I don’t think Clay Helton can beat Alabama. Of course, it won’t be just Helton out there on Saturday against the Crimson Tide. It’s not a chess match between him and Nick Saban. Coaches can only do so much.
But I don’t think Helton is the kind of coach who will lead USC to victory in “The Big One” anytime soon. He’ll be a perfectly good coach during his USC tenure, and a loss during the first game of his non-interim USC coaching career doesn’t necessarily entail doom for the rest of the season. Heck, the Trojans could pull off an upset against the defending national champions; I really do hope I’m wrong.
Nonetheless, these aren’t the kinds of games Helton was brought in to win. Even if the spread was closer to a field goal than two touchdowns and there wasn’t quite the mismatch between his roster and Saban’s, I still wouldn’t feel the typical, invincible Arrogant Nation swagger I otherwise would while going into a heavyweight showdown. If the Trojans stick around with the Crimson Tide for the most part, but ultimately fall short of really competing for a victory, I think it will be a great indicator of what we can and can’t expect from his head coaching tenure.
When Helton was officially promoted from interim to permanent football head coach last year, the move represented a call for consistency and stability after several seasons that were anything but. A dismissal on a tarmac, an emotional storm-off before a bowl game, a personal problem boiling over onto the field and plenty other twists and turns characterize the last five years of USC football better than any single victory or accomplishment. The noise surrounding those on the sideline has drowned out the actual performance of the Trojan student-athletes on the field — what the program should really be about.
That’s why former athletic director Pat Haden wanted to give Helton the keys to the program. By all accounts, he was a very well-liked and respected coach at USC as a quarterbacks’ coach, offensive coordinator and interim leader on two different occasions. He was the steadiest force on staff during a uniquely tumultuous period for Hollywood’s local team. He had arguably the best chance of making the most out of USC’s potential, putting an end to all the distractions and underwhelming on-field performances.
With all that being said, he still comes in as a relatively unheralded former assistant. As a player, Helton’s career numbers at Houston included one touchdown and four interceptions in 16 games. He was brought onto the USC staff from Memphis, an unremarkable program previously playing in Conference USA. This is his first head coaching job.
Maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it isn’t, but Helton was not the big name hire some had hoped for and felt that a program like USC should be able to pull off. Because as much as nostalgic USC fans like me need to get away from this, as unreasonable of an expectation as it is, Helton won’t be able to escape the shadow of the man who built the program he just inherited.
Helton is no Pete Carroll.
It’s impossible to make any sort of analysis of a USC football head coach in recent memory without bringing up Carroll’s name. Legendary is by no means an understatement. Even if it’s an exaggeration with regards to his actual accomplishments at the helm, it certainly isn’t with regards to the mythical status Carroll still holds among lifelong Trojan fans who experienced the glory of his peak.
Carroll was the king of Southern California swagger. Even though he had three different Heisman trophy winners during his tenure with USC, it was Carroll who was the star, the larger-than-life figure defining the persona of Trojan football. No one could stop USC, and there was no big game the Trojans wouldn’t win.
There’s one very notable exception to that rule, arguably the biggest and most important of all the games he coached. But even when factoring in the 2005 National Championship game loss to Texas, Carroll and the Trojans put up a remarkable record in big games.
His record includes two Orange Bowl wins, four Rose Bowl wins, an epic Bush Push victory in 2005 during the biggest game in the recent history of the Notre Dame rivalry, a 66-19 beatdown of UCLA in 2005 (the last time both teams played while ranked around the AP Top-10), a victory over a No. 6 Auburn team in 2003 en route to a national championship and two victories over Ohio State in 2008 and 2009, which were the last times the Trojans had big name non-conference games on the early schedule. Given that Carroll won six of seven BCS bowl games and then essentially was never beaten in the regular season by an evenly-matched regular season opponent, it’s hard not to call the Carroll era a dynasty.
The downfall for Carroll, though, was that the dynasty was prone to huge upsets. It was almost never a team that could reasonably compete with the Trojans derailing their season. It was always a team the Trojans should have beaten. I still think USC had the best football team in the country in 2006, 2007 and 2008, but losses to unranked opponents in times before the four-team playoff prevented the Trojans from ever validating that in the national championship that year.
That’s why this matchup against Alabama feels so similar to USC’s home-and-home with Ohio State in 2008 and 2009 or the 2003 Auburn tilt, even though the ranking disparity this year is much greater. The ’08 Trojans came in as the No. 1 team against a No. 5 Ohio State, then were ranked No. 3 against the No. 8 Buckeyes in 2009. 2003 featured a No. 8 USC vs. a No. 6 Auburn. The Trojans aren’t really coming in on the same level as No. 1 Alabama this year — the AP has USC as a legitimate underdog at No. 20.
But this feels like the kind of game Pete Carroll would win. Why? Because he just would. Even with the very same roster against a defending national champion Alabama team, every single player in Carroll’s locker room would unequivocally believe that they were about to win that game, which they would then go do.
But Pete Carroll probably wouldn’t lead USC past Utah State the following week. In both ’08 and ’09, immediately after taking down top-10 Ohio State teams, the Trojans lost the following week against unranked conference opponents — at Oregon State in ’08 and at Washington in ’09.
That’s the essential tradeoff between Helton and Carroll. The Trojans will win the games they are supposed to under Helton. But it will be some time before USC goes into every game expecting to win with him at the helm.
Time will tell whether this style materializes into a national championship during Helton’s tenure. Win the conference enough times and appear in the College Football Playoff enough times, and Helton will hopefully break through at least once and win it all. If he can do it within the next decade, then I would put him on that same level that Carroll occupies.
But that’s a long ways away. For now, USC is not really on the same level as an Alabama. Heck, Stanford and even UCLA might be the best two teams in the conference for the next couple of seasons.
Helton just needs a strong start. Even if the Trojans fall short of winning on Saturday, he can still set the tone for the future of the season — and the future of the program — just by sticking around.
Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesday.