After guiding USC on a nine-game winning streak to end the 2016 season, does Clay Helton deserve Coach of the Year honors?
In December, finalists for the Paul “Bear” Bryant Coach of the Year Award were announced, including USC head coach Clay Helton.
Back then, Helton had the Trojans riding an eight-game winning streak while being widely regarded as one of the hottest teams in college football, but it seemed a longshot for the head coach to take the honor.
After all, the AP voted Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre their Coach of the Year winner before bowl season, while Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck remained undefeated, Penn State’s James Franklin had also gotten his team to the Rose Bowl on a winning streak and other finalists boasted strong resumes.
Now that bowl season is over and there remains just one more college football game of the season to play, the race for the Bryant Award looks a bit different.
Here’s a rundown of what each finalist did in their bowl game:
- Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst: Beat Western Michigan, 24-16
- Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck: Lost to Wisconsin, 24-16
- Penn State’s James Franklin: Lost to USC, 52-49
- USC’s Clay Helton: Beat Penn State, 52-49
- West Virginia’s Dana Holgerson: Lost to Miami, 31-14
- Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre: Lost to Oklahoma State, 38-8
- Alabama’s Nick Saban: Beat Washington, 24-7
- Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops: Beat Auburn, 35-19
- Clemson’s Dabo Swinney: Beat Ohio State 31-0
Of the nine finalists, four lost their bowl game — a couple like Holgerson and MacIntyre did so in somewhat embarrassing fashion.
Saban and Swinney got their teams to the College Football Playoff Championship Game, while Stoops and Chryst capped successful seasons with solid wins.
Meanwhile, Helton’s Trojans and Franklin’s Nittany Lions supplied the most entertaining game of the bowl season and probably the entire season.
There are only two major college football awards handed out after bowls are played and USC has already taken home one of them. On Wednesday, quarterback Sam Darnold became the first freshman to ever win the Archie Griffin Award as the MVP of the college football season.
The Bryant Award will be announced on January 11 after the national championship is decided. Was the thrilling Rose Bowl victory enough to propel Helton to winning that postseason honor?
If we remove losing bowl coaches from the equation, Helton’s argument is reasonably compelling.
Saban tends not to win these kinds of honors because no one is surprised when he coaches a team to the championship. Stoops didn’t do anything particularly exceptional in 2016, besides more sustained, if underwhelming success at Oklahoma, while Chryst’s Badgers didn’t notch any memorable wins.
Should Swinney knock off the Tide to capture the national title, he could be a shoo-in for the award having beaten Ohio State’s Urban Meyer so thoroughly. However, he was last year’s winner, so there could be an element of avoiding repetition at play.
Working in Helton’s favor is the storybook nature of USC’s 2016 and the head coach’s journey in particular. Hired under questionable circumstances, Helton overcame a rough 1-3 start, kept his team from quitting and ripped off nine consecutive impressive wins.
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The Rose Bowl was a microcosm of Helton’s best work as the USC head coach, too.
The Trojans fell behind thanks to a string of bad luck moments and great plays by the opposition, but they displayed great mental toughness to shake off the Penn State surge.
When it really mattered in the fourth quarter, Helton’s USC was practically flawless. The Trojans shut out the Nittany Lions and notching 17 points in a quarter PSU had outscored opponents 166 to 55.
After the game, USC’s players to a man credited the head coach with believing in them and getting them to the finish line.
We’ll see if the voters give Helton that kind of credit as well. He’s certainly deserving.