Who is most likely to join the small group of active college head coaches with a national title already in their pocket? CBS Sports thinks Clay Helton has a chance.
On Friday, Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports listed the five college football head coaches who are most likely to win their first national title, joining elite company at the top of CFB’s coaching hierarchy.
Thanks to Bob Stoops’ unexpected retirement, there are only four active coaches in college football who can claim a national championship to their name.
In Fornelli’s estimation, Clay Helton is on track to join Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney in that honor.
Coming in at No. 3 ahead of Jim McElwain at Florida and Tom Herman at Texas, but behind Washington’s Chris Petersen and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, here’s what Fornelli had to say about the Trojan head coach:
"3. Clay Helton, USC I don’t know how great of a coach Clay Helton is. He might turn out to be one of the best in the country, or he might just be another coach at USC that fails to live up to expectations. Either way, as the coach at USC, he’s a lot closer to winning a national title than plenty of others are. It’s still USC, and it’s still the premier program of the Pac-12. It’s a lot like Texas in that its problems have revolved around the man in charge more than the program itself."
Fornelli’s assessment of Helton isn’t an unusual one. Most in the national and local media, not to mention in the fanbase, aren’t quite sure what to make of Helton.
After commendably stabilizing the program as the interim head coach following Steve Sarkisian’s firing, Helton went back to basics and got USC to the Pac-12 title game in 2015. He was rewarded for his efforts by being named the permanent head coach, a decision which didn’t exactly go over well in some corners.
Since his appointment, there have been more than a few points to file in the plus or minus column.
For starters, with skepticism over the hire already high, that magical 2015 season flamed out in Santa Clara thanks to an astonishing display by Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. A disappointing trip to the Holiday Bowl only added doubts about Helton’s ability to lead such a historic program.
Then, Helton’s Trojans were mauled by Alabama on the opening day of the 2016 season and lost two of the next three against Stanford and Utah. Calls for the head coach’s head definitely go in the minus column.
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Having said that, Helton’s plus column isn’t barren. A resurgent USC began picking up win after win after starting 1-3 in 2016. On top of an upset over Washington in Seattle, the Trojans bested Colorado and swept the rivals UCLA and Notre Dame before taking home the Rose Bowl trophy.
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Having righted the ship in 2016 on the football field, Helton kicked off 2017 by landing a highly-ranked recruiting class. Now he enters the 2017 season with a team ranked in the Top 5 of most preseason polls.
Now he enters the 2017 season with a team ranked in the Top 5 of most preseason polls, a team which looks like it’s on the right track.
So what is the true reflection of Helton’s leadership? The team that collapsed in late 2015 and started slowly in 2016? Or the one that ripped off nine consecutive victories including an epic Rose Bowl victory over Penn State, showing grit and determination in an unlikely comeback?
No one can really say.
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And there’s another specter hanging over the perception of Helton’s coaching ability: How much of Helton’s success is linked to Sam Darnold’s? If the Trojans lift the College Football Playoff trophy at season’s end, will it be considered Helton’s title or Darnold’s?