Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
08 Nov 2013
by Bill Connelly
There's always an outlier, an oddity, a team that, if you're looking for a reason to be skeptical of the F/+ rankings, gives you that reason.
In 2010, Boise State and Alabama both ranked ahead of Auburn in the final F/+ rankings, while 9-5 South Carolina ranked ahead of 10-win (or more) LSU, Nebraska, and Florida State squads.
In 2011, No. 10 Florida State (9-4), No. 13 Notre Dame (8-5), and No. 15 Texas A&M (7-6) all raised eyebrows.
In 2012, No. 12 Oklahoma State (8-5) ranked ahead of South Carolina and Ohio State while 7-6 Michigan State ranked ahead of Nebraska, Boise State, and Clemson.
There's usually an explanation, of course. In 2010, Boise State was indeed incredible, with the No. 1 defense (according to Def. F/+) and the only blemish coming via a pair of special teams blunders in a tight road loss to Colin Kaepernick and No. 27 Nevada. In 2011, FSU, Notre Dame and Texas A&M were terribly unlucky, lost a ton of close games, and perhaps redeemed their rankings a bit by going a combined 35-5 in 2012. Typically, a team that ranks high despite an iffy record is doing so because of some combination of a tough schedule, awful turnovers luck, and some perfectly placed miscues amid other signs of domination.
And then there's USC. The Trojans have already had the "terrible disappointment" affixed to their 2013 yearbook photo, somehow scoring just seven points in a 10-7 home loss to Washington State, then getting their doors blown off at Arizona State and getting head coach Lane Kiffin fired in the bowels of LAX. A road loss to a scuffling Notre Dame squad isn't particularly impressive either. They are 6-3 and receiving fewer poll votes (zero in the AP poll, one in the USA Today poll) than Minnesota, Duke, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Ball State.
How exactly did this happen? There has been no awful turnovers luck of which to speak (the Trojans have actually recovered slightly more than 50 percent of all fumbles this year), and there haven't been enough injuries to brush off that horrific Washington State loss as something particularly unlucky. And the team looked simply feckless on offense against Notre Dame and on defense against Arizona State. What sort of flaws have the Trojans exposed in our system? How have they cracked the code, so to speak?
According to Brian Fremeau's ratings, USC has played the sixth most difficult schedule of offenses so far this year and the 16th most difficult schedule of defenses. They have played at Arizona State (No. 6 in the F/+ rankings, which we will address in a bit), Utah (No. 21 and falling quickly), at Notre Dame (No. 26), Arizona (No. 31), Utah State (No. 35), and at Oregon State (No. 40). There is only one elite team on that list (and that's only if you consider ASU elite, and you probably don't), but only two opponents thus far have ranked worse than 54th, only three worse than 40th. And while California (No. 93) and Colorado (No. 94) remain on the schedule, so do Stanford (No. 3) and UCLA (No 28).
So because the Pac-12 is so highly regarded in our numbers (and Utah State is holding steady despite losing quarterback Chuckie Keeton), USC's strength of schedule is damn impressive -- five top-30 opponents, eight top-40 opponents, and only three ranked lower than 60th. So any time you look at the raw numbers, realize that USC is going to get a pretty impressive opponent adjustment.
First things first: Arizona State absolutely lit USC's defense up. This is undeniable. The Sun Devils gained 612 yards and averaged an absurd 8.7 yards per play. There is no defending this game; it was a debacle for the Trojan defense.
But in the other eight games USC has played, the defense has allowed 287 yards per game and 4.4 yards per play. And again, the schedule hasn't been that forgiving. These averages include games versus the No. 15, 17, 30, and 31 offenses in the country (according to Off. F/+) and only one ranked worse than 63rd.
USC currently ranks third in Def. S&P+ and DFEI; the Trojans are second in Standard Downs S&P+ and 14th on passing downs, eighth in Available Yards, ninth in Value Drives, and 17th in First Down rate. They will allow a big play here and there, but they are among the best defenses in the country at handcuffing you on first down and teeing off on you when given the chance (8.2 percent sack rate), and they're doing this despite switching schemes in the offseason and getting only a partial season out of injured star pass rusher Morgan Breslin. Opponents are completing just 55 percent of their passes at 5.0 yards per attempt, and rushing hasn't really gotten anywhere either (4.8 yards per carry, not including sacks).
At plus-27.0 percent in Def. F/+, the Trojans would rank a solid 11th in the country even if it got a 0.0 percent in both Off. F/+ and Special Teams F/+. USC is a better Virginia Tech at this point, with an offense that is far from great but can stay out of its defense's way reasonably well.
(There are actually a lot of these "all defense, no offense" teams muddying the waters in 2013. Virginia Tech is first in Def. F/+ and 79th in Off. F/+, Michigan State is third and 66th, BYU is sixth and 44th, and poor Florida is eighth and 94th. And while we're at it, only one team ranks in both the offensive and defensive top 10: Florida State. Lots of imbalance is making everything after the top five pretty messy.)
In all, the USC offense is far less successful than a USC offense ever has an excuse for being. There are too many four- and five-star players on this offense to settle for 45th in Off. F/+ (their current ranking), even with a new quarterback and injuries hobbling star receiver Marqise Lee.
That said, 45th isn't awful. Again in part because of a difficult schedule, the offense has acquitted itself just well enough to offset the occasional eggs. USC averaged a horrific 3.1 yards per play against Washington State (70th in Def. F/+) but averaged 8.1 against Arizona State (19th). They averaged 4.3 combined against Utah State (20th) and Utah (28th) but 7.3 against Arizona (24th). The variance here has been absurd, but they tend to play well when you're not looking.
I know! I know.
In the end, USC is getting a solid boost from being one of the only teams with truly elite defenses -- the Trojans rank second at plus-27.0 percent, while No. 7 Florida State is only plus-21.3 percent, and No. 12 Oklahoma State is only at plus-14.8 percent. That skews things a bit.
The bottom line: USC sticks out like a sore thumb at the moment. There's no way around it. Either the Trojans need to win out to vindicate the numbers a bit (and perhaps give Crazy Ed Orgeron, the current interim coach, a chance at retaining the job full time*), or they need to fall apart completely on offense. Honestly, after the last two performances, I think we're more likely to see the former than the latter. This is a good team, one that should be built to stick close to Stanford on November 16. And I guess if the Trojans win that one, F/+ will be vindicated to some degree (just like it was last night when Stanford beat Oregon).
* He has no chance, but let me believe he does. I don't ask for much.
Here's the thing about Arizona State: If you believe the premise that USC is the No. 8 team in the country and Washington is No. 19 -- and you probably don't, but that's the world in which F/+ lives -- then ASU is really easy to explain. ASU basically fought Wisconsin (No. 10) and Notre Dame (No. 26) to a draw, stayed within striking distance of No. 3 Stanford after a poor start, and completely and totally emasculated both USC (62-41) and Washington (53-24). The Sun Devils have played three F/+ top 10 teams and five top-30 teams, losing twice (by a combined 17 points) and winning three times (by a combined 52). In this world F/+ has created (and is still in the process of fleshing out), Arizona State's ranking is justified. And after a few more weeks, we'll see if the real world in some way resembles the F/+ world. They usually match up pretty close.
In all, this is a pretty tepid defense, but of course it is. We'll see in the coming weeks whether USC is the most outlier-y outlier to date for F/+, or if the Trojans can continue to play at a high level, as they undeniably have the last two games.