Is it possible for a college football coach to be on the hot seat in his first full season on the job? If so, USC Trojans coach Clay Helton might end up being the test case for just how little wiggle room coaches are getting nowadays.
Praised for how he navigated USC through the school's nasty breakup with Steve Sarkisian, since becoming permanent head coach, Helton has done nothing but lose. That sounds harsh, but it's the reality. And with the schedule he has in 2016, there's not much room to breathe.
The loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game could be forgiven since USC had already fallen to the red-hot Cardinal once earlier in the season. But a second straight loss, going down 23-21 to Wisconsin on Wednesday in the Holiday Bowl, puts Helton at 5-4 at the helm of one of the game's biggest programs.
Think Charlie Strong faced pressure at Texas in 2014? He didn't come into that season having lost three of his last four games, and he also wasn't in charge of arguably the best crop of talent west of the Mississippi.
Per 247Sports, USC has signed nine 5-star recruits in the past three years, even with lingering NCAA sanctions impacting its scholarship limits in that time frame. The 2016 class currently sits 10th in the 247Sports composite rankings.
The players have never been the problem with the Trojans; it's been the people in charge of those promising athletes that have made what should be a dominant program one that has seemingly been unable to avoid controversy and turmoil.
Helton took over as interim coach in mid-October after Sarkisian was fired midway through his second season. The 43-year-old had been in this position once before, serving as the interim to an interim at the end of the 2013 season, coaching USC to a win in the Las Vegas Bowl after Ed Orgeron—himself an interim following the midseason firing of Lane Kiffin—opted not to stick around.
All told, Helton has been with the Trojans since the 2010 season. And he can probably count on one hand how many times he hasn't had to look over his shoulder or fear for his job.
One of those times was on Nov. 30, when athletic director Pat Haden said Helton was "the right man at the right time for the USC football program," per Gary Klein and Lindsey Thiry of the Los Angeles Times. "He is a coach on the rise and he will be coaching a team on the rise."
Despite the school searching far and wide for Sarkisian's replacement, which prompted every possible name to get mentioned, whispered or thrown out for discussion—there was even a hypothetical 32-man bracket created by USCFootball.com for fans to vote on their choice to lead USC—the Trojans opted to stay in-house. Much like they did when hiring Kiffin and again with Sarkisian, coaches with ties to the program.
Five days later, USC lost 41-22 to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game in Santa Clara, California, and with Wednesday's loss, it finishes with six losses for the second time in four seasons. Had the setback to Wisconsin been despite a strong performance, maybe things wouldn't seem as shaky, but the Trojans looked like a team that was still in disarray despite Helton allegedly being a calming force.
And depending on what happens in the near future, its next game could be against the defending national champions.
Yup. The Trojans open 2016 on Sept. 3 against the Alabama Crimson Tide in Arlington, Texas. And as if that's not enough, they visit Stanford and Utah in the first month of the 2016 season. The only team USC faces next season that didn't make a bowl is Colorado, which it narrowly edged on the road in November.
Bowl results are generally meaningless, outside of the playoff games and a few other matchups, but in Helton's case, the Holiday Bowl was a chance for him to do something that most new coaches don't get to: build momentum for the offseason. Plenty of other teams that made a coaching change this year were in bowls, but most were guided by either outgoing coaches or someone who had the gig for just that game.
Only Minnesota's Tracy Claeys, who, like Helton, took over his program during the regular season and then landed the permanent job, got to coach his future team earlier than normal. And Claeys piloted a 5-7 Golden Gophers team to a win in the Quick Lane Bowl.
USC's finish to 2015 is by no means the only forgettable one, nor was it the only performance by a team that faces a lot of offseason questions. But most don't have an absolute gauntlet to start the next season.
In explaining his choice of Helton, Haden said last month, per Klein and Thiry, that he "brings high character, stability, continuity, consistency, toughness and resiliency to our program." It remains to be seen if that translates into wins, which is ultimately the only real measuring stick anymore in college football.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.