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Clay Helton and USC won big this offseason. But now comes the hard part

USC coach Clay Helton signals to fans after a 52-35 win over UCLA on Nov. 23, 2019, at the Coliseum.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The longest offseason in USC football history ends now. It’s game week for the Trojans, a prospect that should be both thrilling for the faithful and terrifying for the faithless.

Nobody has stacked up more wins during the pandemic than Clay Helton. These 10 months without playing an actual football game, funny enough, have been some of the most productive of the Helton era.

The last time we saw the Trojans, they walked off the Holiday Bowl field in San Diego humiliated by the Iowa Hawkeyes, not so long after being humbled by Mario Cristobal’s Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks at the Coliseum. But ever since the bowl game, USC has been nearly unbeatable.

With the backing of new athletic director Mike Bohn to build a better structure around Helton, USC started by firing underperforming defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and replacing him with recently fired Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who is known for an aggressive mentality. Then, possibly even more critical, they plucked one of the top L.A. area recruiters, Donte Williams, from Oregon just weeks after the Ducks won the Rose Bowl and planted their flag deeper in Southern California.

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Grabbing Williams was a power move by Helton, and the Trojans kept pushing their sudden advantage. They added long-needed support to a depleted recruiting arsenal, hiring videographers to promote the program on social media and quality control assistants, bringing former star linebacker Chris Claiborne back to Troy.

When the coronavirus came, the momentum only continued. Quarantine Clay has been the best Clay — certainly more genuine and effective than Commando Clay, the version we saw last season as he tried to exude toughness during practices with unintelligible guttural utterances and ordering players who messed up to do push-ups.

Quarantine Clay was a natural selling the family atmosphere of his program on Zoom from his home. His charm translated, especially when combined with Williams doing virtual visits around Southern California wearing cardinal and gold instead of green and yellow.

The Trojans, a year after finishing an unfathomable 64th in the 247Sports Composite recruiting rankings, began reeling in commitments. Many were from right here at home, and USC’s new social media staff knew just what to do, launching a “Take Back the West” branding to go with each new pledge.

As of this week, USC sits at No. 7 in the national rankings for the 2021 class, not high enough to match its historical standard but a sign that all is not lost with a generation of kids who never saw Reggie Bush play for USC.

Along the way, as COVID-19 threatened the 2020 season and eventually postponed Pac-12 football, the Trojans started to carry themselves differently too. It was their decision to write a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom once the Big Ten reversed course that helped spur action from the Pac-12’s return to play.

State and county health officials cited rising community spread of COVID-19 as the key factor in their decision not to allow family at UCLA and USC home games.

These Trojans must feel like they’re on the verge of something big. They wanted a piece of the action this season, and they’ve followed COVID mitigation protocols to stifle any hint of an outbreak since returning to campus this summer. Saturday, they get their wish, with Arizona State visiting for a brunch date at the Coliseum that will air nationally on Fox.

While a large swath of the fan base would love to watch their team play and the head coach remain in quarantine, Helton was always going to have to step back into the spotlight again as the Trojans’ leader.

And now comes the hard part. Given the talent on the roster and the shortened (and light) schedule, the expectation should be that Helton coaches USC to seven straight wins — something he hasn’t done since finishing the 2016 season on a nine-game streak — and into College Football Playoff contention.

After No. 6 Oklahoma State lost to Texas on Saturday, there is no longer an avenue for a Big 12 team to make the playoff, which further opens the door for an unbeaten Pac-12 champion.

Consistency and discipline will be needed, but this should not be a huge ask for the Trojans in Helton’s fifth full season at the helm.

Quarterback Kedon Slovis, a revelation last season after JT Daniels went down for the year, should progress in his second year playing in Graham Harrell’s system. There are plenty of sturdy and eager ball carriers and one of the best groups of wide receivers in the nation, especially if Bru McCoy plays to his prep reputation at Santa Ana Mater Dei. The offensive line has questions, but Harrell should be able to scheme ways to keep Slovis on his feet.

Freshman DJ Uiagalelei, a former St. John Bosco star, threw for two touchdowns in place of Trevor Lawrence as No. 1 Clemson beat Boston College 34-28.

Defensively, Orlando can take a group that has needed fresh eyes for a few years. Stars could emerge in linebackers Drake Jackson and Palaie Gaoteote IV and cornerbacks Chris Steele and Olaijah Griffin. There are plenty of big bodies up front even without Jay Tufele, who opted out to prepare for the NFL draft.

A slate that once featured Alabama and Notre Dame and Oregon in Eugene now features six games that USC will enter as the favorite and, if all goes well, a Pac-12 championship game, likely against the Ducks.

Arizona State, led by playmaking quarterback Jayden Daniels, will be a legitimate threat Saturday. Visiting Utah, even without fans, will always be harrowing. Oregon is building something special under Cristobal, but the Ducks are breaking in a new quarterback in Tyler Shough, and All-World tackle Penei Sewell opted out. The Ducks are as vulnerable as they will be for a long time.

USC should win the Pac-12 this season, and no Trojan should shy away from it. Some will feel conflicted, figuring that a 7-0 run through this slate will keep Helton around longer than he’s earned. But here’s the truth: Bohn isn’t likely to fire Helton after this season, barring a total disaster. He has sent the opposite message.

For all its oddities, 2020 can be the year when USC fans get to feel proud of their treasured program again. That Helton would get the credit shouldn’t dampen any of the fun.


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