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Taking a look at the Trojans as others see the 2016 season working itself out

A wide range of possibilities for this USC team right now as we look ahead to 2016, from as high as No. 8 in the nation and No. 1 in the Pac-12 to No. 25 nationally and barely No. 5 in the Pac-12. Here's our take.

So the thought was to turn our attention here to just what the rest of the college football world thinks of USC's Trojans for 2016. It's the question we got traveling back home over the weekend to SEC, Big Ten and even ACC country.

Good question.

So we thought we'd take a look at how this is playing out. First we checked out the Las Vegas sports books for the 2016 betting odds but not a lot of help there -- or maybe there was.

It's pretty clear. There are lots of ideas about how this is going to go and no real agreement on the Trojans' prospects. The eight sites we checked seem pretty much all over the lot.

The best odds we could find had USC No. 8 to win the College Football Playoffs -- and tops in the Pac-12. Not a bad place to start.

The worst had USC with the 25th-best shot at winning the national title and behind Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Washington in the Pac-12. Not a lot to like there.

And not much help either. But the ESPN Football Power Index posted here on the Peristyle over the weekend, well, that gives you something to work with as it's the result of 10,000 simulated games per team calculated according to the offensive and defensive efficiencies of each team, along with special teams, against those same opponents strengths on a per-play basis. And it's something you can measure, at least.

But of course, as any USC fan could respond, especially after a weekend of back and forth sparked by a War Room tidbit about how an offer to a third or fourth quarterback prospect augurs somehow the naming of the quarterback for next season, no one really knows. Will it be Max Browne or Sam Darnold Sept. 3 against Alabama?

So there's that. How do you factor that in?

How much can we know? And how accurate can those 10,000 simulations be if we can't be sure of even one exceedingly important data point -- the starting quarterback? Not that Alabama knows that answer either -- for themselves or for USC. So there's that.

OK, so you're saying right about now that you didn't think there was going to be any math involved here. Which gets us to our next step -- some analysis. And even though our thinking squares pretty much with the single most favorable projection/odds for the 2016 Trojans, we find ourselves in agreement with ESPN's FPI ratings, as much as we can know this far out.  

That's because ESPN's FPI also has USC No. 8 in the nation and No. 1 in the Pac-12 and just two behind Alabama. Sounds about right here. Alabama has issues and even though the pollsters may pick the Tide, and even though they may end up back at the top by the time November/December rolls around, that's probably not the case on Sept. 3.

Here's how the top teams stacked up for the FPI: Florida State was No. 1, LSU No. 2, Oklahoma No. 3, Clemson No. 4, Tennessee No. 5, Bama at 6, Ole Miss No. 7 and USC No. 8. Oklahoma State (No. 9) and Georgia (No. 10) finished out the Top 10.

What that says clearly is that this is pretty wide open. It accounts for the major talent losses at both national championship game finalists -- Clemson and Alabama. Ditto for an Ohio State program way down at No. 17 after the Buckeyes' 12 NFL Draft picks and to a lesser extent, Notre Dame at No. 20.

As for USC opponents, they're well represented, just not in the elite of elites save for the Tide. UCLA at No. 13 and Washington at No. 14 top the Pac-12 competition. Stanford's proven system with unproven players has the Cardinal at No. 22 with Oregon, again starting over at QB with a graduate transfer but heavy on the running backs but not so much on defense, is No. 29.

And both Oregon and Notre Dame have to come to the Coliseum. Although the other four -- Bama, UCLA, Washington and Stanford, do not.

One of the interesting FPI numbers is projected wins. USC's number there is 8.9, same as Bama's and UCLA's. Washington, meanwhile, is 9.3 thanks to a more forgiving schedule. Notre Dame is projected at 8.6 wins with Stanford and Oregon down at 7.4.

So this is a tough grading scale here. But maybe that reflects a year where we just don't know how this shakes out. Take USC, for example, as looked at from the outside. The roster is almost completely back. Not quite but better numbers than in a long time.

And the NFL draft didn't degrade USC nearly as much as the people on its schedule. So that's a plus going forward.

The coaching is stabilized. Clay Helton & Co. my not have any sort of established record but they have to be better than Sark & Co. is the way most outsiders see it. And most USC fans would as well.

And when you get around to looking at the Pac-12 head-to-head matchups, you can certainly make a case for the Trojans despite the unimpressive efforts against Stanford, Washington and Oregon in a 0-4 scorecard a year ago. Pin all of those on coaching.

Whether that's absolutely 100 percent the case, it's a case you can make. And so we will.

None of those teams will be as good as last year. (ED. NOTE: Husky fan Mark reminds us that this may be an overstatement and that his Huskies indeed will be better. We agree. We lumped the Huskies in with everybody else because we absolutely believe they cannot play better -- even if they are truly more talented -- than they did in 2015 against an unprepared, unready and unable to adjust in-game USC team. Not meant to denigrate the Huskies talent.) Nor will UCLA. And USC could be significantly better.

If it plays out like that, and it could, Trojan fans will be saying, "See, we told you so."

But this focus is a good thing, in any case. Win the Pac-12, shoot for the Rose Bowl, and let the rest play out.

USC's schedule, clearly No. 1 in the nation with no disagreement here from ESPN with six opponents in the top 29, will help that happen. Having four of those games away from the Coliseum will make that a bit harder.

Having two of them in the first three weeks could make it even more so. And yet, the flip side is they make it possible, mandatory actually, to get up to speed -- literally -- from the get-go. And that focus, for USC's players, coaches and fans, could be the key to a turnaround season like Pete Carroll's second year when a tough early season set up that strong finish that said USC was back.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

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