USC vs. UCLA: Statistical Breakdown vs. Like Opponents


When looking at the Trojans and Bruins’ stats and try to decipher which is superior, you just end up splitting hairs, as they’re just so even. They’re 17th and 18th in the BCS Standings,  third and fourth in the Pac-12 in total offense, seventh and eighth in total defense and only 38 seconds separate their season-long time of possession totals.

Despite being even-steven however, scheduling plays into the tale of the tape, as seen with a given variant of strength of schedule. The teams have played five of the same Pac-12 teams to date, but UCLA has yet to play against the No. 1 defense (Stanford), while missing out on the No. 1 offense (Oregon) and settling for Washington State, a team sitting in the lower tier of the conference on both sides of the football.

To examine how the teams rate against each other on an even playing field, one can look to their games against like opponents. To date, USC and UCLA have played to a 4-1 record in those against common opponents, so what gives? Well, let’s break it down statistically, taking only games against Cal, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State into account.

The results as a whole see plenty of even areas,  though the Trojans seem to boast a defense that on paper is superior to that of the Bruins. They’re forcing more sacks, allowing fewer yards and points, and they’re doing so all while forcing more turnovers against common foes.

Offensively, against like opponents, the Trojans are averaging 5.45 yards per carry, which is more than a full yard than what the Bruins averaged against the same teams. Considering that UCLA’s average drops with common opponents and USC’s rises, variance due to scheduling becomes clear.

Against Stanford, USC’s running game was exposed due to the loss of Khaled Holmes, while the Ducks exploited the Trojans’ defense before they bounced back last week against ASU. Meanwhile, UCLA’s ground attack was inflated with 300-yard performances against Rice and Nebraska, two teams that are 104th and 86th nationally against the run.

UCLA’s 39 sacks on the season  rank them third in the nation, just one spot ahead of USC. However, 13 of those sacks came against Rice and Washington State, with the Cougars being ranked dead last in the FBS in sacks allowed. For comparison’s sake, FCS squad Eastern Washington had eight tackles for loss during their Week 2 trip to Pullman. Cal, the nation’s third worst team in sacks allowed gave up nine sacks to USC, and relatively speaking, just four to UCLA. Offensively, USC’s 0.8 sacks per-game against like foes is a significant advantage over the Bruins, who were sacked by Cal six times.

Now, for the Bruins, there’s plenty of statistical advantages against like opponents, and even globally throughout the season. The Trojans have turned it over nearly twice as much as UCLA in the five game set, and they’re not living and dying on the big play as USC is. Troy leads the country in plays over 70 yards, while UCLA is benefiting more from an up-tempo offense between the twenties that’s given them more red zone opportunities and more first downs, despite averaging less yardage on a per-play basis.

In the end however, USC and UCLA have been so unpredictable that the stats almost remain so similar solely because they’re such opposites. The Bruins’ best defensive game was the Trojans’ worst, in addition to the teams soundly beating the teams that defeated the other. That pretty much makes Saturday’s game impossible to predict.