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USC Football – Fields of Red or Seeing Red

USC’s Pac 12 schedule sets up nicely for 2015. Home games against Stanford, Arizona and UCLA may provide that extra ‘umph’ needed in those nail-biters. Two road games present challenges. At Arizona State is tough, but at Oregon (next to last regular-season game) is even worse.

Here are my projected scores for USC’s upcoming season:

  • Toss-up – Home vs. Stanford – Model Score: 33-33
  • Toss-up @ ASU – Model Score: 34-32 win
  • Win – Home vs. Washington – Model Score: 40 – 26 win
  • Win – Home vs. Utah- Model Score: 37 – 29 win
  • Win – @ Cal -Model Score: 37 – 29 win
  • Win – Home vs. Arizona – Model Score: 37 – 29 win
  • Win – @ Colorado – Model Score: 41 – 25 win
  • Loss – @ Oregon – Model Score: 27 – 39 loss
  • Toss-up – Home vs. UCLA – Model Score: 34 – 32 win

Breaking down USC’s schedule, I predict the following:

  • For Sure Wins (games that SC should win by 2 touchdowns or more):
    Washington and Colorado.
    ** A loss to either one of these teams would be unforgivable if you’re Coach Sark. By definition, these are games you should win. Can turnovers, injuries and/or ‘bad’ nights swing 2 touchdowns? Sure. But the stars really need to align for Washington or Colorado to pull these upsets.
  • Should Wins (games that SC is favored by a single touchdown): Utah, Cal and Arizona. Any of these losses would be problematic for SC. They are a touchdown+ favorite, but an 8-point cushion is still significant. Utah’s defense will keep them in reach. Arizona’s offense will keep them in reach. Cal, playing at home, should stay relatively close.
  • Too Close to Call (games in which SC is statistically tied): Stanford, ASU and UCLA. Breaking these games down each presents a unique challenge.
  • Stanford will be a very good barometer of where USC is at and where they’re headed for 2015. The Cardinal defends. They make tackles and they force your offense to go the length of the field piece by piece. The Big Red defense wins first down more often than anyone else in the Pac-12. This key defensive metric is the critical difference between 2nd and 7 to go vs. 2nd and 8+ to go. Winning that extra yard or two is something Stanford consistently does – just ask Oregon. When Oregon loses to Stanford – and they do – it’s because, defensively, Stanford wins 1st down. How USC stays on schedule: 1st & 10, 2nd & 7 (or less), 3rd & 4 (or less), is critical to this game.  If this game was a road game (see Oregon e.g.) I’d pick Stanford. Because it’s at the Colesium, it’s too close to call. Can SC lose and still win the Pac-12 South? Yes. Win it, though, and SC stays on track for even bigger (national) prizes.
  • ASU is always a tough win to get – especially in Tempe. Especially after Stanford and their physicality, this is a potential hang-over game for SC. Contrasting the Cardinal and the Sun Devils, it’s hard to find two more different teams. Stanford will run at you, double TE’s, smash-mouth football. ASU will throw everything at you, including multiple formations, faster pace, and the kitchen sink. Using my model, this game is too close to call. It’s critical to SC’s Pac-12 South hopes, but it could be their second Pac-12 loss in two games.
  • UCLA – Rivalry games – at the end of the year – are always tough to model. Injuries and a whole season of adjustments are unknowable at this point. Statistically, I have SC winning a close one (34 – 32) but that’s well within the margin. Two things work in SC’s favor on this game:
    • Their losing streak to the Powder-Blues. Reversion to the mean dictates that this year “should” be their (SC’s) year in the Battle for LA.
    • Their offense is better. To beat UCLA, you have to score points. SC hasn’t been able to do that in this particular game the past few years. They will this year. This game could be for the Pac-12 South title, or both of these teams could be 2 or 3 games out of that race. Such is the nature of a 9 game conference schedule.

4 Paths for USC

  1. The fields bloom Trojan Red. They squeak a win out against Stanford, survive ASU the next week and go on a 5-game winning streak to Arizona. Get by them, beat almost-cellar-dweller Colorado and roll into Eugene as the undefeated South leader. Can SC beat Oregon in Eugene? Yes, but it’s a very tough out. Even losing to Oregon, this Trojan Red scenario puts them back in a Pac-12 title tilt against the Ducks a few weeks later.
  2. Good but not (USC) Great. They drop one of their first 2 tough games to either Stanford or ASU. Neither loss is fatal, but they’ll be disappointing to SC fans. The Trojans should get well at home on Washington, Utah, at Cal and Arizona at home. Only Washington is a ‘for sure’ but going into that Oregon game with a loss or two is very solid.
  3. Slipping but still has a pulse. Lose both games to Stanford and ASU and things could be very nasty. Washington should be a win, but at 1-2, Utah is no picnic. Lose to Utah, no shame there actually, and now you’re SC and you’re 1 & 3 in your first half of Pac-12 play – not where SC is used to being. Trojan fans won’t care that those 3 are in the top 5 of the Pac 12. They’ll be pissed. At Cal is no gimmie anymore either. If the Trojans head to Eugene with 3 or even 4 losses, GameDay won’t be there.
  4. Armageddon. 3 Ingredients:
    1. Lose to Washington or Colorado. These are games you (SC) have to win. Drop one of these and the vultures will circle – fast.
    2. Lose 2 of the 3 Too-Close-To-Call games: Stanford, ASU and UCLA. Again, opening with Stanford and at ASU is a tough two-step. Drop them both, stumble against the Huskies and they’ll be calling for Sark’s head.
    3. Lose 2 of the 3 Should-Win games: Utah, at Cal, Arizona. These three are good (not great) teams. My model says every one of them is an 8-point dog. That’s a pick-six and two-point conversion. Pretty small margin.
      Doing the math, SC losses could pile up – fast. With their expectations, that’s death.

Could they go 8-1? Yes. How about 3 – 6? Yes, but it’s unlikely. Stanford and ASU will tell us a lot. Win them both and national playoffs aren’t crazy hopes. Split them and you still have a Pac-12 shot. Lose them both? Katie bar the door.

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