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College Football Hot Seat Watch: USC at a Crossroads with Clay Helton

Clay Helton, USC Trojans Football

FSU can’t fire Mike Norvell without going broke. USC will go bust if it doesn't move on from Clay Helton.

Quick question: How long has Clay Helton been at USC?

Take a guess. I’ll wait. Yeah, he's in his seventh year. Can you name his biggest win at USC? Is it (maybe) the 2016 Rose Bowl? Can you remember a time when the Trojans were considered a legitimate national title threat? What about even a playoff contender?

Helton is a perfectly fine 46-24 overall at a program that desperately needs to be way more than “fine” in order to balance the geography of college football. For the Pac-12 and everything west of the Rockies to hold its own in this sport, USC has to maintain national relevance.

Helton is now considered, at best, a milquetoast custodian to a formerly great power, but ‘21 projected to provide an upswing. The program has great coordinators in Graham Harrell (himself a promising head coaching candidate) and Todd Orlando, who did positive work rehabilitating the Trojan defense last year. Quarterback Kedon Slovis projected to be a Heisman candidate, and USC opened the year by routing a good San Jose State team 30-7.

Transitive comparisons are always shaky in this sport, but a Stanford team that was shut out by Kansas State on Labor Day weekend absolutely put the wood to USC Saturday night, winning 42-28. USC’s division hopes are alive, technically, but not much else is. And while predicting what exactly boosters and influencers around USC’s Heritage Hall will and won’t do (they’ve protected Helton for years), it seems obvious that it’s time for the Trojans to move on if they have any commitment to returning to form as a national power.

Helton has somehow remained in good graces despite an obvious and inarguable decline in program quality, and the fact that the guy he beat out for the job, Ed Orgeron, has won a national title since that decision doesn't help his cause. Former coach Steve Sarkisian was fired for off-field behavior, but fellow castoff Lane Kiffin — currently thriving as an SEC head coach — certainly wasn’t. It was because USC was no longer a national power, and because the Trojans were losing to conference programs that their boosters deemed inferior. Now the standards that Pete Carroll set for this program with his BCS title runs are all but gone. USC's recruiting prowess has faded in Los Angeles and Southern California in comparison to its Pac-12 rivals and to national powers from time zones away.

The possible difference-maker here is athletic director Mike Bohn. Hired late in 2019, the former Cincinnati A.D. broke a chain of hires with obvious, incestuous ties to the program and its historical pattern of country club decision-making. If Bohn is allowed to make a national hire without tampering, this job could set the table for the entire 2021-22 college football coaching cycle.

But: Bohn has to be left alone. He has to be allowed to work with outside search firms, and not waste time on unworthy candidates with program ties (Jack Del Rio, Jeff Fisher, etc. — and don’t laugh, because those have been “serious” candidates before). With Chip Kelly’s UCLA showing life, Oregon firmly in charge of the league, and West Coast football seemingly weakening by the season, this will be a monumental hire (assuming Helton is fired) either way.

If the path is cleared and USC gets out of its own way, there’s no reason to think it can’t make a massive hire that reshapes the program back into a national force and once again makes the Trojans the city’s favorite team behind the Lakers.

Want an obvious name? Bohn hired Luke Fickell at Cincinnati. Want a media personality that matches Los Angeles? James Franklin. A national title winner? Make amends with Orgeron, who is facing his own crossroads at LSU. This isn’t a hard job to hire to; USC just makes it that way.

Related: 14 Coaching Candidates to Replace Clay Helton at USC

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Florida State suffered its first loss to an FCS program in the modern era on Saturday when Jacksonville State hit a 59-yard touchdown pass as time expired. Even before the answered prayer (and the missed tackles that allowed Damon Philyaw-Johnson to score), Florida State looked inept against a JSU team that had been walloped by UAB a week prior.

FSU head coach Mike Norvell is now 3-8 since arriving in Tallahassee. Previous head coach Willie Taggart was 9-12 when he was fired midway through his second season. Holding Norvell to the same incredibly impatient timeline FSU boosters put on Taggart is pointless, because firing another coach after less than two seasons would be catastrophic for the Noles.

Norvell is on a six-year, $26.5 million deal that features a graduating annual salary (before the pandemic he was scheduled to make $3.75 million last season and will max out at $5 million per). Early termination would cost the Noles a whopping 85 percent buyout, meaning that even if FSU implodes this season, this is a $20 million-plus buyout scenario.

And that’s not to mention that FSU is still paying Taggart. According to Warchant, even with Taggart’s FAU salary as an offset, the Noles are paying their former coach around $3.5 million through 2024.

Minus a significant event that could prompt a for-cause firing to nullify a buyout, Norvell and FSU aren’t breaking up this year. Doing so would drown a program and booster group that are notoriously unorganized and contentious, not to mention cheap.

More importantly: What kind of qualified candidate would be interested in FSU after it chewed up two promising young head coaches in just four years? It’s almost heresy to say, but the normally radiant luster of “Power 5 Florida School” would wear very, very thin in that scenario.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:

The hottest college coach in Texas is in Conference USA. Jeff Traylor has UTSA at 2-0 after a surprising 7-5 campaign in 2020. In very short order, the former Chad Morris assistant at SMU and Arkansas and longtime Texas high school coach has parlayed his extensive connections in the state into a talented, competitive roster. Sure, the Roadrunners might be a candidate to move up to the American Athletic Conference, but Traylor and his staff seem like a no-brainer if a job like Texas Tech opens this season.

Written by Steven Godfrey. Follow him on Twitter @38Godfrey

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