COLUMN: Trojans’ season far from over

first_imgLet’s all just take a deep breath.I know, it was a tough one to sit through. I was there, too. And go ahead, make that one last nerd joke if you really think it will make you feel better.But now that we’ve had a couple days to sleep on it, let’s remember what actually happened last weekend and where it stands in the grand scheme of things.One game. Not the end of the world, and not even the end of USC’s season. There are still plenty of chances to make up for it and a lot of football left on the schedule.Of course, it was not a good start to the conference slate. The road to the top four is certainly much harder now. The Trojans got halfway there after starting at No. 8, and climbing to No. 6 going into Stanford, but fell all the way to No. 19.But it wasn’t as bad as you probably think. Neither the game itself nor the implications of the result seriously changed my outlook for the season. The Trojans, without a doubt, still have the possibility and capability of making the College Football Playoff.In fact, the advance statistics on USC are still very positive even after the loss. ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks USC as the  No. 7 team in the country. That’s best out of the Pac-12, as the Trojans rank ahead of   No. 15 Oregon, No. 17 Stanford and No. 18 UCLA. The FPI also says USC still has the best chance of winning the conference. It gives USC a 34.2 percent chance, with Stanford in second at 25 percent, Oregon with a 16.1 percent chance and UCLA with a 15 percent chance. The AP sees it a little differently, with UCLA at No. 9, Oregon at No. 13 and Stanford at No. 21, but I think the FPI is very much worth noting.As expected, there was a lot of criticism directed at USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox for the team’s performance. I usually like playing devil’s advocate for unpopular on-field coaching decisions, and I think any calls for his termination, or even demotion, are very premature at this point.My personal perspective on the game is that USC didn’t have any huge problems in the game plan. Plenty have said it was too conservative and didn’t adjust in the second half, but I think a lot of that is unsubstantiated generalization. Part of the first half, I think USC played too much zone coverage, but I remember a lot more man coverage in the second half. Likewise, I can remember enough plays where USC brought five or six guys to pressure the quarterback.What the game comes down to is that Stanford’s offense greatly exceeded expectations. Kevin Hogan had one of his best performances as quarterback. He showed uncanny mobility, with three runs of over 10 yards, two of which were on long third downs and several plays where he escaped pressure to make big throws. Complement that with a strong, well-established running game from Stanford, and you just have to tip your cap to the Cardinal. Stanford was firing on all cylinders.The interesting thing about the result is that in recent history, Wilcox had actually had a lot of success against Stanford. During the three previous meetings, going back to his time at Washington,      Wilcox-led defensive units held the Cardinal to only four touchdowns and four field goals. This obviously indicates that Wilcox’s bend-but-don’t-break philosophy is not inherently flawed against power teams. Stanford head coach David Shaw, who himself receives a lot of criticism for conservative play calling, was unusually successful at distributing the ball to all his playmakers. If an evenly matched opponent finally figures out how to beat you after four tries, that doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing. We could just as easily criticize coaches who adjust too early and aren’t “sticking to what got you there.”It’s crucial to acknowledge Stanford as a rival. The program has been to two more Rose Bowls than USC has in the past six years, and now holds a 5-2 series advantage since then. USC is still a better team this year, and the Trojans should have won, but the loss shouldn’t have been shocking to anyone. The Stanford student body probably would not have stormed the field if that same result had happened in Palo Alto. The fact that Stanford lost to Northwestern is indication that good teams often underperform at the beginning of the year — not that Stanford is not a good team.The biggest thing to take away from the game is that it’s too early to say anything conclusive about the defense. It was the first real game for many of the talented freshman starters. Stanford’s 8-12 third down conversion rate is still a really small sample size.In fact, it’s too early to say anything about anyone. No. 1 Ohio State was almost upset this weekend by Northern Illinois, No. 3 Ole Miss was gifted five turnovers by Alabama but still only won by one possession, UCLA’s quarterback Josh Rosen looked very much like a freshman against No. 22 BYU and Oregon has since switched starting quarterbacks since its three-point loss to No. 2 Michigan State. The conference, and national playoff, is wide open.With all that being said, USC has a uniquely difficult road. FPI ranked USC’s remaining schedule the third toughest in the country, and only gave the Trojans a 4 percent chance of going undefeated the rest of the year.But the Trojans very much still control their destiny. Winning out guarantees the Trojans will at least win the head-to-head tiebreaker against anyone in the Pac-12 South. Losing to Stanford, a North division team, is honestly not that significant. The Trojan’s matchup with Arizona State this weekend is without a doubt more crucial.The Trojans would possibly earn a rematch with the Cardinal in the Pac-12 championship game if they take care of the Pac-12 South. That game just might be a de facto quarterfinal in the national playoff, and I would feel really confident in this team in that rematch.last_img read more