Update (11/25/2018): USC has decided to keep Clay Helton despite getting booed out of his home stadium after a loss to Notre Dame. Consider this post my rebuttal to Lynn Swann's explanation for his decision, as well as my thoughts on how USC should proceed if they move on from Helton in the future.
Going into USC's final two games, I predicted that they would sneak past UCLA, and that would be enough to ensure that Clay Helton would remain the head coach going into next season. Instead, USC came out flat in the second half and blew a lead against a (then) 2-8 UCLA team that was tied for last place in the conference, allowing the Bruins offense to march up and down the field while only putting up a meager 3 points of their own. Now assuming USC loses to Notre Dame (currently the point spread is Notre Dame -10.5), they will not even finish the season bowl eligible. That is simply unacceptable for a team with USC's talent. Normally, a coach can buy himself another season by firing a key member or two from his coaching staff, however Helton already played that card when he fired his offensive line coach and took over play calling responsibilities from his offensive coordinator. All of this has me feeling confident that athletic director Lynn Swann will fire Helton.
I take no joy in making this prediction. He's a man with a family, and by all accounts he is a good person. Contrary to what many USC fans might claim, Helton is a competent coach who brought some much needed stability to the program. He has recruited at a level close to Alabama and Ohio State. I actually think Helton's defenses have been pretty good - the statistics don't bear that out, but I thought there were a lot of times when their defense held stout despite being put in bad positions by the offense. You simply don't win a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 championship by dumb luck. However, a program like USC should aspire to championships, not competency, and all the evidence suggests that Clay Helton is not a championship caliber coach. If you go by S&P+, USC has gone from finishing 9th to 26th to 41st (you see a similar trend with F+, AP ranking, coaches poll ranking, etc.). Helton is 20-4 with Sam Darnold, and 10-10 without him (I will admit I have been critical of Darnold in this space, and in retrospect I probably was too harsh on him). Obviously any coach will be better with a first round pick at quarterback (although a lot of coaches would kill for Cody Kessler and J.T. Daniels), but USC has such a big recruiting advantage over its conference that it should not be that dependent on the quarterback position for success.
To me, the data tells the following story: Helton inherited a roster that was loaded at key positions, but underachieved due to poor in-game coaching and a generally loose program culture. Helton brought stability and allowed the players to thrive (although they could have thrived more if Helton had started Darnold over Max Browne). However over time Helton's players started cycling into the program, and Helton's inability to develop players (especially offensive linemen) became a bigger and bigger problem. It is possible that Helton could become a great coach one day, but it's hard to see that happening at USC. To me, he was essentially given the keys to a Ferrari before he had even driven a Honda Accord. Perhaps you could argue that Helton deserves a chance to reverse the trend. I would argue that it is better to fire him now because it would be disastrous if he can't turn it around. It is always better to move on from a coach a year early rather than a year late, and that is especially true when you consider that USC is scheduled to play Alabama to open the 2020 season.
Assuming USC fires Helton and begins a coaching search, there are going to be people who, in an effort to to sound smart, claim that USC is actually not as great of a job as it looks. This is complete nonsense. USC boasts a combination of decorated football history and access to local talent that rivals any program in the country. They have won national championships across several decades, and churned out NFL draft picks with regularity. There is no reason to think USC is anything less than a top five job. I however, think USC actually has a strong case as the program where it is easiest to win a national championship, for two reasons. First, while geography is the primary factor that drives recruiting, it should be easier to convince a kid from the Midwest or the South to come to Tinseltown than the other way around. Second, when operating at peak efficiency, USC can recruit just as well as Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Florida, Florida State, Clemson, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, etc. The difference is, those teams have to compete against each other, whereas none of USC's regional competitors have historically recruited at that level. The west coast has enough blue chippers to support one elite program, and USC essentially has a monopoly on those players.
The aforementioned contrarians will point to the fact that USC has had title droughts in the 80's, 90's, and 2010's as proof that USC is not an elite program. I don't buy this argument. There were times in the past 20 years when you could have made the same argument about Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan, and Florida State - does anybody doubt the championship DNA of those programs right now? There are certainly examples of programs, such as Nebraska, that truly do lose the ability to compete for championships, but I do not believe that applies to USC. They have had extended success in this millennium under Pete Carroll, they still are surrounded by plenty of blue-chip talent, and they never depended on some of the fleeting advantages (TV coverage, academic loopholes, and ahead-of-its time strength and conditioning programs) on which Nebraska did. USC's recent decline can be attributed in part to crippling NCAA sanctions, and in larger part to poor coaching hires. This is not a case of 20/20 hindsight - if USC had hired multiple well-regarded coaches who tanked once they got to USC, I would be more open to the idea that USC may be a worse job than it appears. However, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, and Clay Helton were all universally criticized at the time the moves were made. Kiffin had consistently failed upwards while proving nothing as the coach of the Raiders and the Volunteers; Sarkisian was nicknamed "Seven Win Sark" during his tenure at Washington; Helton was promoted from the interim position despite going 5-4 as the interim coach and having never been considered an elite coordinator. The first two hires were naked attempts to reverse engineer the Pete Carroll, and the Helton hire was made mostly on the basis of ending USC's losing streak to UCLA. In each case, you simply cannot argue that USC hired the best coach available and still couldn't win.
I am not a USC fan (though I am not not a USC fan, but that's a story for another time), but as a college football fan I want the Trojans to be good. I think the sport is better when the national championship race is truly national, and I believe USC is the only program West of the Rockies that can compete with teams like Alabama, Ohio State, and Texas when those programs are firing on all cylinders. Teams like Washington, Oregon, and Stanford simply have never recruited at that level, and while theoretically UCLA may have the ability to become an elite program, empirical evidence says otherwise. Thus, I want to see USC hire the best possible coach. These are my thoughts on how I would approach the search.