If it's all but over for Clay Helton at USC, who's next?

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With USC dropping to 3-3 after another loss to Notre Dame, the writing would appear to be on the wall for Clay Helton. And the writing says, “You’re fired.”

But first things first: The school needs an athletic director and is in the process of finding one. Colleague Pete Thamel laid out an argument for why USC should hire Jeremy Foley for that position. The main reason is to hire Urban Meyer (22) all over again, the way Foley did at Florida in 2004. They went on to win national championships together, and theoretically could do it again on the other side of the country.

Southern California head coach Clay Helton watches against Notre Dame in the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Southern California head coach Clay Helton watches against Notre Dame in the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

However, nobody seems sure whether Meyer is ready to coach again. If he decides to stick with his current TV analyst gig (he’s very good in that role), USC still could have many intriguing options. A brief assessment:

Bob Stoops (23). After two seasons of retirement, Stoops is clearly ready to get back in the game. He’s the head coach of the Dallas franchise in the new XFL, which drafts its first players Tuesday. It wouldn’t be a great look if he jilted the just-born franchise months before its first game in 2020 — but let’s be honest, would any of us rather chase a national championship at USC or start from scratch with second-tier pro players in an off-brand league? Stoops has become very comfortable in the Oklahoma-Texas area, so it would take some uprooting. But he and Foley had a great relationship dating to his time as defensive coordinator at Florida under Steve Spurrier, so they could perhaps sell themselves on uprooting together.

Would former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops return to the collegiate ranks for the right job? (Getty)
Would former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops return to the collegiate ranks for the right job? (Getty)

James Franklin (24). His success at Penn State has become sustained, with this year’s team churning toward a fourth straight season of at least nine wins. But six years in Happy Valley might be enough, and Franklin may be tired of banging his head against the Ohio State ceiling in the Big Ten East. He doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, and likely would embrace the challenge of getting USC attention in a town fully stocked with pro sports stars and Hollywood celebs. Then again: Could any interest Franklin expresses in the job be a bargaining chip for a megadeal to stay at Penn State? He signed a six-year contract with the school in 2017.

Pac-12 piracy. As the school with more inherent advantages than any other in the conference, USC could potentially go after the league’s top coaches. Would they have an interest in Mario Cristobal (25), currently 14-5 in his second season at Oregon? How about Kyle Whittingham (26) of Utah, who could win the Pac-12 South for the second straight season? Maybe even Chris Petersen (27) of Washington, who has won the league championship two of the past three seasons?

However, none of the three would be a slam dunk. There may not be interest on the part of those coaches, and there may be reticence on the part of USC. Cristobal has done well in Eugene and is a renowned recruiter, but his in-game coaching has raised some questions. Whittingham is a consistent winner, but has never had the kind of offense that wins national titles — and the fact that he lost to this USC team isn’t a ringing endorsement. Petersen, once considered on the cutting edge of the profession, has seen his luster dim with some underachieving teams the last few years (including this one).

The undefeated hot coaches (28). That would be Matt Rhule of Baylor and P.J. Fleck of Minnesota, both 6-0 on the season at places that are very rarely 6-0. They also previously had noteworthy success outside the Power Five — Rhule at Temple, Fleck at Western Michigan. Rhule has some L.A. background, having been an assistant at UCLA — but he also agreed to a major contract extension just a couple of weeks ago. Fleck has the extrovert schtick that fits the city — but he's also a Midwest guy to the core. Also, it’s entirely possible that both could be 8-4 or worse by Dec. 1, which would diminish much of their current buzz.

Pick a USC retread (29). For once, this does not seem like a direction the school will go — either at the AD level or with the head coach. After years of leading the nation in insular hiring, the school is bracing to get over itself and fill these key roles from the outside. But if this thing gets sideways and B. Wayne Hughes winds up naming the next coach, former NFL coach (and Trojan great) Jack Del Rio could be there in about 15 minutes.


That would be Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly (30), who may have sealed Helton’s fate in a 30-27 Fighting Irish victory Saturday night in South Bend. This was Kelly’s third straight win in the series, and it raises his record to 7-3 against the Trojans.

At Notre Dame, a .700 winning percentage against USC is above average. Kelly’s predecessor, Charlie Weis, went 0-5. The guy before him, Tyrone Willingham, was 0-3. They were overmatched by the Pete Carroll machine of the early 21st century.

The only Irish coaches who have beaten the Trojans more times than Kelly are Lou Holtz (9-1-1) and Frank Leahy (8-1-1). Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine won national championships at Notre Dame but had losing records against the Trojans.

Kelly’s record by coach against USC: 4-1 against Helton; 0-1 against Steve Sarkisian; 1-0 against Ed Orgeron; 2-1 against Lane Kiffin. Kelly may miss Helton more than anyone, if this is Helton’s last season.

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