Penn State & USC Go In Different Directions

Penn State and USC have been on paralell paths since meeting in last year’s Rose Bowl. The Trojans won that shootout 52-49 and Sam Darnold vaulted to the top of everyone’s draft rankings for college quarterbacks. The loss did not diminish the Nittany Lions—their turnaround and Big Ten championship had the program back on track, with Saquon Barkley one of the most exciting runners in the country.

Each team came into the season with Playoff expectations. I wrote preseason blog posts about both Penn State and USC challenging the conventional wisdom of lofty expectations and have been monitoring both teams closely. They’ve been quietly going separate ways most of the year, but the difference became loud and clear for the entire country on Saturday night.

The Lions crushed Michigan 42-13, stayed at #2 in the country and set the stage for the biggest regular season game of the year in Columbus next week. The Trojans were pounded 49-14 at Notre Dame, suffered their second loss and are essentially out of the Playoff race before the first Committee rankings are even released.

In a split decision, the conventional wisdom was right about Penn State. TheSportsNotebook was right on USC.

When I watched Penn State play against Pitt and Northwestern, I found myself unimpressed with their ability to sustain long offensive drives. I was furthered in this belief by a friend who is a hard-core Lion backer and shared the concern. Could this offense function against the kind of high-quality defenses they were going to face down the road?

I’ll admit to a gnawing feeling of doubt—in the two games mentioned where I was unimpressed, the Lions won by a combined score of 64-21—against bowl-caliber competition. It was worth wondering what might happen if they weren’t struggling so much. The hair-raising escape at Iowa was similar—I felt like my doubts were being validated, but as other top contenders outside of Alabama actually lost tough challenges, it had to be noted Penn State was still winning games.

Even when Penn State was released as a (-11) favorite over Michigan, I was inclined to take the points—I didn’t think the Lions would lose at home, but figured they’d have problems with the Wolverine defense. Barkley promptly raced for two touchdown runs in the first quarter, the rout was on and it was time to let the questions go.

Penn State still faces the monumental battle with a now-surging Ohio State team this week. But even if the Lions lose on the road, they can still make a Playoff case for themselves at 11-1. There’s no doubt that they’ve met expectations—in spite of consistently being a big favorite, they own a 5-1-1 record against the spread.

Now, about USC. The Trojans were anointed far too quickly. The preseason betting odds placed them on a par with Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and USC as the four teams that were perceived as a cut above the rest of the country and heavy favorites to make the Playoff.

I pointed out at the time the resume of Trojan head coach Clay Helton was awfully thin to be placing him in a category with Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Jimbo Fischer. Unlike Fischer, Helton doesn’t have the valid excuse that his quarterback was hurt in the first game of the year.

As to his quarterback—Darnold has been a mistake machine, with 10 interceptions. That doesn’t include his lost fumble at the start of the Notre Dame game that set an early tone. USC has already lost at Washington State, they haven’t looked impressive in any of their wins and they were putrid at Notre Dame. Fans who invested their hopes in the Trojans have seen them dashed. Bettors have invested their money behind them have seen USC go 2-6 against the spread.

I’ve chosen to admit I was wrong about Penn State and I hope those close to the USC program—at least those who influence attitudes about the head coach—will do the same. I still like Clay Helton. And I like Sam Darnold. But this is a coach that’s still very young in his career and Darnold is only a sophomore. They have to grow to get to the point where programs like Alabama and Ohio State are.

USC still has a great shot to win the Pac-12, or at least make a New Year’s Six bowl game. If those goals had been the expectation at the start of the year, I’d have never been down on the Trojans to begin with.

There are some teams that are genuine surprises (Iowa State). There are others that are genuine disappointments (Michigan). But sometimes meeting or exceeding expectations isn’t about the team, but the mistakes of those who had to set the expectations to begin with.