- Both Clay Helton and Tom Herman are regularly under immense pressure to bring their programs back to glory, but the stakes are especially high for Saturday's USC-Texas showdown.
At Texas and USC, excellence on the football field each year is expected and, in most cases, demanded. Seasons devoid of winning and competing for championships can lead to disgruntled fan bases and constant “hot seat” talk for the coaches in charge of delivering instant gratification every fall Saturday.
So, when two of college football’s most storied programs complete a home-and-home series in one of Week 3's marquee matchups (USC beat the Longhorns 27–24 in double overtime last season), the stakes couldn’t be higher for either program.
But which one has more to lose on Saturday—and beyond?
USC has won 38 conference championships, but its 2017 title was its first since 2008. Trojans head coach Clay Helton has had success early in his tenure thanks to the talents of Sam Darnold, but the quarterback's departure to the NFL left true freshman JT Daniels as the next QB to lead USC back to glory. This season is critical to quarterback development if Daniels wants to follow in the mold of program greats like Palmer, Leinart, Sanchez, Barkley and the aforementioned 2018 first-round draft pick.
But the Trojans have looked less than impressive in their first two games, getting shredded to the tune of 308 rushing yards and seven yards an attempt in a 43–21 win over UNLV and scoring only three points in a road loss at Stanford. It was only the third time the Trojans didn't score a touchdown in a game in the last 25 years.
Texas, too, has gotten off to a rocky start, especially considering the hype going into the season.
The Longhorns came into 2018 ranked in both preseason polls entering Tom Herman’s second year. After going 7–6 in his first campaign in Austin, they were expected to compete for a Big 12 title in a conference dominated by border rival Oklahoma.
Those 2018 expectations came crashing down quickly after a season-opening loss to two-touchdown underdog Maryland. The follow-up to that was a 28–21 home win over Tulsa, where the result was well in doubt deep into the fourth quarter.
A loss on Saturday would drop Texas to 1–2, matching its start in three of the past four seasons.
Despite the resources and seemingly unlimited revenue streams to hire the best staff and to recruit the best players in the talent-rich Lone Star State, the development of those players in Texas's recent highly-ranked recruiting classes hasn’t translated to the football field.
Herman’s job security and a nearly $30 million contract means his leash might be a bit longer than Helton’s, but you better believe that losing to the Sooners or any other rival on a regular basis will not be tolerated in burnt orange country.
Before the season, many questions were asked specifically about the Texas offense and what could be expected.
"Fans, the minute this offense gets a hangnail, blame me and the entire offensive staff," Herman said before the season.
Don’t worry, Coach Herman, it has—and they will.
But of the two traditional powerhouses, USC has more to lose if it ends up losing in Austin and doesn’t continue to win at a consistent clip.
Remember, Helton first served as an interim head coach in 2013 when Lane Kiffin was fired on a Los Angeles airport tarmac and Ed Orgeron was not considered to succeed him. He was retained as the offensive coordinator when Steve Sarkisian was tapped to lead the program, but Sarkisian lasted all of 18 games before he was sent packing following a leave of absence to address alleged issues with alcohol.
Helton again was given the interim post, and in the middle of the 2015 season he landed the permanent job, ending the season with a thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Penn State.
Most schools would kill for double-digit wins on a regular basis, but USC is not most schools.
“This is not the end of the world. The sky is not falling. It was one game early in the season against a top 10 team,” Helton proclaimed after the Stanford game.
That may be true for now, but one thing may be working against Helton if he doesn’t get the Trojans back to hoisting national championship trophies soon: Even though he was initially given a five-year contract in 2015, he was not hired by current athletic director Lynn Swann.
Swann gave Helton a vote of confidence in February after giving him a contract extension through 2023, but a vote of confidence means absolutely nothing these days. Things change quickly in the world of college football, and with a Chip Kelly rebuild at UCLA looming, it could soon be tough sledding for USC even in the now-winnable Pac-12 South.