Is USC Football among college football’s most-often overrated?

USC football defender Su'a Cravens. (Harry How/Getty Images)
USC football defender Su'a Cravens. (Harry How/Getty Images) /

USC Football has been overrated at times in recent memory, but are they among football’s most overrated? Have sanctions played a role in matching expectations?

Who are the most consistently overrated teams in college football? That’s the question Greg Guglielmo of tried to get to the bottom of this week.

Guglielmo compiled the preseason and final rankings in the AP poll going back to 1997, charting the average preseason rank each team held as well as their ability to be better, worse or the same rank by the end of the year.

In the grand scheme of things, USC’s tendency to be overrated isn’t particularly egregious. The Trojans average preseason rank since 1997 is 13.2. They ended worse off 60 percent of the time, exceeded their preseason rating 30 percent and matched it 10 percent.

Of the 11 teams with an average preseason rank at 15.9 or higher, the Trojans worse off percentage was lower than Ohio State, Florida State, Florida, LSU and Texas. They matched Oklahoma, Michigan and Tennessee while trailing only Georgia and Alabama.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame and Penn State had much lower starting points with an average ranking of 25.1 and 25.2 respectively, but still managed to be overrated 70 percent of the time.

Still, the question of overrated teams had more than a few people on social media throwing grenades USC’s way, particularly for the Trojans’ poll performances in recent years.

Former Trojan linebacker Su’a Cravens fired back, with an assist from former running back Justin Davis:

So here’s the question: Has USC been overrated in the post-Pete Carroll Era? And how much of a pass do the Trojans deserve considering the sanctions which banned USC from the postseason for two years and docked them 30 scholarships over three years?

The numbers seem to back up Cravens to a certain extent.

In five of the last seven years, USC has finished ranked 19th or worse in the final AP poll. The two years the Trojans finished higher, they ranked No. 6 in 2011 and No. 3 in 2016 at season’s end.

What do the 2011 and 2016 seasons have in common? USC’s roster numbers were considerably stronger than the other five.

CHECK OUT: USC’s Best Players of the Sanctions Era

In 2010, USC’s roster numbers dropped down to 72 scholarships thanks to a particularly small recruiting class and the provision in the NCAA sanctions which allowed juniors and seniors to transfer freely from the program. The Trojans ranked 14th to start the season and finished unranked after going 8-5.

In 2012, 2013 and 2014, USC was limited to 75 total scholarships.

Memorably, the 2012 Trojans started at No. 1 and were out of the final poll. The 2013 team actually rose from No. 24 in the preseason to No. 19.

Finally, the 2014 squad started at No. 15 and ended at a respectable No. 20. While that team slots into FiveThirtyEight’s “worse off” column, calling them overrated is probably a mistake.

The Trojans started eight freshmen during the course of that season and suited up no more than 57 scholarship players at any point during the year because of injury. They lost four games, but three of those were by a combined 13 points, and two of those losses were sealed on the opponent’s final play of the game.

The 2015 season was more of an underachievement, starting at No. 8 and finishing unranked. Even then, the scholarship numbers tell a story despite the sanctions end.

Officially, USC’s roster ballooned back up from a limit of 75 to 82 for the year, but in truth the Trojans actually fielded 75 recruited players. Quarterback Ricky Town, who transferred before the season, and tight end Bryce Dixon, who was embroiled in a legal battle with the university but was not allowed to return to the football team, both counted as scholarship players. Additionally, five former walk-ons muddied the numbers.

Comparatively, the 2011 and 2016 seasons featured more scholarship-level bodies and had more success.

The 2011 squad, which began the year ranked No. 25, was boosted by a loaded recruiting class. With 82 scholarship players on the roster, the Trojans roared to a 10-2 record, landing at No. 6 in the final AP poll.

More from Reign of Troy

In 2016, USC fielded a restored roster, complete with 81 scholarship players and four former walk-ons up to a total of 85, for the first time since the sanctions began. Despite a slow start, the preseason No. 20 Trojans finished the campaign with a nine-game winning streak and ranked No. 3 when the dust cleared.

There are thousands of reasons a team might overachieve or underachieve in a given season. And there are even more reasons pollsters can get it wrong by overrating or underrating a squad beyond their control.

The trends at least support the argument that some portion of USC’s overrated tendencies over the past seven years links back to an underestimation of the toll of scholarship reductions. On the rare occasion the Trojans had a full or close to full roster, success followed.

TRENDING: Game-By-Game Predictions for USC’s 2017 Season

Still, USC does have something big to prove in 2017. The last two times the Trojans were ranked in the Top 10 to start a season, they finished outside of the Top 25. Now ranked No. 4 and with no scholarship reductions to blame, Clay Helton’s squad can put any overrated accusations to bed by living up to expectations.