The two major universities in the country’s second-largest city will meet to play a football game this weekend with nothing on the line—that is, other than pride, jobs and the paint coating on a carriage that holds a 300-pound brass bell.
As the professional franchises in Los Angeles have soared this season—the 9–1 Rams and 7–2 Chargers are among the best teams in the NFL—their collegiate neighbors have limped to disappointing campaigns, albeit ones that have taken place under different preseason expectations and, at present, exist in distinct contexts. There may be little with respect to national attention and postseason implications when the 2–8 UCLA Bruins host the 5–5 USC Trojans at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, but the effects of the outcome could be massive.
The records of these two teams disguise an obvious leader in the L.A. College Football Disaster Rankings. When one school is a powerhouse a decade removed from one of the greatest dynasties of the modern era and the other is a school known for basketball playing its first year under a new coach, records don’t tell the whole story. Having a 5–5 record at a historic program like USC is not 5–5 at most places. The Trojans were an Alabama-esque dynasty from 2002 to 2008 and would currently have the nation’s sixth-longest bowl streak if not for a two-year postseason ban in 2010 and 2011.
Clay Helton will, in all likelihood, not be back next season if USC loses on Saturday. That may seem like a harsh truth for a coach who won 21 games, a Rose Bowl and the school’s first Pac-12 title in nine years in his first two full seasons, but it’s the reality of his occupation. Last week’s loss to Cal snapped a 14-year winning streak over the Bears and put Helton’s job security on life support. A loss to UCLA, save for a miraculous win over No. 3 Notre Dame the following week, would all but pull the plug. USC has signed the highest-rated recruiting class in the Pac-12 every year since 2014, yet has dropped games this year to Utah and Arizona State and was held to three points by Stanford in an embarrassing rivalry defeat.
The case for firing Helton is fairly obvious. A .500 record alone is tough to excuse given all the blue-chip talent on his roster. What’s more, Helton’s in-game coaching and undisciplined culture has cost USC games it arguably should have won. The Trojans’ turnover margin (-8) and penalties per game (7.9) are last in the Pac-12 and in the bottom 20 in the country. In its last two losses to Arizona State and Cal, USC has had a Postgame Win Expectancy of at least 65%, per Bill Connelly’s stat profiles. Against Texas back in September, that figure was 47%. The actual result was a 23-point loss in which the Trojans were dreadful on special teams, committed 10 penalties for 99 yards and ran for negative-five yards.
USC has seemingly been unable to make adjustments when games start to go awry. The Trojans held a 14–3 lead against Texas before giving up 34 unanswered points. They took a 14–0 lead against Utah, only to somehow give up another 34–0 run. They gave up 24 straight points to Arizona State. Most recently, they led Cal 14–0 before collapsing in a heap of self-inflicted wounds and falling 15–14. Helton’s decision to fire his offensive line coach and take over play-calling duties from his offensive coordinator after losing to the Sun Devils is a sign that he’s feeling the pressure from this calamitous season.
Unlike its crosstown rivals, UCLA entered the 2018 season with minimal expectations. Kelly has still managed to underachieve in his debut season: The Bruins lost five in a row to begin the year, won two straight and are now threatening to put a symmetrical end to an awful season. Kelly’s seat isn’t hot; he’ll get at least a few years to prove he still has what it takes to win at the college level after unsuccessful NFL stints. That said, this season has dampened some of the excitement brought to the program by Kelly’s big name and prior Pac-12 success. Five of UCLA’s eight losses have come by at least 21 points. Once an offensive trend-setter at Oregon, the rest of the sport has ostensibly caught up to Kelly over the past half-decade. Freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s father openly criticized Kelly’s coaching on Twitter early in the year. It hasn’t been pretty in Westwood.
The optimistic way to look at this UCLA season is to consider it Year Zero for Kelly. The Bruins have had to play plenty of underclassmen and deal with the nation’s fifth-toughest schedule, highlighted by a non-conference gauntlet (Cincinnati, at Oklahoma, Fresno State). There are talented pieces with which Kelly can build in the coming years. Thompson-Robinson was thrown into the fire when senior Michigan transfer Wilton Speight was injured in the opener. He showed flashes among the expected struggles, highlighted by 272 yards and two touchdowns against Washington’s league-best defense. Sophomore defensive backs Quentin Lake and Darnay Holmes have impressed. Kelly will get time to right the ship.
There’s also an argument to be made for USC to give Helton another chance. He’s starting an 18-year old five-star quarterback in JT Daniels, who has gone through freshman struggles of his own. Daniels’s top two receivers are underclassmen, including his high school teammate, five-star freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown. Five-star running back Stephen Carr is a sophomore. USC AD Lynn Swann has expressed confidence in Helton even as public opinion of him has continued to sour.
That’s why there’s so much on the line on Saturday. If USC loses, clinching its first losing conference record since 2000 and likely ensuring it won’t reach bowl eligibility, Swann may have no choice but to part ways with Helton. For UCLA, a win would restore some pride and give the program a shot of confidence going forward. No matter what the teams’ records are, this is a rivalry game. With Speight healthy and coming off his best game of the season, the Bruins will be fired up for a chance to snap a three-game losing streak against USC and take back the Victory Bell, which has been painted in Trojan Cardinal since 2015.
If the Bruins win on Saturday, they can paint the trophy blue again—and send Helton packing in the process.