USC Out-Recruits Oregon Annually...So, Why Do The Ducks Have a Better Record?

Michael TierneyAnalyst IDecember 24, 2010

Darron Thomas celebrates after victory at USC
Darron Thomas celebrates after victory at USCHarry How/Getty Images

College football analysts agree that a team’s winning percentage is tied to their recruiting success. USC is the king of recruiting in the Pac-10. Oregon can’t touch USC in recruiting top talent. So why are USC’s last two seasons mediocre while Oregon’s record is better? This performance paradox defies intuition and calls for an answer.

USC remarkably realized four number-one recruiting classes in the nation since 2003, as ranked by Rivals, and three others are top four. Oregon has never seen a top-ten recruiting class and they’re lucky to sign a top-twenty class. USC has acquired 141 4 and 5-star player since 2002, while Oregon only averaged about six quality players each class. USC’s consistent quality in recruiting and Oregon’s pedestrian performance are listed for the last nine years in the recruiting table below.

Recruiting Table (Rivals)

USC Trojans 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Recruiting Ranking 13 3 1 1 1 2 8 4 1
4/5 Star Recruits 15 12 15 15 19 16 15 15 19

Oregon Ducks 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Recruiting Ranking 49 26 12 28 49 11 20 33 23
4/5 Star Recruits 4 5 8 3 1 12 8 4 11

The numbers speak for themselves. Theoretically the Duck-Trojan games should not even be close, no matter where they play. That is not what’s happening and although USC played well overall for most of the decade, their last two seasons have been bitter, to say the least. The antithetical argument is demonstrated by Oregon’s mostly average seasons except for the last three.

College football analysts also agree on delayed development—that top recruits usually help the success of a team two or three years after signing. Perhaps Oregon’s 2007 recruiting class boosted their 2010 performance, but does not explain the Ducks success in 2008/09 (shown below). Oregon only pulled three top recruits in 2005 and one in 2006, so top talent did not affect those two successful years.

The real enigma is that USC’s annually unsurpassed recruiting classes have resulted in four and five loss seasons in 2009/10. Why is that? Oregon should be having average autumns while USC should have near-perfect football seasons.

Won-Loss Records
Year 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
USC 11-2 12-1 13-0 12-1 11-2 11-2 12-1 9-4 8-5
Oregon 7-6 8-5 5-6 10-2 7-6 9-4 10-3 10-3 12-0

Team performance is reflected in offensive and defensive statistics. Oregon’s seasonal results have mostly been tied to their offensive and defensive performance shown below. Their most impressive progress has been on offense from 2005 to the present. They have been ranked first offensively in the Pac-10 for the last four years. Additionally improving their 2010 defense (from a Pac-10 seventh to second), accounts for their invite to the BCS Championship.

No real mystery in the numbers here, except to ask how this is being accomplished with mostly average talent. Let’s point out that Chip Kelly was the offensive coordinator in 2007/08 and head coach in 2009/10 when Oregon finished first in Pac-10 total offense for all four years. But it was his strategy as offensive coordinator three or four years ago that is paying huge dividends in this year’s offense.

Nick Aliotti’s defensive coordination since 1999 is partially responsible for the improvement in Oregon’s rushing defense this year, but again, Oregon had their best recruiting class three years ago. Coaching and recruiting both played parts here.

Oregon’s Statistics

Year 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
P-10 Total Offense


5th 6th 3rd 2nd 1st 1st 1st 1st
P-10 Total Defense (YPG) 10th 5th 4th 3rd 3rd 7th 7th 3rd 2nd
Overall Record 7-6 8-5 5-6 10-2 7-6 9-4 10-3 10-3 12-0

USC’s surreal recruiting through 2010 is affirmed in the recruiting table above; however, their offensive and defensive statistics were only mostly superlative from 2002 through 2008. Similarly, the Trojan’s maintained their winning record from 2002, but only through 2008. Why the drop off? The fast fall-off in total offense and total defense stats are unmistakable.

The decline in offense in 2009 can be attributed to the losing their offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian, losing key players (such as quarterback Mark Sanchez, running back Joe McKnight, and tight end Anthony McCoy), and starting true freshman quarterback Matt Barkley.

In 2009 John Morton also assumed duties as offensive coordinator while Jeremy Bates took over as quarterbacks coach. The coaching changes combined with the associated chaos of offensive style changes, key player losses, and the player/system learning curve, all play significant roles in the offensive drop off in 2009. A completely new coaching staff with new learning curves and thin offensive line can be pointed at in 2010.

USC’s Statistics

Year 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
P-10 Total Offense 1st 1st 2nd 1st 3rd 3rd 2nd 6th 4th
P-10 Total Defense (YPG) 1st 4th 1st 1st 1st 1st 1st 5th 6th
P-10 Rushing Defense 1st 1st 2nd 3rd 2nd 2nd 1st 6th 6th
P-10 Passing Defense 2nd 9th 5th 5th 4th 1st 1st 5th 10th
Overall Record 11-2 12-1 13-0 12-1 11-2 11-2 12-1 9-4 8-5

Typically there is a three-year player/system learning curve with the insertion of new coaches implementing changes in the system. These changes have to be absorbed in the first year, improved on the second, and mastered in the third. USC’s coaching and player changes after 2008 put the offense in a novice mode. Complete coaching changes after 2009 totally reset the team to this novice mode.

USC’s defense is a similar matter. Rocky Seto replaced Nick Holt as defensive coordinator in 2009 and additionally served as the secondary coach from 2006 through 2009. Some could argue that USC ran the same defense through those years, had secondary coaching stability and only coaching quality accounts for the 2009 decline. A better reason for this decline is that Seto was splitting duties as a secondary coach and defensive coordinator, which explains the performance perturbation.

In any case, the complete coaching change after 2009 had to again be absorbed in 2010. With all coaches returning in 2011, it should be expected that both USC’s offense and defense shall both improve this year and be mastered in 2012. Especially considering the quality and experience of the coaches USC has in place.

USC did capture eight straight top-ten recruiting classes in the nation and Oregon has none. The Ducks do have a better record than USC in the last two years. There is a performance paradox and the paradox is reflected in offensive and defensive statistics.

These statistics are explained by coaching changes, key player changes, and the player/system learning-curve. USC’s 2011 returning coaching staff, key player stability, and players overcoming the learning curve, should promote nine or ten wins. The second year of improved culture at USC will also help, along with the two current Pac-10 powerhouses Oregon and Stanford suffering significant player turnover. Arizona State has excellent player retention as well, but no team, including the Sun Devils, has the Trojan’s tenfold recruiting edge. The 2011 Pac-12 battles will be interesting, entertaining, and competitive, especially USC at Arizona State.