-- LOS ANGELES -- C'mon, Clay Helton. You know you want to. Here's your chance. Here's your chance to tell all the college football experts to go do something anatomically impossible.
All he does is give a hearty laugh.
"Not my style," Helton said. "Not my style."
Helton is the former soon-to-be-former USC coach. He spent the first month of his first head coaching season hearing why he shouldn't get a second. Now Helton is the middle of his third month, and his No. 13 Trojans are 7-3 with a six-game winning streak as they prepare to finish their Pac-12 schedule at UCLA (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). USC is a half-game behind No. 10 Colorado, and a half-game ahead of Utah, in the Pac-12 South.
The Trojans actually can win the division. If they beat the Bruins (4-6, 2-5), and if No. 22 Washington State wins at Colorado, and the Buffs go on to beat No. 12 Utah next week, then the courtly Helton would have every right to say something that is not his style.
Google "Clay Helton" and you don't have to scroll down very far. The fifth story is, "Clay Helton Must Be Fired and USC Needs to Find a Real Head Coach." The seventh and ninth stories provide five names as possible replacements. Those three stories were published in late September, when USC had a record of 1-3.
The ready-fire-aim section of my business did itself proud. Yeah, the Trojans got humiliated by Alabama in the opener, 52-6. It turned out that USC, in its first game, literally was not ready for the big time. The atmosphere in Cowboys Stadium, not to mention the Crimson Tide themselves, overwhelmed the Trojans.
Yep, they followed with an equally inept offensive performance at Stanford two weeks later in a 27-10 loss. After that game, Helton benched fourth-year junior quarterback Max Browne for redshirt freshman Sam Darnold.
He played well in his first start, at Utah, but the Trojans lost fumbles on their first three offensive possessions, and then gave up a touchdown with :16 to play to lose 31-27. All they had to show for the first month of the season was a victory over Utah State and a rabble that had been roused.
"Gah," Helton said, "that feels like years ago."
His family rallied around him. In the days after the Utah game, his daughter Aubrey, a high school senior, came up to him, gave him a big hug, and said, "Daddy, don't worry about it. It's all going to be good."
Not even Aubrey knew how good. But her daddy had an inkling. As the carping about Helton being overmatched reached a crescendo, he came away from the Utah loss convinced that the Trojans would be fine. He won't tell you six-wins-in-a-row, 13th-ranked, division-contender fine. But fine. This wasn't a team pointing fingers across the locker room.
"There were guys coming up on their own to watch extra film in our meeting rooms and taking it upon themselves to bring their teammates with them," Helton said. "That's what hurt, losing that game, because I saw what each kid was trying to do to help this team win."
Helton seized on that kernel of determination and, as the geniuses speculated on his successor -- four games into his career -- he let his team know that he paid it no mind.
"I kept telling myself, 'Remember, 18- to 21-year-olds look to their leader and look to their coaching staff,'" Helton said. "'How we react, they're going to react. Just stay poised. Don't panic. Stay consistent in what you're doing and what you believe in and live with the results.'"
Six starts later, Darnold is the best first-year quarterback in the FBS. Don't ask me, Jalen Hurts fans. Ask Darnold's QBR (86.8), fifth in the nation. Darnold has been so effective as a passer he has reopened the running lanes for backs Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis.
That is as good a decision as any to probe whether Helton could coach his way out of a paper bag. With 20/20 hindsight, it seems perfectly obvious that Darnold is the better quarterback. But Helton remains steadfast that "the full-speed decision" he made to start Browne in the first three games is one he would make again.
"I had seen a kid, Max Browne, who's a redshirt junior, that had been in college football games, was efficient, had been a team captain, very respected by our team as a leader," Helton said. "And I saw Sam, just this ultra-talented thing, just brilliance. But had never seen him in a ballgame, a real live college game."
Browne didn't make mistakes, but he didn't make magic, either. Darnold proved he could handle major college football. Boy, could he. Should you blame Helton for not getting Darnold ready for the opener? You should, as long as you ignore that the offense had a new coordinator, the defense had a new coordinator, and so did the special teams. That contributed to the slow start as well.
Look at the way the defense has improved over the course of the season: five sacks in the first four games, 14 in the next six. The Trojans have allowed an average of 18 points per game during their six-game winning streak.
USC is coming off a 26-13 victory at No. 4 Washington, a vivid illustration of how far the Trojans have progressed since that loss to Alabama. Here was another fast, talented team. Here was a game in Husky Stadium, one of the most intimidating atmospheres in college football. USC didn't wilt this time.
"As I look back on our entire season, it really culminated in last week," Helton said. "...I just saw unbelievable poise and maturity. It was as electric an atmosphere as you could possibly have. It was as good a scene for college football as you could see, and the moment wasn't too big for them. They really walked in there with a sense of maturity and confidence. Hey, let's just focus on our job. Let's don't care about the stadium. Let's don't care about the noise. Let's don't care about the weather. Let's just get our job done."
They have two rivalry games remaining -- Notre Dame comes west next week -- and Helton said he has seen no heads swelled by the win at Washington. Coach Overmatched could end up with a 10-win season. And a Pac-12 title. The guy that the internet fired seven weeks ago may end up in the Rose Bowl.
Helton's unfailingly polite, unerringly even-keeled, unbelievably unexciting personality ended up being just the right touch for a young team. So, c'mon, Coach. Let it go. Tell the experts off.
"You have to be very strong-willed," Helton said. "You have to have thick skin. And don't get your feelings hurt. Believe in what you're doing. Believe in the things you're doing for kids."
Oh, well. They got off lucky.