Lincoln Riley at USC would not have been possible without Clay Helton.
A year ago, on this same second Saturday night of the college football season, I sat down to write a column demanding that a very nice man lose his job.
Looking back, the shocking thing was that I didn’t feel bad or hesitant as I was writing it. Clay Helton had plenty of time to prove to his preposterously patient bosses he was the right man to lead USC football, and when the Trojans were embarrassed at the Coliseum by Stanford, it was clear his presence on the sideline was only going to lead to more unnecessary pain for legions of USC fans and alums.
Saturday night, after the Trojans easily handled the same Cardinal team in Palo Alto 41-28, I feel even better about it. USC is 2-0 and about to be ranked among the top eight teams in the country. Lincoln Riley, the program’s new head coach, is a young offensive savant with a cutthroat attitude about winning. When I called for Helton’s job, I never could have predicted USC athletic director Mike Bohn would be able to lure Riley away from Oklahoma, but he is exactly the type of coach who should be leading one of America’s most storied programs. He is going to be worth every penny spent.
So, I was already feeling pretty good, absolved of my non-existent guilt. And then, right as Riley and USC quarterback Caleb Williams were doing their celebratory postgame interviews on ABC, on another TV screen I saw the Georgia Southern Eagles threatening to score a game-winning touchdown over once-mighty Nebraska at venerable Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
It was easy to chuckle when Helton was scooped up last November by the Sun Belt Conference school based in Statesboro, Ga. I joked with friends that the nice folks down there were about to experience the “Statesboro Blues,” a reference to the Allman Brothers Band song title. But, all kidding aside, Helton, who grew up in Florida and Texas and played college football at Auburn, seemed a better cultural fit for a plucky Group of Five program nestled in the heart of the South. Certainly, he had plenty of head coaching experience to draw from, for better or worse.
Saturday night, Helton coached the Eagles to their greatest victory, 45-42 over Nebraska. His quarterback, Kyle Vantrease, a red-haired transfer from Buffalo nicknamed the “Ginger General,” dove across the goal line for the winning score, driving the final stake into Scott Frost’s tortured tenure as head coach of the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska will free their fanbase soon enough, and the Husker faithful can only hope and pray their athletic director and president do as well in the coming months as Bohn and Carol Folt did figuring out how to entice Riley to leave something great for something that could be even greater.
A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine Clay Helton’s coaching prowess getting another coach fired. It also would have seemed impossible that USC, recovering from an ugly 4-8 campaign and just two games into a promising new era, would be discussed by ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit as a legitimate College Football Playoff semifinal contender.
Sure, the Trojans are firmly in the mix, as I pointed out last week, but we’ve got the rest of the season to chart their course to their first CFP semifinals (it’s pretty simple — they should just go ahead and win all their games, and they’ll be favored in every one except potentially at Utah Oct. 15).
I can’t make USC fans be rational, but I’m going to try anyway: please don’t ruin the current joyful moment thinking about the stinking playoff.
Enjoy beating Stanford on the road for the first time since 2014. Enjoy the buildup to what should be another competitive test next week against Fresno State. Enjoy Williams performing like the Trojans’ first serious Heisman Trophy candidate since the Pete Carroll era. Enjoy his new favorite wide receiver, Jordan Addison, playing with such jaw-dropping grace that he would be a Heisman candidate if not for Williams.
Last one: Find it deep down within your hearts to enjoy Helton’s big win over Nebraska and whatever success he finds in his new happy place.
This was one of those breakups that was right and perfectly timed for both sides. It never was Helton’s fault that Pat Haden hired him as permanent head coach, or that Lynn Swann extended his contract prematurely, or that Bohn did not feel it prudent to let Helton go before evaluating him through two long offseasons.
Saturday night presented one more screaming data point that suggests the Trojans found someone way better. Two games into the Riley era, I still find myself not believing what I’m seeing, and I’m going to bet I’m not alone in feeling that anticipation for what new thing I’m going to see on each play.
A year after the night that changed everything for USC, that sensation — not flipping around that Stanford outcome — is the most jarring difference.
Respect to the Belt
Helton’s huge upset win at Nebraska was a distant third among Sun Belt statements on Saturday.
Earlier in the day, Marshall traveled to South Bend and upended No. 8 Notre Dame 26-21. Not long after the Thundering Herd shocked the college football world, Appalachian State pulled off a 17-14 win at No. 6 Texas A&M in front of 100,000-plus at Kyle Field.
To think, this was supposed to be a ho-hum slate of games. College football never disappoints, and I can’t help but think about how well-timed these upsets were.
After USC and UCLA bolting for the Big Ten, the sport felt headed for a “Power Two” structure with the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference possibly being able to continue adding big brands and creating their own postseason down the line. Luckily, the presidents at the top of the College Football Playoff stepped in and voted to approve expansion to 12 teams, with the field including the six top-ranked conference champions.
That means the Sun Belt champion — if it is indeed the best of the Group of Five league champions — would have a shot to win the national championship at year’s end.
The Group of Five inclusion in the playoff makes me way more likely to want to learn about the Sun Belt teams beyond just hoping they randomly pull an upset. Many diehard fans will be way more likely to watch Marshall-App State if the winner were potentially a playoff team.
It’s about time these highly competitive and fun teams start getting treated with some basic respect at the top of the sport.
After all, they did the dirty work for USC, clearing out the Fighting Irish and Aggies from playoff contention. (Although, the Trojans probably would have benefited more from their season finale against Notre Dame having more national hype than it will have now).
Horns whiff hurts
Another thing that would be good for college football? Alabama losing.
Texas should have made it happen today, but a clavicle injury to quarterback Quinn Ewers in the first quarter, plus a major officiating blunder (it looked like quarterback Bryce Young grounded the ball in the end zone for a safety, didn’t it?) and a missed field goal at the end of the first half kept the Longhorns from taking advantage of one of the worst games Alabama has played under Nick Saban.
The Crimson Tide eked out a 20-19 victory on a last-minute field goal despite committing 15 penalties and looking nothing like a No. 1 team.
Alabama looked so beatable it would be easy to assume it will get tripped up a few times the rest of the way, but we have seen too many Crimson Tide teams improve over the course of the season and reach their potential.
A big reason we’re still likely to see Alabama in the playoff, of course, is Young. He’s also the reason the Tide escaped Austin. On Alabama’s game-winning drive, he dodged a blitz that would have taken down most quarterbacks and took off for a big gain.
He deserves all the praise for saving Alabama yet again, but he will have to do much more statistically going forward to hold off Williams and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud in the Heisman race.
Florida’s loss bad for Utah?
Last week, Utah lost a heartbreaker 29-26 at Florida. This week the Gators, who vaulted to No. 12 in the country, lost 26-16 in the Swamp to No. 20 Kentucky. Does this make the Utes’ loss look worse or should it change the way we feel about them going forward? No and no.
In my preseason picks, I had Utah losing at Florida and then the Wildcats beating the Gators. Kentucky is a good team that has a ton more knowledge of Florida and its personnel as a conference rival, plus the Gators spent the whole week hearing how great they are and that quarterback Anthony Richardson is a Heisman candidate.
I also picked Utah to win its next 12 games and make the playoff. USC may have something to say about that.
Week 2 Future Big Ten power rankings
1. Ohio State
4. Penn State
5. Michigan State
6. Purdue (up 1)
7. Minnesota (up 1)
8. UCLA (up 2)
9. Wisconsin (down 3)
10. Maryland (up 1)
11. Rutgers (up 3)
12. Indiana (up 1)
13. Iowa (down 4)
14. Illinois (up 2)
15. Northwestern (down 3)
16. Nebraska (down 1)