What insight can we glean on a potential National Champion from Spring Scrimmage?
For college football junkies, springtime only offers the NFL draft and spring scrimmage games. The draft might be interesting (for a round or two), but ultimately, it is just a parting glance at college football’s rearview mirror. Spring scrimmage games, however, mean looking at the future - and the Lane Kiffinimmediate future at that! Speaking of futures, it is also the time for futures betting on next season’s BCS National Championship. Currently, the USC Trojans are the favorite to win it all at 4-to-1 college football odds, according to Bovada’s lines. USC has recently overtaken the LSU Tigers for that top spot. What insight might USC’s spring scrimmage game provide for National Championship speculators?

Before delving into the men of Troy, at the risk of boring the hardcore football fanatic and titillating the statistics nerd, let us first examine the “formula” for any team to win a BCS National Championship. In the 14 years of BCS National Champions, nearly 86% (12 of 14) finished the season with top-10 scoring defenses. Around 36% (5 of 12) had top-2 scoring defenses. Better than 71% (10 of 14) were ranked in the Associated Press (AP) preseason top-10, while 100% of the teams were ranked in the preseason top-25. Fully 64% (9 of 14) finished the season undefeated. About 57% (8 of 14) have been Southeastern Conference (SEC) teams

Therefore, the best formula for becoming a BCS National Champion is: 
  1. Have a top-10 scoring defense. (If you were wondering, 7 of those 14 champions had a scoring offense that was not in the top-10.)
  2. Be ranked preseason top-10.
  3. Go undefeated.
  4. Be an SEC team.
Considering USC and starting with the obvious, the Trojans are not an SEC team. That means USC is looking to be like the minority 43% of previous non-SEC teams to win the BCS. Of those lonely 6 non-SEC BCS Champions, 100% of them had a top-10 scoring defense and 100% of them went undefeated. An unbelievable 4 out of 6 (nearly 67%) had an AP preseason ranking in thetop-2!

The USC Trojans are one of the 6 non-SEC teams to win the BCS. They did it in 2004. That year, USC certainly conformed to the rest of the formula: Their scoring defense was ranked #3. They were the AP preseason #1. They also went undefeated. Notably, USC’s highest scoring offense ever, the 2005 Trojans, were ranked and hyped all year leading up to the BCS Championship Game as the #1 team in the country. There was no championship for those prolific scorers, however, since their scoring defense was ranked #35, allowing the third most points yielded by any USC football team in history.

I know you have been thinking it all along, so I will just say it! Defense wins championships.When it comes to scoring defenses, that cliché is still the BCS gospel truth. (Auburn of 2010 is the sole exception.)

The USC Trojans

The college football betting public likes nothing better than offensive star power, and having a 3-year starting quarterback for one of the most storied football programs situated in the nation’s second largest media market should do the trick. USC heads into the Trojan Huddle with lauded USC QB, Matt Barkley, the (7-to-2) frontrunner to win the 2012 Heisman Trophy. Yet we now know that defense wins BCS National Championships. Having an (admittedly simplified) understanding of what it takes to win a BCS National Championship, we are ready to examine USC’s spring scrimmage game, affectionately dubbed the “Trojan Huddle,” taking place this Saturday, April 14, in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Coming off of a 2-year post-season ban, the men of Troy head right into their next 3 seasons with scholarship reductions. For the next 3 years, USC can carry no more than 75 scholarship football players on their roster (compared to the standard 85), while they are only allowed to offer 15 scholarships per year (compared to the standard 25). Even through all of the adversity, the 2011 USC Trojans finished 10-2, beat both participants in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game, and finished the season ranked #6 in the final AP poll.

Matt BarkleyUSC’S Offense

What We Know: The Trojans return 9 offensive starters.

Matt Barkley. The 3-year starter, Pac-12 record holder (39 TD’s last season), and likely all-time USC passing and total offense leader is also a heck of an on and off-field leader who is back for his senior season.

USC returns 4 out of their 5 starting offensive linemen with junior Kevin Graf, senior Khaled Holmes (the top Rimington Award candidate), sophomore Marcus Martin (a 2011 Freshman All-American), and junior John Martinez. This is 80% of the line that allowed the fewest QB sacks in the nation in 2011.

Senior running back Curtis McNeal rushed for more than 1,000 yards and averaged 6.9 yards per carry in 2011.

Statistically, USC returns the best receiving tandem in major college football. All-American junior Robert Woods and 2011 Freshman All-American and Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Co-Player of the Year Marqise Lee each had over 1,000 yards receiving last season. Former high school teammates, the ultra talented duo appears together again on the list of Biletnikoff Award candidates.

Sophomore tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble (who is from Las Vegas) were the #3 and #6 leading USC receivers last season as co-starters.

Spring Game Questions for the Offense: 

  1. Who will be behind Mr. All-World QB? The Trojans have able, yet untested talent in sophomore Jesse Scroggins and freshmen Cody Kessler and Max Wittek. Since Barkley came to USC, he was been injured enough to be kept out of 2 games; once was in 2009 when #3 USC lost to the Washington Huskies after Barkley’s backup performed abysmally, the second was in 2010 when rival Notre Dame beat USC for the first time in 9 tries after Barkley’s backup threw for no TD’s and a game-losing interception. In sum, over the past 3 years, USC is 0-2 when Matt Barkley does not get the start. The BCS formula dictates that USC needs to be undefeated to have a shot at the Championship.
  2. How secure is that new left tackle position? Finding a replacement for All-American left tackle Matt Kalil will be challenging. While an offensive line must work as a unit, the left tackle protects the right-handed QB’s feared blind side from the onslaught on the edge.
  3. Who shares the backfield with Curtis McNeal? Sophomore D.J. Morgan and redshirt freshman Javorious “Buck” Allen look to fill the hole that Marc Tyler left at the tailback position, but the fullback spot is as thin as it gets.
USC’s Defense

What We Know: The Trojans return 8 defensive starters, including their top 4 tacklers from 2011, and defense wins BCS National Championships!

USC ranked 102 in passing defense in 2011, so the secondary is where the defense needs the most improvement. USC does return all 4 starters from their 2011 unit. All-American senior free safety T.J. McDonald coined this next year’s motto, “Unfinished Business,” when he announced he would return for his senior season (one day before Matt Barkley echoed that sentiment). He is the top Thorpe Award candidate. Jawanza Starling (who had the game-changing, 80-yard fumble return for a TD against ND in 2011) looks to be the strong safety. Junior cornerback, 2011 All-Pac-12 first teamer, and Thorpe Award candidate Nickell Robey will be a 3-year starter for USC. Senior Isiah Wiley, junior Torin Harris (from Las Vegas), and sophomore Anthony Brown shared the starting spot at the other cornerback position in 2011. They all return. Defensive back is USC’s deepest unit.

Dion BaileyAt linebacker, the Trojans return 2011 Freshman All-Americans Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard. That pair of 2011 freshmen led the team in tackles! Freshmen had never done that before at USC. In addition to those Butkus Award candidates, another sophomore (co-)starter, Lamar Dawson returns as likely middle linebacker.

USC’s defensive line is the hardest hit with 3 of the 4 starting positions gone. Senior defensive ends Wes Horton and Devon Kennard shared starts at one DE position last year.

Spring Game Questions for the Defense: 

  1. What defensive line? Losing emotional leader and 3-year starting DT Christian Tupou, 2-year starting DE and 2011 team sack leader Nick Perry, and 2-year starting DT DaJohn Harris hurts. Even though he did not play in 2011, USC also lost experienced DT Armond Armstead. What is worse is that the DT position appears to be USC’s thinnest. Sophomore DT George Uko was a 5-star recruit, but he cannot be the interior defensive line by himself. The play of the entire defensive line is the most critical and questionable unit for the Trojans. 
  2. Will this experienced secondary shut down the pass? Given the talent of the 4 returning starters, that embarrassing 2011 passing defense ranking of 102 might seem puzzling. In 2011, however, the Trojans played the entire season without a coach of the secondary. In February of this year, that changed. Lane Kiffin brought in Marvin Sanders to coach the unit. During both of his stints at Nebraska in the same position, and throughout his 3 years as North Carolina’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, Sanders made a positive and immediate impact on the passing defense. Given USC’s talent, experience, and depth with this unit, watch for this group to be much improved. If they can prove it against Matt Barkley and company at the scrimmage game, they can do it against anyone.
Can USC become the first team in the BCS era to win a National Championship with 10 scholarships tied behind their back? It might be best to hold off on those futures college football picks until after Saturday’s Trojan Huddle. For now, consider this “Unfinished Business.”