As most people know, USC has been pegged as the AP's #1 overall team heading into the 2011 season. However, Compu-Picks strongly disagrees with that projection, with USC currently rating not just worse than #1, but in fact well outside the top five.
So what are some of the reasons the system has come to this conclusion? Let's take a look at a couple in greater detail:
Recruiting has long been viewed as a big strength for USC, but their 2012 class was rated by scout as #20, their worst recruiting rank in the history of scout rankings (which started in 2002), worse than every other member of the AP top 10. Was this primarily due to sanctions? Yes. Does that change the fact that this hurts, especially since depth is a concern? No.
As noted by Phil Steele, USC only returned 36 lettermen, giving them the second lowest returning lettermen percent (56.25%), above only Navy. Across 1-A, the average number of returning lettermen is 46.2, and the average percent is 69.1%. That's an enormous difference, and suggests that if the injury bug hits, USC may simply not have the depth available to weather the storm as well as most other programs.
In the last few seasons, USC has been fortunate with respect to injuries, averaging a low 13 starts lost per season from 2009-2011, compared to a 1-A average of 20.2. That's over half a season worth of production from a starter. That may not seem like a huge deal, especially if the injured player isn't a star, but that kind of production gap can be a problem.
And, of course, it's always possible that the injured player does turn out to be a star. As Oklahoma found out in 2009, when that happens, it's easy for things to go badly fast. And while that's true of all teams, USC's relative fortune on this front (the only elite program with better luck has been Texas, while Ohio St and Oklahoma have been over 10 starts per year worse) stands out compared to their competitors at the top of the college football pecking order.
They Don't Always Show Up
Everyone remembers USC's fantastic showings late in the year, winning a great game at Oregon and annihilating UCLA 50-0. These great showings have been key to USC's high preseason ranking for 2012. If they play throughout the season like they did the last half of 2011, they have a great chance at having an incredible year.
The problem, however, is that it doesn't seem likely that they will play at that same high level all season long. Looking at the past five years, there are far too many games where they haven't played well at all, not just in the two-year down period of 2009-2010, but in the other three seasons as well.
In the last five years, USC has:
- Lost four games to teams who finished with losing records: Stanford in 2007; Washington in 2009; Oregon St in 2010; and Arizona St in 2011. Of those losses, the final two were by 29 and 19 points. To losing football teams.
- Nearly lost some more games to losing football teams: Washington (3 points) and Arizona (7 points) in 2007; Arizona St (5 points) in 2009; Virginia (3 points) in 2010 (and they only beat a 6-6 Arizona St team by 1 point); Minnesota (2 points) and Arizona (7 points) in 2011.
- Lost or nearly lost a couple of other games as a substantial favorite: Oregon St (25 point favorite, 6 point loss) in 2008; Oregon St (20.5 point favorite, 6 point win) in 2009.
- Were blown out by 27 and 21 points by Oregon in 2009 and 2010, and by 34 points by Stanford in 2009.
When USC brings their A game, they're a fantastic team and extremely tough to beat. They can even bring their B game and be very strong. But they flat-out failed to show up for at least a couple games four of the last five years (2008 being the exception, where Oregon St was the only example, and even there it's not like USC played terrible).
This is especially a problem for them this year because they just aren't playing many teams bad enough that they can bring their D or F game and walk out with the W. Home games against Hawaii (likely bad team + long distance), Colorado (likely bad team, consistently lousy on the road), and ASU (likely bad team) may qualify, but it's hard to see any others. The next worst teams USC play are probably Syracuse, a cross-country road trip against a team that blew out West Virginia, and Arizona, a team that's played them close four of the last five years, including a win in 2009. Those are stiffer tests than home games against 2010 Virginia or 2011 Minnesota, games which nearly went the other way.
Ultimately, USC does have the potential to avoid injuries and not have to deal with depth issues, to keep their focus and play well every single week and not have to deal with a randomly bad loss, and churn out a national title quality season. But they also have the potential for their season to very much go the other way. And while I'm personally more optimistic about USC in 2012 than Compu-Picks, I disagree with putting them at the #1 spot. Alabama, Oklahoma and Oregon look like stronger teams, and teams like Florida, Florida St, Georgia, LSU and Texas look like they should be rated in the same ballpark as USC.
There are a few important notes and caveats I need to make about this model:
1) Compu-Picks does not endorse implicitly or explicitly any form of illegal gambling. Compu-Picks is intended to be used for entertainment purposes only.
2) No guarantee or warranty is offered or implied by Compu-Picks for any information provided and/or predictions made.
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