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Should Clay Helton be on the hot seat at underachieving USC?

Year 3 for the Trojans isn’t going well. Is being merely above average good enough for the West Coast heavyweight?

Washington State v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Let’s go back to Jan. 2, 2017.

That’s the day USC beat Penn State in a thrilling Rose Bowl with the twists and turns all great games have coming down to a last second finish. We like to think progress is linear in sports. Teams that show potential will incrementally get better, right?

It hasn’t really worked that way for the Trojans. They underachieved a bit in 2017, winning the Pac-12 but finishing 12th after starting in the top five.

Now they’re going to finish near the bottom of a bad division at 5-6 (4-5 in the Pac-12). They’ve had an issue at quarterback this season, working in freshman J.T. Daniels. USC also lost arguably their best defensive player, Porter Gustin, for the season.

Even accounting for some bad injury luck, USC’s down years should be better.

S&P+ only projected 8-4 or so for this team in the first post-Sam Darnold year. Expectations weren’t unfair.

The Trojans already have those four losses and now need to take care of business in two of three games just to win a bowl (unless you believe they can pull off an upset of Notre Dame).

Reloading years are natural for even the best program, Georgia’s 2018 reload was projected for 10 wins, and they seem poised to hit it — just to use another elite recruiter as an example.

That expectation is boosted by the talent on the roster and the fact that it is, well, USC.

At some point, we’ve got to assess what USC is: a program with a laughable amount of talent that isn’t playing to its potential, and one with a much lower floor than it should have.

There’s something about the Trojans that lets them be both the biggest program in the sport west of Texas, yet allows them to skirt some of the soul searching done by teams further east. USC’s two-year recruiting rank is third, its five-year ranking fifth. They are, on talent alone, nearly the most elite team in the sport.

Their Blue-Chip Ratio tells that story:

  • 2014: 63 percent
  • 2015: 70 percent
  • 2016: 70 percent
  • 2017: 63 percent
  • 2018: 71 percent

Of the 11 teams who have eclipsed 60 percent Blue-Chip Ratios in the Playoff era, five have made it to the Playoff. USC sits with Texas, Auburn, Notre Dame, Michigan, and LSU as teams that have yet to make it.

Of the three programs who have topped 70 percent in recent years, USC is the only one that hasn’t won a national title. The Trojans haven’t even been a serious consideration to make a Playoff.

The only teams that consistently recruit on or above USC’s level are Ohio State and Alabama. USC more or less gets the pick of the litter of any player west of the Rocky Mountains. Getting the players isn’t the issue — it’s putting them in the right positions. It is Clay Helton’s job to do that.

This coaching cycle doesn’t figure to be one where a lot of big jobs open, but USC could be one to watch. If the Trojans decide they can jump from good to great without Helton, it is a tricky move they’d have to nail.

Year 3 was always going to be decisive for him, as it is for many Trojans coaches.

Year three tends to separate wheat from chaff. John McKay and Pete Carroll won national titles in their third seasons, and John Robinson nearly did as well. If you’re betting on Helton’s tenure going one way or the other, which way do you lean?

USC’s been tantalizing for about three years now, and arguably much longer than that.

USC got smoked to start 2016 by Alabama — no shame in that, as the Tide came one second away from a title. They sputtered against Stanford and Utah, then got the QB situation figured out, settling on Darnold. They won nine straight without Playoff pressures, backdooring that Rose Bowl berth.

They became a darling, the team that might have been one of the nation’s best in November of that season ... if only they’d have taken care of business in September. They finished ninth in S&P+.

Queue the preseason expectations heading into 2017, as the USC hype machine got cranked up: the preseason top-five ranking, the pick to win the league, etc. Hell, our own season preview was headlined “We don’t have to proclaim that USC football is back — the Trojans did that for us last year.”

USC took another step forward, winning the Pac-12, but proved they still weren’t ready for prime time, losing to Notre Dame and Ohio State. And they didn’t play Washington en route to the Pac-12 crown.

2018 is a clear step backward, one many saw coming, despite the stocked roster.

Out of the gates, they lost to a non-elite Stanford, then lost big against Texas. They saw a 14-point lead against Utah disappear in Week 8. They were down early to Arizona State, and in a see-sawing game couldn’t pull it out. They lost with a great defensive effort against Cal, and to a bad UCLA team as well.

Great programs have high ceilings, yes, but they also have really high floors. USC is not Stanford or UCLA or Washington. But since Pete Carroll left in 2008, the Trojans have won fewer than nine regular season games more times than they haven’t.

The good news for USC is that a lot of its talent is young, which gives Helton some margin to get things figured out, and if he does, the depth will be in a really good place long-term. The highest goal is now to shoot for another Rose Bowl in 2019, no matter who leads the way.