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Clay Helton looked like a shaky head coach hire for USC. Not anymore.

USC started slow and has been a juggernaut ever since.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

USC is a really, really good place to be a football coach. It’s a well-heeled private school in a huge market, and it’s in one of America’s three best recruiting states for elite talent. There’s a ton of football history there, including some recent greatness behind Pete Carroll, Matt Leinart, and Reggie Bush. The weather’s nice. It’s a desirable job.

When USC fired Steve Sarkisian last season, the Trojans could’ve tried for a blockbuster hire to replace him. But they decided to promote from within, elevating offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who’d been the interim head coach, to the permanent lead job. Helton took control of one of the sport’s biggest legacy programs, which at the time was coming off five sub-10-win seasons in seven years.

When they heard the news, USC’s players were stoked.

Helton’s players liked him, but his hiring looked a little curious. He was youthful at only 43 years old, and he’d been at USC since 2012. But he’d never been a head coach before, and most of his career experience had come as a positional assistant and later the offensive coordinator at Memphis.

He didn’t have a can’t-miss resume, either:

  • Former quarterback at Auburn and Houston in the 1990s
  • A graduate assistant, running backs, and receivers coach at Duke, Houston, and Memphis between 1995 and 2006
  • Three years as Memphis’ offensive coordinator in Conference USA
  • Six years as a USC assistant, including three as the coordinator of an offense that didn’t put up prolific numbers to match the top talent it often had

Under Helton’s guidance, USC had never cracked the top 20 in points per game. He wasn’t a big-ticket candidate befitting a big school. He got the gig anyway.

This year came around, and USC had one of the country’s most talented rosters. The Trojans had a fall quarterback competition between veteran Max Browne and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. Helton named Browne his starter for a season opener against Alabama, which USC would lose embarrassingly, 52-6. The Trojans suffered a Christian McCaffrey dunking-on at Stanford a few weeks later, then a crushing late loss at Utah.

That was on Sept. 24. It’s now 2017, and USC still has only three losses.

The Trojans are on an eight-game winning streak and have been one of the sport’s best teams, beating seven of those opponents by at least two scores and a few by more than that.

They’re favored to win the Rose Bowl against Penn State on Monday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN), which isn’t as good as being in the Playoff but is still awfully good. They could be a top-five team heading into next season, whether they win or lose on Monday.

USC’s season can be split into eras: Before Darnold and After Darnold.

Before that Utah loss, Helton replaced Browne with Darnold, a three-sport high school star from nearby San Clemente (Calif.) who worked wonders quickly.

Darnold took a hard-luck loss in Salt Lake City, but the signs were there immediately that he could handle the job. He completed 18 of 26 passes for 253 yards and ran nine times for 41 and a score. He’d have won if USC’s defense hadn’t given up a 15-play, 93-yard drive to lose. He has won every game since. His year: 213-of-313 passing (68.1 percent), 2,633 yards, 26 touchdowns, and eight interceptions.

The defense has picked up, too. USC gave up 29 points per game in September and 19 in both October and November. Part of that boils down to innovations like not playing Alabama a second time, but it seems unlikely that the USC team from September could’ve held Playoff-bound Washington to 13 points in September, as it did.

It’s easy enough to point to Darnold and say he saved USC’s season and Helton’s job. He’s certainly been a catalyst, but USC got a lot better across the board.

USC’s moved forward this year, whether it wins the Rose Bowl or not.

The Trojans are going to be heavy favorites in the Pac-12 South next year. They’ve got a handful of seniors and draft-eligible underclassmen, and they’ll lose real talent. But only one of the top eight tacklers on defense is out of eligibility, and at least Darnold and running back Ronald Jones II should be back on offense. Top-10 recruiting classes from each of the last two years should be coming of age.

USC waited a month to start being itself this year, but once it did, the Trojans were a juggernaut. Hiring Helton looks smarter than it did at the time, and it looks much, much smarter than it did at the end of September.