No man in college football has a bigger target on his back than USC head coach Clay Helton. After a slow start to the season, his team has won five of its last six and now has an outside shot of reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game. And he may not have his job in the next 24 hours.
The ones calling for Helton's head will point to the half-empty Coliseum and the total lack of fan support, the dismal 3-3 start to USC's 2019 season, and their equally-unimpressive 2018 season, which saw the Trojans go 5-7 and miss postseason play altogether for the first time since 2011 - when they were kept out by NCAA sanctions.
The truth is, the two schools in Los Angeles no longer have the same magnetic recruiting ability as they once had - even in their own territory. Other national powerhouses have increased their recruiting efforts in Southern California, leaving USC with increasingly barren classes. According to the L.A. Times, U.S.C.'s recruiting class this year was ranked 62nd, behind even North Texas and Vanderbilt. Their class for 2020 looks even less promising, as 247 Sports has them ranked 76th in the nation.
If anything has dumped water on USC's ability to recruit for the 2020 season, it would be the baggage that the school has gathered over the past decade, stemming from the 2010 sanctions for recruiting violations, former head coach Steve Sarkisian's firing for intoxication (which led to Helton's hiring in the first place), and this year's ongoing search for a new athletics director after Lynn Swann stepped down in September.
These factors, however, have little to do with Helton's ability as a head coach. In fact, some can point to USC's strong finish to the 2019 season as a minor miracle, and a testament to Helton's much-underestimated ability to motivate his players. The head coach has done a good job with what he's been provided.
Even if USC's new athletic director, Mike Bohn, were to pull the trigger and fire Helton, it wouldn't come without grief. Helton's contract lasts until 2023, and to buy out both him and the remainder of his staff would take $20 million - not exactly chump change for a university. Recall that Florida State needed to raise money from private donors just to find the $17 million to buy out the remainder of Willie Taggart's contract and make him go away.
Regardless, the last six weeks have proven that, if nothing else, Clay Helton is worthy of coaching in college football's spotlight and, if USC is unwilling to work with him, deserves a shot elsewhere next season.