Of all the nebulous scenarios that could impact Helton's future as USC'S head coach, losing to UCLA on Saturday might be the one that leaves little doubt.
There's been something resembling resurgence ever since Clay Helton took the reigns after an ugly loss to Washington, pushing a beleaguered Steve Sarkisian over the edge and once again leaving the premiere program looking for a leader. Helton resumed the "Interim" moniker for a second time since 2013, and after a stumble in South Bend, the Trojans went on to win 4 straight, including a very convincing victory over then 3rd ranked Utah. The fairy tale ended this last weekend however, when USC lost a track meet to Oregon in Eugene.
If you were to ask the guys in pads and helmets, I think you'd find their support unwavering. "I feel like we're coming together as a unit," mused Adoree Jackson after beating Cal on Halloween. "Defensively, offensively and just going out there and having fun and playing for our coach." Chris Hawkins even used the F-word, remarking, "He has made us a real family." "He has my vote 100%".
If any of this sounds familiar it's because we just went through it in 2013. When Lane Kiffin was gently encouraged to pursue other opportunities while at LAX that September morn, Coach Ed Orgeron took over and went 6-2 with a marque win over Stanford, whom we desperately owed a little heartbreak.
His only losses... Notre Dame and UCLA.
For a moment, toss out everything else and sit these factoids on Pat Haden's very large desk.
Coach O had every bit of support from the team that Helton does, and probably more. Kessler would "run through a brick wall" for him. Former Trojan, current New York Jet, Dion Bailey went as far as to say that "Coach O is making up for the last three years in eight games... This is the way I thought it would be when I came to USC."
Glowing endorsements all around did not sway the boss. Orgeron was not given the permanent gig and left in a huff, leaving Helton to navigate the coveted waters of the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. While Haden gave no official reason, one could argue that the losses and lack of credentials made the decision for him.
Pragmatism would dictate that the same rules apply here, wouldn't they?
Beyond this, a very close look at Helton's wins is even more telling than his losses. Most recently, USC just squeaked by Colorado. While there is no arguing the fact that the Buffs are on the rise, some very questionable play calling and lack of execution brought an overtly talented Trojan team to the brink of humiliation. Salvation was found in a blocked field goal of all places, allowing USC to escape with a narrow 3-point victory. Wins against Arizona and Cal also went the distance, each being decided by one score, and lacking the killer instinct and swagger Trojan fans are desperate to see.
While they are young, the USC roster is loaded. There is NFL talent all over the field and it's not a stretch to postulate that even if the horses ran free they'd win a race here and there.
I am docking myself cliché points for saying this, but USC is truly a team without an identity, and for better or worse, a team's identity is fostered by its head coach.
If Helton is playing by the same rules as Orgeron, he'll have to impress mightily in the coming weeks, and a loss against UCLA would likely be the end of the line.