USC Trojans Set For Playoff Push
NCAA Week 11 - With multiple contenders jockeying over the final weeks of the regular season for a berth in their conference's championship game, the Pac-12 conference race has been among the most compelling in the nation. Six teams from the conference appeared in the latest College Football Playoff selection committee rankings released on Tuesday night, five programs are still in contention for the conference crown, and none have clinched a spot in that title game yet. In fact, a five-way tie at the top of the conference standings at the end of the year is still very much in play.
Even not-particularly-likely scenarios are on the table. Last weekend in the Pac-12 featured thrilling victories by 12-point underdog Washington over Oregon and 20-point underdog Arizona over UCLA. The losses by the Ducks and Bruins took almost all of the wind out of the sails in the conference's quest for a playoff spot, one that has eluded the Pac-12 for each of the last five seasons. Now, only the USC Trojans (9-1, CFP No. 7) can still play their way into the field. USC could still be on the outside looking in even if they win out over the next three weekends, but they do have late-season opportunities to make a big impression on the committee. Big wins in big moments have the potential to surge the Trojans ahead of every other team they'll be judged against for a bid. Is USC up for the challenge?
The FEI ratings, admittedly, took half a season to catch on to USC's potential. As I wrote about back in August, significant offseason staff and player turnover in the program was an input missing from my projected FEI ratings. As a result, the difference between my projected mean wins for the Trojans and the Vegas oddsmaker's projected win total was greater than for any other team. Starting out at No. 57 overall in my projections, USC had only a 1.1% likelihood of winning at least 10 games to finish on the right side of the betting line. Heading into the final two games of the season, teams like the Trojans that have already played 10 FBS opponents no longer have any preseason projection weight in the FEI ratings, and USC now has a 90.4% likelihood of getting to 10 regular season wins. I suspected that USC might turn out to be FEI's biggest preseason blind spot, one of the few instances of my hunches outperforming my numbers.
USC's preseason projected albatross for the year was its defense, ranked 88th nationally to start the year. I would have thought that in order to have a very successful year, the Trojans would have had to improve significantly on that side of the ball. Instead, USC ranks 94th in opponent-adjusted defense as of Week 11, slightly worse than originally projected. Their defensive efficiency numbers are poor—87th in points allowed per drive, 92nd in available yards percentage surrendered, 106th in opponent yards per play. They have been buoyed with the good fortune of turning over opponents at a high rate, with 19% of opponent non-garbage drives ending in a fumble or interception. But turnovers are generally unreliable as a predictor of future success. A hot start for USC in that category—plus-14 in turnover margin over the first four games of the season—has regressed over the last six games into a negligible advantage.
Where the Trojans have really made their mark is with an offense that is among the nation's most efficient and explosive, spurred by head coach Lincoln Riley's masterful schemes and quarterback Caleb Williams' special talents. USC ranks fourth nationally in offensive yards per play (7.2) and is actually more reliable than the teams ranked ahead of them in finding drive success in both big chunks and on methodical drives. All told, 71% of USC drives average at least 4 yards per play, a few ticks ahead of Ohio State (No. 1 in overall offensive yards per play), a measure of a team's ability to regularly move the chains. And 49% of USC drives average at least 7 yards per play, outpacing Oregon (No. 2 in yards per play) and UCLA (No. 3), a measure of a team's ability to produce big plays. That versatility to function successfully with big- and small-play potential may position them as more prepared than most for the variety of opponent defenses they'll face in the remainder of the regular season and into the postseason.
USC's next two opponents, UCLA and Notre Dame, will be completely different challenges for the Trojans' offense. Though they have similar overall efficiency ratings, the Bruins are powered by their offense (OFEI No. 6, DFEI No. 78) and the Fighting Irish are powered by their defense (DFEI No. 26, OFEI No. 47). It's possible neither team will be able to slow down USC if it gets rolling. But it's also possible the Trojans will need to max out every drive and score 50 or more points this weekend to beat UCLA, and then slog out a victory with 28 or fewer points the following week against Notre Dame.
If USC wins on Saturday and clinches a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance, their likely title game opponent two weeks later would either be Oregon or Utah, another pair of teams that present unique offensive and defensive strengths. And should the Trojans make the playoff field, without some luck and turnovers, their offensive versatility won't likely be enough to take down a playoff juggernaut such as Georgia if they make it all the way to the big dance. But offensive versatility and big stages to showcase their offensive firepower in the next few games might be plenty to get them on the dance floor.
2022 FEI Ratings (through Week 11)
Fremeau Efficiency Index ratings (FEI) are opponent-adjusted possession efficiency data representing the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) are opponent-adjusted drive efficiency data representing the per-drive scoring advantage a team unit would be expected to have against an average opponent unit. Net drive efficiency (NDE) is the sum of offensive drive efficiency and defensive drive efficiency data representing scoring value earned by offense and defense units per drive. Strength of schedule ratings represent the expected number of losses an elite team two standard deviations better than average would have against each team's schedule to date (ELS), the expected number of losses a good team one standard deviation above average would have against the schedule to date (GLS), and the expected number of losses an average team would have against the schedule to date (ALS). Ratings for all 131 teams are found here, and expanded ratings including projected win totals are found here.