Clay Helton’s first full season as USC head coach couldn’t come at a more trying time. The very first thing he has working against him is that he’s not athletic director Lynn Swann’s guy. Sometimes that means nothing; sometimes it’s an unfair check against a coach.
Either way it’s the situation he finds himself in as well as the fact that USC has been playing in bowl games that take place before New Year’s Day far too often for the talent the program continuously recruits. This doesn’t even account for a drunk coach, a coach fired on an air plane, or a coach who quit on his team when he didn’t get his way.
It’s not all that crazy out here it really is just Tuesday at USC. Only this year the Trojans do not have the schedule to be laughing and smiling if things go wrong.
How tough will it be for a new-look team under Helton to do damage at the top of the polls? Athlon Sports polled a few writers and contributors to get their take on USC’s realistic 2016 win/loss projection.
USC Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2016
Josh Webb (@FightOnTwist)
I’ve often wondered what holds USC back. I don’t know if this is a team that only knows how to be good when a great coach is on the sideline or if the team and the head coach have to become great together because every formula the Trojans have tried have all produced an imaginary number in the answer.
So, here we are again writing about a talented-beyond-comprehension Trojan team with a completely new-old head coach. What’s a new-old head coach? This is when the athletic department decision-makers spend the rest of their career trying to recreate the magic of the coach who started it all. They hire all of his protégés, try to emulate his model of winning, and live in the present hoping to produce the past.
Whether or not Helton is able to do that with his limited resume is up for debate, but he seems as genuine as anyone you’ll meet in the game and genuine coaches seem to find a way to create their own success in college football. Look at guys like Paul Johnson, Nick Saban, Mike Leach, to name a few. The tools are there in the cupboard for Helton to go undefeated and bring a crown back to USC.
It is just hard to see the Trojans putting that type of a season together this year without having the numbers to back up such a claim. There will be no surprise on my part if Helton is able to find a way to get everyone to buy in and show out. Helton surrounded himself with quality parts and Swann is a proven winner at every level, and he also seems to do things much, much differently than his predecessor, Pat Haden.
Not that anyone has complained so far.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
New head coach Clay Helton faces a brutal schedule and has some major question marks to address in his first full year at the helm. The Trojans face six teams projected to finish in Athlon’s top 25 for 2016 and 11 programs that made a bowl last year. USC’s offense features a standout tandem at running back and one of the nation’s best receiving corps and offensive lines. While the skill talent and offensive line are reasons to like the Trojans, quarterback Max Browne still has a lot to prove in his first year as the starter. The question marks extend to the defense, as a revamped line could be problematic for new coordinator Clancy Pendergast. USC has the talent to win the Pac-12 South and finish among the nation’s top 15 teams. However, the question marks — coaching, quarterback play and defensive line – will be tough to overcome against the nation’s toughest schedule.
Bryan Fischer (BryanDFischer)
Clay Helton may have a dream job but the 2016 season has the potential to be a nightmare for him with one of, if not the, toughest schedules in the country. If it were any other program, you'd be worried, but this is USC, which has the talent to be competitive in every game. The offense should be fine but it's the defensive line that is really worrisome if you're a Trojans fan. Given how jumbled up things are in the Pac-12 however, a repeat division crown shouldn't be ruled out.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
One could argue no first-time head coach ever faced a more difficult initial stretch in his job than Clay Helton since officially being named the guy at USC on Nov. 30, 2015. Since shaking the interim tag, Helton's seen Stanford and Wisconsin, and now embarks on a first month of the 2016 season that includes an opener against defending champion Alabama, and road games at Stanford and Utah.
Despite inheriting talent, Helton is rebuilding somewhat. The defensive line is inexperienced, as is the Trojans' starting quarterback. Coupled with what is clearly the toughest schedule in college football, 2016 should be a trying first full year for the new head coach.
USC has the pieces to repeat as Pac-12 South division champions, starting with the best wide receiver in the conference, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and an experienced offensive line anchored by the wildly underrated Zach Banner. A deep running back corps should alleviate some pressure on the new quarterback.
However, things are firmly stacked against the Trojans. They see Stanford and Washington on the road out of division, with Oregon coming to the Coliseum. USC teams have not matched up well with the Ducks in recent years. Seeing potential surprise teams like Arizona and Utah away from LA could be hazardous, too.
John Coon (@johncoonsports)
USC is a bit of enigma entering this season. The Trojans are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, but also face a brutal schedule and are breaking a new quarterback. Trojans head coach Clay Helton wants to make USC a tough and physical team on both sides of the ball. Can he do it and finally get the Trojans to return to performing as a national elite program?
USC has enough talent in the right areas to make a splash. Nine starters are back on offense, headlined by JuJu Smith-Schuster. The junior receiver had 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns on 89 receptions a season ago. If redshirt junior Max Browne can live up to his potential at quarterback, USC will be tough to stop on offense.
Defensively, the Trojans have a secondary that ranks among the best nationally. Adoree' Jackson is an electric playmaker and disruptive force at cornerback. If freshman linebacker Cameron Smith can come back 100 percent from his knee injury late last season, he will be the anchor for an equally strong group of linebackers.
The only thing keeping USC from a 10-win season might be the schedule. The Trojans face 11 Power Five conference teams and will be tested from start to finish.