Lincoln Riley at USC wouldn’t have happened without Clay Helton

A year ago, on that second Saturday night of college football season, I sat down to write a column urging a very nice man to lose his job.

Looking back, what was shocking was that I didn’t feel bad or hesitate writing it. Clay Helton had plenty of time to prove to his ridiculously patient bosses that he was the right man to run USC football, and when the Trojans found themselves embarrassed at Stanford’s Coliseum, it was clear his presence on the sidelines was a concern would only lead to more unnecessary pain for legions of USC fans and alumni.

After the Trojans easily dealt with the same Cardinal team Saturday night in Palo Alto 41-28, I feel even better. USC is 2-0 and close to being in the top eight teams in the country. Lincoln Riley, the program’s new head coach, is a young offensive pro with a cutthroat attitude to winning. When I called for Helton’s job, I never could have predicted that USC athletic director Mike Bohn would lure Riley away from Oklahoma, but he’s exactly the kind of coach who should oversee one of America’s most famous programs. It will be worth every penny spent.

So I was already feeling pretty good, absolved of my non-existent guilt. And then, just as Riley and USC quarterback Caleb Williams were doing their celebratory postgame interviews on ABC, I saw on another TV screen the Georgia Southern Eagles threatening to take a game-winning touchdown over the once-mighty Nebraska at Lincoln’s venerable Memorial Stadium to achieve.

It was easy to laugh when Helton was accepted into the Sun Belt Conference school in Statesboro, Georgia last November. I joked with friends that the nice folks down there were experiencing the “Statesboro Blues,” a nod to the band’s Allman Brothers song titles. But joking aside, Helton, who grew up in Florida and Texas and played college football in Auburn, seemed a better cultural fit for a bold group-of-five program in the heart of the South. Certainly he had plenty of experience as a head coach to draw on, for better or for worse.

Saturday night, Helton coached the Eagles to their biggest win, 45-42 over Nebraska. Quarterback Kyle Vantrease, a red-headed Buffalo transfer nicknamed the “Ginger General,” jumped the goal line and fired the final effort of Scott Frost’s tormented tenure as Cornhuskers head coach.

Nebraska will liberate their fan base soon enough, and Husker faithful can only hope and pray that their athletic director and president will do as well as Bohn and Carol Folt did in the months to come as they figured out how to trick Riley into doing something great leaving for something that could be even bigger.

USC coach Lincoln Riley watches the Trojans from the sidelines.

USC coach Lincoln Riley watches the Trojans from the sidelines in Saturday’s 41-28 win over Stanford.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez / Associated Press)

A year ago it would have been hard to imagine that Clay Helton’s coaching talent would have fired another coach. It also would have seemed impossible that USC, recovering from an ugly 4-8 season and just two games in a promising new era, would be discussed by ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit as a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoffs semifinals.

Sure, the Trojans are solid in the mix, as I pointed out last week, but we’ve got the rest of the season to chart their path to their first CFP semifinals (it’s pretty easy – they should just go ahead and win all of theirs games, and they’re favored in all of them except possibly October 15 in Utah).

I can’t reason with USC fans, but I’ll try anyway: Please don’t spoil the current joyful moment by thinking about the stinky playoffs.

Enjoy beating Stanford on the road for the first time since 2014. Enjoy the preparation for another mandatory test next week against Fresno State. Enjoy Williams acting like the Trojans’ first serious contender for the Heisman Trophy since the Pete Carroll era. Enjoy his new favorite wide receiver, Jordan Addison, playing with such breathtaking grace that without Williams he would be a Heisman contender.

Last: Find it deep in your heart to savor Helton’s big win over Nebraska and any success he finds in his new happy place.

This was one of those splits that was right and perfectly timed for both sides. It was never Helton’s fault that Pat Haden hired him as permanent head coach, or that Lynn Swann extended his contract early, or that Bohn didn’t think it wise to let Helton go before evaluating him through two long offseasons.

Saturday night presented another screaming data point suggesting the Trojans have found someone much better. Two games into the Riley era, I still can’t believe what I’m seeing, and I bet I’m not alone in feeling this anticipation of what I’ll see at each game.

A year on from the night that changed everything for USC, this sensation — without flipping the Stanford result — is the most jarring difference.

Respect for the belt

Marshall defender Owen Porter celebrates while lying down on a green field.

Marshall defender Owen Porter celebrates after a 26-21 win over Notre Dame on Saturday.

(Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

Helton’s big surprise win in Nebraska on Saturday was a distant third among Sun Belt statements.

Earlier in the day, Marshall traveled to South Bend and upended No. 8 Notre Dame 26-21. Not long after the Thundering Herd shocked the college football world, Appalachian State clinched a 17-14 win at No. 6 Texas A&M in front of over 100,000 spectators at Kyle Field.

Considering this should be a ho hum list of games. College football never disappoints, and I can’t help but think about how well-timed those upsets were.

After USC and UCLA settled on the Big Ten, the sport felt headed toward a “Power Two” structure, where the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference could potentially continue to add big brands and later create their own postseason. Luckily, the Presidents intervened at the top of the College Football Playoffs and voted to expand it to 12 teams, with the field including the top six ranked conference champions.

This means that the Sun Belt champion – if indeed he is the best of the Group of Five league champions – would have a shot at winning the national championship at the end of the year.

Getting the Group of Five into the playoffs makes it a lot more likely that I’ll want to learn more about the Sun Belt teams than just hoping they’ll cause an upset by accident. Many die-hard fans will be more likely to watch Marshall-App State when the winner could potentially be a playoff team.

It’s time these hard-fought and entertaining teams at the top of the sport were treated with some basic respect.

Eventually, they did USC’s dirty work and eliminated the Fighting Irish and Aggies from playoff contention. (Although the Trojans probably would have benefited more from their season finale against Notre Dame, which would have more national hype than it does now).

Horn breath hurts

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian waves to fans after the Longhorns' loss to Alabama.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian waves to fans after the Longhorns’ loss to Alabama.

(Michael Thomas/Associated Press)

Another thing that would be good for college football? Alabama loses.


Texas should have made it today, but quarterback Quinn Ewers had a collarbone injury in the first quarter, plus a bad blunder (it looked like quarterback Bryce Young grounded the ball in the end zone for safety, didn’t it?) and a missed field Goal late in the first half kept the Longhorns from taking advantage of one of the worst games Alabama has played under Nick Saban.

The Crimson Tide earned a 20-19 win on a last-minute field goal despite committing 15 penalties and not looking like a No. 1 team.

Alabama looked so beatable that it’s easy to assume it’ll stumble a few times the rest of the way, but we’ve seen too many Crimson Tide teams improve and fulfill their potential throughout the season.

A big reason we’ll likely still see Alabama in the playoffs is, of course, Young. He’s also the reason the Tide escaped Austin. On Alabama’s winning drive, he dodged a blitz that would have tripped most quarterbacks and started with a big win.

He deserves all the credit for saving Alabama once again, but statistically he needs to do a lot more to stop Ohio State’s Williams and CJ Stroud in the Heisman race.

Florida loss bad for Utah?

Florida wide receiver Ja'Quavion Fraziars drops a pass in front of Kentucky defenseman Carrington Valentine.

Florida wide receiver Ja’Quavion Fraziars drops a pass in front of Kentucky defenseman Carrington Valentine during Saturday’s loss to the Gatos.

(John Raoux/Associated Press)

Last week in Florida, Utah lost a heartthrob 29-26. This week, the Gators, who jumped to No. 12 in the country, lost 26-16 in the swamp to No. 20 Kentucky. Does this make losing the Utes seem worse, or should it change our attitude towards them going forward? No and no.

In my preseason picks, Utah lost to Florida and then the Wildcats beat the Gators. Kentucky is a good team that has a ton more knowledge of Florida and its staff than conference rivals, and the Gators spent all week hearing how great they are and that quarterback Anthony Richardson is a Heisman nominee.

I also picked Utah to win the next 12 games and make the playoffs. USC can comment on that.

Week 2 Future Big Ten Power Rankings

1. State of Ohio



4. Penn State

5. State of Michigan

6. Purdue (until 1)

7. Minnesota (up 1)

8. UCLA (up to 2)

9.Wisconsin (down 3)

10. Maryland (until 1)

11. Rutgers (up to 3)

12. Indiana (until 1)

13. Iowa (down 4)

14. Illinois (up to 2)

15. Northwest (down 3)

16. Nebraska (drop 1) Lincoln Riley at USC wouldn’t have happened without Clay Helton

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