What if USC football’s new scheduling philosophy, including the prospect of playing FCS teams, had been in place all along?
Earlier this week, USC football unveiled their new scheduling philosophy and reactions were certainly mixed.
The Trojans are ready to prioritize seven home games in most seasons at the possible expense of playing FCS teams, according to senior athletic director Steve Lopes in an interview with The Athletic. Up until 2019, USC was one of just three programs in the country who have never played opponents below the top division.
The logic behind the decision makes sense. More home games likely equals more wins. More wins equals a better shot at getting to the playoff.
But would that philosophy have paid off in years past for the Trojans? What if the seven home game priority and FCS opponents had been in the cards all along?
2018: Bowl eligibility
USC notably missed out on bowl eligibility in 2018 with a 5-7 record. One of those seven losses was on the road against Texas in mid-September.
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Trojan fans galore made the trip out to Austin, which is a great college football destination. However, the weekend turned into a bummer when USC came away with a 37-14 loss.
If USC had scheduled an FCS opponent on that date instead, the Trojans likely would have started the season 6-1.
Of course, that doesn’t mean much for what happened for the rest of the season. An FCS win wouldn’t have prevented the Trojans from falling apart by losing five of their final six games.
It would have impacted the season though. The extra win would have given USC a 6-6 record and NCAA rules allow at least one FCS victory to count towards bowl eligibility.
So yes, the Trojans might have enjoyed a trip to Cheez-It Bowl. Hooray.
2017: Injury intrigue
The what if gets interesting in 2017 because once again the FCS switch would have wiped away a tough match up with Texas.
USC won that game, but it was hard fought and had some big consequences. Most notably, Porter Gustin suffered a season-ending injury.
Maybe Gustin wouldn’t have had reason to push his body to the breaking point if the Trojans had been playing a lesser opponent. It’s something to think about.
Either way, the 2017 Trojans were a flawed bunch and while Gustin might have proved the difference against Washington State, he wouldn’t have been enough to spare USC the blowout loss to Notre Dame.
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Perhaps the Trojans make it into the playoff as a 12-1 team despite that loss to the Irish, but what happened against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl would have only been worse in a playoff matchup.
2016: No better, or worse
The 2016 season would have started off in more pleasant fashion if USC had kicked off the campaign at home against the sisters of the poor instead of with an AT&T Stadium-blowout against Alabama.
But that extra win literally would have had no impact on the season as Trojan fans’ illusions of grandeur would have been shattered in Week 3 against Stanford anyways. The reality check just came a bit earlier.
In fact, it might have made it worse, because Clay Helton and company might not have had incentive to drop Max Browne for Sam Darnold if the team was 2-2 instead of 1-3.
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Either way, in a best-case scenario the Trojans still go 7-2 in conference with losses to Stanford and Utah. They still miss out on the Pac-12 title game. They still end up in the Rose Bowl against Penn State because an 11-2 USC still wasn’t going to sneak into the playoff ahead of 11-1 Oklahoma.
2015: No change
The 2015 schedule is actually a clear example of what the Trojans intend to do with their scheduling going forward. They played Arkansas State and Idaho to start the season, posting big-digit victories at the Coliseum.
Of course that didn’t help much in conference play. USC lost to Stanford and Washington. Steve Sarkisian was fired. Then Helton fell to Notre Dame and Oregon before finishing the year with losses to Stanford and Wisconsin.
2014: Better bowl
USC did lose an out of conference match up on the road in 2014, so home scheduling against the FCS definitely would have given the Trojans a boost.
Take the loss to Boston College out of the equation and the Trojans would have gone 10-3 on the season.
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A 6-3 conference record, however, wouldn’t have been enough to beat out Arizona for the Pac-12 South crown.
A better record may have created an argument for USC to go to the Alamo Bowl over UCLA with both teams at 9-3, but the Trojans lost to the Bruins head-to-head so that argument doesn’t hold a lot of water.
2013: No change
With wins over Hawaii, Boston College and Utah State in the out of conference slate, there’s no extra out of conference win to be found in 2013. The Trojans still lost three games in conference and fell to Notre Dame for a 10-4 record.
2012: Minor change
One could argue USC’s schedule would have been a bit more forgiving without the trip to play Syracuse the week before the early-season matchup against Stanford, which the Trojans lost.
Even if you’re generous and flip that L to a W, USC still lost five of their last six games of the year. The schedule was never going to spare fans from the Sun Bowl fiasco.
Since USC had a bowl ban to contend with in 2011 and 2010, that’s where this thought experiment will have to end.
The Trojans are pushing the seven-game home slate as an advantage which could boost them into playoff position at some point. And maybe it eventually will. But it wouldn’t have had that effect in recent seasons at least.