Head football coach Clay Helton won more games in his first two full seasons than any previous USC coach, led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory and won a Pac-12 title. However, after a season and a half of inconsistent football, Helton’s future with the program is unclear. Let’s look at USC football’s history with Helton at the helm.
Helton takes over as interim head coach (October 2015)
Helton started the 2015 season as USC’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The Trojans put up a tumultuous 3-2 start under then-head coach Steve Sarkisian, but when Sarkisian was fired to deal with personal issues, then-athletic director Pat Haden elected Helton to take his place.
The team went 5-1 under Helton, earning a berth to the Pac-12 Championship Game and a chance to compete in the Holiday Bowl. The Trojans’ regular-season rebound helped Helton secure the permanent head coaching job.
USC’s nine-game winning streak culminates in a Rose Bowl appearance (January 2017)
The Trojans kicked off their 2016 season with a poor 1-3 September record that included a 52-6 blowout loss to Alabama. However, Helton’s team flipped the switch once again with a nine-game winning streak, the program’s longest since 2008-2009. USC rose to No. 3 in the AP Top 25, the highest ranking ever for a team with three losses.
The Trojans beat Penn State in an electric 52-49 game which came down to a late USC field goal. This turnaround in 2016 was especially notable considering they faced the 10th hardest schedule in the nation.
The Trojans win the Pac-12 (December 2017)
Once again, Helton steered his team into the AP Top 25. The Trojans finished at No. 12 with an 11-3 record despite not having a regular-season bye week. They narrowly defeated No. 14 Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game, becoming the first Pac-12 South team to win the title and earning a berth in the Cotton Bowl Classic. Helton earned the 2017 AP Pac-12 Coach of the Year after USC’s Pac-12 title win. His first two seasons as head coach were the first back-to-back seasons in which USC had 10 or more wins since 2007-2008.
Quarterback Sam Darnold heads to NFL (April 2018)
The New York Jets selected Sam Darnold as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He played an instrumental part in the Trojans’ success over the 2016 and 2017 seasons and threw for 4143 yards in his second year. After Darnold left for the NFL, it was up to Helton to fill the void at quarterback. True freshman JT Daniels got the nod, and based on USC’s 5-7 record last season, it seemed that the young quarterback wasn’t ready for the spotlight.
Offensive coordinator search (November 2018-January 2019)
After firing former offensive coordinator Tee Martin, Helton brought on former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury to lead the Trojan offense. Kingsbury’s time at USC was short, as he resigned in January following former athletic director Lynn Swann’s attempts to block interview requests from NFL teams.
Helton then turned to former North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, whose pass-heavy air-raid scheme seemed a good fit for a Trojan offense stacked with talented receivers. The new offensive look has paid off, as two Trojan receivers have over 400 yards each through just five games this season.
Swann steps down (September 2019)
President Carol Folt announced athletic director Lynn Swann’s resignation Sept. 9. When fans were calling for Helton’s job after last year’s disappointing 5-7 season, Swann expressed his support for Helton and kept him around for another year. As the search continues for a new athletic director, it remains to be seen how Swann’s resignation will affect Helton’s job security.
Following Swann’s departure, Helton said he received messages of support from Folt and interim athletic director Dave Roberts.
“[Folt] didn’t have to do that, to take the time to reach out to me and say … ‘I just want to help you in any way so your team can be successful,’” said Helton according to USA Today. “That meant a ton to me.”
USC’s rocky start in 2019
Helton’s Trojans have started the season in an inconsistent fashion once again. Their 3-2 record includes an upset win against then-No. 10 Utah and an unexpected defeat at unranked BYU.
The season has featured backup quarterbacks stepping up off the bench, including freshman Kedon Slovis and redshirt junior Matt Fink, who have achieved great success at home and devastating failure on the road. Ultimately, it looks like Helton’s team will need to gain some consistency if the Trojans are to be Pac-12 contenders and if Helton is to keep his job.
Helton has a history — with the exception of 2018 — of bringing the Trojans back into Pac-12 contention. With a 2-1 record in the Pac-12 thus far, Helton’s Trojans can’t be eliminated from the conference championship discussion.