Lincoln Riley at USC wouldn’t have happened without Clay Helton

A year ago, on that same second Saturday night of the college football season, I sat down to write a column demanding that a very nice man lose his job.

Looking back, the shocking thing was that I didn’t feel bad or hesitant while I was writing it. Clay Helton had plenty of time to prove to his ridiculously patient bosses that he was the right man to run USC football, and when the Trojans were embarrassed at the Stanford Coliseum, it was clear that his presence on the sideline was only going to lead to more unnecessary pain for legions of USC fans and alums.

Saturday night, after the Trojans easily managed the same Cardinal team in Palo Alto 41-28, I feel even better about it. USC is 2-0 and is on course to be ranked among the top eight teams in the nation. Lincoln Riley, the program’s new head coach, is a young offensive savant with a ruthless attitude about winning. When I called about the Helton 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 guy. coach who is expected to lead one of America’s most prestigious programs. It will be worth every penny spent.

So, I already felt pretty good, absolved of my non-existent guilt. And then, just as Riley and USC quarterback Caleb Williams were doing their celebratory postgame interviews on ABC, on another TV screen, I saw the Georgia Southern Eagles threatening to score. a game-winning touchdown against the former Nebraska at the venerable Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

It was easy to laugh when Helton was picked up last November by the Statesboro, Georgia-based Sun Belt Conference school. I joked with friends that the nice folks there were about to find out about the “Statesboro Blues,” a reference to the Allman Brothers band’s song title. But, joking aside, Helton, who grew up in Florida and Texas and played college football at Auburn, seemed culturally better suited for a spunky Five-Eyes program nestled in the heart of the South. Granted, he had plenty of head coaching experience to draw on, for better or worse.

On Saturday night, Helton coached the Eagles to their biggest victory ever, 45-42 over Nebraska. His quarterback, Kyle Vantrease, a red-haired transfer from Buffalo nicknamed the “Ginger General”, crossed the goal line for the winning score, bringing the final stake in Scott Frost’s tortured tenure as coach. -leader of the Cornhuskers.

Nebraska will unleash its fanbase soon enough, and the Husker faithful can only hope and pray that their athletic director and president will do as well in the months to come as Bohn and Carol Folt figured out how to entice Riley to leave something behind. good for something that could be even bigger.

USC coach Lincoln Riley watches the Trojans from the sidelines in a 41-28 win over Stanford on Saturday.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez/Associated Press)

A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine that Clay Helton’s coaching prowess would have gotten another coach fired. It also would have seemed impossible that USC, recovering from 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 semi-final contender. college football playoffs.

Sure, the Trojans are firmly in the game, as I pointed out last week, but we’ve got the rest of the season to work their way to their first CFP semi-finals (it’s pretty simple – they should just go ahead and win all of their games, and they’ll be favored in all but potentially Utah on Oct. 15).

I can’t make USC fans rational, but I’ll try anyway: please don’t waste the current moment of joy thinking about the stinky playoffs.

Enjoy beating Stanford on the road for the first time since 2014. Enjoy preparing for what should be another competitive test next week against Fresno State. Enjoy Williams playing as the Trojans’ first serious Heisman Trophy contender since the Pete Carroll era. Enjoy his new favorite wide receiver, Jordan Addison, playing with jaw-dropping grace that he’d be a Heisman candidate if it weren’t for Williams.

Last: Find it deep in your heart to enjoy Helton’s big win over Nebraska and any success he finds in his happy new place.

It was one of those breakups that was fair and perfectly timed for both parties. It’s never Helton’s fault that Pat Haden hired him as a permanent head coach, or that Lynn Swann extended his contract prematurely, or that Bohn didn’t think it prudent to let Helton go before evaluating him. for two long off-seasons.

Saturday night presented another screaming 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 see, and I bet I’m not the only one feeling that anticipation for what I’m going to see new every game.

A year on from the night that changed everything for USC, that feeling — not overturning that Stanford result — is the most shocking difference.

Respect to the belt

Defensive lineman Marshall Owen Porter celebrates while laying down on a green field.

Defensive lineman Marshall Owen Porter celebrates after an upset 26-21 win over Notre Dame on Saturday.

(Michael Conroy/Associated Press)

Helton’s huge upset win at Nebraska was a distant third among Sun Belt’s statements on Saturday.

Earlier in the day, Marshall traveled to South Bend and toppled the No. 8 Notre Dame 26-21. Shortly after the Thundering Herd shocked the college football world, Appalachian State secured a 17-14 victory at No. 6 Texas A&M in front of more than 100,000 at Kyle Field.

To think, this was supposed to be a list of ho-hum games. College football never disappoints, and I can’t help but think how timely these upsets were.

After the bolting of USC and UCLA for the Big Ten, the sport felt headed toward a “Power Two” structure, with the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference possibly continuing to add big brands and create their own playoff series down the line. Fortunately, the presidents at the top of the college football playoffs stepped in and voted to approve the 12-team expansion, with the field including the six highest-ranked conference champions.

This means that the Sun Belt champion – if indeed the best of the group of five league champions – would have a shot at winning the national championship at the end of the year.

The Five Five’s inclusion in the playoffs makes me much more likely to want to know more about the Sun Belt teams beyond just hoping they cause a random upset. Many diehard fans will be much more likely to watch Marshall-App State if the winner was a potential playoff team.

It’s time for these highly competitive and fun teams to start being treated with a modicum of respect at the top of the sport.

After all, they did the dirty work for USC, knocking the Fighting Irish and Aggies out of the playoffs. (Although the Trojans probably would have benefited more from their season finale against Notre Dame having more national hype than they will now).

The smell of horns hurts

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian waves to fans after the Longhorns' loss to Alabama.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian waves to fans after the Longhorns’ loss to Alabama.

(Michael Thomas/Associated Press)

Anything else that would be good for college football? Alabama loses.


Texas should have gotten there on Saturday, but a collarbone injury to quarterback Quinn Ewers in the first quarter, plus a big officiating error (it looked like quarterback Bryce Young put the ball down in the end zone for a safety, right?) and a missed field goal late in the first half prevented the Longhorns from enjoying one of Alabama’s worst games under Nick Saban.

The Crimson Tide cruised to a 20-19 win on a last-minute field goal despite 15 penalties and looking nothing like a No. 1 team.

Alabama looked so beatable it would be easy to assume they’d stumble many times the rest of the way, but we’ve seen too many Crimson Tide teams improve over the season and reach their potential. .

A big reason we’re still likely to see Alabama in the playoffs, of course, is Young. He’s also the reason the Tide escaped Austin. In Alabama’s win, he dodged a blitz that would have taken down most quarterbacks and took off for a big win.

He deserves all the praise for saving Alabama once again, but he’ll have to do a lot more statistically going forward to hold Williams and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud in the Heisman race.

Is Florida’s loss bad for Utah?

Florida wide receiver Ja'Quavion Fraziars drops a pass past Kentucky defensive back Carrington Valentine.

Florida wide receiver Ja’Quavion Fraziars drops a pass past Kentucky defensive back Carrington Valentine in the Gatos’ loss on Saturday.

(John Raoux/Associated Press)

On September 3, Utah lost a heartbreaker 29-26 to Florida. On Saturday, the Gators, who jumped to No. 12 in the nation, lost 26-16 in the swamp to No. 20 Kentucky. Does it make losing the Utes worse or should it change how we feel about them going forward? No and no.

In my preseason picks, I had Utah losing to Florida, then the Wildcats beating the Gators. Kentucky is a good team that has a ton of extra knowledge about Florida and its staff as a conference rival, 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 may have something to say about this.

Week 2 Ranking the Powers of the Future Big Ten

1. Ohio State



4. Penn State

5. State of Michigan

6. Purdue (plus 1)

7. Minnesota (plus 1)

8. UCLA (up to 2)

9. Wisconsin (minus 3)

10. Maryland (plus 1)

11. Rutgers (up to 3)

12. Indiana (plus 1)

13. Iowa (minus 4)

14. Illinois (+2)

15. Northwest (less than 3)

16. Nebraska (minus 1)

Lance B. Holton