Clay Helton faces Pac-12 Championship or bust season in 2017

Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton watches warm ups before the game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the USC Trojans at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton watches warm ups before the game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the USC Trojans at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite big departures, Clay Helton has the pieces to succeed with USC Football in 2017. It’s a Pac-12 Championship or bust for the second-year head coach.

This time last year, USC fans did not know what to expect. They had a head coach who was going into his first full season at the helm of a college program, the quarterback battle was still undecided, the loss of Kenny Bigelow left many questions on the defensive line, and the Trojans would face then reigning national champion Alabama in the opening week.

At first, it seemed like Trojan fans were living in a nightmare. The season got off with to a 1-3 start will losses to Alabama, Stanford, and Utah. Captain Max Browne had been benched in favor of Sam Darnold, but even that had not been enough to beat the Utes in Salt Lake City. It seemed that the first year of Clay Helton would be the last year of Clay Helton.

However, we all know how the story ended. USC did not lose another game the entire season, Sam Darnold became a superstar, and the Trojans beat Penn State in one of the greatest college football games of the last 25 years, earning their first Rose Bowl victory in nearly a decade.

But that was last year. As Clay Helton himself mentioned on the first day of spring practice, last year is behind the team and will not help them this year. While that is undoubtedly true, last year did raise expectations at USC. Suddenly a coach that many thought might not make it through the season is coming back for his second season with the expectation of being in the College Football Playoff.

Clay Helton has always been a man who likes a challenge, so he is undoubtedly looking forward to the coming season. But what will he have to do to manage expectations? And what expectations are reasonable?

Helton needs to win the Pac-12 championship. Anything else will be a disappointment and there really is no excuse.

To be clear, Helton needs to win the Pac-12 championship. Anything else will be a disappointment and there really is no excuse for this not to happen this year.

Helton returns a Heisman trophy front-runner in Darnold, as well as over a dozen other starters and key contributors. Perhaps more importantly, he returns both his offensive and defensive coordinators in Tee Martin and Clancy Pendergast.

Seven of the twelve games are at home (where Helton has not yet lost as a head coach), including arguably the toughest four games in Stanford, Texas, Utah, and UCLA. He will not have to play defending Pac-12 champion Washington during the regular season. What excuse will Helton have if he does not lead USC to its first Pac-12 title since 2008?

Some will point to the fact that while Helton has many things going for him, he did lose Adoree’ Jackson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu to the NFL, the offensive line must replace multiple starters, and the secondary for USC may not be have a replacement for Jackson.

CHECK OUT: Recapping USC’s 2017 NFL Draft

Let’s go through those one by one.

First, teams lose great players to the NFL every year and still manage to be as good or better than the year before. How? Recruiting and player development. Ohio State, Alabama, and Clemson have all lost multiple high draft picks to the NFL, but all three have been in the College Football Playoff multiple times. So, we have empirical evidence it can be done.

If Helton wants USC to be in the same conversation as those teams, he cannot use players leaving as an excuse.

Further, while Jackson, Smith-Schuster, and Tu’ikolovatu are great players, there are multiple players at USC who can fill the void they left more than adequately.

At kick returner, Dominic Davis, Jack Jones, Velus Jones and others have the speed and shiftiness to make an impact, although it is unlikely that any one of them will be the game-breaker there that Jackson was, and all three will be eligible to play punt returner as well. Jones, in particular, could be very special there.

At receiver, it should be kept in mind that while Smith-Schuster was a great player, he was not the blanket option for Darnold as Darnold was notorious for distributing the ball among many options. His departure may not be as bad as you might think.

In addition, Michael Pittman, Deontay Burnett, Tyler Vaughns, Velus Jones, and Daniel Imothorbhebhe all had very impressive springs and have unique skill sets that lead us to believe that USC will not lack talented receivers. This does not factor in incoming five-star freshman Joseph Lewis, who will also be in competition for playing time.

The offensive line returns three starters in center Nico Falah, guard Viane Talamaivao, and all-position man Toa Lobendahn.

Falah is coming off of a strong season (one where there were very few low or bad snaps), Talamaivao was also impressive, and Lobendahn can play anywhere if healthy. Chris Brown and Chuma Edoga, who both played significant minutes and can play multiple positions also return.

Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler will need to be replaced on the outside, but in truth the USC offensive line could be even better than last year. This will be year two in this system under Neil Callaway, and the replacements for Banner and Wheeler are much quicker than those, even if they are slightly smaller.

In addition, USC has five quality offensive linemen coming in, and Austin Jackson in particular will compete for playing time, not to mention early entrant Andrew Vorhees, who could also be a big contributor.

Factor in also that while the USC offensive line will need to come together in the fall, they will also be helped by the fact that Darnold has the ability to scramble and gets the ball out of his hands quickly.

MORE: Top 10 Ridiculous Sam Darnold Freshman Highlights

This time last year, Tu’ikolovatu was not a member of the team, but he certainly was perhaps the most valuable player on last year’s defense and will not be easily replaced.

However, Rasheem Green, who had a very good season, returns. Christian Rector, who flashed when he got playing time, also returns. And early enrollee Marlon Tuipolotu has reminded coaches of Tui’kolovatu, and he is only a freshman.

Add in the return of former five star Kenny Bigelow, and Jay Tufele arriving in the fall, and these players combined will be a disruptive force in the Pac-12.

With so many bodies, this will allow Pendergast to have three down linemen more often so that teams who like to run, such as Utah and Stanford last year, will not take advantage of the line as in times past.

More from Reign of Troy

In the secondary, Iman Marshall showed vastly improved play throughout the season and showed why he was a five-star talent coming out of high school. Jamel Cook and Ajene Harris will also be key contributors, and both can play any position in the secondary.

While Jack Jones has a way to go before he is all that was advertised, he has certainly shown flashes of brilliance and is cutting down on the mistakes.

Safety Marvell Tell must step up a level, but Chris Hawkins has been a very solid player throughout his USC career and is dependable. All in all, if the front seven can add pressure, the secondary will be more than fine.

Last season, Helton needed to prove he could keep the team from losing focus and keep them together.

TRENDING: Predicting USC’s 2017 Depth Chart

This year, the goal will be a Pac-12 title at the very least and a possible berth in the College Football Playoff. Anything less will be a failure and there will be no excuses for Helton to hide behind.