Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clay Helton remains on the perpetual hot seat at USC, despite offensive stars

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Another year, another talented USC roster, another seeming referendum on Trojans head coach Clay Helton. Much may have changed around college football this offseason, but at least the uncertainty at the Coliseum remains a constant.

Helton’s job may never be safe at USC, but it is hard to envision enough of a stumble in 2021 to elicit his firing. Such are the perks of trotting out one of the country’s most experienced and best quarterbacks with a talented and explosive receiver corps.

Then again, that has been the case throughout Helton’s six years, but he remains on a perpetually hot seat.

That seat would have cooled considerably if the Trojans had topped Oregon in last year’s Pac 12 title game, instead losing 31-24. If USC had pulled off that conference title, even if against a team only playing in it because pandemic protocols held out the original Pac 12 North champion, then Helton could have laid claim to a 6-0 regular season.

The Trojans likely would not have made the Playoff, despite that unbeaten conference championship run, creating a narrative sympathetic to Helton.

Without that crutch, Helton can still point to a 5-1 season that included three late comebacks, a year that can hardly be knocked but also did not necessarily instill great confidence. Hence, a perpetual hot seat.

The Trojans return 16 starters, but of the pieces lost, a few will be nearly impossible to replace.

First-round draft pick left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker leaves a vacuum, one compounded by actually needing to replace both tackles.

Star receivers Amon-Ra St Brown and Tyler Vaughns carried USC’s offense for years. Skill position talent may seem to grow on trees for the Trojans, but that pair earned every piece of praise heaped upon them. Furthermore, that position talent stockpile took a hit in July when receiver Bru McCoy was arrested on suspicion of felony intimate partner violence. It was announced this week that the one-time expected starter would not be charged due to insufficient evidence, but his status with the team remains “unchanged,” per the Los Angeles Times, which is to say, McCoy is not currently part of the football team.

And linebacker Talanoa Hufanga was named Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, making 62 tackles in just six games and adding four interceptions.

But USC does return plenty of offense. Namely, junior quarterback Kedon Slovis will be a Heisman contender as long as the Trojans are winning and 6-foot-5 sophomore receiver Drake London should clear 1,000 yards receiving without too much effort, catching 32 passes for 502 yards in just six games last year.

All standard fare for an Air Raid offense, coordinated by Graham Harrell.

Slovis struggled with his mechanics last season, something he openly admitted, but still threw for 320 yards per game, even if both his completion percentage (67 percent from 72) and yards per completion (10.9 yards per completion from 12.4) fell off precipitously from his breakout freshman year. Throwing seven interceptions in six games furthered those concerns.

Nonetheless, Slovis was named 1st-team All-Pac 12 and remains among the second-tier of Heisman contenders, not to mention a likely first-round draft pick.

Four transfers should help Slovis make up for the losses of St Brown, Vaughns and McCoy. Receivers K.D. Nixon (Colorado), Tahj Washington (Memphis) and Jake Smith (Texas) will supplement London, but it may be Texas tight end transfer Malcolm Epps that factors in the most.

In fact, Los Angeles may now be Texas West, with running back Keaontay Ingram also transferring in. Ingram has more than 1,800 rushing yards across the last three seasons, setting him up to be the Trojans lead back even if a few others will rotate in.

Yet, the running game is not USC’s focus. It is not the focus of any Air Raid offense. Last year, that strategy led to 5.7 trips to the red zone per game, the most in the country, but only 33.3 points. Only may seem harsh, but in modern college football, national title contenders need to hum north of 35 points each week.

The timing, space and deep pressure of the Air Raid offense can be difficult for opposing defenses, but most know to trot out drop-eight coverages. The Trojans may counteract that with an emphasis on their tight ends this year, but that will put even more stress on Slovis’ mechanics, something to keep an eye on the first few weeks of September.

If there was a change for USC in 2020, it was not Slovis’ regression as much as it was a new defensive philosophy. New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando dialed up the aggression, forcing 16 turnovers in just six games.

With sophomore defensive tackle Tuli Tuipulotu excelling in the spring, freshman defensive end Korey Foreman expected to be the next defensive chaos agent and junior linebacker Drake Jackson (20 tackles last year with 5.5 for loss including two sacks) ready to star once again, Orlando has the defensive front to be aggressive once again.

That may be what cools Helton’s seat, not Slovis’ stardom.

What will not cool Helton’s seat, however, is the parity in the Pac 12 South. If the Trojans do not reach the conference championship game, that will not go well for him, and both Utah and Arizona State will contend for the division.

Unlike both of them, though, USC does not face either of the northern powers. When it comes to the conference, the Trojans should win the division if they can simply split their games against the Utes and the Sun Devils, albeit easier said than done.

With a season win total over/under of 8.5, per PointsBet, other losses are expected. A trip to Notre Dame in primetime will be far from easy (preseason analytics suggest it as a pick’em), and facing the competence factories of Cal and UCLA in back-to-back weeks may be less than ideal, but perhaps the most underrated game on USC’s schedule will be the season-opener against San Jose State. File that away now.

Lose to any of those three, and Helton will be under pressure all over again. His opening two years of Rose and Cotton Bowls are already a distant memory. Sweep them and the 2022 preview may be very similar to this one.

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