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USC Retains Clay Helton: What Should Irish Fans Think?

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

I have long insisted that it would be good for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish if the USC Trojans returned to being a consistently elite football team, on the grounds that it would aid scheduling by giving the Irish an opportunity for a statement win every year. While I do hate the Trojans, I also understand that our fate is entwined with theirs in a way that it is not with, say, the Michigan Wolverines. A strong USC is good for Notre Dame, and vice versa.

From that standpoint, Clay Helton’s continued employment by Southern Cal is not necessarily good news for Notre Dame fans. It means the Trojans will likely retain an above-average ceiling, having somewhere between five and eight wins when an Irish squad that could very well have playoff aspirations descends on the Coliseum in November 2020. If things go really badly, Helton may have already been fired by the time that game is played.

A lackluster November schedule can and does hurt rankings and postseason hopes in college football. If you doubt that, take a look at Notre Dame’s movement in the standings, or lack thereof, over the last five weeks. In any given year, if the Irish go undefeated or 11-1 and is jockeying for position with four or five other teams, a big win late in the season could be the difference between being in the playoff and being on the outside looking in. Because of that, it is undoubtedly in Notre Dame’s long-term interest to have a locked-in quality opponent in Los Angeles. To the extent that Helton is a hindrance to that, his return is bad for Notre Dame.

However.

Read this article. And this one. Then come back to reading this after your cackling-induced coughing fit has subsided.

I grew up in California at the height of the Pete Carroll golden years at Southern Cal. I have many friends who are Trojan fans and/or alumni, and toward them I extend continued respect, magnanimity and sympathy. But regarding Trojan Nation as a whole? Pump that anguish and frustration into my veins. One day USC will be back to its former strength. Hopefully the Irish will be ready and up to the task, and the battles will be glorious. But in the meantime, I hope they come to know every bit of the breadth and depth of the suffering we knew in the Weisingdavie years, and I will enjoy every second of watching it unfold.

Beyond the sheer deliciousness of Trojan tears, there are other reasons why Southern Cal’s decision to delay the inevitable could be good news for the Irish. Let’s leave aside the long term - in which we need Southern Cal to be a strong team - and take a narrow view of 2020.

Notre Dame will enter 2020 in a good position to make a playoff run, with lots of experienced veterans returning and some high-impact freshmen entering the fold. As stated above, in such a year the opportunity to make a statement with a big win in November is invaluable.

However, Notre Dame’s 2020 schedule already provides such an opportunity in the persons of Dabo Swinney, Trevor Lawrence, and the rest of the Clemson Tigers, who will roll up to South Bend on November 7, 2020, presumably undefeated and ranked in the Top 4. If Notre Dame goes into that game undefeated and wins, no further statements will need to be made. It would be impossible to question that team’s claim to the playoff.

I think in that scenario we’d all be okay with closing out the season with a win over an underachieving-but-dangerous Helton-coached SC team in Los Angeles, and perfectly fine waiting until 2021 to face their new coach, be it Urban Meyer or James Franklin or PJ Fleck or whoever else, for the first time in the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium. This is not to say that we should be afraid of facing an elite USC team next year; only that a bad USC team wouldn’t necessarily create a hole in our schedule the way it has in years past.

All these hypotheticals assume a whole lot. We don’t know for sure if Clemson, or Wisconsin for that matter, will qualify as signature wins next year. We don’t know Helton won’t have a BK-esque reinvention and take USC on a playoff run of its own next year. We also don’t know the Irish won’t suffer an inexplicable loss to Arkansas or Pitt or Duke that renders this whole conversation moot.

Given all of these conflicting thoughts, here’s my proposal: savor Southern Cal’s time in the suck while it lasts, while also looking forward to a future where they’re really good and we can beat them anyway. That way it will hurt them even more. Leave your thoughts in the poll and comments below!

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