USFL Week 5 Preview: Breakers and Generals Battle for No. 2
USFL - Week 5 in the USFL sees the return of inter-divisional games. The next three weeks will see all remaining North-South matchups played before the league closes out their schedule with three more weeks of divisional faceoffs. That means over the next month, we'll see what has become fairly obvious to this point: the power in the USFL is in the South.
In Week 1, South teams went 4-0 over their Northern counterparts, outscoring them by a combined 85-56 margin, and that was with the two best teams in the North (the Generals and the healthy Stars) matched up against the two best teams in the South (the Stallions and Breakers). When those comparatively loaded Southern teams get to tee off against the Maulers, look out.
The question I'm most interested in is just how many wins the North will be able to pull out in the next three weeks; just how imbalanced is the USFL, really? One game of connectivity between the two divisions is better than nothing, but in three weeks' time, everyone will have played everyone once—the fairest a schedule could possibly be. It seems clear that the South is better, but we're really just basing that on one week's worth of games held after three weeks of preseason. The South leads with an average EVOA of 9.8% compared to the North's -9.8%, but that's only because of those Week 1 matchups; just because the South played 20% better than the North one week doesn't necessarily mean the division is truly that much better.
I would be surprised if any North teams managed to knock off the Stallions or Breakers, who pass both the statistical and eye tests to this point in the season. I'd also be surprised if the Maulers beat anyone, and that includes any random group of 11 people pulled out of the stands. But the Generals still get to play the bottom half of the South, and you'd have to favor them over both the Gamblers and Bandits at this point in time. Despite being 2-2, Todd Haley's Bandits might struggle against the middle class of the North, too, with both the Stars and Panthers matching up well against them on paper. That would get the North up to four wins … out of, uh, 16 matchups.
If the North does end up 4-12 in inter-divisional play, then the real USFL championship seems like it will be the inevitable Breakers-Stallions rematch in the South divisional playoff game at the end of June. But, as they say, that is why they play the games.
Final (?) Ratings Update
We have been keeping an eye on how many people have been keeping an eye on the league through the first month, and I think we can fairly safely say by now that the league's audience has mostly leveled off. Both the FOX and NBC games last week topped 1 million viewers, though neither hit 1.2 million. The league has had eight games on broadcast TV so far; four of them have seen between 1 million and 1.2 million people tune in. The exceptions have been the two Week 1 games which drew in the curious casual fan; the 34-3 Breakers over Bandits blowout from Week 2 that was always going to struggle to keep viewers; and the Week 3 Bandits-Gamblers game which took place during the third day of the NFL Draft.
It's frankly quite impressive that the USFL managed to shed all of its casual viewers after one week, but has maintained essentially all of its more hardcore audience despite bouncing all around the schedule. That is very different from the experience of the other spring leagues we have seen in the past, all of which kept more of their initial audience for a while but slowly hemorrhaged fans as the year went along. So long as the USFL stays in the 1 million-to-1.2 million-viewer range, there's no real reason to report on that every week; that's where the USFL sits, it's competitive with regular season baseball and the like, and the network execs are happy with it. Good! If the league is meeting expectations, that vastly increases the odds that it'll back next year, and we'll get an XFL-USFL spring football showdown. And so we'll let the ratings-watch slip away unless something particularly interesting happens.
Just, uh, stop scheduling games super-late, guys. The 10 p.m. Friday game, scheduled as a late-night special due to NASCAR truck racing, drew just 210,000 viewers on FS1. Even for FS1, that's bad. People will tune in to your games; they just won't go well out of their way to do it.
Panthers (1-3) v. Bandits (2-2)
Line: Bandits -2.5
Friday, 8 p.m., USA
The epic battle to figure out which third-place team is the best third-place team!
When the USFL was planning out its first season, it likely figured this was going to be one of the highlight matchups. Jeff Fisher versus Todd Haley, the two biggest names in the league, going head-to-head. It kind of shows you how each team's season has actually gone that this is the one and only game not on network TV this week. That doesn't mean the league thinks it's the worst game, mind you, and maybe they're hoping that relatively big-name coaches will draw fans to cable on a Friday night. But you could easily imagine the network execs penciling this in to a prime Saturday slot before the season began. Coaches draw headlines up until the moment games start being played; then it becomes all about the win-loss records.
The Bandits' two wins have come against the North's last-place Maulers and the South's last-place Gamblers; they have been fairly readily handled by both of the good teams in the South. That makes them particularly hard to actually rank, and they have looked more bad against the good teams than they have looked good against the bad teams, if you see what we're saying. Against the Breakers and Stallions, they have struggled to produce any consistent offense, averaging 3.3 yards per play against those quality opponents. Last week, in range of an upset of Stallions, the Bandits' second-half drives were four three-and-outs, one four-and-out, and an eight-play drive that ended in a missed field goal. They simply are getting beaten off of the line of scrimmage week-in and week-out. You have got to move the football to have a chance to win games, and that's why SRS and EVOA have the Bandits so lowly rated despite being .500—they bog down and get in their own way far too often.
The Panthers know a thing or two about missed field goals—a doinked 21-yarder is the reason they're not .500 right now, as immutable Jeff Fisher law demands. Reggie Corbin has been unstoppable the last two weeks, with back-to-back 130-plus-yard rushing days. He's averaging 7.5 yards per carry, by far the best in the league—the next-best qualified player is Birmingham's Tony Brooks-James at 5.3. It seems like that is the kind of guy you would want to give goal-line touches at the end of a game, but then I'm not successful NFL Coach Jeff Fisher, so what do I know? Corbin got a late start—missing one game and buried on the depth chart in a second—but he's running down Jordan Ellis and Mark Thompson for the league rushing title. This is spring football; teams are lucky if they do one thing well. Fisher needs to keep pounding Corbin until someone, somewhere, proves they can actually tackle him on first contact. That should be enough, this week, to get the Panthers closer to .500, and on pace for the 4-6 bullsh*t that should be the platonic ideal for a Fisher team in a 10-game schedule. Panthers 20, Bandits 17.
Breakers (3-1) v. Generals (3-1)
Line: Breakers -3
Saturday, 3 p.m., FOX
The Generals gave the Stallions all they could handle in the league opener, coming up just short at the end of the game. They get a chance now to test themselves against the other top team in the league, and show that yes, the North does in fact stand a chance in USFL Bowl I. This is, by a significant margin, the game of the week; two of the consensus three best teams in the league matching up in the sole Saturday game on the schedule. Both teams are in the top three in total offense, passing yards, rushing yards, points allowed, and total points allowed—they're on the level of quality you want to see from spring football.
The Generals' two-quarterback platoon has been the most intriguing strategic story in the league through the first four weeks, and we're beginning to get a large enough sample size that we can start making some actual judgments on it. The Generals are flipping between De'Andre Johnson and Luis Perez, with Johnson running a rushing- and option-based attack while Perez has the live arm and runs a more standard passing game. It's working overall, which is why they're 3-1, but the offense feels more dynamic whenever Johnson is on the field. Some of that is being put in better situations—Perez is the one who has to come in on third-and-a-mile, and that's going to make things more difficult for any passer—but Johnson's mobility gives the Generals a dimension they just don't have with Perez under center. The Generals are at their best with Johnson and Darius Victor are in the backfield together, with KaVontae Turpin playing the USFL's Deebo Samuel-esque role (14 catches, 11 carries on the season). Perez is good, and would be the top quarterback for about half the league at this point, but the Generals have been more effective and, frankly, more interesting when they have Johnson under center.
Then again, maybe running against the Breakers isn't such a good idea. Last week, the Breakers faced the Gamblers and running back Mark Thompson, the league leader in rushing yards coming into the game. He got nothing. The Breakers limited the Gamblers to just 28 rushing yards on 20 attempts, which is bad even at the USFL level. Not that passing looks that much more attractive, especially with Devin Bellamy returning for this matchup; expect either Perez or Johnson to be in serious trouble in the backfield from what has been a relentless front seven through four weeks.
Kyle Sloter threw three interceptions last week, which explains why the Breakers needed a last-second touchdown despite racking up 523 yards of offense. They're not all Sloter's fault, mind you—one was tipped at the line and another saw his receiver fall down. Those kinds of things do happen more at this level than they would in the NFL, but Breakers fans should be more pleased about Sloter's willingness to throw downfield than they should be concerned about his turnover rate. Sloter-to-Jonathan Allen may be the league's best passing combination at the moment, and they're going to give the Generals' secondary all they can handle and then some. The running game has stabilized, too, after some early warbles when T.J. Logan went down. The Breakers may well be trending up, which is a frightening prospect considering what we have seen them be capable of up until this point.
The Generals have swapped out their kicker, replacing Nick Rose (3-for-10 on field goals) for Alabama's Austin Jones. That may well help if this game comes down to the wire, but the Breakers just don't seem like a good matchup for what the Generals do well. The Generals will do everything they can to control the ball and the clock, but unless the Breakers shoot themselves in the foot again, the better team should come out on top here. Breakers 20, Generals 13.
Stallions (4-0) v. Stars (2-2)
Line: Stallions -6.5
Sunday, 12 p.m., NBC
Let Case Cook? Case Cookus is the replacement for the injured Bryan Scott, and he has played decently, all things considered. He went 22-for-30 for 190 yards and a pair of scores—a lot of dinking and dunking in those stats, but both touchdowns came on deeper shots, so there are at least different gears to the Cookus Stars offense. At the moment, a healthy Scott would still be the better option, but Scott has been in Bart Andrus' offense for years at this point, while Cookus is still new to it. Maybe with more practice time and experience, Cookus can open things up a little more. That's going to be a requirement for the Stars to compete in the North as they still struggle to run the ball, or stop pass-rushers, or slow running games down.
They have gotten better against the pass in recent weeks, getting up to eight sacks and just 153 yards passing allowed per game. Some of that is the fact that teams can run all over them and that there's little need to risk passing against the Stars, but the secondary has kept Shea Patterson and Josh Love in check, which is better than nothing. If Channing Stribling and company can keep teams from picking up significant yards in the air, well, that would be a second thing the Stars can do well.
It probably won't matter against the Stallions. Even with starting quarterback J'Mar Smith out due to illness, the Stallions were able to control the game defensively and come out with a win against the Bandits. That's two weeks in a row now that the Stallions' defense has risen to the occasion, which did not seem like it was going to be a thing at all in the shootouts Birmingham played in the first two weeks. They now lead the league with 12 sacks, which has been critical during the offensive slowdown of the past couple weeks.
Did we mention the Stars are last place in the league with 13 sacks allowed? Yeah. This one could get ugly.
The Stallions aren't just resting on their laurels, either—they're making some personnel moves as they continue to try to get better. They brought in running back Bo Scarbrough, who appears to have chosen the USFL over the CFL's Toronto Argonauts. While Scarbrough didn't do much in his NFL career, he's a nice bowling-ball type who should be able to run over USFL-caliber defenses. This may be a Derrick Henry men-among-boys situation—which is terrible news for the rest of the league! We'll also be watching to see if Alex McGough retains the starting job now that Smith is cleared from his illness; McGough was the Week 1 starter before he got hurt, but Smith was Wally Pipping him. McGough versus Smith may be a more competitive matchup than Stallions versus Stars. Stallions 23, Stars 15.
Maulers (0-4) v. Gamblers (1-3)
Line: Gamblers -6
Sunday, 4 p.m., FOX
The Gamblers are, by our numbers, the best 1-3 team in the USFL. They certainly would have ranked highly in Mike Tanier's fun index, as basically every play in a Gamblers game is a big play for somebody. A commenter last week compared them to a poor man's version of the 2021 Cowboys defense, which is great. Imagine a secondary consisting solely of Trevon Diggs, and you'll get an idea of how passing against the Gamblers works. Chris Odom leads the league in sacks and pressures and all kinds of good things like that, and yet the Gamblers are tied for most points allowed in the USFL this season. Go big or go home, apparently, although the Gamblers opt for "go home" more often than one would hope. If they could calm down and be a little more consistent from down to down, they'd be right in the mix … if they played in the North, as the Stallions and Breakers are just too far ahead of them. But they'd be at least competitive!
The Maulers are, by our numbers, the best 0-4 team in the USFL. They're also the worst 0-4 team in the USFL. They're the last winless team, and there really are very few signs of things getting better any time soon. The defense is comparatively alright, by which I mean they're allowing the second-most points in the league but occasionally have solid performances from guys such as linebacker E.J. Eliya. They play defense like a poor USFL team. That's a problem when the offense plays like a poor high school team. At some point, the Maulers will do something on offense worth celebrating, and we promise you we'll let you know when that happens. Until then … Gamblers 26, Maulers 10.