GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida's search for a new offensive coordinator took a confusing turn on Saturday night.
Gators fans watched the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl in earnest as Southern Cal defeated Fresno State. They watched as USC piled up 499 yards of offense and scored 45 points. The object of their attention? Interim coach and offensive coordinator Clay Helton.
Helton, 41, fits all of the presumed criteria to be Florida's next offensive coordinator. He's an up-and-coming coach who's had success running both pro-style and up-tempo spread offenses. As a play-caller he helped USC show clear improvement after Lane Kiffin was fired. And Helton was born and raised in Gainesville, Fla., the son of former Gators player and assistant coach Kim Helton.
But there's just one problem. Is he available?
On Sunday morning, new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian told ESPN Radio 710 AM in Los Angeles that Helton would be retained.
"We haven't announced it officially," he said. "I am excited to know he is going to be part of the staff. It hasn't been official, but I think Clay has done just a tremendous job the second half of the season with that offense, with Cody [Kessler] distributing the football to a lot of different players, scoring points, running the football, getting the running backs involved in the passing game.
"And then how he handled the last few weeks being the interim coach in a difficult time where there's a lot of emotion in that team room, in that locker room. I thought Clay just did a masterful job of getting them ready to play and ultimately putting on a great performance yesterday."
Reports in the Los Angeles media were conflicting. The L.A. Times reported Helton would stay, but the L.A. Daily News reported only that Helton was offered the job to be USC's offensive coordinator and could still leave for another position.
Helton declined to comment after the game. But on Sunday morning he also went on ESPN Radio 710 AM and addressed the as-yet-unresolved issue.
"Well, you know how I am. When Coach Sark makes that official announcement I can't wait to comment on it," he said. "But I've always thought it's the honor of the head coach to be able to make those types of announcements, and that's the way I've just handled it my whole career."
If Helton is indeed weighing offers to be USC's or Florida's offensive coordinator, he might find a more stable atmosphere working under Sarkisian in his first year with the Trojans. The Florida job, on the other hand, would likely offer Helton a better chance to take credit for any improvements the offense might show, as Sarkisian is a highly regarded offensive mind who calls his team's plays.
Since firing Brent Pease on Dec. 1, Florida coach Will Muschamp and the Gators have been tight-lipped in their search. But there are some clues.
The UF coaching staff has told offensive recruits across the board that the new coordinator will bring an up-tempo system with some elements of the spread.
Last Monday a source close to the UF program said Muschamp expected to have an offensive coordinator hired within a week. That ramped up speculation that Helton was the top candidate, considering he would be finished with his interim coaching duties at USC after Saturday's bowl game.
Now it looks a lot more likely that the Gators will not have their new man in place as soon as Muschamp had expected.
Other possible candidates have recently fallen off the list as well. Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell was given a raise and a promotion to be ASU's deputy head coach. UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson was hired to be Arkansas State's head coach. Former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen was hired to be Utah's offensive coordinator.
Several remaining possibilities -- Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, Texas co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite and Auburn co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig -- have solid ties to Muschamp.
Roper and Mazzone led SEC offenses while Muschamp was defensive coordinator for LSU and Auburn, respectively. Muschamp worked at UT with Applewhite, while Craig was Auburn's starting quarterback when Muschamp was beginning his coaching career as a graduate assistant before the two reunited in 2004 on Nick Saban's staff at LSU. They moved together in 2005 to Saban's staff with the Miami Dolphins.
With Florida's base of talent and deep pockets, the OC job remains attractive. After all, before Pease, Florida's three previous offensive coordinators -- Dan Mullen, Steve Addazio and Charlie Weis -- left for head coaching jobs.