The University of Southern California football team, like Ohio State, would like to be competing in the College Football Playoff.
For USC coach Clay Helton, however, there might not be a better consolation prize than getting to coach against Urban Meyer and his Buckeyes in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29.
"To have the opportunity to compete against an Ohio State, to have the opportunity to be on the same field as a Coach Meyer, it's one of those things you dream about when you grow up and you're a young football coach," Helton said.
While Meyer, 53, is only eight years older than Helton, 45, Meyer is in his 16th season as a Football Bowl Subdivision head coach, while Helton is in just his second full season as a head coach at any level, having been promoted from his role as USC’s offensive coordinator following the 2015 season. So as Helton has gone through the first two years of his head coaching career, winning 21 of 26 games in the process, he says Meyer is one of the coaches he has tried to emulate.
"One thing that I think I've really taken away from Coach Meyer is how he builds relationships with his players," Helton said. "That's evident when you see him around his guys. And I think that's a big part of college football today. It's something that I've tried to emulate with our players. You can see that that's something he's had a long time, whether he was at Utah, Florida, now Ohio State, he finds ways to capture his players and make them play at the highest level."
Why has Meyer, specifically, been a coach Helton has tried to model his own coaching style after?
"The guy is a legend," Helton said. "As a young coach growing up, I think all of us tried to model ourselves after Coach Meyer. Wherever he's been, he's had success."
“To have the opportunity to be on the same field as a Coach Meyer, it's one of those things you dream about when you grow up and you're a young football coach.”– Clay Helton
Asked how he felt to have another coach refer to him as "a legend," Meyer demurred the praise.
"Just means I've been around for awhile," Meyer said.
That said, Meyer said he holds the less experienced Helton in high regard, too.
"Coach Helton and I actually get to know each other on the Nike trip," Meyer said. "And he has a wonderful wife and seems like a great person. So I look forward to competing against him but also have great respect for him as a coach.
"He wins games and wins conference titles," Meyer added. "I respect people that have a job to do and they do it very well, and that's my opinion of Coach Helton."
Because he coaches on the West Coast, where nine of USC’s 13 games this season did not kick off until 7:30 p.m. ET or later, Helton often has the opportunity to watch other teams play earlier in the day on Saturdays. Because of his respect for Meyer, that often meant turning the TV to whatever channel Ohio State was on.
"Ohio State is one of those teams that you turn on each and every time you get the opportunity," Helton said. "They were a very fun team to watch this year. It was neat to follow them as we went through the season."
Having had the opportunity to watch several Ohio State games this season, even before the Trojans begin their formal film study of the Buckeyes, Helton is impressed by what his team’s upcoming opponent brings to the field.
"You can see how well-coached and how talented they are," Helton said. "What jumps off the page is just how well-balanced they are, both offensively and defensively. You look at not only one of the top 10 offenses in the country, but they also have one of the top 10 defenses. They're just a very well-coached football team across the board."