test — meeting the very high expectations he’s built.
Here are six words I never expected to type: Clay Helton aced his first season.
If you said before the season that the team would finish with a Rose Bowl victory and a Top 6 ranking, 100 percent of rational USC fans would have taken that scenario. If you said the same thing after the first four games– actually let’s be honest, no one even entertained that train of thought after Helton’s 1-3 start.
He fought off the hounds who accused him of being too conservative and borderline incompetent (including yours truly), reeling off USC’s best season in the post-Pete Carroll era.
Helton, however, must now accomplish an even tougher feat than exceeding expectations: meeting incredibly high expectations.
Helton must now accomplish an even tougher feat than exceeding expectations: meeting incredibly high expectations.
It’s been a task so difficult to achieve that it has led to the quick demise of USC’s two other head coaches after Carroll’s exit in 2009: Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian.
You’d think that USC’s performance would earn Helton at least two more years, no questions asked. Except when the stakes and expectations are raised, it’s a whole different ballgame.
After an 8-5 campaign in his first year at the helm with the Trojans, Kiffin shocked the country the following season by coaching a 10-2 USC squad to a No. 6 finish in the AP Poll. Despite acing 2011, Kiffin didn’t last two more years. His final full season saw the Trojans tumble to 7-6 after a preseason No. 1 ranking.
Exceeding expectations so early in his tenure was Kiffin’s downfall.
Despite being in the midst of sanctions, everyone thought the Trojans were back in 2011. Had Kiffin gone 7-6 in his second season and 10-2 in his third rather than falling to 7-6 from 10-2, he wouldn’t have gotten fired in the middle of his fourth season.
Once a football program like USC displays even an inkling of dominance, there’s no going back for the coach that gets them there. The hype train has begun to roll, and there’s only two outcomes: either the train continues its journey smoothly or there’s an epic crash and burn.
Sarkisian’s second win as USC coach was a 13-10 upset at Stanford, propelling the Trojans to a No. 9 ranking. Once again, the words “USC is back” were heard throughout Los Angeles.
But Sarkisian couldn’t handle the high expectations either.
He lost five games when the Trojans were listed as a double-digit favorite in Vegas over their opponent. Considering he only coached 18 games overall, that is a stunningly high number.
With USC’s incredible win over Penn State on Monday, the Trojans will almost assuredly finish at No. 6 or higher in the final polls. Similar rhetoric that did Kiffin and Sarkisian in has already been uttered around college football.
And like Kiffin, Helton will have a preseason Top 5 team a year after greatly exceeding expectations. And like Sarkisian, Helton’s team will be favored by at least 10 points in several games this upcoming season.
The nine-game winning streak to cap the season marked Helton as one of the best feel-good stories in college football. But now, Helton faces his biggest challenge: Keeping USC fans and administration happy.
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USC’s schedule is much easier next season — with Stanford, UCLA and Utah at home instead of on the road, no Washington in the regular season and Texas at home instead of Alabama on a neutral field.
On top of that, the Trojans will have one of the Heisman favorites next season in Sam Darnold, and he headlines a very talented roster in a relatively mediocre Pac-12 overall.
Thanks to the bar raised at the end of his debut campaign, anything less than a College Football Playoff appearance next season for Helton will be considered a disappointment.
If Helton can deliver despite the added pressure and expectations, however, it will prove that he was the right man for the job after all.