Not this year, at least.
What I find surprising about USC this season is the sunshine-laden outlook they’ve received from almost any interested party when they’re discussed. ESPN & AP polls say #4. Folks on this site and others think top 5, you can see it in the forums. CFN, the CFB version of the theater of the absurd, ranks them at 2, well ahead of UT at 4. This isn’t a case of the media saying one thing, but we fans see something different (see Oregon) or a few folks that are really well-informed like a team but no one else, not the media or the majority of fans sees it the same way (take Arkansas as an example). No, pretty much on a mass level it is generally assumed that USC will be a top 5 team with a shot at the title this year.
Is the faith in that program warranted for 2009?
Certainly the trends look good. They’ve been the most dominating team in CFB over the past 7 years. They won a share of one national title, they won another outright, and they’ve been in contention for several others.
They’ve been able to "reload" during that stretch on a few occasions. By "reload", I mean they’ve lost guys and stayed in contention for conference and national titles after the losses. Notably, they lost Carson Palmer, Troy Polamalu and a number of supporting ballplayers after the 2002 season, and similar things happened after the 2005 season, which saw the departure of Leinart & Bush. Both follow-up teams were national title contenders, with the 2003 squad obtaining the AP version.
So why will 2009 be any different than any other year in which they’ve followed a hugely successful season with major personnel losses?
Well, maybe it won’t be, but there’s enough to at least seriously consider the possibility.
Their offenses have been up and down since Chow left after 2004. Last year’s offense, with 1st round pick Mark Sanchez at the helm, looks great on paper and in the Rose Bowl, but was sporadically mediocre. They were poor against Oregon State, Arizona, and Arizona State for sure. I watched those games, among others. I don’t need to know or look up the stats. They benefited from something like 6 turnovers against ASU and struggled to put up 28 points against that defense. Arizona was worse. Everyone knows the drill with Oregon State. Maybe the loss of Chow doesn’t lead directly to that. In all likelihood it absolutely doesn’t, but it isn’t like they upgraded when they lost him. Sarkisian and Kiffin have spotty enough records by comparison to doubt that it didn’t have some impact over the past few years, including when Sark was all alone last season. This year, they’ve downgraded again, with several guys splitting duties after Sarkisian’s departure for UW. John Morton handles the passing game and Jeremy Bates (Jim Bates’ son) handles everything else. Neither of these guys have weak pedigrees, although neither have any experience coordinating an offense. Still, I am sure people can make cases that they’re wizards under the guidance of Pete Carroll and the Halo Effect that accompanies him.
Defensively, Pete Carroll is known as the driving force behind the performance of his team’s defenses. I’m not going to type otherwise here. However, he doesn’t take care of the defense entirely on his own. He’s always had a healthy array of defensive minds around him. In the past 5 years, he’s lost Ed Orgeron and Nick Holt, nonetheless. Both of those guys are viewed as being solid defensive guys, with the addition of Orgeron’s value as a recruiting wizard. No doubt Carroll still has what it takes, but any losses like these have an impact on the program.
Talent & Depth
Talent is the central tenant to the concept that USC won’t miss a beat this season. They certainly lost an abundance of talent in critical areas, but this is USC, and they will just reload. Or something.
The reloading talent concept works when several things are true:
1) The assumed talent is truly on a level above the competition.
This is a general assumption for the USC program. They’ve brought in top 5 classes or better for more than 5 consecutive years. Where this piece of the assumption falls apart is if the talent isn’t completely on par with the expectations. Sometimes a class is overrated. Sometimes guys don’t get in, or he plays baseball, or some such, before they ever step on campus. Sometimes a recruit begins to receive a higher amount of credit for their skills and talent than a comparable player because a particular school is pursuing them. The Halo Effect can play a role here as well.
2) The experienced talent being replaced isn’t too widespread in terms of positions lost, and the groups dependent upon experience aren’t hit broadly at the same time.
Several LBs and a DB being replaced, even if they are all 1st rounders, isn’t too much to handle for a seriously talented program like USC, some might believe. But what happens when an entire unit of LBs, several DBs, and 3 of the top 5 DLs have to be replaced? Irrespective of the talent replacing that attrition, the shared learning curve loss is massive. Similarly, an offense can lose a few OLs, a few WRs, maybe a TB, and keep on moving. A QB loss is often altogether different, if not always. Capable, well trained replacements at QB can come in and pick up quickly. What happens when the QB has no experience? Very little training? And the backups have injury issues or have disappointed when previously given the chance to take the reins? What happens when the new QB is taking snaps from an inexperienced Center because the starting Center is out for several games? Teams struggle with these problems every year. Sometimes, it even happens to good programs in a down cycle. See OU in 2005. See Miami after Dorsey. USC’s O’Dowd is likely out through the Ohio State game. He injured his knee similarly in 2007 and missed 4 games. The guy is one of the best Centers in the country and that position is fundamental to their success if the QB is a true Freshman.
3) Injuries/in-season attrition are largely nonexistent.
These issues can wreak havoc even on an amazingly talented team. I’d point to the NY Mets if I had any faith that some of you thought about anything beyond CFB. That’s ok. Like the O’Dowd situation, depth with 85 scholarships isn’t always a given, even for the best. USC has also had issues at other OL positions. Nick Howell is questionable in the opener due to a gimp ankle. This weekend word was released that WR and probable starter Ronald Johnson had broken his collarbone. Johnson would have helped take some heat off of Damien Williams in the passing game for the Freshman QB. But they just reload, right? Maybe David Ausberry can pick up the slack. Oh, maybe not. It simply isn’t a given. Shareece Wright, a starting CB, is also reported to be out for the season because he’s not academically eligible. Again, when a program takes a barrage of hits, but hits that are expected, they can sometimes make it through. If they take those hits and then lose a lot of practice and playing time to injury and off the field issues from players that are expected to play, then the problems can build on themselves.
USC’s game against Ohio State has everyone that loves CFB excited, and most everyone is also confused. Who should be the favorite? Is the winner a frontrunner for the MNC game? Who replaces more? Most tend to fall on the side of the USC victory. They were great last year against OSU, why not again? OSU lost a lot, right? In reality, it’s possible that both of these teams have multiple losses before the bowl games. Still, bet on Pryor and the jortsquad here.
Notre Dame is better than many think. So is Cal.
USC can’t seem to handle at least one Oregon team per year lately. Maybe neither of those schools will be a problem this year, but another Pac 10 school could be. Pick one not from the state of Washington and you have a shot at being right.
My bet is that USC loses 3 games this year. For all of the above reasons I’ve cited. I wouldn’t actually bet that without getting odds, not because I don’t believe it, but because I could get better odds than straight up because I can afford a trip to Vegas if I feel like being stupid.
This is a team that is getting the benefit of the doubt going into this season because of recent history and the publicity of their recruiting prowess. They’ve got hidden or misjudged issues that are going to derail things for them, and early. Yes, they will roll over SJSU like a steamer through Dick Tomey’s diaper. Then it gets real. Injuries, youth, inexperience, hubris, hype and schedule will all play a role in sending this team to 9-3.