College Football Handicapping: USC Up to Old Tricks
by Trevor Whenham - 9/10/2013
Last year the USC Trojans were ranked first in the polls heading into the season. They lost the third game of the season at Stanford, feasted on cupcakes until they were 6-1, then they lost five of their last six games to limp to a pathetic 7-6 record. Things were so bad that defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin didn’t want to work with his son anymore. Yet somehow, Lane Kiffin managed to keep his job through the whole debacle.
The team started this year ranked, but after beating up on a lousy Hawaii team to open the season they lost at home to Washington State last week in a game that set the sport of football back at least a decade. It was beyond ugly.
Since the Trojans are such a public team, every move they make is scrutinized and dissected by the media across the country. That makes the team a tough challenge for handicappers. Their successes — now a distant memory — are inflated, and their failures are amplified and celebrated. Value is tough to find. Will this be a team worth betting on the rest of the way, or are they doomed? Here are seven factors to consider when pondering that question:
Things have descended into the preposterous
Kiffin attracts a circus atmosphere wherever he goes. The criticism has gotten so intense that instead of addressing the media — in a press conference or one-on-one — on Monday he instead released a carefully-scripted YouTube interview. Despite the farcical nature of the thing, he still skirted issues and didn’t answer the questions completely. It’s a ridiculous step and a clear sign that things are spinning out of control, and everyone involved with the team knows it. It’s not likely to get any better in a hurry, either.
Kiffin is done
The coach may or may not last the whole season. It would take a truly remarkable turnaround — like an undefeated season and a BCS Championship — for him to save his job. If you believe that that is going to happen, you have a different view of the world than I do. The nearing end will be a huge distraction for the team as Kiffin fights for his life, the players decide whether to play for him, and speculation about his replacement intensifies. This team would have issues at the best of times given the offense they (don’t have), but this certainly won’t help.
Fans aren’t going to let up
The “Fire Kiffin” chants started early in the game and built throughout the action. By the end of the game they were almost drowning out the commentary on the broadcast. The next game is at home as well, and the fans — who are used to much more than they are getting — certainly aren’t going to forgive Kiffin and let up. That’s immense pressure on the coach and a certain distraction for the players to deal with. That won’t help the team in their preparations between games or in their focus during games.
The defense was sound
Defensively, the team played a good game — though not as good as they are getting credit for in some quarters because it was still Washington State, and the Cougars are a rebuilding project that is a long way from completion. They had some injury issues as well — especially in the secondary. The defense will be tested much more than they have. However, compared to the offense, they are far from a major concern.
That offense. Just wow!
It is incomprehensible how bad this team was with the ball. Two quarterbacks combined to go 11-for-21 for 54 yards — an average of just 2.6 yards per pass. They capped off the ineptness with two interceptions as well. They weren’t throwing across the line of scrimmage for much of the game. It is hard to believe how bad they were — even if you don’t consider that perhaps the best receiver in the country, Marqise Lee, is on your team.
The only way an offense can be that bad with the talent they have is if they are unprepared and incompetently coached. Cody Kessler has been named the full-time starter at QB, and that means he’ll get all the first team work in practice. That could help a little, but don’t expect miracles. The biggest concern at this point is how the established players deal with the struggles. If the attitude isn’t good, these issues could really snowball.
In a word, this schedule is brutal. The easy part is over — and they already have a loss. Boston College could be a challenge next week if they play like they did again. Chuckie Keeton is a very good QB, and he and his Utah State teammates will be hard for the Trojans to keep up with in a shootout. Trips to Arizona State and Notre Dame could get ugly, and Cal and Colorado are both better than expected so far this year, so those aren’t easy trips, either. They lost to Arizona last year, so they could do it again. Utah is improving, though that game should be a home win for the Trojans. That leaves Stanford and UCLA at home — huge tests for this team as they currently stand. That is 13 regular season games, so they need seven wins to make a bowl game. That’s far from assured at this point without improvement. On the other hand, if things keep going badly, the season could get ugly.
The public is completely off the USC bandwagon — and especially off of Kiffin after his time in Oakland, Tennessee and now here. When making their bets, then, the public will be universally negative. That’s the right way to be right now, but that means that any incremental improvements by the team won’t be recognized to the extent they should be. It is possible, then, that if the team isn’t as bad as they could be that there will be some nice value in betting on them.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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