Clay Helton must be desperate to ditch his calendar.
When the clock finally strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, the embattled USC boss can officially move past a deflating 2019. Perhaps he'll even join the "New Year, New Me" resolution crowd.
The last 12 months included nonstop rumors about his job security, and the whispers of a coaching change—Urban Meyer, anyone?—developed into relentless shouts as the Trojans began the season 3-3. All that uncertainty and performance-based negativity stung Helton and Co.'s efforts on the recruiting trail.
Tradition didn't sell. Neither did a three-win improvement from 2018. Proximity to elite talent was a non-factor this year.
USC entered the early signing period with the nation's No. 81 haul but clutched the optimism of athletic director Mike Bohn's insistence that recruiting was going "dramatically better" than anybody wanted to admit.
Could that mean silent commits? Last-second flips?
It turned into nothing but a commitment from a prospect, Tuli Tuipulotu, whose brother Marlon plays for USC.
After missing on a couple of key targets while adding only the 3-star defensive tackle, the Trojans are checking out in the high 70s. While the recruiting cycle isn't over until February, the majority of the work is done; the 2020 class is underwhelming.
USC watched 5-star linebacker Justin Flowe choose Oregon. Losing a key target to Alabama or Clemson or Ohio State hurts, but seeing that player stay in the Pac-12 should be crushing. And for the second straight year—Kayvon Thibodeaux previously—the state's top prospect left the Los Angeles area in favor of Eugene.
Worse yet, the Trojans basically struck out in the state.
California has 33 top-400 players in 2020, per the 247Sports composite rankings. USC only signed one (4-star lineman Jonah Monheim) and is considered the favorite for just one (4-star wideout Gary Bryant Jr.) of the five remaining unsigned players.
Oregon, Washington and Arizona State all grabbed four within that top-400 group, and ASU might snag a few more. Georgia and Ohio State both picked up two 4-stars, and Michigan will do the same if Darion Green-Warren picks the Wolverines over USC. Alabama and Clemson both signed 5-star quarterbacks, including Alabama's flipping of Bryce Young from his commitment to the Trojans.
Recruiting rankings aren't perfect. But calling them irrelevant is willfully ignorant of evidence to the contrary. The program—not just Helton—cannot afford another cycle like 2020, lest the roster's talent drop even further behind nationally.
As you'd expect—and as he should—Helton broke out the spin machine in his Wednesday press conference.
"You have to be able to look at your needs," he said. "I think that's the biggest thing. It's nice to sign great players, but it's also nice to sign great players that you have to have."
The Trojans certainly needed offensive linemen, and they restocked the unit's depth with six blockers. In theory, that's good and valuable, as is bringing in three defensive linemen.
But what about a running back to replace Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr after 2020? A quarterback to handle the attrition that happens at every program? More depth at linebacker and receiver to prepare for upcoming departures?
Sure, the class had limited numbers because of a small senior class, but is USC's talent evaluation that far superior to recruiting services? All this talent around the nation, and the Trojans saw nine linemen, one receiver and a kicker as the team needs?
"We had a very good day today that we're very happy about," Helton said.
Of course he'll praise the recruiting class; doing anything less would invite a complete disaster to an already tenuous situation. Yet if Wednesday qualifies as a "very good day," just imagine the compliments he'd muster for a top-50 class next year.
Although the coaching staff will continue recruiting a few targets before the traditional national signing day in February, this story is mostly written. For Helton and USC, the 2020 cycle stunk.
Plus, looking at next fall's schedule with Alabama in the opener, trips to Oregon and Utah, and visits from Washington, Notre Dame and Arizona State, there is obvious potential for problems. It's reasonable to suggest this could happen again.
Nevertheless, Helton and the Trojans fight on. Especially given that schedule, the uncertainty of his job security will linger. This time around, at least he and his staff can tout an eight- or nine-win season during the summer months.
New year, new USC.
Well, that's the plan. Helton's job depends on it.