USC stabilizes under Clay Helton, but expectations stay high
LOS ANGELES (AP) Although Clay Helton is beginning his first full season as Southern California's head coach, this transplanted Southerner has been around the West Coast's most glamorous college football program long enough to know it's already time to start winning again.
''At USC, the bar is set high,'' Helton said. ''It's about championships. And if you don't like that bar, don't take the job.''
After six years as a steadying influence on the perpetually troubled Trojans during the tenures of fired coaches Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, Helton is finally in charge of a program that hasn't won a Pac-12 title since 2008.
That's the longest drought since the league's genesis as an eight-team circuit in 1968, and the Trojans' thirsty fans aren't eager to wait through another rebuilding season. Neither is new athletic director Lynn Swann - who took over after Helton had been given the permanent job by departing Pat Haden.
Luckily for them, USC already has plenty of pieces in place for a resurgent season, including its usual stockpile of blue-chip talent. The Pac-12 South's lack of a clear-cut favorite leaves the Trojans with ample reason to believe they can reach the Pac-12 title game - where Stanford routed them last year.
Helton doesn't have much of a rebuilding job to do. His offense is stocked with a veteran offensive line, JuJu Smith-Schuster's fleet of receivers, and tremendous tailbacks Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II.
Returning defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast also has plenty of five-star pieces, but Pete Carroll was the last coach to turn all that talent into a powerhouse when it really mattered. Helton realizes he'll be compared to those dynastic teams of the past decade until he creates his own identity for the Trojans.
The clock is already ticking.
Here's what to know about USC:
PICK A PASSER: Helton should make his choice on a starting quarterback by next weekend - about two weeks before the season opener. Max Browne is in his fourth season on campus, finally out of Cody Kessler's shadow. Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold has made Helton's choice tougher than expected. No matter who is chosen to go first, the other quarterback will be ready to step in.
CAM'S BACK: One breakout star on last season's defense was playmaking linebacker Cameron Smith, but the freshman missed the last four games with a knee injury. He returns to provide steady play on a unit that must replace several major parts, including a defensive line missing six of its top seven players from last year.
SHARING IS CARING: The Trojans will share the Coliseum for at least the next three years with the Los Angeles Rams, who only have four home games before the Trojans' regular season ends Nov. 26. They'll play back-to-back home games twice - but since the Trojans play on Saturdays, they won't get the worst of any chewed-up turf. The Coliseum groundskeepers also appear to have stepped up their game, so the arrangement could be no problem.
SEASON OPENER: After losing his final two games last season as the Trojans' permanent coach, Helton will continue his tenure on Sept. 3 with a trip to Arlington, Texas, to play defending national champion Alabama at the Dallas Cowboys' palatial stadium. It sounds like a foolproof recipe for a third straight defeat, but Helton only sees it as an opportunity for the memorable moments expected by any player with college football's elite programs.
KEY GAMES: Even after Alabama, USC's schedule is rough on a first-year coach. September alone includes visits to Stanford and Utah, and the Trojans have back-to-back road games at Washington and UCLA in November before returning for the annual intersectional rivalry game with Notre Dame. Sounds tough - and sounds great to Helton. ''Play Alabama, play Notre Dame, play the Pac-12 schedule,'' he said. ''It's what dreams are made of.''
PREDICTION: After the ridiculous tumult of the past six seasons, USC could benefit from a calm, sensible fall of steady growth, even if it doesn't culminate in a Pac-12 championship. Helton knows all about the Trojans' lofty expectations, and he realizes Swann will be looking closely at a coach he didn't hire. Given their sadistic schedule, it would be optimistic to expect more than eight wins from these Trojans - but that still might put USC in position to win its division.