It still feels slightly odd opining about Clay Helton's future at USC since, for a minute, it appeared as though he might not have one. A 5-7 record in 2018, low-lighted by a 34-27 loss to UCLA, was certainly enough to fire Helton if the university desired. It was, after all, its worst season since 2000 when Paul Hackett was let go, ushering in the Pete Carroll era.
But, with no permanent university president appointed and the promise of a major staff overhaul, athletic director Lynn Swann opted to give Helton another chance. That decision soon turned into an even worse look as Helton's big offseason get -- offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury -- left after a month (despite Swann's best efforts to block interviews) to coach the NFL's Cardinals. Throw in an uncharacteristically low recruiting class, at least by USC's top-10 standards, and 2019 hasn't exactly gotten off to the best of starts for the embattled Helton.
Still, this is USC, and as recently as 2017 the Trojans were Pac-12 champs. In 2016, they were Rose Bowl champs. One can certainly debate Helton's ceiling, but the program wasn't that far off. The question is whether Helton can get it back in just a year. Of course, "back" could mean a couple of things. Conference titles and/or playoff appearances is the general bar but some may not be willing to settle for even that. And in a macro sense, USC might have a difficult decision if Helton is good enough, often enough, not to fire. His two New Year's Six bowls in three years certainly fits that bill. Furthermore, only one west coast program -- Oregon -- has been a legit national title contender in the past decade.
While the mileage of what "good enough" means vary, though, we can more specifically point to what isn't good enough at USC as Helton was fortunate to keep his job after last season's debacle. Here's what needs to change for Helton to continue moving forward in Los Angeles, which also coincides with turning the program around.
Let offensive coordinator Graham Harrell cook
A past problem for Helton, an offensive mind by trade, has been letting go of the reins on that side of the ball. This was most evident with former Trojans OC Tee Martin. While there were layers to that situation, Helton has to be all-in on new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. The former Texas Tech quarterback may be Kingsbury-like, but he has the potential to reach that highest echelon amongst offensive minds. He's already worked under Mike Gundy (quality control) and Mike Leach (outside receivers), and ran the offense under Seth Littrell at North Texas.
This will be a major step for Harrell's career, but his style might actually fit well with what USC has coming back. Bill Connelly did a good dive into this, and it boils down to versatility. In 2018, the Mean Green had a 1,000-yard wideout in Rico Bussey Jr., but also six total receivers (including tight ends and running backs) with at least 25 catches and a touchdown. UNT's three top running backs also had north of 300 combined touches with each notching at least 300 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
USC has plenty of talent returning, especially at wide receiver. The trio of Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown could be special in this offense. The problem was the Trojans weren't particularly good at anything last season. They were sixth in the Pac-12 in passing offense, and even worse, 10th in the run. They certainly weren't scoring enough points at 26.1 per game -- tied with Oregon State (yikes) and were last in the Pac-12 in long scrimmage plays of 10 yards or more. There are myriad reasons for those numbers, but the quarterback situation didn't help. J.T. Daniels' freshman campaign was all over the place (14 TDs, 10 INTs, 7.4 YPA), and while Jack Sears will push him this offseason, the overall feeling is Daniels will still start come this season.
Harrell has the blue-chip pieces in place to make an immediate impact. He the 124th-best scoring offense in 2015, and nearly added 10 points per game himself in his inaugural effort. By 2017, the Mean Green had the 19th best unit in college football. But he had time to rebuild things in Denton; there is no such luxury this time around. Still, Helton has to let Harrell operate as if he were Kingsbury. He's earned that chance.
Improve the turnover margin
Just as there are a number of things to fix on the offense, there are a lot of questions on USC's defense. This is a group that lost a ton of experienced linebackers and secondary playmakers. While the Trojans weren't what you'd call a shutdown unit on that side of the ball last year, they were, if nothing else, a group of veteran players. But with injuries taking their toll, that unit never quite lived up to what it could have been.
This year's defense is full of newer faces, but there are promising stars in the bunch. Linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV, who filled in for Cameron Smith last year, looks like the next centerpiece of that defense. Safety Talanoa Hufanga will be the leader of a frighteningly young secondary. Both of those guys are playmakers, but overall, this group can help itself by improving in one major category: takeaways.
USC ranked 11th in the Pac-12 last year with 10 takeaways. Compare that to 20 turnovers and you get a margin of -10, which [/crunches numbers] isn't good. Granted, luck plays a role in that category, but being opportunistic is one way to cover average-to-poor defensive stats. USC was terrible in that category a year ago, and while takeaways is an unreliable metric because of its randomness, it's certainly an area where the Trojans can make strides to improve through fundamentals.
The first six games will be critical
If Helton is coaching for his job, which he is, then the first half of the season will say a lot as to whether he'll keep it. And, boy, the Trojans don't really catch any breaks. Our own Tom Fornelli ranked USC Fresno State, Stanford, BYU, Utah and Washington right out of the gate before the first open week. That's followed immediately by a road game at rival Notre Dame.in the Pac-12 with
A schedule like that might be a badge of honor in the playoff conversation, but not when you're trying to 1) coach for your life while 2) breaking in a bunch of new assistants with 3) plenty of young players. The Trojans are projected to be in some tight games, too. Bet Online's way-too-early lines had USC as a four-point favorite over Stanford, and a six-point favorite over UCLA in Week 12. Those one-possession games can really alter the landscape of a season. Helton would be on much steadier ground if he went into the open week at 5-0 or 4-1, but this team could just as easily be 2-3. If that's the case, Helton may not even make it until the end of the season.