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USC teasing scary combo of elite talent and maximum tempo

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Most college football teams with top-10 talent choose to shorten the game. The Trojans' offense showed Saturday it intends to prolong defensive suffering.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Upsets happen in March Madness all the time, but not in the NBA Playoffs. The difference is simple. College hoops mid-majors only have to beat top seeds once, while the NBA's lesser postseason teams have to beat better teams four times. Over a longer timeline, better talent wins.

In college football, the team with better size and speed has a greater chance of winning a play than the smaller and slower team does. The underdogs will steal plenty of snaps, but more will tend to go to the big guys. So why would a power program allow for a margin of error by limiting a game's total plays? Why not give its superior talent and depth as many chances as possible to win out?

speed plus top talent equals absolute terror for defenses.

The football bluebloods view things like hurry-up offenses as risks. And once you're a blueblood, you don't take risks. Usually, it works out fine -- four of the last five national titles have been won by plodding pro-styles. But as Gus Malzahn showed at Auburn in 2010 and 2013, speed plus top talent equals absolute terror for defenses.

The new USC under Steve Sarkisian is testing both that entrenched wisdom and the Trojans' tradition of stately, NFL-style offense. Saturday against Fresno State, USC ran 105 offensive snaps, ranking behind only a MAC team nationally. That's 29 more plays than the sluggish 2013 USC offense ran against Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. The results of the improved and fast-forwarded offense (and a coaching staff that's finally stable) are obvious: 52 points to last year's 45, 701 yards to 499, 37 first downs to 24. USC has more talent than Fresno State, and going full-speed made that crystal clear.

Talent matters more than anything else, and recruiting data is still our best way of tracking it. Here are the teams that have ranked in the top 10 in 247 Sports' Composite recruiting rankings over the last four years. Comparing the 2013 Pace rankings by SB Nation's Bill Connelly with the meager tempo data we have so far for 2014, it's apparent we might see one of the country's most talented teams go from one of its slowest to one of its fastest.

Four-year recruiting, 2011-2014 2013 Pace ranking 2014 offensive plays ranking
1 Alabama 120 27
2 Ohio State 53 116
3 Florida State 99 68
4 Florida 101 :-/
5 LSU 104 81
6 Georgia 62 86
7 USC 107 2
8 Auburn 35 70
9 Texas 16 50
10 Notre Dame 106 97

There's a caveat about those Week 1 numbers, but it might further the point. Several of those top-10 teams played against ball-control teams in Week 1, including Arkansas and Navy (and Florida didn't play anybody), while the Trojans played against a fellow up-tempo team, meaning the game had more total snaps available. So of course USC ran more offensive snaps.

But USC is also more likely to play against no-huddle teams than those other elite teams are, with Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Oregon, and Washington State in the Pac-12. While Auburn is blazing fast (agree to disagree a little with its 2013 Pace ranking) most of its opponents hoard the ball, limiting the Tigers' possessions. While the Big 12 is perhaps the fastest conference, Texas will run a conservative offense under Charlie Strong after opening up in Mack Brown's last season. And while Oregon has long been the definitive warp-speed program, the Ducks have never topped USC in the recruiting rankings and probably never will.

USC looks to be the country's best combo of (1.) elite talent, (2.) pace on offense, and (3.) frequent chances to deploy it.

It's not going to totally come together this year, and plenty of concerns remain. This is USC's first year in a new system, dropback quarterback Cody Kessler is being asked to become a dual-threat, Sarkisian never won big at Washington, and depth will be an even bigger concern for the probation-scathed Trojans than it would be for other up-tempo teams.

But if this thing gets cranking at both full strength and full speed, we might have ourselves a trend.