USC Football: Clay Helton must deliver playoff berth in Year 3

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

Now in Year 3 as head coach of USC football, Clay Helton must live up to the standard he’s set for himself by securing a playoff berth.

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No matter where you coach in college football, Year 3 is pivotal. Why so? Because Year 3 is the year that you no longer have any excuses.

Seventy-five percent or more of the roster has been recruited and signed by you. You have had time to install your coaches, your system, and instill your vision. No longer can someone say that you are winning with someone else’s players (for the most part), and you have had more than enough time to learn the ins and outs of your particular program.

If you are not successful in Year 3, then you are to blame.

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Clay Helton comes into Year 3 with, in many ways, less pressure than many coaches would. His first two seasons have both been successful, with 10 wins or more in both, a Pac-12 title in his second year, and a Rose Bowl win in his first. In addition to this, he has had two players drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft (Sam Darnold and Adoree Jackson) and has not lost a game at home.

It seems that even if Year 3 is somewhat of a letdown, he should still be given the benefit of the doubt going into Year 4.

While all that is true, it does not tell the whole story. While Helton has certainly won many games, the games that he has lost have been significant.

In his first game against Alabama, Helton was embarrassed by Nick Saban in Dallas. This was followed by a loss to Stanford, which then prompted a change at the quarterback position. Even after that decision was made, Helton lost a tough game to Utah on the road. After that loss, things turned around for the best, but at that point USC was out of the playoff picture.

The following year USC was projected to finish as a playoff team,  but they were out of the playoff race before October ended, following a crushing defeat by Notre Dame in South Bend.

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And that is the big criticism that still remains with Helton: While it seems unlikely that he will ever have a losing record, there is no evidence that Helton can take USC to the playoff and eventually the national championship.

The first two years can be given a pass in certain aspects. Helton was learning on the job in Year 1, and with hindsight might have started Darnold earlier and had a more successful season. Year 2 was different because there were real expectations, and Helton had never experienced that before.

This year, there are no excuses. If Helton does not make the playoffs this year, he has failed.

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True, he is breaking in a new quarterback who is a true freshman. But this is not a valid excuse in today’s day and age when last year the two quarterbacks who finished the national title game were true freshmen. The year prior Jalen Hurts was a few seconds from winning a title as a true freshman.

Helton returns the majority of his defense, the majority of his offensive line, two standout receivers, and a Top 5 recruiting class on top of two other Top 10 classes. His talent pool has no equal in the Pac-12. He returns all of his coordinators who are also going into their third year. There is no excuse except ineptitude that should keep this roster from a playoff spot.

If Helton does not make the playoff this year, the season must be considered a failure.

That is not to say that if Helton does not make the playoff he should be terminated; that should only happen if USC loses four or more games.

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This is the standard Helton himself set after the Cotton Bowl and at Pac-12 Media Days: USC is about winning national championships. If Helton sets that standard for himself, then USC fans are not out of line to hold him to it.