Expectations for USC football in 2016 have remained tempered this offseason, but ESPN’s FPI rankings suggest more should be expected of the Trojans.
The newest iteration of ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks USC football No. 8 in the country and predicts the Trojans have the best odds to win the Pac-12 title in 2016.
In our recent round up of Post-Spring Top 25 rankings, USC was listed no higher than No. 15 and was never the most-highly ranked Pac-12 squad.
In other words, human rankers remain skeptical about the Trojans’ prospects of “coming good” this season, largely because there are so many question marks surrounding USC’s coaching staff and depth.
Meanwhile the Football Power Index, or FPI, a rating system which attacks rankings from a purely statistical perspective, expects the Trojans to thrive this coming season.
USC was given a 0.8 percent chance of going undefeated, which may seem small, but is actually the 14th best odds in the nation. The Trojans have the strongest strength of schedule in the country, making that number all the more impressive next to Washington’s 1.2 percent chance of winning out with the 52nd SOS or Notre Dames 0.9 percent chance with an SOS ranked 49th.
That’s also well above the odds for the likes of Stanford and Oregon, which have been given a 0.0 percent chance of finishing without a loss.
USC has been in this position quite often in the recent past, with advanced metrics telling a story of dominance that doesn’t seem to translate with equivalent wins.
Moving on to a more attainable goal, the Trojans are the most likely team to win the Pac-12 title with a 28.8 percent chance of going to the Rose Bowl. UCLA’s probability is 26.2 percent while Washington leads the teams in the North at 23.8 percent.
Again for comparison, Stanford and Oregon, who have won the last seven Pac-12 titles, have been given 7.9 and 6.6 percent odds, respectively.
Finally, USC’s projected win-loss record sits at 8.9-3.6, which reflects that particularly difficult schedule. How difficult? An “average” FBS team would be expected to win no more than three games of the 12. The Trojans are expected to be three times better than average.
Getting a better understanding of how all these projections and predictions and percentages come together requires a closer look at FPI.
The official explanation:
"“The Football Power Index (FPI) is a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team’s performance going forward for the rest of the season. FPI represents how many points above or below average a team is. Projected results are based on 10,000 simulations of the rest of the season using FPI, results to date, and the remaining schedule.”"
For Preseason FPI, there are four major components acting on a teams rating: last year’s performance, returning starters, four-year recruiting ranking average and coaching tenure. ESPN’s Sharon Katz provides a complete explanation of why those components are important and how they’re weighted here.
As disappointing as USC’s 2015 season ended, with the Trojans coming up short in the Pac-12 title game before suffering a sluggish loss to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl, the campaign as a whole set a strong foundation for the preseason rankings.
USC finished 2015 ranked No. 12 in FPI, the highest ranked eight-win team by some margin. Both offensively and defensively the Trojans rated among the Top 30 teams in the country, though special teams hurt their overall score.
Pair those strong statistical markers with 15 returning starters and an exceptional four-year recruiting average, and USC’s high ranking makes complete sense.
Based on the data, the computers project the Trojan offense to rank No. 8 in the country and the defense to rank No. 24. With that kind of balance, a Top 10 spot is a no-brainer.
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Well, a no-brainer statistically.
USC has been in this position quite often in the recent past, with advanced metrics telling a story of dominance that doesn’t seem to translate with equivalent wins or performances.
The aforementioned human rankers have the advantage of perspective. They have seen promising Trojan squads with strong statistical markers and a wealth of returning starters and an exceptional four-year recruiting average fail to live up to potential before.
They’ve seen the mental side of the game — the one that can’t be quantified for a formula — get the better of USC. They’ve seen flawed head coaches make poor decisions and talented players make key mistakes. And they’re not convinced that Clay Helton isn’t just Lane Kiffin/Steve Sarkisian 2.0.
All the while, the data has held that USC is, or should be, among the elite.
It’s time for Helton’s Trojans to prove the computers right.