Summer college football predictions are often dominated by groupthink. Take USC, for example. If the Coaches Poll is accurate, then the Trojans will play either LSU or Alabama in the national title game this January. There is uniform consensus among the preview magazines that USC will win the Pac 12 South and the Trojans were the national title pick in more preseason magazines than any other team, as no fewer than five previews picked the Trojans to hoist the crystal ball at the end of the season. The hype that USC is getting is eerily similar to the attention that the Georgia Bulldogs received before the 2008 season. Like the Trojans, the Dawgs were the consensus pick to win the SEC East and six previews picked Georgia to win their first national title in 28 years. Georgia would have topped the Stassen preseason consensus rankings if not for the fact that Phil Steele presciently put the Dawgs at #9 and instead correctly picked Florida to win the national title. If you don't believe me, then just read any Phil Steele preview released since 2008, as he will surely mention those picks on multiple occasions.
The similarities between 2012 USC and 2008 Georgia don't end with the fact that they both have high expectations. The parallels between the two teams ought to cause us to view the Trojans through a slightly skeptical lens.
1. Jekyll and Hyde Precursors
Georgia's 2007 season was strange. The team made a remarkable transformation midway through the schedule. For the first six games, Georgia was mediocre, at least by the standards that Mark Richt had established in Athens. The team went into its bye week at 4-2, having lost at home to South Carolina, eked by an Alabama team that would ultimately finish 7-6, gotten humbled in Knoxville by Tennessee, and then snuck past Vandy in Nashville after a late fumble by the Commodores when Vandy was driving for the winning score. During the bye week, the team was apparently kissed by Trinity and had a collective epiphany. They drew the most-bang-for-their-buck personal foul in college football history after the first touchdown against Florida and then went gangbusters through the rest of the schedule, beating the Gators by 12, Auburn by 25, and Georgia Tech by 14 before administering a beating to
Colt Brennan Timmy Chang (I mixed up my June Jones products; Robert Kekaula will not be pleased) in the Sugar Bowl that violated several provisions of the Geneva Convention.
Minus a mass on-field celebration in the first quarter in South Bend, USC's 2011 season was quite similar. After the first six games, the Trojans were 5-1, but the loss was a 21-point defeat to an Arizona State team that would finish 6-7. The wins included a seven-point victory at home over the Arizona team that would get Mike Stoops fired and spur the "Nick Foles in a losing effort" meme on The Solid Verbal, a two-point win over the Minnesota team that would lead MGoBlog to start GopherQuest in an effort to determine whether Minnesota was the worst Big Ten team of all time, and a nail-biting home win over a five-loss Utah team that required a blocked field goal on the final play of the game. Then, everything turned with their game at Notre Dame. The Trojans entered as 9.5-point underdogs, not unlike Georgia going into the '07 Cocktail Party as a 7.5-point dog. In both cases, the spreads were a reflection of how average Georgia and USC had been before their season-turning wins. USC won by 14 and then were a different team for the rest of the season. After the Notre Dame win, USC played a great game in a loss against Stanford, out-gaining the Cardinal by .5 yards per play only to lose in a third overtime, and then won their final four games in three blowouts and a three-point victory in Eugene against the eventual Pac Twelve champs, a game that the Trojans led wire-to-wire.
Both USC and Georgia swam against the current to finish so strong. They did not benefit from a Tennessee-style schedule that is softer in November than it is in September and October.* The three best opponents on USC's slate came in the final six games. Likewise, the three best opponents on Georgia's 2007 schedule came during the second-half rally. '07 Georgia and '11 USC played better against tougher opponents. This reality, combined with the recency effect, is causing writers to bestow lofty rankings on teams like Georgia and USC. The danger is that the optimism is based on the assumption that the first half of the year didn't matter. College football analysts turn into Whigs, assuming that these teams evolved into something better and that they can safely ignore a half-season of mediocre play (and in USC's case, their great play was really concentrated into the last two games). In the case of 2008 Georgia, that turned out to be a false assumption.
* - This is a pet peeve of mine: stupid statistics about a team that are mainly a function of schedule strength. For instance, there is the claim that Georgia Tech regressed last year in the latter stages of the season. (I heard the case made on the radio this week.) No, they didn't. Their schedule got harder. Georgia and Virginia Tech are harder to beat than Kansas and Maryland. Likewise, Phil Fulmer's record in November got trotted out as evidence that his team peaked late when in reality, they got to play pre-Spurrier South Carolina, Vandy, and Kentucky.
2. Talent Distribution Skewing to the Offense
2008 Georgia had Matthew Stafford, who would go first in the Draft. 2011 USC has Matt Barkley, who is likely to go first in the Draft. 2008 Georgia had Knowshon Moreno, who was a first-round pick after running for 2,734 yards in two years in Athens. 2011 USC has Curtis McNeal, who is on track to do something similar after running for 1,005 yards on only 145 carries last year. 2008 Georgia had Mohammed Massaquoi (a second-round pick in the Draft) and A.J. Green (the first receiver taken in the Draft) at wide receiver. 2011 USC has Robert Woods and Marqise Lee (I had no idea that there is no "u" in his name until I wrote this column; grammar, Ms. Lee!) and will add Nelson Agholor this year. 2008 Georgia returned three starters from a good offensive line. 2011 USC returns four on the offensive line. 2008 Georgia returned nine starters on defense, led by a sophomore weakside linebacker (Rennie Curran) who made an obscene number of plays as a freshman. 2011 USC returns seven starters on defense, led by a sophomore weakside linebacker (Hayes Pullard) who made an obscene number of plays as a freshman. Both teams returned a lot of starters, but most of the best talent was at the offensive skill positions, which overshadows weaknesses elsewhere in the minds of most previewers.
As it turned out, 2008 Georgia's weakness was the defense, which was prone to massive collapses. On three separate occasions - twice at home and once at a neutral field - the defense allowed 40+ points. 2008 was part of the gradual regression for Willie Martinez's units, one that would cost Martinez his job after the 2009 season. Martinez's defenses went from allowing 4.7 yards per play in 2005 to 4.3 in 2006 and then got worse in each of his last three seasons: 4.8, then 5.0, then 5.1. Georgia fans didn't quite realize it in 2007, but they were in the middle of a defensive regression.
With USC, the evidence is more obvious. The Trojans finished 58th in the country in yards per play allowed last year, one spot behind the Tennessee team that has Derek Dooley's posterior firmly on the hot seat. USC had been 87th in that department in 2010, so 2011 actually represented progress. Bill Connelly made a similar point in his preview of the Trojans:
In two years under Monte Kiffin, master of the "Tampa 2" defense, the USC defense hasn't quite thrived as much as recruiting rankings suggest it should have. After ranking 39th in Def. F/+ in Pete Carroll's last year at USC (2009), the Trojans have ranked 50th and 46th over the last two seasons.
USC still has a long way to go to demonstrate a national title-caliber defense. USC's defensive lineup has been full of blue chip recruits for the past two years (certainly relative to the rest of the Pac Ten/Twelve),* so it is fair to ask questions of the defensive coaching, namely whether Monte Kiffin's defensive style works in college and/or whether he is delegating too much or to the wrong people. Kiffin's Tampa defenses wrecked the Falcons on a regular basis, so I have great respect for him as a defensive coach, but he might not be the best person in this particular role.
The lemmings who are jumping on USC's bandwagon to anoint them as the opponent of the SEC champion in the national title game and a surefire bet to get past a stacked Oregon team in the Pac Twelve are clearly not paying attention to the available evidence for the USC defense. The Trojans are going to have to show massive improvement to be in the class of the Pete Carroll defenses that made USC so great for a seven-year stretch in the Aughts. It would not be surprising in the least to see defensive meltdowns like those that railroaded the Dawgs in 2008.
* - And before you say "they're on probation!," USC had a highly-recruited player at every back-up position on the defense.
Maybe USC isn't going to disappoint the way that Georgia did four years ago. It can be a fool's errand to place a lot of value in a sample size of one. It could be that USC is more talented than the 2008 Dawgs on defense and will not have debacles like Georgia did against Alabama, Florida, and Georgia Tech. It could be that USC's offense is more suited to winning shootouts than the Mike Bobo approach that often assumes the existence of a good defense. It could be that I am reaching for evidence because, like most Southerners, I cannot fathom the idea of Lane Kiffin being anything but a twerp who landed three prestigious jobs as a result of his last name. That said, the parallels between 2008 Georgia and 2012 USC are quite strong. Thanksgivings and Christmases in the Kiffin household could be awkward if USC's next two years play out the same way that 2008 and 2009 did in Athens.