USC coach Clay Helton on Nick Saban: 'Maybe the best in our generation'

USC head coach Clay Helton said he's looking forward to the Sept. 3 chess match between his team's defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin: "I wish sometimes I could just have a box of popcorn and watch it." AP Photo/Reed Saxon

LOS ANGELES -- If he wasn’t preparing his team to play Alabama in the season opener, it would be easy to picture USC coach Clay Helton as a fan of the Crimson Tide.

That, of course, isn’t the reality, but at Pac-12 Media Day Helton made it abundantly clear how much he respects the program led by two men he has long known and admired.

“You're talking about one of the greatest head coaches in the history of the game in Coach [Nick] Saban and maybe the best in our generation,” Helton said. “He's just somebody that's been a family friend, coached with my dad at the Houston Oilers. I've had a relationship with [him] and just have the utmost respect.”

And then there’s Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who brought Helton to USC as an assistant coach and later promoted him to offensive coordinator. Helton called Kiffin “one of the most brilliant men he’s ever been associated with,” and said he's looking forward to the looming chess match between Kiffin and new USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who was also a one-time Kiffin coordinator at USC.

“I wish sometimes I could just have a box of popcorn and watch it,” Helton said.

As would be expected at an environment like media day, Helton said he embraces the opportunity USC has to play the defending national champion.

“Why do you come to SC? You come to compete, and you want to compete at the highest level,” he said. “If you don't like that, don't come.”

The main storyline for USC before the game on Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas, remains its quarterback situation, but Helton provided some clarity about what to expect as the competition between redshirt junior Max Browne and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold extends into fall camp.

USC will get through 18 practices before releasing a two-deep depth chart, at which point the team’s starter for the opener against Alabama will be official. That gives the team two weeks with a starter in place to prepare for the Crimson Tide.

Helton maintains Browne had a slight lead over Darnold coming out of spring practice, but the gap was too narrow not to allow the competition to continue.