Two and a half months ago Clay Helton’s career as USC head football coach was hanging on by one loose thread. The Trojans were 1-3 after the first four games of his first full season as the permanent coach. Helton had been given the interim and then the permanent tag during the 2015 season after Steve Sarkisian’s exit from the program. In 2015, Helton led the Trojans to an appearance in the Pac 12 title game and an 8-6 record, but it’s safe to say the standard for success at USC is much higher than that. After all, this is a program with 11 National Championships and 6 Heisman Trophy winners.
Helton was far from a big name splashy hire. He was the in-house guy who got a promotion. The conventional wisdom says that you never hire the interim guy full-time, but it has worked out before. Just ask Clemson and Dabo Swinney.
As things stood after USC lost 31-27 on the road at Utah to drop to 1-3, Helton sure didn’t look like the next Dabo. At that time, it looked like he wouldn’t even survive the 2016 season. The eulogies were already being written.
We saw it all. RIP Clay Helton’s USC career…
— Will Reeve Jr (@WillReeveJr) September 24, 2016
Clay Helton is not USC head coach material…
Look, I know Clay Helton is a good man and a good football coach … but he is NOT "USC Head Football Coach"
— Jack Jorgensen (@JackJorgensen14) September 24, 2016
USC hiring Clay Helton because he beat UCLA and still pretending to be an elite program will never not be funny
— Ryan (@RyanRosenblatt) September 24, 2016
It needs to happen. Helton is not SC football. I give it a few more games/losses https://t.co/g9FtvvTU7v
— BRANDON LEE 3TV (@BrandonLeeTV) September 24, 2016
Feels like Clay Helton is the western version of Frank Spaziani. https://t.co/EgC45lRZ6E
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) September 24, 2016
It was just a matter of time until USC had to look elsewhere…
Within a week you'll start hearing big names linked to the USC job. It's just a matter of time for Clay Helton…
— Jason Smith (@howaboutafresca) September 24, 2016
USC- time to move on from Helton, need i say more
— Booger (@SECbooger) September 25, 2016
— FOX Sports Radio (@FoxSportsRadio) September 26, 2016
And to top it all off, The Big Lead even said that Helton had to be fired and USC needed to hire a “real head coach” because USC must have originally hired Helton based on his expertise playing NCAA Football dynasty mode on XBox or something.
Clay Helton Must Be Fired And USC Needs To Find A Real Head Coach https://t.co/GMrKtOet8T
— The Big Lead (@thebiglead) September 24, 2016
All of these proclamations make what has happened over the last eight games all the more amazing. Since all of these people declared Helton’s USC tenure dead in the water, he and the Trojans haven’t lost. The most impressive of those victories was a 26-13 triumph on the road at Pac 12 champion and College Football Playoff participant Washington. Quarterback Sam Darnold blossomed, throwing multiple touchdowns in all eight of those games.
USC is 8-0 since that 1-3 start and only one of five teams in college football to be undefeated since October.
Teams that have not lost since Oct. 1
Who am I missing?
— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) December 4, 2016
Even with three losses, USC was getting deserved late-season buzz as one of the hottest teams in the country. If there was an 8 team playoff in college football, they would have a legitimate shout for a playoff berth and would be the decisive favorite to be given the mantle of “team you don’t want to play in the postseason.” Well, besides Alabama.
Helton may never win a national championship at USC, but he has certainly done enough over the last two months to earn that permanent tag and at least point the program in the right direction once again.
Helton has USC ranked 9th and appearing in their first Rose Bowl since 2008, Pete Carroll’s next to last season. Lane Kiffin never made a BCS or New Year’s Six bowl game in three-plus years in charge (although he did have a postseason ban to deal with). Sarkisian never did it either. Clay Helton has, though. Considering where Helton and USC were just a couple months ago, it has to be one of the biggest shocks of the college football season.