Pac-12 coaches on hot seat: USC’s Clay Helton feeling the heat more than anybody

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CFTalk has been taking a detailed look at hot seats across college football this offseason and one early theme in examining the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten coaches so far is there are, well, not a ton of hot seats out there.

A lot of this has to do with schools already making moves and replacing coaches in the past two seasons and others playing their way out of trouble with some big wins. When one heads out West to the Pac-12 however, well, the league might just be home to perhaps the hottest seat in the nation.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the various stages of heat for Pac-12 coaches near and far:

White hot heat

Clay Helton (USC)

To put Helton’s hot seat in perspective, some of the school’s big name alumni are already talking about his replacement being Urban Meyer in 2020. It was surprising that he was brought back in the first place after failing to make a bowl game in 2018 but a reportedly hefty buyout appeared to be a contributing factor in his return. Helton did lead the Trojans to a Rose Bowl win and another New Year’s Six bowl game during his tenure but  faces a ton of pressure to return the program to prominence immediately in 2019. This is a demanding job to be sure but Helton hasn’t met expectations recently and knows what is on the line this season as a result.

The new guy

Mel Tucker (Colorado)

Lukewarm 

Kevin Sumlin (Arizona)

Sumlin’s debut with the Wildcats couldn’t have gone much worse, with expectations of contending in the Pac-12 South and Khalil Tate making a run for the Heisman all but over by the end of September. The school won’t hit eject on his tenure this early but 2019 could be narrative-defining for Sumlin in Tucson.

Herm Edwards (Arizona State)

Edwards was a bizarre hire at the time and remains so today even if he’s made the Sun Devils fascinating to follow with a fun quote seemingly every day. He was brought in to improve on what Todd Graham accomplished though and 7-6 (5-4) isn’t exactly doing that in a weak division. It’s shaping up to be a big Year 2 in Tempe that could shape the direction of the rest of Edwards’ tenure.

Solid ground

Jonathan Smith (Oregon State)

Smith is a beloved alum and the OSU brass/fan base know how difficult a rebuilding job this is. Still, the early returns weren’t the greatest with a truly awful defense making blowouts all too common. Progress will need to be made going forward or the pressure will be ratcheted up quickly in Corvallis.

Safe and secure

Mike Leach (Washington State)

The pirate has won at least eight games at his Pullman outpost four straight years, highlighted by last season’s terrific 11-2 campaign. He’s given the Cougars everything they can ask for even if he’s come up a bit short against the in-state rivals. Either way, Wazzu right now is more likely to lose Leach to another program than it is to fire him for something that happens on the field.

Justin Wilcox (Cal)

While his hire was questioned at first, Wilcox quickly won over Bears fans with his transformation of the once-woeful defense into one of the best units in the conference. That culminated in a  postseason berth last year, a good sign of progress in Berkeley despite a hefty bunch of interceptions in the Cheez-It Bowl.

Mario Cristobal (Oregon)

Which coach might have the happiest fan base after this offseason? It might be Cristobal after winning a bowl game for his ninth win in 2018 and following that up with an elite recruiting class. Expectations are the Ducks will be in thick of the Pac-12 race as a result and has some feeling a return to normalcy in Eugene after a few tumultuous years in the dark.

Chip Kelly (UCLA)

While some predicted Kelly would have the Bruins contending right away, nothing could have been further from the truth in Westwood during Year 1. While the losses did pile up, the team showed progress as the season went on and there’s still plenty of hope from the powder blues that their big name head coach is the one to finally get the program back on a championship track.

Frozen solid 

Kyle Whittingham (Utah)

Whittingham finally broke through with a division title in 2018 and is remarkably the third-longest tenured active coach in college football right now. Consistency is his calling card and it would be surprising when the time comes for Whittingham to not be on the sidelines for the Utes.

Chris Petersen (Washington)

Petersen has been as advertised since arriving from Boise State, taking a few early lumps before winning two Pac-12 titles and 32 total games the past three years. The Huskies will be favored to be back in Santa Clara once again in early December and it speaks to the program Petersen has built in Seattle that they’ll be Playoff contenders too despite losing a lot of production this offseason.

David Shaw (Stanford)

While NFL teams have inquired and he’s a name that comes up from time-to-time in the coaching carousel, it very much appears that nobody is going to pry Shaw from his alma mater. He’s continued to elevate the program to the point where the nine wins he’s posted in back-to-back years are considered disappointing on The Farm. That speaks to the job he’s done and his status on campus.