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Has Clay Helton underachieved with USC football?

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02: USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts after defeating the Penn State Nittany Lions 52-49 to win the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2017 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02: USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton reacts after defeating the Penn State Nittany Lions 52-49 to win the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2017 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Has Clay Helton underachieved with USC football? The advanced stats show he’s actually ahead of the curve when it comes to wins expected and projected.

Who are the most underachieving and overachieving head coaches in college football?

Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall answered that question, to a point, on Wednesday when he updated his list of overachievers and underachievers based on win expectancy.

Win expectancy takes into account all the stats within a game and determines which team was most likely to win based on that, not the score. It’s an interesting look at who does and doesn’t prevail when they ought to, which is as much a measure of a good coach as anything else.

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Clay Helton doesn’t feature on the list because he doesn’t have the necessary seasons under his belt, with the cutoff set at three. But the numbers are still there from two years of action.

And they reveal that Helton’s teams have actually consistently overachieved in that measure. In 2016, the Trojans win expectancy was 9.4 and they won 10 games. In 2017, the win expectancy was 10.4 and they won 11 games.

Helton’s average of +0.6 ranks 18th among coaches since 2005. That’s ahead of David Shaw, Chris Petersen, Brian Kelly and even Nick Saban.

Of course, that last name reveals the trouble with quantifying coaching achievement based on win expectancy. As Connelly himself explains, “You can potentially distill coaching into two things: building a team that produces great stats and figuring out how to maneuver in tight games when neither team has a statistical advantage. The former matters above all…but if nothing else, this list might help us to understand which teams/coaches are good or bad at the latter.”

In that sense, the numbers confirmed what most already knew: Helton’s teams have been good at winning the games they should win.

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However, that doesn’t account for the acceptability of performance level. For instance, USC’s win expectancy against Notre Dame in 2017 was zero. That fact is an indictment on coaching, but it isn’t reflected in the over or underachieving numbers for win expectancy. USC was expected to lose that game, and they did.

Does the picture become clearer if preseason projections are taken into account? If win expectancy can give an accurate depiction of how a coach performs within the context of each game, then projected wins going into a season could give a sense of how well a coach performs based on the expected level of his squad.

Before the 2017 season, USC was projected to win 9.6 games in S&P+. The Trojans ended up with 11 wins. Projections for 2016 were a bit more cautious at 7.7 wins. That squad achieved 10.

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That means, in this measure as well, Helton has overachieved. The stats predicted he would win 17.3 games in his first two seasons and he outpaced that by an average margin of 1.8 wins.

Connelly doesn’t have a list of how coaches across the country have fared relative to their preseason projections, so putting that number in context is a bit more difficult.

For example, over the past two seasons, Washington’s Chris Petersen has exceeded preseason expectations by 1.75 wins. Stanford’s David Shaw has done it by 1.2 wins.

Helton isn’t necessarily outperforming the coaching duo widely considered the best in the Pac-12, but he’s certainly on par.

For more comparison, UCLA’s Jim Mora averaged -2.25 wins against projections over the past two years.

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As with all things pertaining to Helton, time will ultimately tell. The eye test does matter and his teams have undoubtedly failed to pass that at times. But the sense that he has underachieved in his two campaigns may be more a figment of imagination than fact.

For the record, USC is projected to win 8.2 games in this year’s preseason S&P+ calculations. Maintaining his average of +1.8 would give Helton a third consecutive 10-win season.

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