There are three types of offseason coaching news: a coach is fired, a coach is hired or a coach is being retained. Between hirings and firings, we see about two dozen jobs change hands each year, but rarely does a "retained" story generate headlines quite like when it was announced that Clay Helton would be back with USC for 2020.
"I am pleased to let you know Coach Helton will continue to be our head coach," USC athletic director Mike Bohn said in December. "His commitment to our student-athletes and to leading with integrity is vital to restoring our championship program, which is the goal for all of our teams.
"Heading into 2020, Coach Helton and I will work together to take a hard look at all aspects of the football enterprise and will make the tough decisions necessary to compete at a championship level."
Those changes included turning over the defensive staff and making some infrastructure changes, points of criticism and concern for USC fans and power brokers. But keeping Helton around for 2020 wasn't just a blind guess that staff changes would fix everything for the team. Bohn and USC knew that the roster was set up for a big year that includes Pac-12 championship contention and potentially a New Year's Six bowl.
Now, as you can tell by their place here in the CBS Sports Rankings, the Trojans aren't getting much College Football Playoff consideration right now, but some of that might be a nod to one of the toughest schedules in the country. But even against a schedule that includes Alabama, Notre Dame, Oregon and Washington, there's not a game that USC can't win with its talent. How USC handles that challenge will determine whether the Helton era will continue in Los Angeles.
Final ranking: No. 30 in the CBS Sports 130 | Achievements: Pac-12 South runner-up
USC got off to a 3-3 start, losing J.T. Daniels to injury in the opener against Fresno State and then backup Kedon Slovis suffered a concussion on the second play of the game against Utah. Matt Fink starred in an upset win against the Utes, but the Trojans would go on to lose back-to-back games at Washington and at Notre Dame.
Then Slovis and the USC offense took off, scoring at least 30 points in five wins across the final six games. The freshman threw for 400-plus yards against Colorado, Arizona State and Cal before finishing the regular season with 515 passing yards against rival UCLA in a 52-35 win. Unfortunately, the good energy from that midseason turnaround and strong finish didn't make it to the bowl game, as Iowa steamrolled USC 49-24 in the Holiday Bowl.
DC Clancy Pendergast: A four-season stint as Helton's defensive coordinator came to an end after the Trojans were boat-raced in the Holiday Bowl against Iowa. The Trojans were middling among their peers during this run (Pendergast's second with USC), finishing no better than fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and yards per play allowed.
WR Michael Pittman: The Biletnikoff Award finalist was one of the best wide receivers in the country a year ago and easily the most consistent and reliable threat in the passing game. We're going to spend a lot of time talking about the on-paper potential of USC's offense, but a significant portion of the actual production from 2019 left with Pittman.
OL Austin Jackson: A five-star prospect coming out of high school, Jackson lived up to the rating with an impressive three years in Los Angeles. Before getting drafted 18th overall by the Miami Dolphins last month, Jackson played in all 39 of USC's games during his three-year career with 25 starts, earning first team All-Pac-12 honors at left tackle in 2019.
DE Christian Rector: One of the few losses from the defensive depth chart, Rector will be difficult to replace for reasons both on and off the field. The fifth-year senior was a team captain with 46 games of experience (23 starts), contributing at both defensive end and outside linebacker throughout his career with high marks being all-conference honors in 2017 and 2018.
QB JT Daniels (maybe): Whether Daniels plays again for USC is a question that hangs over the program. His name is in the transfer portal so he can engage in contact with other schools, but Helton has made it clear he'd be welcome back should he choose to stay put. If he stays, the quarterback battle becomes among the most intriguing in the country. If he leaves, it's more pressure on Slovis and a room full of talented young receivers to carry the offense.
OC Graham Harrell: Worth mentioning again here that, in addition to Helton getting the vote of confidence from the USC administration, the coaching staff gets some continuity at a key position with Harrell back in the fold for 2020. There were reports of interest from the NFL, but Harrell staying on board keeps offensive expectations high after leading a productive passing attack in 2019.
QB Kedon Slovis: The Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year is going to get dark horse Heisman Trophy buzz following his impressive debut. The stats are gaudy -- 71.9% passing for 3,502 yards with 30 touchdowns and just nine interceptions -- but the key to him gaining national attention is going to be team success. He's no doubt going to be one of the most productive players in the country, but wins and Pac-12 title contention will be the results of Slovis elevating his level of play in his sophomore season.
WR Tyler Vaughns: And you could really build this out to include a handful of other key players for the 2020 outlook. Only seven players in the Pac-12 recorded 900 or more receiving yards in 2019. Three of them were Trojans. Pittman (1,275 yards) is gone, but Amon-Ra St. Brown (1,042) and Vaughns are both back in the fold. Unlike St. Brown, Vaughns was eligible for the NFL Draft but decided to return for his redshirt senior season. They'll have competition though, with Drake London and other underclassmen pushing for targets in the Trojans' Air Raid attack.
DT Jay Tufele: The drought of dominant defensive lineman at USC is over, and next spring we'll see the Trojans have their first first-round defensive lineman drafted since Leonard Williams went No. 6 overall in 2015. Tufele turned down a chance to go to the NFL Draft after a productive redshirt sophomore season that saw him earn All-Pac-12 first team honors and be named USC Defensive Lineman of the Year for the second straight season. He's got All-American potential in 2020 and will be the face of the team defensively.
DC Todd Orlando: The 49-year old former Wisconsin linebacker spent the last five years working alongside Tom Herman at Houston and Texas. Ousted as Herman sought to make a change at both coordinator positions, Orlando brings the Trojans a football philosophy pairing of sorts coaching opposite Graham Harrell. He's got old school Big East chops, but plenty of recent experience coaching with and against modern up-tempo offenses in the Big 12 and AAC. It's not just Orlando, though, as USC welcomes a rebuilt defensive staff that includes defensive line coach Vic So'oto (Virginia), cornerback coach Donte Williams (Oregon) and safeties coach Craig Naivar (Texas).
WR Bru McCoy: After signing with USC out of high school as a five-star prospect in December 2018, McCoy enrolled in the spring semester only to transfer out to Texas just in time to make it for spring practice. Then, after playing all spring with the Longhorns, McCoy transferred back to USC in the summer only to later announce that he's not able to play at the start of the season because of an illness. No. 1: we hope McCoy is fully healthy. No. 2: if he is and can get up to speed, he could have an electric redshirt freshman season in this offense.
WR Gary Bryant Jr.: Just because the Trojans' recruiting class ranked outside the top-50 does not mean it is without potential for instant impact in 2020. Bryant Jr. was a four-star prospect ranked as the No. 5 player in the state of California. He might have missed out on spring practice, but he has been enrolled in school since the start of the semester and will have a chance to hit the ground running when play resumes on campus.
Week 1 vs. Alabama -- Sept. 5: The last time these two played in Week 1 was 2016 -- Clay Helton's first full season as head coach. The Tide rolled 52-6 and would go on to win their next 14 games before getting gutted by Deshaun Watson in the CFP title game. Helton would rally USC back from the beatdown and go on to win 10 games, including the Rose Bowl, and finish ranked in the top three of the AP Top 25 poll. The point is: don't take too much away from Week 1, it's a long season.
Week 5 at Utah -- Oct. 2: While Utah will be replacing a lot from last year's Pac-12 runner-up squad, they've got young talent that might be ready to answer the call. At the very least they're not going to be unprepared for USC in Salt Lake City in a game that carries a season's worth of importance. The Trojans' win against Utah in the Coliseum last year kept the Utes out of the top four of the playoff rankings heading into Championship Saturday. Even if the players are gone, the program remembers.
Week 10 at Oregon -- Nov. 7: Another fascinating revenge factor game. After leading 10-0 at the end of the first quarter in last year's game against the Ducks, then ranked No. 7 in the country, USC got blitzed. A 28-7 second quarter was followed by 28-7 second half and suddenly the home team went from a top-10 upset win to walking out as 56-24 losers. This could also be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game, though it won't carry as much weight in the division race if USC has head-to-head tiebreakers against the other top teams.
USC will have one of the best offenses in the country with Slovis operating the Air Raid and an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver. With Vaughns, St. Brown and London, you've got three players who could be WR1 on another roster, and the ceiling of McCoy being an eventual first-round draft pick. That kind of offensive outlook has all the pressure on the defense to step up and play at a championship level, which is going to put the microscope on Orlando and that reloaded defensive staff.
When Orlando's defenses have been at their best during his time at Houston and Texas, they've been able to find success defending up-tempo offenses with simplified scheme and great playmaking/ball skills. The talent is there at USC to make it all work on paper, the players will just have to download a lot of information quickly with no spring practice in the lead up to the season. The one thing that Orlando can do is deliver on a promise for more physicality, bringing an edge and intimidation factor back to USC's defense.
So it's like a lot of USC seasons. We can lay out the roster and the defensive upgrades and point to a team that should have a chance to win every time it takes the field. The issue is that with USC we've come to expect disappointment when it comes to matching that on-paper advantage with performance on the field. Not in every game across the board, but at enough key points in the season where USC falls short of championship expectations.
That's where I'm ducking old habit and doubling down on the Trojans. Helton is 20-4 against Pac-12 South opponents and I don't think he and this team get enough credit for being one of the teams to beat in the conference. It's not the overwhelming dominance of the Pete Carroll era, but two Pac-12 Championship Game appearances with one win, a Rose Bowl and a 72% winning percentage in conference play is worth highlighting. The program has some room for growth in terms of its national championship contention, but it's healthy enough to enter every season as one of the favorites to win the conference and I think they'll do so in 2020.