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Can Clay Helton Win His Way to USC's Head Coaching Job?

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterOctober 28, 2015

Southern California interim head coach Clay Helton, right, puts his arm around Southern California offensive tackle Chuma Edoga as they walk off the field after USC defeated Utah 42-24 in a NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

USC can and should look everywhere for its next head coach. When arguably the best job in college football becomes available, it behooves the administration to consider every possible option. Athletic director Pat Haden needs to get this hire right.

The Trojans program is too good and the roster is too talented for there to be this much turmoil.

When searching for who will succeed Steve Sarkisian, though, should Haden consider interim coach Clay Helton? It obviously depends on how Helton leads the Trojans through the rest of the season. If the results are there, Helton absolutely needs to be on the short list.

That's not a matter of Helton's being entitled to an interview. That's a matter of him earning one.

Helton has already navigated USC through a difficult two-game stretch against Notre Dame and Utah. Given where the Irish and Utes were ranked heading into each respective game, that's difficult for any team. Yet USC went 1-1, losing to Notre Dame by just 10 points and demolishing Utah 42-24.

More than that, something's different about this Trojans team. The players are confident and playing loose. They're having fun. As a result, they're playing up to their ability.

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In the past two weeks, despite all the off-field drama, Helton brought the team together. USC needs a stabilizing force, and Helton has provided that in the short term. But stability is something USC needs long-term as well.

Any turnaround in performance through the next five regular-season games should be noted by Haden.

This isn't the first time Helton has taken a tumultuous situation and smoothed it out. After Ed Orgeron's departure at the end of the 2013 season—Orgeron was the interim coach following Lane Kiffin's termination—Helton led USC to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

What Helton has done and what he's meant for the program were summed up two weeks ago by former Trojans wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson (h/t the Los Angeles Times' Lindsey Thiry), who spoke to the team shortly after Sarkisian's firing. His point, in so many words, was that it was time for the players to play for one another and Heltonnot worry about whom the next coach was going to be.

Only then could the Trojans achieve the level of success they wanted.

(Warning: Video contains NSFW language.)

Lindsey Thiry @LindseyThiry

Keyshawn Johnson, "Why don't we go get Chip Kelly? Enough of that. It's your opportunity to make (Helton) coach." http://t.co/0g7pkuTYnQ

Granted, USC will go through a thorough process in finding its next coach. That doesn't change regardless of the team's record from here on out. That is its responsibility.

In the meantime, playing for Helton is the team's responsibility. Johnson is right about that part, and Bleacher Report's Michael Feldera former college player himselfknows that as well as anyone:

Michael Felder @InTheBleachers

I just like the idea of "eff Chip Kelly, prove we're good with what we got" b/c for so many fans/media the answer is always somewhere else

Now the question is whether USC can maintain that attitude and level of play. Up next is Cal, which, despite losing its last two games, features one of the best quarterbacks in college football, Jared Goff. A trip to Oregon and a home game against UCLA remain on the schedule as well.

Is this finally when the real USC emerges? The same USC that littered the preseason College Football Playoff conversation?

If so, Helton may know a little something about what it takes to get the most out of the Trojans.

As Greg Katz wrote on ESPN.com, Helton "will probably have to run the table on the remaining schedule to even have a chance at the job, but he has a chance and now the freedom to run the team as he wishes the rest of the way."

Part of that change includes reintroducing a more physical style of offense that USC was known for during the Pete Carroll era.

Against Utah, fullback Soma Vainuku got a touchdown on 4th-and-goal—his first since Week 1 of the 2014 season—and freshman running back Ronald Jones II was more frequently utilized with a season-high 15 carries:

Paolo Uggetti @PaoloUggetti

RoJo vs. Notre Dame: 6 carries, 73 yards. RoJo vs. Utah so far: 7 carries, 56 yards, 1 TD.

"We had some big third downs and some critical fourth-down makes at the goal line," Helton said, per Thiry. "Cody [Kessler]'s quarterback sneak and Soma going in thereif that's not physical, what is?"

To Katz's point, if USC does win out, it would put the Trojans at 9-3 with a shot at the Pac-12 title game. If Utah loses one more game, USC would hold the tiebreaker. Playoff hopes have been lost for good, but that doesn't mean there's nothing left to accomplish. Helton has to get this team to believe that.

So far, it looks like he's done just that.

USC has made poor decisions before by searching for its next Carroll with a Carroll protege in mind. It's been a never-ending quest for a pot of gold that likely doesn't exist. Requiring a new coach to have ties to the program, a la Jack Del Rio and Jeff Fisher, limits the search unnecessarily too.

USC can at least inquire about whomever it wants. That doesn't mean it has to ignore the current guy.

Of course, hiring interim coaches full-time is just as risky as hiring from the outside. For every Dabo Swinney that works out at Clemson, there's another example of a team getting caught up in the moment and making an ill-advised decision to promote the interim coach.

If USC really plans on hiring Helton over someone else, it needs to be sure he can win the X's-and-O's battle week after week, competently manage an entire coaching staff and 85 scholarship players in the middle of chaos, and develop blue-chip players into NFL stars.

Winning out alone doesn't prove Helton can do that consistently for three, four, five or six years. But it would give USC a reason to pause and wonder if he can.

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

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