A year ago, on this very second Saturday night of the college football season, I sat down to write a column calling for a very good man to lose his job.
Looking back, the shocking thing was that I didn’t feel bad or hesitant while writing it. Clay Helton had plenty of time to prove to his foolishly patient bosses that he was the right man to lead USC football, and when the Trojans were embarrassed in the Coliseum by Stanford, it was clear that his presence on the sideline would lead to more. needless pain for legions of USC fans and alums.
On Saturday night, after the Trojans easily handled the same Cardinal team in Palo Alto 41-28, I feel even better about it. USC is 2-0 and is set to be ranked among the top eight teams in the country. Lincoln Riley, the program’s new head coach, is a young offensive wizard with a must-win attitude. When I called about Helton’s job, I never could have predicted that USC athletic director Mike Bohn would be able to lure Riley away from Oklahoma, but he’s exactly the type of coach who should lead one of the most historic America’s programs. It will be worth every penny spent.
So, I was already feeling pretty good, free of my non-existent guilt. And then, as Riley and USC quarterback Caleb Williams did their celebratory postgame interviews on ABC, on another TV screen I saw the Georgia Southern Eagles threaten to score a game-winning touchdown over once-mighty Nebraska at venerable Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
It was easy to laugh when Helton was drafted last November by the Statesboro, Ga.-based Sun Belt Conference school. I joked with friends that the good people down there were going to experience “Statesboro Blues,” a reference to the Allman Brothers Band song title. But all kidding aside, Helton, who grew up in Florida and Texas and played college football at Auburn, seemed like a better cultural fit for a rich Group of Five program nestled in the heart of the South. Certainly, he had plenty of head coaching experience to draw on, for better or for worse.
On Saturday night, Helton coached the Eagles to their biggest win, 45-42 over Nebraska. His quarterback, Kyle Vantrease, a red-headed transfer from Buffalo nicknamed the “Ginger General,” crossed the goal line for the game-winning score, leading the final drive in Scott Frost’s tormented tenure as the Cornhuskers’ head coach.
Nebraska will unleash their fan base soon enough, and the Husker faithful can only hope and pray that their athletic director and president does as well in the coming months as Bohn and Carol Folt, trying to lure Riley to leave something great for something that could be even greater.
A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine Clay Helton’s coaching ability firing another coach. It would also seem unlikely that USC, coming off an ugly 4-8 campaign and just two games into a promising new era, would be discussed by ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit as a legitimate College Football Playoff semifinal contender .
Sure, the Trojans are firmly in the mix, as I pointed out last week, but we have the rest of the season to chart their path to the first CFP semifinals (it’s pretty simple – they’ll just have to go ahead and win all their games, and they’ll favored in all but possibly Utah on Oct. 15).
I can’t make USC fans be sane, but I’ll try anyway: don’t ruin the current happy moment by thinking about the stinking playoffs.
Enjoy beating Stanford on the road for the first time since 2014. Enjoy the rally in what should be another competitive test next week against Fresno State. Enjoy Williams playing like the Trojans’ first serious Heisman Trophy contender since the Pete Carroll era. Watch his new favorite wide receiver, Jordan Addison, play with such impressive grace that he’d be a Heisman candidate if not for Williams.
Latest: Find it deep in your heart to enjoy Helton’s big win over Nebraska and whatever success he finds in his new happy place.
This was one of those splits that was right and perfectly timed for both sides. It was never Helton’s fault that Pat Haden hired him as a permanent coach, or that Lynn Swann extended his contract early, or that Bohn didn’t think it wise to let Helton go before evaluating him for two long offseasons.
Saturday night presented yet another glaring data point that suggests the Trojans have found someone much better. Two games into the Riley era, I still find myself not believing what I’m seeing, and I’ll bet I’m not alone in feeling that anticipation of what’s new to see each game.
A year after the night that changed everything for USC, that feeling — not to gloss over that Stanford result — is the scariest difference.
Respect in the Zone
Helton’s huge upset win at Nebraska was a distant third among Sun Belt statements Saturday.
Earlier in the day, Marshall traveled to South Bend and upended No. 8 Notre Dame 26-21. Not long after the Thundering Herd shocked the college football world, Appalachian State earned a 17-14 win at No. 6 Texas A&M in front of 100,000-plus at Kyle Field.
To think, this was supposed to be a game board. College football never disappoints and I can’t help but think how timely these upsets were.
After USC and UCLA finished for the Big Ten, the sport felt headed toward a “Power Two” structure with the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference potentially able to continue adding big brands and creating their own postseason in line. Fortunately, the presidents at the top of the College Football Playoff stepped in and voted to approve the expansion to 12 teams, with the field including the top six conference champions.
That means the Sun Belt champion — if indeed the best of the Group of Five champions — would have a chance to win the national championship at the end of the year.
The inclusion of the Team of Five in the playoffs makes me much more likely to want to know about the Sun Belt teams than to hope they randomly pull off an upset. Many die-hard fans will be much more likely to watch Marshall-App State if the winner was potentially a playoff team.
It’s about time these highly competitive and entertaining teams start being treated with some basic respect at the top of the sport.
After all, they did the dirty work for USC, clearing the Fighting Irish and Aggies from playoff contention. (Although, the Trojans probably would have benefited more from their season finale against Notre Dame by having more national hype than they will now).
The smell of horns hurts
Anything else that would be good for college football? Alabama loses.
Texas should have done it today, but a collarbone injury to Quinn Evers in the first quarter, plus a big ref gaffe (it looked like quarterback Bryce Young was grounding the ball in the end zone for a safety, didn’t it?) and a missed field goal late in the first half kept the Longhorns from taking advantage of one of the worst games Alabama has played under Nick Saban.
The Crimson Tide pulled out a 20-19 victory on a last-minute field goal despite committing 15 penalties and looking nothing like a No. 1 team.
Alabama looked so impressive that it would be easy to assume it would stumble a few times the rest of the way, but we’ve seen too many Crimson Tide teams improve over the course of the season and reach their potential.
A big reason we’re likely to see Alabama in the playoffs, of course, is Young. It’s also why the Tide escaped from Austin. In Alabama’s game-winning drive, he avoided a blitz that would have brought down most quarterbacks and took off for a big gain.
He deserves all the credit for saving Alabama once again, but he’ll have to put up a lot more stats going forward to keep Williams and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud in the Heisman race.
Florida loss bad for Utah?
Last week, Utah lost a heartbreaker 29-26 at Florida. This week the Gators, ranked No. 12 in the nation, lost 26-16 in the Swamp to No. 20 Kentucky. Does this make the Utes loss look worse, or should it change how we feel about them going forward? No and no.
In my preseason picks, I had Utah lose at Florida and then the Wildcats beat the Gators. Kentucky is a good team that has a lot more knowledge of Florida and its personnel as a conference opponent, and the Gators have spent all week hearing how great they are and that quarterback Anthony Richardson is a Heisman candidate.
I also picked Utah to win their next 12 games and make the playoffs. USC might have something to say about that.
Week 2 Future Big Ten Power Rankings
1. Ohio State
4. Penn State
5. Michigan State
6. Purdue (up 1)
7. Minnesota (up 1)
8. UCLA (top 2)
9. Wisconsin (bottom 3)
10. Maryland (top 1)
11. Rutgers (Top 3)
12. Indiana (up 1)
13. Iowa (bottom 4)
14. Illinois (top 2)
15. Northwestern (bottom 3)
16. Nebraska (down 1)
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.