10 takeaways: In wake of another humiliating loss, what’s next at USC?

Oregon’s 56-24 blowout of USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night perfectly symbolized the downfall of Clay Helton at USC.

The loss dropped USC to 5-4, essentially securing Helton’s firing at the end of this season. It unfolded in the most fitting way, as the game highlighted the worst traits of USC under Helton. From untimely penalties to a fatal special teams breakdown to the persistent failures in high-leverage situations, it all looked frighteningly familiar.

Mike Bohn, who is expected to be named athletic director next week at USC, will show up at a press conference and say all the proper empty platitudes about evaluating Helton. It won’t matter.

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What matters is the tenor of what unfolded on the field. Oregon dominated USC on the scoreboard, which will only perpetuate the trend of Oregon dominating USC in recruiting. Under Helton, USC lost its grip on Los Angeles and has allowed Oregon to surge back as the Pac-12’s sexiest destination.

USC is trending toward another season of mediocrity under Helton, further inviting opposing teams to invade Los Angeles’ fertile recruiting ground and damaging the Pac-12’s national cachet as its best brand continues to underachieve. (The Trojans are No. 65 in the Rivals.com recruiting rankings, Oregon is No. 11.)

USC was a study in self-destruction against the Ducks, as a tease of high-end talent like star receiver Michael Pittman and some glimpses of brilliance from Kedon Slovis were undercut by inconsistencies, lack of discipline and a lack of quality depth. USC had four turnovers and 92 penalty yards. But the night’s defining play came on a back-breaking 100-yard kickoff return from Oregon’s Mykael Wright with 20 seconds left in the second quarter. (Wright, fittingly, is from Southern California.)

Clay Helton looks on during a college football game between the Oregon Ducks and the USC Trojans on Nov. 2. (Getty)
Clay Helton looks on during a college football game between the Oregon Ducks and the USC Trojans on Nov. 2. (Getty)

How does USC save itself? The answer starts with leadership, as USC’s football success in the past two decades has come despite the athletic department’s top leadership, not because of it.

Breaking away from USC’s obsession with all things USC starts with Carol Folt, the new USC president. Anyone who has interacted with Folt throughout the USC AD process has come away with the clear impression this was her search. She’s trying to break USC’s unhealthy devotion to its own, with Bohn’s pending hiring the first step.

Bohn’s hire was a surprise in athletic director circles, which is a sign of Folt ignoring the conventions and opinions of the athletics world. But here’s the most important part for the future of Trojan football: While reports emerged that Urban Meyer would be the target of the Trojans soon after Bohn’s eventual hire became public, all of Folt’s actions point to the opposite.

USC failed to express serious interest in candidates with deep and direct ties to Meyer, like former Florida AD Jeremy Foley and Washington State AD Patrick Chun. If Folt really wanted Meyer, she’d have engineered the AD search to get him.

Bohn and Meyer have some surface ties, as Meyer’s son plays baseball at Cincinnati and provides the strongest link. But if USC leaders wanted someone with deep ties to Meyer, they passed on multiple candidates. Those with knowledge of the search say it’s a clear sign Folt wants a different direction.

“If they wanted to go and get Urban Meyer, they’d need to hire someone he has a strong relationship with,” said an industry source. “He needs to believe in his AD. He’s been very close with all the athletic directors he’s worked with.”

The frontrunner for USC to target likely shifts to Penn State’s James Franklin, a move that would take a substantial amount of money considering the revenue gaps between the two schools. If they can’t sell Franklin on coming — and assuming Bob Stoops is happy in the XFL — they can sift through a list that would likely include Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, Baylor’s Matt Rhule, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell and Memphis’ Mike Norvell.

There’s no danger Helton will be fired before the season is over. When asked directly about his future after the game, Helton said: "I'll fight like hell for the next win with the people I believe in and the people that I love until they ask me not to do it anymore."

Helton’s a good man, a favorite of Holt’s who brought stability and class back to USC. Now it’s time for USC to transition to a coach who can bring winning football, too.

OREGON STATES ITS OWN PLAYOFF CASE

Oregon’s victory gives the embattled Pac-12 an adrenaline shot after spending much of the season outside the national conversation.

The victory pushes the Ducks to 6-0 in the Pac-12 (8-1 overall) and sets the stage for two one-loss Pac-12 teams to face off in the league title game. With the College Football Playoff standings coming out Tuesday, the positioning of the Pac-12 schools will be intriguing as neither Oregon nor Utah have a victory over a team that’s currently ranked. The No. 7 Ducks and No. 9 Utes need each other to stay in the top 10 for a potential final showcase in the Pac-12 title game.

After an early interception, Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert bounced back to complete 21-of-26 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns. He endured a few tough hits, showing the prying NFL eyes that he can play through pain. Herbert also may have vaulted himself up in the Heisman Trophy conversation, as he’s quietly amassed an astonishing statistical season. He’s completed just under 70 percent of his passes and has 24 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Oregon’s opening loss to Auburn tossed the Ducks from the national radar, which has hurt Herbert. But he’ll be aided by a better receiving corps the rest of the way. The biggest development for the Ducks was the breakout game for transfer receiver Juwan Johnson, who missed the first four games with an injury. Johnson caught three touchdowns and finished the day with seven catches and 106 yards. Herbert’s success so far this season has been without a big-play threat. Johnson appears ready to provide that.

GLOOM IN THE SUNSHINE STATE

In the wondrous, star-kissed and swashbuckling history of Florida State-Miami, it’s difficult to remember a more buzzless edition than Saturday’s game in Tallahassee.

Miami trounced FSU 27-10, with the favored Seminoles self-destructing in part thanks to 10 penalties for 75 yards. Florida State falls to 4-5 on the season and 3-4 in the ACC, and the loss looms large in the tricky metric that Seminoles leaders are using to quantify the future of Willie Taggart — hope.

Can FSU elicit enough hope from a skeptical fanbase that they don’t have to fork over the nearly $18 million that it would cost to buy Taggart out? There’s not a ton of internal momentum for FSU to fire Taggart. There’s too much uncertainty on the administrative side of campus, with a president planning to retire. And there’s a similar flux in the athletic department with a placeholder athletic director. Is that the environment a new coach would want to enter?

For Taggart to feel secure about his future, he’d best make a bowl game this season after going 5-7 in his first year. Florida State should beat Alabama State on Nov. 16. They’d need to win road games against either Boston College next week or Florida on Nov. 30 to reach a bowl.

The most distressing part for FSU administrators has to be the lack of improvement. Florida State entered Saturday No. 124 in penalties, averaging 8.75 per game. Last season, they finished No. 129. In Taggart’s lone season at Oregon, the Ducks finished No. 129.

That goes counter to the hope Taggart needs to bring. Hope means season-ticket renewals. Hope gives a narrative to sell in recruiting. Hope keeps a fan base who treated 10-win seasons as a birthright engaged.

After the same old story for Taggart and FSU on Saturday, hope is hard to find.

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

Houston president Renu Khator once issued the most short-sighted, unprofessional and self-destructive presidential comment in recent college football history. She told a group of supporters in 2016: “We’ll fire coaches at 8-4.”

There’s a good chance that Houston could end up 4-8 in the first year under Dana Holgorsen. The Cougars were blown out at UCF, 44-29, to fall to 3-6 and 1-4 in the AAC. The loss continues the spiral of what started as a promising season.

The biggest story remaining at Houston will be the future of talented quarterback D’Eriq King, who accounted for 50 touchdowns in 2018. King announced a redshirt earlier in the season after Houston’s 1-3 start to preserve another season of eligibility.

There’s little chance that King will return to Houston, as he’s expected to enter the transfer portal in the postseason and garner interest from top programs like LSU, Georgia and Florida State. (Former Houston OC Kendal Briles is the offensive coordinator at FSU, and wherever Briles is coaching next year would loom as a potential landing spot for King.) Don’t discount LSU, which will need to replace Heisman favorite Joe Burrow.

As for the current Cougars, they close against Memphis, at Tulsa and Navy, which means they’ll be heavy underdogs in two of the three games. Holgorsen has heavy guarantees in the five-year, $20 million contract he signed upon arrival, so his job is in no danger.

Holgorson’s quarterback acumen will likely allow him to find a solid replacement on the transfer waiver wire and kick off what amounts to a rebuild. But his first season has been an unmitigated disaster after taking over a team that went 8-5 in 2018. For Houston administrators, this year has been a karmic boomerang for the gaudy displays of administrative arrogance.

UTES RISING

The playoff contender receiving the least amount of buzz is No. 9 Utah, which improved to 8-1 with an impressive victory at Washington, 33-28, on Saturday. Utah has earned a slot in the one-loss playoff contender conversation, as its only defeat came at USC in September in a one-score game.

The Utes have showed more balance this season, as Kyle Whittingham’s teams have long been stout defensively and anemic offensively. The formula at Utah under Whittingham has been victory one body blow at a time.

But this year’s Utes scored 20 points in the second half against Washington on Saturday, and Tyler Huntley showed his continued development with a banner night. He finished with one passing touchdown, another rushing and completed 19-of-24 passes. Zack Moss stacked up another 100-yard game, which he’s made routine this season for the Utes. All this came against one of the best statistical defenses in the Pac-12.

Overall, Utah’s offensive improvement has been what’s led them to become a Pac-12 favorite and on the fringe of the CFP conversation. The Utes have scored 33.1 points per game, which was No. 38 nationally going into Saturday’s game. That’s up from 28.1 last season, which ranked them No. 75.

Utah still has the type of marauding defense that’s become a hallmark of Whittingham and coordinator Morgan Scalley. The Utes were No. 4 nationally in scoring defense heading into the game against Washington and are clearly the stingiest unit in the Pac-12.

Tyler Huntley of the Utah Utes signals for a touchdown during their win over the Washington Huskies on Saturday. (Getty)
Tyler Huntley of the Utah Utes signals for a touchdown during their win over the Washington Huskies on Saturday. (Getty)

BUYOUTS GONE HOG WILD

Chad Morris is chasing all the wrong kinds of history at Arkansas. With the Razorbacks again looking hopeless in a 54-24 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday, Morris is now 0-14 in SEC play. The Razorbacks have lost 17 consecutive league games.

A proud fan base has little to cling to. In the two seasons under Morris, Arkansas has lost to North Texas, San Jose State and Colorado State. In its last three league games, Arkansas has lost by an average of 37.3 points.

The hiring of Morris was a curious one from the start. He’d gone just 8-16 in AAC play while at SMU, with Arkansas hiring him after his only winning season – just 7-5 – while there.

The issue for Arkansas is that they’d again find themselves hemorrhaging buyout money. The buyout for Morris is nearly $10 million, which is a crushing figure to pay a coach to not coach. Arkansas still owes former coach Bret Bielema a good chunk of his nearly $12 million after firing him two years ago. They have reportedly stopped paying him about $320,000 per month. Expect this to be settled in court down the line.

It’s worth noting that the Arkansas debacle played out a few hours down the road from Memphis, where coach Mike Norvell’s success led to a visit from ESPN’s “College Gameday” for their game with SMU. Not only has SMU thrived in the wake of Morris’ exit, but Norvell has experienced much more success since the Arkansas brass went with Morris.

The good news for athletic director Hunter Yurachek — who doesn’t look especially happy these days — is that he didn’t technically hire Morris, as he was being brought in at the same time. That gives him the leeway to potentially make a decision to fire Morris after two years and figure out the ensuing financial gymnastics.

The Razorbacks are 2-7 and could be an underdog at home against Western Kentucky next week. (The Hilltoppers are 5-4, a nice debut season for Tyson Helton after taking over a team that was 3-9 in 2018.) From there, the Hogs play at No. 1 LSU and host Missouri to close the year.

BEAVERS GIVING A DAMN

For a frozen moment on Saturday night, something unthinkable at the start of the season was briefly tangible. Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith pointed out in a phone interview with Yahoo Sports that the Beavers could potentially control their own destiny in the Pac-12 North if USC upset Oregon. (Seconds after he said this, Oregon scored to take a lead in a 56-24 victory at USC.)

Smith’s Beavers improved to 4-4 and 3-2 in the Pac-12 after throttling Arizona, 56-38, in Tucson behind another gutty effort from sixth-year senior quarterback Jake Luton. The Beavers’ unanimous captain threw three more touchdown passes to improve to 19 touchdowns and just one interception on the season for Oregon State.

Luton has drawn the increased attention of NFL scouts in recent weeks, as he’s 6-foot-7, 230 pounds and has finally put together a consistent season after a career riddled with injuries. He’s led Oregon State to double the wins from last season, and there’s a real feeling they can find two more wins on their schedule to reach a bowl game. That’s a conversation few people thought feasible after the Beavers went 2-10 in Smith’s first season.

How did Smith react after the game? “Honestly, I got after them,” he said, pointing to the 12 penalties for 120 yards. “We came down to win a game. We can play way better. We didn’t play our best game.”

Oregon State closes with four difficult contests — Washington, Arizona State, at Washington State and at Oregon. Winning two more will be challenging, but who could have predicted the Beavers would be in this position in the first place?

Smith closed by admitting it was gratifying to see the team develop and change expectations. “It really is,” he said. “I appreciate the staff. There’s some satisfaction in seeing guys improve and being able to give them confidence and self-esteem.”

NOTRE DAME SURVIVES SCARE

Notre Dame’s imminent demise in the wake of their loss at Michigan last week appears greatly exaggerated. The Irish squeaked out a hard-fought victory over Virginia Tech, with a gutsy play call on third-and-goal from the 7-yard line. Ian Book ran in a quarterback keeper with 29 seconds left to cap an 18-play, 87-yard drive and set off a chorus of deep exhales in South Bend. Kelly called it a “great character win for our football team.”

Notre Dame improves to 6-2 and has a realistic shot at a 10-win season, as it will be favored in its final four games – at Duke, Navy, Boston College and at Stanford. If Notre Dame closes out that spree, it would secure a spot in a high-profile bowl game.

This isn’t a great Notre Dame team. But the Irish have a chance at a double-digit win season for the fifth time in Brian Kelly’s tenure. Even with a dark week following the Michigan debacle, these are very good times at Notre Dame compared to the tenures of Charlie Weis, Ty Willingham and Bob Davie. Notre Dame is 28-6 the past three seasons, a consistent top-15 program that’s been competitive at the sport’s highest level.

The highest compliment to Notre Dame on Saturday against Tech came from its ability to bounce back from a soul-crushing momentum swing. That came late in the second quarter when Notre Dame fumbled at the goal line and Tech defensive back Divine Deablo returned the fumble after a pure hit by linebacker Rayshard Ashby on ND tailback Jafar Armstrong. Instead of Notre Dame going into halftime up 21-7, Tech tied the game at 14 and set the stage for a rainy slog that required Irish heroics.

‘BABY BRUINS’ GROWING UP QUICKLY

The defining soundbite from UCLA’s thumping of Arizona State last week was a simple one from Chip Kelly: “The Baby Bruins are growing up.” He wasn’t kidding.

UCLA authored its third consecutive authoritative victory on Saturday, thumping Colorado 31-14. The Bruins are 4-5 and could squiggle their way into a bowl game with remaining games at Utah, at USC and a home game with Cal. Even more improbably, the Utah game on Nov. 16 would allow the Bruins to control their fate in the Pac-12 South. They are tied with USC for second place in the Pac-12 South, as both are 4-2.

After starting the season 0-3 and getting thumped by Oregon State, that’s not a scenario anyone could have envisioned.

No Baby Bruin has grown up more than quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns to continue a strong developmental curve in his sophomore season. Joshua Kelley also ran for 126 yards for UCLA.

After an early season of UCLA’s losses being a major story, now we’ll be fixated on where the Baby Bruins will finish.

ONE WEEK TO BAMA-LSU

After a generally benign week, the eyes of the sport will immediately shift to Tuscaloosa. That’s where LSU will play at Alabama in a game that should add another classic No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle to the series’ rich history.

The dominant story there remains the health of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is recovering from an ankle procedure and is expected to be a game-time decision. His foil will be LSU’s Joe Burrow, who has stunningly emerged as the Heisman frontrunner in the suddenly high-octane LSU offense.

We’ll dive into this game more as the week goes on. But the widespread expectation is that this will be something resembling a shootout, as both programs are being carried by dominant skill instead of the suffocating defenses that long defined this rivalry.

The biggest question coming out of that game will be whether the loser can still be in the playoff mix. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey should be rooting for the LSU loss if he wants two teams in the CFP. The Tigers would project as having the best one-loss résumé of any team in the country. Unless Minnesota or Baylor wins out, there will be a one-loss team in the playoff. The conversation from that LSU-Bama game will quickly shift toward one-loss credentials, and Alabama’s less than impressive collection of victories could theoretically make them vulnerable.

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