USC Football: Why the Trojans Are Surprise Favorites vs. Undefeated UtahOctober 21, 2015
It should go without saying—the folks out in Las Vegas usually know what they're doing when it comes to college football.
But the oddsmakers' track records didn't stop one particular Week 8 spread from receiving a massive amount of scrutiny:
No. 3 Utah, boasting a perfect record and the second-most first-place votes of any team in the current Associated Press Top 25 poll, opened as a three-point underdog on Odds Shark to a USC team that has a 3-3 record and an interim head coach.
While lines are set to encourage betting, the Utah side isn't swimming in money after people saw what they thought was such an outrageous point spread.
Quite the opposite, actually.
According to Odds Shark, USC is now a 3.5-point favorite over Utah, and some places even have the Trojans favored by four points. Utah may be a favorite in the eyes of the public, but that doesn't bother Vegas.
And it's not just the oddsmakers who favor USC.
Advanced stat systems, including Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings and ESPN's Football Power Index, both have the Trojans ranked higher than the Utes, despite the large gap in records and perception. They, too, ignore what the polls say and rely on their own data.
But believing that struggling USC is the favorite over a Utah team that has its sights set on a playoff run might be too hard to believe, even for the most optimistic of Trojan diehards.
Here are four reasons why USC is not an underdog this weekend and why it can pull off the non-upset of Utah.
The last time USC was in the Coliseum, it wasn't pretty. A low-scoring Thursday night loss to Washington turned out to be the last game in charge for head coach Steve Sarkisian.
But the home of the Trojans is still the biggest road venue undefeated Utah has faced all season. The Utes have only traveled to bad Mountain West foe Fresno State and Pac-12 North power Oregon, which only holds 54,000 fans inside Autzen Stadium.
The Coliseum, on the other hand, has almost 40,000 more seats than the rowdy Autzen Zoo, which was quieted quickly in Utah's 62-20 beatdown of Oregon last month.
As Paul Bessire of Prediction Machine (h/t Chip Patterson of CBS Sports) noted this summer, home-field advantage is worth about three points in college football. John Avello of Wynn Las Vegas told Sporting News the location of this game is the main reason why USC is favored.
"They are home," Avello said. "That’s the No. 1 reason why they’re the favorite. ... You’re going to a place that’s just a difficult place to play. This team (USC) should be sky-high for this contest."
If USC's fans can throw their full support behind interim head coach Clay Helton and his team in turmoil, then they can give Utah something it hasn't had to deal with all year: a large and loud crowd making its presence felt for four quarters.
Margin of victory
But the standard three-point swing from home-field advantage doesn't fully explain USC's status as the favorite in this game. Take away the Trojans' bonus from being the host, and this looks like a fairly even matchup on a hypothetical neutral field.
How? Well, Utah may have twice as many wins as USC this season, but one important stat that both the oddsmakers and the computers favor—margin of victory—has the two teams looking even.
USC's three losses this season have all been close, and the majority of Utah's wins have been tight. Add the margins of victory together and compare strength of schedule, and there's hardly any difference.
|USC vs. Utah: Margin of Victory in 2015|
|1||Won 55-6 vs. Arkansas State (+49)||Won 24-17 vs. Michigan (+7)|
|2||Won 59-9 vs. Idaho (+50)||Won 24-14 vs. Utah State (+10)|
|3||Lost 41-31 vs. Stanford (-10)||Won 45-24 at Fresno State (+31)|
|4||Won 42-14 at Arizona State (+28)||Won 62-20 at Oregon (+42)|
|5||Lost 17-12 vs. Washington (-5)||Won 30-24 vs. Cal (+6)|
|6||Lost 41-31 at Notre Dame (-10)||Won 34-18 vs. Arizona State (+16)|
|TOTAL||+102 (avg. of +17)||+103 (avg. of +17.2)|
|SOS: Sagarin (USAToday.com)|
"Scoring margin is generally a better predictor of future performance than a team's win-loss record itself," Sharon Katz of ESPN.com wrote. "USC obviously does not have as impressive a resume as Utah's, but this weekend, the FPI and Vegas expect them to be stronger at home."
Another interesting fact to consider when comparing USC and Utah is its only common opponent so far this season. While USC destroyed Arizona State in Tempe one week after its loss to now-No. 10 Stanford, Utah needed a fourth-quarter rally to put the Sun Devils away at home last Saturday.
While wins and losses are ultimately what matters most, the final score lines seem to indicate USC isn't quite as bad as its 3-3 record suggests, and Utah isn't a dominant No. 3 team.
The talent gap
In almost every conceivable metric—recruiting class rankings, number of pro prospects, All-Pac-12 candidates, etc.—USC is a more talented team than the one Utah will bring to Los Angeles on Saturday. It's why USC was a preseason title contender and why Utah was unranked.
But more talent doesn't always lead to wins. Upsets happen all the time, and highly regarded teams just don't live up to expectations. USC fans are already well aware of this notion, considering the number of disappointing seasons in the post-Pete Carroll years.
That's not to say Utah isn't a talented team by any means. Devontae Booker is one of the hardest-running backs in the country, Travis Wilson has developed into a reliable passer and head coach Kyle Whittingham has assembled a rock-solid defense to go along with the nation's best special teams unit.
However, Whittingham knows who will be the more talented team when things kick off Saturday in Los Angeles.
"The biggest concern is the sheer number of players they have that are just incredibly talented," Whittingham said, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. "I don't think there's a coach in the Pac-12 that will argue that USC doesn't have the best talent in the conference. That's just how it is year in and year out."
If USC can play up to its potential, something the Trojans have already showed in the Arizona State win that followed the Stanford upset loss, then it is more than capable of ending Utah's undefeated run. It's a matter of execution.
The "post-Notre Dame" factor
USC could've easily folded last weekend at Notre Dame. The Trojans were a few days removed from a crazy saga in which their head coach took a leave of absence and then was fired amid a media firestorm.
But they didn't. Under Helton, USC played tough and hung with a playoff-contending Notre Dame team on the road for most of the night. As Bleacher Report's Bryan Fischer noted, USC looked like the preseason Top 10 team it was supposed to be this season.
While USC couldn't get the win, the Notre Dame game was still a step in the right direction for a program on shaky ground following Sarkisian's firing. It pressed through the weirdness of having a new interim head coach and looked like a totally different team from the one that lost to Washington.
Garry Paskwietz of WeAreSC.com wrote on ESPN.com regarding Helton:
Helton did a good job to keep a high level of focus to the preparation last week amid all the drama of a coaching switch, and it resulted in the Trojans being in the game in the fourth quarter. ... If Helton can get the team in the right frame of mind, there’s no question the talent on the USC roster is there to come away with the win.
Now things will start to feel more normal for the Trojans as they return to their home stadium this weekend.
In 2013, USC rallied around interim head coach Ed Orgeron after a close loss on the road to Notre Dame. The Trojans went on to beat No. 5 Stanford in the Coliseum a few weeks later.
The turnaround will have to be shorter for USC this time if it's going to knock off a national title contender. But Helton's squad has home-field advantage, experience in tight games, talent and some momentum from a better-than-expected performance at Notre Dame.
If nothing else, at least the experts in Las Vegas still believe in the Trojans.
Unless otherwise noted, other statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting class rankings per 247Sports.
Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.