USC Football: How can Clay Helton break into coaching Top 25?

How can USC football head coach Clay Helton rise in coaching rankings?

Clay Helton has had an up-and-down tenure with USC football, so it makes sense that college football coaching rankings are at a loss with how to evaluate him.

CBS Sports set out to rank all the head coaching in the Power 5 and Helton didn’t make Top 25.

That’s to be expected given his inconsistent track record.

As it stands, Helton ranks 41st nationally, up 10 spots from the previous year (when he tumbled drastically in the aftermath of the 2018 season).

“This is a strange one,” Tom Fornelli wrote. “A lot of USC fans wanted Helton fired after last season. The team was only 8-5 overall, but it did go 7-2 in the Pac-12 and was in the South Division race. Still, he’s viewed as being on a hot seat, yet that doesn’t stop him from climbing 10 spots in the rankings. My theory is that it’s based more on other coaches falling than Helton’s climbing. He is at USC, however, and when you have that kind of roster, you’re only a season away from being a top 25 coach.”

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He’s behind quickly-falling Chip Kelly from UCLA at No. 36 and new Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin at No. 35. He also trails his former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who has risen quickly to No. 33 with Cal.

Herm Edwards at No. 30 made a 24-spot move.

Coaches in the Top 25 Helton is vying to overcome include No. 24 Mario Cristobal at Oregon, No. 19 David Shaw at Stanford, No. 11 Kyle Whittingham at Utah and No. 5 Brian Kelly at Notre Dame.

These rankings are somewhat arbitrary and mean very little in the grand scheme of things, but they do tell you what tier USC’s head coach is in. And frankly, a Trojan head coach should never be sitting in the bottom half of the Power Five.

What does Clay Helton need to accomplish with USC football to rise?

The obvious answer for Helton would be to win a national title. Ed Orgeron did that and leaped 26 spots to No. 4 nationally.

Winning a national title truly would cure all ills. It would answer the doubts about Helton’s ceiling, it would prove that his approach can yield success and his staff was well-chosen.

It also remains exceedingly unlikely.

The trouble for Helton is there’s no real opportunity for him to start smaller at this stage. Winning the Pac-12 would put USC back on their perch in the conference, but it wouldn’t necessarily change the perception around Helton. He’s won the conference title before. If the next 5-7 season always feels like it’s just around the corner, potentially triggered by the inevitable departure of Graham Harrell, then skepticism will linger.

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A Pac-12 title in 2020 and a repeat in 2021 would go a long way towards giving Helton Top 25 legitimacy, if only just. Eventually, consistent winning seasons would outweigh the 2018 slip up.

Still, consistent big-game losses, particularly uncompetitive ones, will always undercut any legitimacy Helton could develop.

As always with an evaluation of Helton, it comes down to this: Win the conference, compete for the playoff, don’t get blown out.

Easier said than done.

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