Expectations are soaring for USC football this season as they come off last year’s strong finish and Rose Bowl win. Sam Darnold is an early Heisman favorite and projected as the first overall pick in the NFL draft. This is a program that consistently recruits well. Oddsmakers have taken notice—based on preseason betting numbers, the Trojans are considered a virtual lock to at least make the College Football Playoff.
Here are the odds of the top four teams in the country to win the national championship, the numbers reflecting the profit a bettor would make on a $100 wager if said team does win it all…
Ohio State: (+650)
Florida State (+850)
After these four there’s a sharper dropoff, with Oklahoma clocking in at (+1200). Thus, the bar is set for USC and it’s that anything short of making the Playoff is a disappointment.
But is that a reasonable base-level demand?
The drama of USC’s 52-49 Rose Bowl win over Penn State seems to have obscured the fact that…well, that they gave up 49 points. Defense remains a significant question mark as we go into 2017, as does the offensive line. As good as Darnold may be, defense and line play are the keys to consistency and a schedule that includes nine Pac-12 opponents, plus Notre Dame and Texas, absolutely demands consistency.
Furthermore, college football is a coach’s game. I have nothing against Clay Helton—in fact, I applauded his hiring. But look at the programs that USC is grouped with—the coaches of the other three teams are Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Jimbo Fischer. If we were playing the game of “which of these doesn’t belong”, it’s Helton that’s out of his element in a group like this.
I see the race for the 4-spot in the Playoff to be open right now, with Alabama, Ohio State and the Florida State/Clemson winner being prohibitive favorites. I have no problem with the notion that USC is just as viable as anyone else—from the FSU/Clemson loser, to the Big Ten and SEC runner-ups to anyone out of the Big 12, to Stanford and Washington in their own league. What I dispute is that the Trojans are head and shoulders above those contenders. They’re all a combustible mix of potential and problems.
This is hardly an anti-USC position as much as it is an anti-hype position. I like what the Trojans have going right now. I just think the expectations of “Playoff lock” that are reflected both anecdotally in terms of media hype and objectively in terms of betting odds are excessive. Let’s dial it back and let Helton and Darnold grow together and put a supporting cast in place.