2019 Pac-12 coach rankings: Clay Helton enters on the hot seat among group chasing Chris Petersen
USC's Helton enters 2019 under much pressure after going 5-7 a season ago
Last month, the CBS Sports college football braintrust submitted ballots that were compiled to create our annual ranking of the Power Five coaches. For the Pac-12, that meant a lot of shuffling due to several first-year or relatively new coaches.
The top of the conference's coaching ranks is clear-cut: Washington's Chris Petersen and Stanford's David Shaw have proven to be the conference's best over an extended period of time. Even Utah's Kyle Whittingham has brought a level of consistency enjoyed by so few programs across the sport. However, there are so many new coaches in the conference that the rest of the rankings end up jumbled. And then there's USC's Clay Helton, who enters the season on one of the hottest seats anywhere. Can Helton save his job and move back up the rankings? Only time will tell.
A clear-eyed look at the entire conference heading into the 2019 season reveals very little separation between most of these coaches, and plenty of room for debate at every spot except No. 1. Complete Power 5 rankings: 1-25 | 26-65.
|Chris Petersen: Given what he's done at both Washington and Boise State, it's tough to argue for anyone other than Petersen at No. 1. For that matter, I'd say he's proven to be a top-five coach in all of college football with six conference titles, including two at Washington, and a College Football Playoff appearance. His resume speaks for itself.|
|David Shaw: If Petersen is No. 1, I'd put Shaw more as No. 1A. He's won no fewer than eight games in his eight seasons with the Cardinal. That being said, some of the things Stanford has been known for -- tough defenses and stout run games among them -- have slowly started to decline. Moreover, this team has a tough schedule for next season, so I wouldn't be surprised if this team is in for a bit of a downturn.|
|Chip Kelly: Obviously, Kelly's 3-9 debut last season didn't affect how we think of him too much. This is still a guy who went 46-7 at Oregon with a BCS National Championship appearance. Besides, the Bruins clearly started to turn a corner in the middle of last season, and beating USC buys you a lot of grace. He'll be fine.|
|Kyle Whittingham: He's the dean of Pac-12 coaches even though Utah is one of the conference's newest members. He oversaw the transition from Group of Five to Power Five, and like Gary Patterson at TCU, has managed to elevate his program with it. You know you're always going to get a tough, well-coached team with Whittingham's group, and they should be South Division favorites this season.|
|Mike Leach: I get the feeling Leach has a higher overall perception nationally, but which of the coaches above would you swap for him? This ranking feels about right. Still, I don't believe there's a ceiling that's already been reached with Leach's teams. What Alex Grinch started and Tracy Claeys has continued on defense has shown Leach simply isn't a one-trick offensive mind. He's been so close to winning the Pac-12 North lately, but he can't rise in the rankings until he does.|
|Kevin Sumlin: You can give Sumlin a little bit of a grace period at Arizona. He brought a different style to the offense than his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez. Still, Sumlin has one of the most electrifying athletes at his fingertips in quarterback Khalil Tate. Can Sumlin do something with him like he did with Johnny Manziel in 2012 and '13 at Texas A&M?|
|Mario Cristobal: Fair or not, the perception of Cristobal is going to be tethered to quarterback Justin Herbert. The Ducks are currently tied with Washington for the best odds to win the Pac-12 in 2019, so that's the bar set for Cristobal in Eugene. Going 9-4 in his debut season was fine, and his time at FIU was better than the record indicated, but it still feels like he has something to prove.|
|Justin Wilcox: Personally, this feels one or two spots too low for Wilcox. Low-key, he's done a nice job taking Cal to bowl eligibility in two seasons (let's just forget that Cheez-It Bowl ever happened). The defense has obviously improved, and the Bears knocked off Washington last season.|
|Clay Helton: There isn't a more polarizing coach in the Pac-12 at the moment -- and maybe in all of college football, for that matter. On one hand, Helton went 21-6 in 2016 and '17, winning a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title. But then he went 5-7 in 2018 and the Trojans played some of the most frustrating, undisciplined football of any team I watched. Like Tom Herman at Texas, Helton is going to rise and fall faster and harder than most coaches simply based on his employer. But heading into 2019, there's no doubt he's on the hot seat.|
|Herm Edwards: This is probably still an appropriate ranking for Edwards after one season. On paper, 7-6 doesn't stand out, but Edwards actually made some good in-season adjustments to fit the talent on the field. Let's put it this way: I'm more optimistic about his hire than a year ago, I just wonder what the ceiling is for him.|
|Jonathan Smith: Oregon State went 2-10 in Smith's debut last season. Granted, he inherited a downtrodden program and it's going to take a while to turn things around at arguably the toughest place to win in the Pac-12. Until that happens -- if that happens -- you can expect to find him around here.|
|Mel Tucker: Nothing personal, but dead last is typically where you end up if you've never been a college head coach before. Tucker did lead the Jacksonville Jaguars on an interim basis for five games in 2011, going 2-3 in that stretch. There's just not much to base his ranking off of yet.|
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