Clay Helton proved USC’s doubters wrong and spoiled the College Football Playoff race

WPPROD

Clay Helton? Really?

It was a fair reaction when it was announced that Helton, USC's interim head coach following Steve Sarkisian's dismissal, had the interim tag removed and was hired as USC's head coach last December.

Not Chip Kelly, not Kyle Whittingham, not Tom Herman — Helton, the life-long assistant.

It was hardly the most inspiring of choices, and when USC started this season 1-3, USC's disillusioned fan base and a bloodthirsty media started considering who should replace Helton for the 2017 season.

But Helton stayed the course with his freshman quarterback, Sam Darnold, who gave the Trojans a spark in a close road loss to Utah, and kept his head down. He remained patient. He was going to see it out on his terms.

The Trojans started getting better. They started winning. Then, they started winning by a lot. And on Saturday, they knocked off the nation's No. 4 team on the road in a contest where they emphatically won all three phases of the game.

Watching USC's 26-13 win over Washington in Seattle Saturday night, you had to wonder — which of the teams is competing for a playoff spot? If you had no context going into the contest, you'd say it was USC.

Darnold looked a lot better than his Heisman-contending quarterback counterpart, Jake Browning. USC's Ronald Jones was the better running back. USC had the better offensive line in the contest, and the difference was stark between USC's defense, which was stellar, and Washington's, which looked listless against the Trojans.

Helton was clearly the better coach on the sidelines, too, and he was going up against one of the best in the sport in Chris Petersen.

It was a complete domination by USC — the box score doesn't properly represent it.

Had USC not lost that game to Utah on Sept. 23 — it was a close contest that USC could have won, after all — one could only wonder if a win like Saturday's would push the Trojans into contention for the College Football Playoff. The Trojans absolutely look like one of the best teams in the nation at the moment — you can probably count on one hand the teams that would surely beat them on a neutral field — so why not?

Alas, a national championship is not in the cards for the Trojans this season — that 1-3 start cannot go unpunished.

But the Trojans still have a 10-win season on the table, and perhaps, if a lot of things bounce their way, a shot at the Pac-12 title (USC needs Colorado to beat Utah, but then lose to either Arizona or Washington State to earn a conference title game berth).

More than that, after six-straight wins, Helton has proved that he was the right man for one of the nation's premier jobs. That's no small feat.

He'll need to maintain it — there's no time to rest when you hold one of those positions — but with the talent that USC will return, led by Darnold, and is expected to bring in in the 2017 signing class, there's little reason to think that the Trojans will fade from contention anytime soon.

With Clay Helton as the head coach … really.