Clay Helton’s dismal road record with USC football must improve in 2018

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 29: Head coach Clay Helton and Austin Applebee
ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 29: Head coach Clay Helton and Austin Applebee /

Clay Helton’s next step towards proving doubters wrong must come on the road, where he has struggled to succeed and faces tough challenges in 2018.

Trends in football can be a double-edge sword, working both for and against. They can be read into, for better or worse, and applied to future results.

Trends made predicting USC’s struggles in the Pac-12 road opener under Pete Carroll so easy. They also made predicting his successes against power houses so simple. And it’s that very success which let him off the hook for those yearly hiccups. They were predictable setbacks, but they were almost always offset by achievements elsewhere.

Clay Helton has established some positive trends in his time as USC’s head coach. He’s won 10 games two years running. That’s a promising trajectory. But other trends during the Helton era are not so encouraging.

Helton has a problem. Like Carroll, he has his predictable struggles. Unlike Carroll, they haven’t always been offset, at least not to a high enough degree.

USC’s average margin of defeat under Helton on the road is 20 points.

The Trojan head coach has an absolutely dismal record on the road. In two years permanently in charge, he’s gone 8-6 away from the Coliseum. (He is 13-0 on home turf). Those six losses are worse than they seem. USC’s average margin of defeat under Helton on the road is 20 points.

At the very least, Helton has never lost to a team outside of the Top 45 in S&P+. Going 7-6 against teams that meet that criteria home or away, he hasn’t fallen to scrubs the way Carroll did, but he’s been notably vulnerable to good teams in unfriendly territory, which is where Carroll’s teams thrived.

It’s that away record which makes 2018 road trips to Stanford, Texas, Arizona and Utah look like toss up games. The Cardinal are projected 20th in preseason S&P+, the Longhorns are 27th, the Wildcats 33rd and the Utes 28th.

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Yet the Trojans outrank all of those in the preseason, sitting 15th. They finished ahead of those squads in 2017. They beat each of the four on the field at the Coliseum. Only now, the venue will change, making the anxiety rise.

USC shouldn’t fear those teams. With a five-year recruiting average ranking of fifth, the Trojans are undoubtedly stocked with more talent than that quartet. Texas ranks 14th, Stanford 21st, Utah 41st and Arizona 43rd.

In fact, with the lone exception of Notre Dame, no one on the 2018 schedule comes close to the Trojans roster resources. And even the Irish are below USC with a five-year rank of eighth.

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The Pac-12 favorite, Washington, boasts a recruiting average ranking 24th.

Those raw numbers mean the Huskies, Cardinal and Irish are expected to get more out of their talent than USC, if 2018 win projections are anything to go by.

The Trojans have maintained a competitive schedule, which no doubt plays into the largely uniform 8-4 projections from S&P+, ESPN FPI and Las Vegas sportsbooks. But an 8-4 mark still assumes USC will lose to three teams rated well below it.

With Notre Dame sitting seventh in preseason S&P+, that’s the most “acceptable” loss to mark. The rest likely comes down to USC’s performance in those critical round trips against Stanford, Texas, Arizona and Utah.

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There are more factors contributing to the danger of those games than just Helton’s road struggles against good teams. USC will be breaking in a new quarterback, whether it’s Matt Fink, Jack Sears or JT Daniels, and that’s undoubtedly contributing to the skepticism over the team’s ceiling. But the quarterback issue can too easily be used as a crutch when setting reasonable expectations for the 2018 season.

Matt Leinart was a first time starter who had never thrown a college pass when he took over in 2003. Georgia’s Jake Fromm was thrown into action as a true freshman starter and managed to guide his team to the brink of a national title. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts did the same in 2016.

What did all of those quarterbacks have in common? A well-coached team supporting them as they learned to swim.

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The success of Fink, Sears or Daniels in Year 1 will directly relate back to how well USC’s team performs as a whole, specifically how well the coaching staff prepares and guides that team.

Will a veteran Trojan line lead a potentially potent rushing attack? Will the defense find a way to prevent big plays while maintaining an aggressive pass rush? Will this USC team find consistency?

Making the answer to those questions an emphatic “Yes!” falls back on Helton, particularly when it comes to road performance, where his biggest improvement is needed.

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Teams reflect the leadership of their head coach. To this point, Helton has proven an ability to prepare his team for defending home field at the Coliseum. And it’s not like he’s been blanked in big games on the road. His victories over Washington, Penn State and Stanford in the Pac-12 title game shouldn’t be forgotten. But he’s operating on what amounts to a coin flip.

A team with as much ability as the Trojans shouldn’t be beholden to chance. Not if they’re well-coached.