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2011 Season Preview: Invisible Teams And The USC Trojans

If USC is the precedent, then Miami may be in for some huge sanctions. The Trojans enter Year Two of their penalties with nothing to play for, a lot of improving to do, and a boatload of blue-chippers trying to fulfill their potential.

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NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

Throughout this 2011 Season Preview series, the timing of some of the profiles, scheduled months in advance, has been rather prescient. South Carolina's quarterbacks coach gets arrested on the day the Gamecocks' profile runs. The NCAA serves North Carolina a notice of allegations, and UNC's profile is on deck. Boise State fires their athletic director, and poof ... it's Boise day.

It was a bit jarring and disappointing, then, that Miami wasn't on deck when the incredible Yahoo! News takedown of The U came down the pike on Tuesday afternoon. Alas, my Miami Hurricanes profile ran early last month. But today we have the next best thing: the last team to get semi-crushed by some serious NCAA punishments.

I always find it morbidly funny when somebody gets consecutive life sentences and ends up being "sentenced' to something like 394 years in prison. Just call it a life sentence and be done with it. Well, if USC's punishment is a precedent (granted, we know from past experience that the NCAA is not nearly as based around precedent as fans would probably like), then Miami can expect something in the neighborhood of a 72-year postseason ban, the loss of 10,800 scholarships, vacation of every win from this one to this one, the disassociation of every Miami football player of the 2000s from Miami athletics, forfeiture of every basketball win of the past three seasons, 144 years of probation, and the return of the coveted 2006 MPC Computers Bowl trophy. Or, to put it another way, a life sentence. I don't know if Miami is in line to receive the death penalty or not -- honestly, it might be cleaner that way -- but I am betting that USC fans are awfully interested in the degree of the punishment.

USC was handed a significant, slow-death punishment -- a two-year postseason ban and a reduction of 30 scholarships -- for benefits allegedly given to Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo. Entering Year Two, they are ineligible for the first Pac-12 South crown; the marquee program of the 2000s has been rendered invisible, or at least, as invisible as you can be while situated that close to TMZ headquarters. Sure, they are probably the best team in the Pac-12 South, but they aren't even in the race. Sure, they have a more experienced defense and interesting skill position talent, but in an era where bowl bids are handed out like they're jobs at Dave Kovic's employment agency, USC won't be playing after November 26. Sure, the Trojans are still pretty decent now, but what happens in three years when the scholarship limits have taken their toll? It is an odd, empty place to be. But the games go on in the L.A. Coliseum, anonymity or no anonymity.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk**: 27
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep at Hawaii 49-36 W 57.6 - 27.9 W
11-Sep Virginia 17-14 W 16.5 - 27.8 L
18-Sep at Minnesota 32-21 W 26.4 - 24.4 W
25-Sep at Washington State 50-16 W 37.4 - 27.4 W
2-Oct Washington 31-32 L 47.0 - 38.8 W
9-Oct at Stanford 35-37 L 43.7 - 32.5 W
16-Oct California 48-14 W 51.2 - 24.0 W
30-Oct Oregon 32-53 L 30.6 - 31.1 L
6-Nov Arizona State 34-33 W 33.1 - 31.2 W
13-Nov at Arizona 24-21 W 32.2 - 26.3 W
20-Nov at Oregon State 7-36 L 10.5 - 30.0 L
27-Nov Notre Dame 16-20 L 17.9 - 25.4 L
4-Dec at UCLA 28-14 W 27.3 - 30.0 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 31.0 37 26.7 63
Adj. Points Per Game 33.2 22 29.0 71


As a Tampa Bay Bucs fan, I am a Monte Kiffin acolyte. (At least, I was until I got to know his son.) His two-deep is one of the most simple, gorgeous, successful defenses in recent history, and I love watching it click. It did not click much in his first season as USC defensive coordinator, however. A Trojan defense that ranked second in Def. F/+ in 2007 and 2008, fell to 37th in 2009, then to 47th in 2010. It was even worse in terms of game-to-game Adj. Points, though the Trojans were spectacularly consistent in their mediocrity.

In all, USC was an 8-5 team that played like an 8-5 team; but they could have been a little more had the offense not hit a brick wall.

First seven games: USC 40.0 Adj. PPG, Opponents 29.0 (+11.0)
Last six games: USC 25.3 Adj. PPG, Opponents 29.0 (-3.7)

Quarterback Matt Barkley got hurt against Oregon State and missed the Notre Dame game; you can see how well his replacement Mitch Mustain did in the chart above. But even removing those two awful performances, the Trojans still pretty clearly fell from an elite offense to one that was just slightly above average. Considering that the scholarship limitations had not yet taken effect, and considering the heft of alleged stars from recent recruiting classes, "slightly above average" is not particularly acceptable, on offense or defense.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 26 17 31
RUSHING 18 8 28 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 37 32 41 4
Standard Downs 15 18 18 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 48 30 60 22
Redzone 39 62 33
Q1 Rk 10 1st Down Rk 21
Q2 Rk 18 2nd Down Rk 21
Q3 Rk 38 3rd Down Rk 46
Q4 Rk 55


How many former blue-chippers does it take to create a blue-chip receiving corps? Of the 17 USC signees who received either a five- or a high four-star rating from in the 2008-10 classes, six were either receivers or tight ends. Five-star freshman Robert Woods had a lovely 65 catches last year (792 yards, 12.2 per catch, 62% catch rate, 6 TD); the other five blue-chippers combined for just 10 catches in a passing game that barely squeezed out a Top 40 rating. This lackluster production came despite two five star linemen protecting five-star quarterback Matt Barkley (2,791 yards, 7.4 per pass, 63% completion rate, 26 TD, 12 INT). The offense somehow lacked in big-play ability and creativity, and with the (alleged) talent on hand, there is little excuse for that.

The solution? Let's add some more five-star freshmen to the mix! Marqise Lee has looked good in practice thus far, outshining fellow blue-chipper George Farmer; he'll join Brandon Carswell (205 yards, 12.8 per catch, 73% catch rate, 1 TD), tight end Rhett Ellison (239 yards, 11.4 per catch, 74% catch rate, 3 TD) and unproven youngsters like Brice Butler (nine catches) and Kyle Prater in attempting to replace the production of possession receiver Ronald Johnson (692 yards, 10.8 per catch, 58% catch rate, 8 TD) and David Ausbery (252 yards, 12.6 per catch, 54% catch rate, 4 TD). Five-star redshirt freshman Markeith Ambles is academically ineligible.

At running back, an efficient if non-explosive unit loses its steadiest weapon -- Allen Bradford (794 yards, 7.2 per carry, +1.7 Adj. POE, 5 TD) -- and an incredibly underrated receiving threat in seventeen-year starting fullback Stanley Havili (166 rushing yards, 396 receiving yards). With Marc Tyler (913 yards, 5.3 per carry, -0.8 Adj. POE, 9 TD) suspended due to TMZ ridiculousness (only in L.A...), all eyes go to sophomore Dillon Baxter (252 yards, 4.3 per carry, -8.0 Adj. POE, 1 TD) and a couple of other youngsters, D.J. Morgan and Curtis McNeal. Baxter turned heads with some ridiculous practice performances a year ago, but as is usually the case with freshmen, he struggled to get up to speed when the lights came up. (He also had some iffy dealings of his own.) Things could click for him at any moment, but obviously it's no guarantee. The likely result of this is obvious: more pressure on Barkley's shoulders, and more of a pass-first offense than was the case a year ago.

Other tidbits:

  • The USC line was perhaps a bit underrated in 2011. Adj. Line Yardage assigned quite a bit of credit for the efficient running game to the line, and Matt Barkley was protected relatively well. Unfortunately, two three-year starters (center Kris O'Dowd, guard Butch Lewis) are gone, as is tackle (and first-round draft pick) Tyron Smith. The experience level is still decent -- Matt Kalil and Khaled Holmes have combined for 27 career starts -- and lord knows the talent (in terms of recruiting stars) is still there, but that is a lot of talent and experience to replace.
  • USC's offense seemed committed to odd things in 2010. They leaned toward a pass-first approach, and they went all-in on the pass in the red zone despite an efficient run game. The result: extremely inefficient red zone performance. Offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu generated a nice product as running backs coach, but evidently Lane Kiffin struggled to trust that product while calling the plays.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 46 55 42
RUSHING 49 71 45 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 45 55 43 65
Standard Downs 49 74 43 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 61 56 63 50
Redzone 77 79 74
Q1 Rk 36 1st Down Rk 69
Q2 Rk 81 2nd Down Rk 29
Q3 Rk 12 3rd Down Rk 77
Q4 Rk 103


To go along with some odd consistency in terms of game-to-game performance, USC's defense also put up strangely similar numbers across the board on defense, ranking between 45th and 49th in Overall, Rushing, Passing and Standard Downs S&P+. The Trojans were decent at almost everything and good at almost nothing and, strangely enough (despite the talent that often carries teams late in games), they wore down terribly as halves progressed. Some good, old-fashioned conditioning may have been what was in order for a team that ranked 12th in Q3 S&P+ and 103 in Q4 S&P+. The longer you could stay close to USC in 2010, the more likely it was that the game would possibly turn in your favor late.

To the extent that this may have been a problem of depth instead of conditioning, things might begin to look up in 2011. Despite the cloud of scholarship restrictions coming at the Trojans, they have still reeled in a lot of big-time recruits in the last two classes, and not all of them have been receivers. If a few are ready for an early impact, depth should be a strength. Joining end-turned-tackle Armond Armstead (32.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks) and DaJohn Harris (23.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks) up front are recent blue-chip tackles like George Uko and freshmen Christian Heyward and Antwaun Woods. They could nicely supplement the work of ends Wes Horton (23.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks) and Nick Perry (20.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks) and tackle-turned-linebacker-turned-rush-end Devon Kennard (50.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks), Shane Horton (25.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks), who is evidently attempting to pull a Jose Oquendo and play every position in the starting 11.

Of course, "depth" is sometimes a word we use for "no difference-makers." Without tackle Jurrell Casey (48.0 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU), there is no sure-fire all-star on the line, and the above line stats reaffirm this. You could make the case that safeties and defensive ends -- the John Lynch types and the Simeon Rices -- are the most important positions in a Monte Kiffin defense (of course, if you want to throw in some Warren Sapps and Derrick Brookses, that's good too), and USC has no devastating ends of which to speak. Clearly Horton and Perry have potential, but they are not All-American candidates at this time.

Other tidbits:

  • It stands to reason that a defense that produced oddly consistent results would be under the influence of one of the most steady, consistent schemes in football. Monte Kiffin does what he does, whether it is for the Tampa Bay Bucs, Tennessee Volunteers or USC; he wrote the book on the 4-3 Cover-2, and one does not get the impression that he plans on changing anytime soon. Tennessee's personnel -- namely, Eric Berry and Janzen Jackson -- allowed Kiffin to attack however he wanted within the front seven. USC safeties T.J. McDonald (71.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 4 PBU), Jawanza Starling (29.5 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU) and Marshall Jones (29.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU), however, did not seem to offer the same luxury. They all return in 2011, and McDonald in particular has potential, but perhaps the bigger concern is with a set of cornerbacks that was inefficient last year with Shareece Wright (62.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 10 PBU) and now faces life without him.
  • Perhaps the most interesting unit on the defense resides in the middle of the field. Kennard has changed positions, but Shane Horton (25.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks) and Chris Galippo (25.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 FF) have displayed quite a bit of upside, if also a bit of inconsistency. Horton is the best blitzer on the team, and Galippo was perhaps the best ballhawk on a defense that was solid in going after the ball.

USC's 2010 Season Set to Music

"Don't Forget," by Atmosphere
"Don't Forget," by Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Forget Me Nots," by Patrice Rushen
"Forgotten," by Fighting Gravity
"I Forgot To Remember To Forget," by Elvis Presley
"I'll Never Forget You," by Hüsker Dü
"Invisible," by Buddahead
"Invisible," by Modest Mouse
"Invisible Seas," by Panacea
"Soon Forget," by Pearl Jam

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 6
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 2
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +4 / +3.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (6, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -1.1


It is odd previewing a season that means very little. USC should be a solid team that, if eligible for the postseason, would be a strong favorite for the first Pac-12 South crown. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 gives the Trojans a 20% chance of finishing 8-1 or better in conference (Utah: 8%, Arizona State: 7%) and a 59% chance of finishing 9-3 or better overall; but really, USC will just be trying to remain "USC," living life in the shadows, positioning themselves to recover as quickly as possible when sanctions end, and thanking the heavens that Nevin Shapiro lived in Miami and not Los Angeles.

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.


* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.