Clay Helton has drawn a difficult slate in what is shaping up to be a make-or-break season for him
Clay Helton is just three years removed from leading USC to a win in the Rose Bowl, two from winning a Pac-12 title and yet he enters 2019 squarely on the hot seat. Such is the state of USC athletics, and really the athletic department is just a microcosm of the chaos within the school itself.
Recently implicated in an academic bribery scandal that also involved athletics, USC has been a part of three other major scandals that have kept the school in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. And Helton will still be expected to have success on the field in spite of all this. Given the high number of USC students in the transfer portal and the loss of a key recruit due to Kliff Kingsbury’s departure, the Trojans face a lot of questions of both sides of the ball in 2019.
USC is coming off of its first losing season since before Pete Carroll took over as head coach in 2001. It doesn’t seem likely for the Trojans to win a Pac-12 title next season. The North division features favorites Oregon, Washington, and Washington State. But for the Trojans, a Pac-12 South crown may not even be enough to sate the decision-makers (or the fans) when it comes to Helton's status. The schedule doesn't do the team any favors either.
Non-conference games against a reinvigorated Fresno State under former Cal head coach Jeff Tedford and the always spry BYU Cougars will give USC plenty to focus on before even getting into conference play. One or two losses in early September will only increase the calls to make a change sooner rather than later.
The Trojans do get most of their tough games in the Coliseum, but road trips to face the aforementioned Huskies as well as Arizona State and Notre Dame scream trouble for a team looking to find its way. Should Helton survive to coach 2020 you will have to give him his credit, because he will have earned it.
Bye: Week 6
Week 1 — Aug. 31 vs. Fresno State (Los Angeles)
USC opens the year against a competent and tough Fresno State team. It’s been night and day since Jeff Tedford replaced Tim DeRuyter – who USC also will see later in the year when vs. Cal – and the Bulldogs have looked like the Bulldogs of old under Pat Hill. USC should have the talent to win this one, but coaching matters and Tedford has the acumen to beat Clay Helton.
Week 2 — Sept. 7 vs Stanford (Los Angeles)
This is a hell of a game to piggyback with Fresno State, especially with a trip to BYU to follow. USC has had mixed success against the Cardinal in recent years, but Stanford holds a 3-2 edge over Helton-coached Trojan teams. The Cardinal are coming off of a down year and still finished with nine victories. Stanford likely gives USC problems due in part to growing pains associated with implementing new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell's system.
Week 3 — Sept. 14 at BYU (Provo, Utah)
From a purely physical standpoint, USC will already have played two taxing games and BYU offers no reprieve. Harrell has preached the ease of his offense and its installation, so assuming this to be true then the Trojans should be able to give the Cougars plenty to handle. BYU is coming off of a seven-win campaign and has yet to truly find its groove under head coach Kalani Sitake.
Week 4 — Sept. 20 vs. Utah (Los Angeles)
The physical team streak continues with the Utes at the Coliseum. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is a guy that likes to pound teams and wear them down. The Utes finally won the Pac-12 South last year and expectations are high this year. The schedule USC face is likely going to catch up with the Trojans at some point, and it could start with Utah.
Week 5 — Sept. 28 vs. Washington (Seattle)
The Huskies have been the team to beat in the Pac-12 since Chris Petersen took over. While the Trojans have gotten the better of Washington during his tenure, including the last time the two teams played, the Huskies are at the height of their success while USC faces an uncertain future. This one will be a big one for the season and for Helton.
Week 7 — Oct. 12 at Notre Dame (South Bend, Ind.)
The Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh hasn’t been this vibrant since the early part of this decade. USC, despite its struggles, nearly ended the Irish’s College Football Playoff hopes last season. Notre Dame will have the edge headed into this matchup and appear to be in good shape for the future after signing a stellar recruiting class that includes 14 four-star players. College football is at its best when USC and Notre Dame are both at the top of their game. Right now the Trojans have a bit of a climb to catch the Irish.
Week 8 — Oct. 19 vs. Arizona (Los Angeles)
The Wildcats are entering their second year under Kevin Sumlin and they have their own expectations. This is a matchup that has traditionally favored USC. The Trojans staved off a late push by Arizona last year, so can Sumlin get it done in 2019? This will be a contest to keep an eye on.
Week 9 – Oct. 25 at Colorado (Boulder, Colo.)
Colorado has had no luck versus the Trojans since joining the Pac-12. The Buffaloes are 0-8 and aren’t really showing signs of improvement. If there's any progam in the conference that's in worse shape right now than USC, it's probably Colorado. A loss to the Buffaloes and Helton is likely fired.
Week 10 — Nov. 2 vs. Oregon (Los Angeles)
The return of the Oregon rivalry is an exciting prospect for Pac-12 fans. This has been one of the better pairings since the Pac-12 adopted divisions in 2010. The Ducks will be returning Heisman Trophy candidate Justin Herbert at quarterback and have their sights on getting back to the College Football Playoff. These matchups are rarely close and this will provide a good test for USC's new-look offense against Oregon's high-powered attack. Based on preseason outlooks, the edge in this game goes to Oregon for now.
Week 11 — Nov. 9 at Arizona State (Tempe, Ariz.)
Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards made a statement last year when he guided the Sun Devils to seven wins, including victories over USC, Michigan State, Utah, and UCLA. ASU also held its own against Oregon, Stanford, and Washington. Edwards has this program on the rise and he’s an extremely competent head coach. This one is a toss-up, but it is sure to be must-see television by the time it comes around on the schedule.
Week 12 – Nov. 16 at Cal (Berkeley, Calif.)
All good things must come to an end and so it was for USC’s win streak over the Bears. Cal head coach Justin Wilcox helped the Bears end a streak that dated back to 2003 when Aaron Rodgers was the quarterback at Cal. If the Bears can find an offense, they just may be able to make it two in a row because their defense is stout.
Week 13 — Nov. 23 vs. UCLA (Los Angeles)
Chip Kelly’s return to the Pac-12 against USC featured more of the same. The Bruins won a total of three games in 2018 and USC was one of those. Helton survived losses to UCLA and Notre Dame in 2018, but he probably won't have the same leeway this fall. This is a must-win game for the Trojans, especially at home.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.