I couldn’t put my finger on it until last week, but I finally figured out why Clay Helton’s situation at USC seems so familiar. After the Trojans’ 37–14 loss at Texas on Saturday, the comparison made even more sense.
Who does this sound like?
• The coach was—by nearly every objective measure—successful in his first two seasons. Yet he couldn’t seem to win over the fan base, which seemed to get more frustrated with each passing game.
• He started out with a quarterback on the roster who was so insanely talented that he helped mask other deficiencies.
• He didn’t get hired by the person currently occupying the athletic director’s chair.
If you answered with the name of the current Michigan receivers coach, you win*.
*And by win, I mean you get my undying appreciation for going with this bit for 131 words when you were probably screaming OOH, OOH, IT’S JIM McELWAIN at your phone or computer after the first paragraph.
I attended Florida and covered Florida as a beat writer, so when Gators fans groused about Jim McElwain even as he was winning the SEC East in each of his first two seasons, I understood where they were coming from. I didn’t necessarily agree with the most extreme viewpoints, but something definitely seemed off about the recruiting under McElwain, and Florida’s inability to compete with Florida State at all in those two seasons was a glaring red flag. When people who hadn’t spent much time around the program suggested the fans were nuts for not quite trusting those first two seasons, I explained why those fans felt that way because I understood why they felt that way. They had paid more attention because it was their favorite program, and they had seen the cracks. I often joke about Florida fans being the most spoiled in the nation because they went from zero football national titles to three (and two men’s basketball titles) in a 12-year span, but they know what their program looks like when it is positioned for ultimate success—and when it isn’t.
With USC, I’m the guy from the outside. I’ve written about the Trojans through the years, but I don’t have nearly as much time around that program as the two I’ve covered as a beat writer (Florida and Tennessee). I’ll admit to being one of the people who couldn’t understand the animosity toward Helton from within the Trojans’ fan base. The guy had won the Rose Bowl in his first year and won the Pac-12 in his second. What more did these people want?
After watching USC lose 17–3 at Stanford on Sept. 8, I realized how that question probably hit USC fans over the past nine months. It probably sounded just like this: The guy has won the SEC East his first two years. What more do these people want?
It’s not as if USC or Florida fans want a national title every season. Some might, but most understand how difficult those are to win. What they want is a program that can compete for such titles occasionally, and they know what they’re looking for because they’ve seen it in the past 15 years.
This is where it gets tricky. Sometimes, a fan base or an administration can get too enamored of one era. That definitely happened at USC. The decisions to hire Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were nakedly obvious attempts to recreate the Pete Carroll era, and the Trojans learned the hard way that the key ingredient in that mix was Carroll himself. The hiring of Helton, who served on Kiffin and Sarkisian’s staffs, represented an acknowledgment that USC would try to win with a culture that didn’t attempt to mimic Carroll’s. Ryan Abraham, the publisher of USCFootball.com, always calls Helton “the adult in the room,” and such a person was absolutely necessary after the Kiffin and Sarkisian tenures.
This, by the way, is where the Helton-McElwain comparison fails. Helton will not allow what befell McElwain at Florida to befall him at USC. McElwain openly questioned the support of an administration that had said yes to him more than it said yes to Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer or Will Muschamp. McElwain wasn’t the easiest person to get along with. Helton, meanwhile, is extremely easy to get along with. Those who work with him love him, and those who compete against him love him. He’ll get more chances to right the ship than McElwain did because everyone involved with the program wants it to work with him. If Helton ultimately loses the USC job, it will be only for failures on the field, and barring an absolute calamity on the field, it won’t be in the midst of year three like it was for McElwain at Florida.
So what does Helton need to do? In the short term, he needs to find a way to beat Washington State, which the Trojans will once again play on a short week following a road game. (At least Friday’s game is in the Coliseum instead of in Pullman like last year.) In the long term, Helton needs to figure out how to make USC better on both lines of scrimmage. The Notre Dame and Ohio State losses last year and the Stanford and Texas losses this year exposed USC’s weakness in the trenches. USC should be able to get the best players on the West Coast—and some of the best from the rest of the country—yet Pac-12 rivals Stanford, Washington and Utah consistently produce better linemen. Case in point: One of the best USC linemen of recent vintage was defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. He only played the 2016 season at USC after coming as a graduate transfer from Utah, which he only left because he was stuck behind Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi on the depth chart. USC shouldn’t need to raid Utah’s roster for talent. USC should have so many good athletes that the ones who can’t start by graduation day wind up scattering to the rosters of other Power 5 teams. How much of this issue is recruiting and how much is development is unclear, but the intensely loyal Helton may find himself trying to decide if he needs to make staff changes to help USC evolve up front. It wouldn’t be the first time a coach did that. Bob Stoops resisted making such changes for years at Oklahoma but finally had no choice after the 2014 season. His new hires included eventual successor Lincoln Riley, and the Sooners won the Big 12 in Stoops’s final two seasons.
Unlike McElwain’s Florida teams, where the talent level dropped across the board (Dan Mullen says thanks a bunch), USC still seems to have enough skill talent to compete at an elite level. Quarterback JT Daniels is only a freshman. He’ll get better. (Also, let’s lay off the “If not for Sam Darnold” narrative. Helton was instrumental in signing Darnold and developing him. That counts. Helton just needs to prove he can keep doing that.) But whoever plays quarterback for the Trojans needs someone protecting him and opening holes for the backs. From a recruiting standpoint, USC’s offensive line signees haven’t looked all that different from the players signing with Georgia or Oklahoma, but the results on the field have been decidedly different. On the other side of the ball, the program that produced Leonard Williams, Shaun Cody and Sedrick Ellis needs a difference-maker or two.
Because he’s easy to work with and easy to like, Helton should get more time than McElwain did at Florida to fix the issues currently plaguing the Trojans. But on the field, their situations are strikingly similar. And Helton will have to fix them, or the clock will start ticking.
A Random Ranking
So I saw this over the weekend, and I’m pretty sure this is sacrilege because the original Magnum, P.I. might be my favorite show of all time, but I’m considering giving the reboot a shot.
My admission of this possibility inspired a fine idea.
So let’s do it...
1. Tom Selleck as Thomas Sullivan Magnum, Magnum, P.I.
2. Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation
3. Ned Flanders, The Simpsons
4. Ted Lange as Isaac the Bartender, The Love Boat
5. Gabe Kaplan as Gabe Kotter, Welcome Back, Kotter
6. Sherman Hemsley as George Jefferson, The Jeffersons
7. Alex Trebek as himself, Jeopardy
8. John Astin as Gomez Addams, The Addams Family
9. John Ratzenberger as Cliff Claven, Cheers
10. Tom Selleck as Frank Reagan, Blue Bloods
In this section, we’ll use what we’ve seen so far this season to predict how the playoff committee will seed the bracket. This won’t always match the top four of the Top 10 Plus One that I publish after each week of games. While that is a pure power ranking, this takes into account schedules and conference dynamics along with other factors that affect playoff selection/seeding.
1. Alabama (3–0)
Last week: 1
Last game: Beat Ole Miss, 62–7
Next game: vs. Texas A&M
Your Tua Tagovailoa-throwing-on-third-down update: 13 of 13 for 298 yards with six touchdowns so far this season. Eventually, someone will challenge the Crimson Tide. Maybe it will be Texas A&M this week. The Aggies pushed Clemson to the limit in College Station on Sept. 8. A trip to Tuscaloosa is a different beast, though.
2. Ohio State (3–0)
Last week: 2
Last game: Beat TCU, 40–28
Next game: Saturday vs. Tulane
TCU exposed a few weaknesses in the Buckeyes’ defense, but Ohio State’s ability to pour on points quickly should negate those weaknesses against most opponents. The challenge will come Sept. 29 when the Buckeyes go to State College face a prolific offense that may be able to keep pace on the scoreboard.
3. Georgia (3–0)
Last week: N/A
Last game: Beat Middle Tennessee, 49–7
Next game: Saturday at Missouri
I have LSU ranked higher than Georgia—and Clemson, for that matter—in my top 10 based on the strength of the Tigers’ wins at Auburn and against Miami. But the SEC isn’t getting three teams into the playoff. LSU and Auburn are the only teams in the SEC West that play Georgia. That’s a tough ask. Of course, the Bulldogs will have to defend their spot Saturday in Columbia, Mo. But if Georgia conquers a second SEC East Columbia in a three-game stretch, the Bulldogs will have a stranglehold on the division with one game left to play in September.
4. Clemson (3–0)
Last week: 4
Last game: Beat Georgia Southern, 38–7
Next game: Saturday at Georgia Tech
Quarterback Kelly Bryant didn’t play after halftime of the Georgia Southern game because of a chest bruise. It will be interesting to see what happens next. Bryant could return against Georgia Tech, but if he can’t, freshman backup Trevor Lawrence should be capable of leading Clemson to a win in its ACC opener.
Big Ugly of the Week
Freddie Booth-Lloyd, Temple’s 330-pound defensive tackle, doesn’t get many chances at individual glory. His job is to clog gaps so linebackers can make tackles. But during Saturday’s win at Maryland, the spotlight was all his when he scored a one-yard touchdown to convert on fourth-and-goal.
Booth-Lloyd followed that with the ultimate D-line humblebrag. He noted that he had scored a touchdown at Maryland Stadium before.
Three and Out
1. The situation at Florida State is an unmitigated disaster. But the attention paid to the Seminoles’ woes obscured the fact that Syracuse lost starting quarterback Eric Dungey to an eye injury and still managed to dominate an ACC opponent. And when the Orange win, we get a Dino Babers postgame speech.
2. But that doesn’t beat BYU players taking part in a Camp Randall Stadium tradition before stunning Wisconsin in Madison.
3. O.K., this might be getting a little out of hand.
What’s Eating Andy?
I’m sure you saw the finest trick play run so far this season during North Texas’s 44–17 win at Arkansas.
But what makes me jealous is that I didn’t think to tell the story behind the play. SB Nation’s Alex Kirshner did, and it’s a great read.
What’s Andy Eating?
Apparently, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite fruit was the apple. So it would make sense that a burger restaurant that honors the 16th president in the city that was named after him would put apples on a burger. And while that may sound like an odd combination, it’s not even the weirdest burger flavor profile in town.
The 1809 at Honest Abe’s in Lincoln, Neb.—there are three locations; I visited the one on North 27th Street—may combine pickled apples, gouda and bacon atop a burger, but it’s only the second-strangest burger in Lincoln behind the Full Leaded Jacket at Leadbelly. That one, which started as a joke and became one of the place’s top sellers, pays homage to the uniquely regional school lunch combination of chili and cinnamon rolls. The 1809 doesn’t offer as much in terms of shock value, but like the Fully Leaded Jacket, the disparate flavors work beautifully together.
By now, we should understand that tossing something sweet onto a savory burger will please our palates. After all, isn’t that why we’re putting ketchup on most of the burgers we eat? Still, an apple on a burger feels wrong. But it tastes so right, especially when mingling with the creamy gouda and salty bacon. Honest Abe’s offers the 1809 with mayonnaise, but I asked them to leave it off because mayo is the devil’s deodorant*. Besides, the other ingredients were perfect together.
*Or possibly his odorant, but there’s no alliteration there.
The 1809’s decidedly chill vibe stands in stark contrast to the Fireside, which features a jalapeño-bacon crumble that has the consistency of jam alongside pepperjack cheese, Sriracha ketchup and romaine lettuce. (I left off the cumin-lime mayo because mayo is Satan’s sunscreen.) I appreciate when restaurants don’t try to dumb down the heat in a dish that’s supposed to be spicy. Honest Abe’s uses a lot of jalapeño, and the Fireside does have a serious chat with the tastebuds*. One way to soak up all that capsaicin is with delicious hand-cut fries. Order them plain if you’d like, but you’re better off spending the extra dollar and getting the parmesan truffle version.
*I know Fireside Chats were FDR. Just go with it.
Of course, the best way to cool off after a Fireside is with a creamy milkshake, and Honest Abe’s has a few intriguing ones. I went with the Bananarama. It combines ice cream, milk and banana pudding mix, and it can wash down any burger. It comes with one Nilla wafer and a sprinkling of banana Runts. Lincoln himself would have appreciated the attention to detail, even if he was busy ordering another apple burger.