10 takeaways: Clay Helton's seat is white-hot and he's out of answers

The clip flittered out on Twitter on Saturday evening, and perhaps best summed up the conundrum facing USC athletic director Lynn Swann the next few weeks. A group of UCLA fans, sounding drunk on a bit more than an upset victory, began a sing-song chant that will send chills through the spines of USC administrators: “Keep Clay Helton, clap clap, clap clap clap. Keep Clay Helton…”

That’s the latest sign of how much things have gone off the rails for the Trojans, who managed to somehow thrust the Los Angeles recruiting momentum cross town to Chip Kelly and 3-8 UCLA. USC’s 34-27 loss to the Bruins has turned the Trojans from unwatchable to untenable.

In the tar pit of misery that is the Pac-12 South, USC finished conference play 4-5 and will likely not reach a bowl game. The Trojans are 5-6 and about to serve as ceremonial fodder for Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff coronation next week. When asked about his job status after the game, ESPN reported Helton saying: “That’s a great question for [Lynn] Swann, and out of honor and respect to him, I’ll let you ask him that.”

Clay Helton’s job is now in serious trouble, as he’s run out of answers and USC is running out of reasons to bring him back next year. There aren’t many nicer and more genuine men in college football than Helton. By all reasonable metrics, he’s done a nice job stabilizing the program from the dysfunction of Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin. He’s also coming off back-to-back strong seasons. But this season has revealed what anyone with common sense would have told you at the time former athletic director Pat Haden promoted Helton to full-time coach after the 2015 season: Helton wasn’t ready in any way for this job.

The only decision easier to second guess than Haden’s promotion of Helton is new athletic director Lynn Swann’s decision to extend him through 2023 earlier this year. Helton had no leverage, no interest from other schools and, even more hilariously, Swann doesn’t think much of Helton as a coach. And while the decisions made at USC under Haden may be aging as well as Medusa’s corpse, Swann and USC athletics officials locking him up long term is going to be remembered as one of the great financial debacles in college athletics history. Helton had less leverage than Charlie Weis before his ill-fated Notre Dame extension, and we’ll have to wait for the tax returns to see if USC ends up paying him more.

It’s at the point where Swann practically has to fire Helton, as the fickle fans in the Los Angeles area will quickly abandon the program. Helton’s Trojans are too sloppy, too uninspired and too hopeless to recover. The buyout would be well north of $15 million, and that number doesn’t begin to cover what USC would need to pay to pry away a top coach.

Southern California head coach Clay Helton, center, argues a call with a referee during the second half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP)
Southern California head coach Clay Helton, center, argues a call with a referee during the second half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP)

It’s worth starting to explore that territory though. A top USC target would be James Franklin, as the Penn State coach would offer the magnetic personality that Swann wants in charge.

Who else could the Trojans target? The name Pete Carroll would surely arise, as the Seattle renaissance he built is slowly crumbling. The Seahawks are 5-5, and Carroll would undoubtedly be pumped to return to his former home of glory. The other NFL name would be Jack Del Rio, as no place adores recycling its own to inevitable mediocre results more than USC.

Other college coaches? Chris Petersen was considered when Sarkisian was hired, but he’s entrenched at Washington. Iowa State’s Matt Campbell could be the fresh face – and outsider, no place needs an outsider more – that USC fans crave. (His buyout is $7 million, another big pile of cash). Utah’s Kyle Whittingham has been an intriguing name there, as he plays the style of football that USC craves and has been one of the West’s most consistent winners. (Utah State’s Matt Wells would be the top Group of Five candidate, but he appears a better fit for Colorado.)

2) We covered Urban Meyer’s pained sideline look, as he spent parts of Ohio State’s 52-51 overtime victory Maryland appearing in agony.

At this point, the Buckeyes’ persistently flaccid performances have cast them as a long shot to reach the College Football Playoff, even if they do repeat as Big Ten title winners. The Buckeyes entered the week No. 10, and it’s reasonable to think that UCF will have a chance to jump the Buckeyes after the Knights’ 38-13 beatdown of No. 24 Cincinnati in a rare marquee game on Saturday night. West Virginia losing gives the Buckeyes one spot to nudge up, but there’s been little empirical evidence that Ohio State looks like one of the country’s elite teams. The Buckeyes gave up 339 rushing yards to a one-dimensional Maryland team and should have lost the game, but Terps quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome missed a wide-open Jeshaun Jones in the end zone on a two-point conversion to win the game.

Ohio State’s lackluster performance secured their role as underdogs against Michigan this week, a game that’ll determine the Big Ten East and a spot in the conference championship. Ohio State undercut the season’s best performance by Dwayne Haskins – 405 passing yards and accounting for six touchdowns – by failing to stop a Maryland offense that didn’t score a touchdown against Iowa or Michigan State.

Michigan didn’t exactly make a rousing statement against Indiana, as they trailed 17-15 at halftime and won 31-20. But Michigan’s overall consistency is much higher than Ohio State’s, as the Buckeyes have felt as if they’ve been on the cusp of collapsing all season. And that’s part of what makes Saturday’s game enticing, with the division on the line and Ohio State holding a six-game win streak in the series. What will give?

3) This is a sentence I didn’t expect to type this season: Pittsburgh will be playing in the ACC title game this season. The Panthers secured a spot across from Clemson on Saturday by beating Wake Forest, 34-13. The Panthers have won four ACC games in a row, and a new hero emerged on Saturday. The Panthers had been riding the legs of tailback Darrin Hall to get in this position. But quarterback Kenny Pickett put forth one of the best performances of his career, throwing for 316 yards on 23-for-30 passing.

Give Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi credit, as the Panthers bounced back from humiliating blowout losses to Penn State (51-6) and UCF (45-14) to rise above the dredges in the ACC Coastal. Pitt is also North Carolina’s only ACC and FBS victory this season.

But the Panthers regrouped to win five of their final six games and face the decision to rest their starters at Miami on Saturday. That’s another sentence that we didn’t expect to be typing as Pittsburgh appeared non-competitive against top competition early in the season.

4) The Big 12’s slim College Football Playoff hopes appear to rest squarely with No. 6 Oklahoma. The Sooners improved to 10-1 after running through Kansas, 55-40, on Saturday night behind Kyler Murray’s five touchdowns.

But the biggest development for the Big 12 happened in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where Oklahoma State upset West Virginia, 45-41, to push the No. 9 Mountaineers (8-2) out of the College Football Playoff race.

West Virginia squandered a 31-14 halftime lead, as Oklahoma State quarterback Taylor Cornelius capped a five-touchdown performance by hitting Tylan Wallace with 42 seconds left. The victory boosted the Cowboys to their sixth win for bowl eligibility, which they came achingly close to after failing on a two-point conversion to beat Oklahoma last week.

Texas put itself in strong position to play in the conference championship game. The Longhorns thumped Iowa State, 24-10, although they leave the game with concerns about quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s shoulder after he left injured.

Tom Herman’s Texas Longhorns will be in the Big-12 title game with a win over Kansas next week. (AP)
Tom Herman’s Texas Longhorns will be in the Big-12 title game with a win over Kansas next week. (AP)

This means that if Texas beats Kansas next week, they’ll face the winner of Oklahoma and West Virginia in the conference title game. (Our Nick Bromberg did a nice job breaking down the Big 12 race here.)

Assuming the Longhorns win, it should make a great Big 12 title game. Texas’ games against Oklahoma and West Virginia were both thrillers that were decided by a last-second field goal (Texas win over OU) and a decisive two-point conversion (WVU over Texas).

5) What will the committee think of No. 11 UCF’s victory over No. 24 Cincinnati? Well, the litmus test of how a marquee game against a ranked opponent is viewed by the committee will be whether the Knights leap Ohio State.

The Knights had the glare of ESPN “College GameDay” and a national television audience. The drama didn’t match the hype, as the Knights pounced on Cincinnati early and cruised to a 38-13 victory. They more than doubled the average points Cincinnati had allowed this season (14.9), which had ranked them No. 7 nationally. UCF finished with 402 total yards, another dominating offensive performance. They also extended their win streak to 23, which remains the longest in the country.

The biggest hurdle for UCF to improve its standing in the eyes of the committee is its schedule. And its rival, USF, has done little to help bolster UCF’s stage in the regular-season finale.

UCF is 10-0 and only USF remains. The Bulls have lost four consecutive games, however, and what was once envisioned as a high-stakes game to conclude the regular season against a ranked team looks like another lay-up for UCF.

Either Memphis or Houston remains in the AAC title game, and neither of those programs will be ranked. That means UCF would need absolute chaos to break through its glass ceiling, and that’s difficult to envision without a major leap starting this week.

6) Amid all of the furor, opinions and embarrassment that’s resonated from Houston coach Major Applewhite’s sideline confrontation with star lineman Ed Oliver, the actual biggest story of Houston’s season occurred.

The Cougars have lost star quarterback D’Eriq King for the season, meaning the most productive quarterback in all of college football won’t play against Memphis in a game to determine the AAC West title next week. King has been a resplendent star for the Cougars this season, throwing for 36 touchdowns and rushing for 14 more. He’s been the perfect fit for the new offense that Kendal Briles brought to UH this year, as the Cougars are the fourth-highest scoring team (47.8) in college football this season.

That leaves a door open for Memphis to again win the AAC West and repeat last year’s matchup playing UCF for the title. Memphis beat SMU on the road on Friday night, 28-18, to deliver their third consecutive conference victory. After losing at Navy to open the year and getting blown out at Tulane in October, few expected Memphis to be in this position. Memphis will have the benefit of a home crowd, a Friday night national television spot and Houston playing freshman backup Clayton Tune at quarterback.

Ed Oliver got into it with Houston coach Major Applewhite on the sidelines this week. (AP)
Ed Oliver got into it with Houston coach Major Applewhite on the sidelines this week. (AP)

7) Colorado athletic director doomed coach Mike MacIntyre with faint praise this week after reports emerged that MacIntyre would be out as Colorado’s coach at the end of the year. MacIntyre thrust that notion much closer to reality with the Buffaloes losing their sixth consecutive game on Saturday night, falling 30-7 at home to No. 19 Utah.

Colorado started the season 5-0 and is in realistic danger of not reaching bowl eligibility, as it needs a win at Cal on Saturday to salvage a C-list bowl game. None of this bodes well for MacIntyre, other than Colorado owing him more than $10 million dollars if they fire him.

The loss to Utah appeared particularly uninspired, as Colorado gave up 30 consecutive points after opening the scoring and Utah was playing without its starting tailback and quarterback.

The victory improved Utah to 8-3 and 6-3 in league play. The Utes clinched the Pac-12 South division later Saturday after Oregon held on to beat Arizona State. Utah will finish the regular season against rival BYU and will play the winner of the Apple Cup game between Washington and Washington State in the Pac-12 title game.

As for Colorado, it looks like they’ll be in the market for a new coach after MacIntyre’s free fall. His tenure appears likely to end just two seasons after winning multiple national coach of the year honors in 2016.

8) Joining MacIntyre on the free-fall list is Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, who has lost four consecutive games and may also find his job in danger. Kingsbury needs a victory at Baylor to end the season to salvage a bowl, a long way away from the euphoria of winning at Oklahoma State in late September.

Texas Tech sputtered through a listless afternoon at Kansas State, as Tech failed to score a touchdown, turned the ball over four times and mustered just 181 total yards. The overall effort didn’t impress Texas Tech defensive back Jah’Shawn Johnson, who told the Associated Press: “We are very soft on all three phases. They just dominated us. Credit them for being prepared and playing a hard game.”

Kingsbury only has two seasons left on his deal, which is indicative of the faith the university has in him going forward. His buyout is tenable – nearly $4 million – and it may be easiest for them to part ways.

Troy coach Neal Brown and North Texas coach Seth Littrell would be the hot names here, as both are former Tech assistants who could inject some life into the program. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt’s close friend from college at Kansas State.

Regardless, it appears that Kingsbury is sputtering to the end.

9) The best halftime score of the entire season came from Alabama’s 50-17 victory over The Citadel on Saturday. The Tide was tied with the Bulldogs 10-10, sending a ripple of possibility through the college football world.

Order was quickly restored when the Tide scored 27 points in the third quarter to resume the regularly scheduled romp. But The Citadel did reinforce an obvious notion with its triple-option offense – Alabama’s potent offense can’t score when they don’t have the ball.

When Tua Tagovailoa did get the ball, he ended up throwing three touchdown passes to break the school record by tossing 31 for the season. Alabama closes the regular season with Auburn in the Iron Bowl next week and Saban summed up The Citadel experience to reporters this way: “We’ve got nothing but downside in the game.”

10) Syracuse flopped in its marquee game on Saturday, falling 36-3 in Yankee Stadium behind a flurry of turnovers and a surprisingly impotent offense. The Orange entered the game No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings, fresh off their first national ranking in 17 years earlier this season.

It didn’t help matters that Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey went down early in the first half with what was appeared to be a back injury.

The drubbing brought Syracuse back to reality, but there’s some brimming hope for the future that didn’t manifest itself on Saturday. Backup quarterback Tommy DeVito didn’t flash well as he went 14-for-31 for only 105 yards.

But there are reasons behind the scenes for optimism in the Syracuse program, and it starts with DeVito. Babers has raved about him since signing him from Don Bosco High School in New Jersey three years ago. DeVito was a blink from overtaking Dungey for the job after coming off the bench to lead Syracuse to a come-from-behind victory over North Carolina earlier this season. No one in the program would have been too surprised. There’s also bountiful optimism about some skill position players, as Michigan State transfer Trishton Jackson has the potential to be the most talented receiver Babers has had in his tenure at Syracuse. The same could be said for tailback Abdul Adams, who averaged 9.2 yards per carry at Oklahoma on 59 carries in 2017. Both were former four-star recruits and project as upgrades.

Syracuse fell to 8-3 on Saturday, but don’t be surprised if the general exposure of the program and to Babers’ explosive offense draws more high-profile transfers to help Syracuse keep building. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them in the preseason Top 25 and keep building.

“This will make them grow up,” Babers said after the game. “They will go home, they will hurt, I’ll hurt, and with all those open wounds they will turn to closed scars and we’ll get better.”

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