According to Pick Six Previews, this December will be duck hunting season.
In their 2015 Season Preview, Pick Six Previews again picked the USC Trojans to win the Pac-12 South. But this time they have USC taking the conference title from Oregon, and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.
This isn't necessarily news for Trojan fans. In 2012, they started the season ranked number one, and finished with an abysmal 7-6 record. Last season, Pick Six picked the Trojans to win the South, and they finished fourth with a 9-4 record. So it's understandable that USC fans view this pick with some skepticism—although they shouldn't.
According to the Stassen Accuracy Rating, Pick Six Previews has been the most accurate human prediction website in country over the last three seasons—yes, even better than Phil Steele. Two seasons ago, they predicted the Pac-12 South to perfection. Looking back, Pick Six recognized they got on the USC train a year early. Brett Ciancia, one of Pick Six Preview's owners, said:
"Well it appears we were a year early. I was the only one to Pick USC to win the South last preseason. [I] underestimated the roster limits and we saw that kick in, late in games. Fourth quarters were rough for USC without that depth. But now with [an] expanded roster, elite recruiting and [a] second year under the Sark staff—this is the year."
So what did Ciancia and others like him miss in their predictions last season?
First, the Trojans were learning a new system and adapting to new coaches. One of the biggest changes under the Sarkisian regime was the offense. USC has traditionally run a slow pro-style offense that stressed running the ball and controlling the clock.
However, as the Pac-12 has developed into a pass-happy, fast-tempo conference, Sarkisian recognized the need to adapt, so he installed a high-tempo offense with a greater emphasis on the pass game. With a young offensive line and a relatively inexperienced quarterback, it would have been reasonable to assume it would take at least a year before the offense fully clicked.
As Ciancia referenced, the second issue was the inability to finish games. USC was seventeen seconds away from finishing the regular season 10-2; however, two fourth quarter collapses cost them wins. The first dagger came from Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici, who overcame a two-point deficit with seven seconds left when he launched a 46-yard bomb. Despite there being five USC defenders and just three Sun Devil receivers in the area, Jalen Strong was able to haul in the game winner as time expired.
The second loss came on the road in Utah, where the Utes put together a game winning drive and stole the lead in the last ten seconds. If USC's defense had been able to keep their collective heads in the game for just seventeen more seconds last season, they would have been the Pac-12 South winners. However, the Utah loss can be blamed as much on the offense's failure to convert critical third and fourth downs that would have put the game away. Regardless, the Trojans couldn't finish.
Lastly, was coaching. On both sides of the ball the play calling was perplexing, and the team suffered as a result. In USC's biggest games last season, the offensive play calling was the most conservative of the season, and that especially showed in the UCLA game. Although the Trojans popped Lane Kiffin's bubble screen fanaticism, Sarkisian will need to improve that part of their game if the Trojans want to make good on the hype, and finally, for the first time in several years, play Trojan football.
So what will be different in 2015?
There are two key differences between this year's team and last year's: experience and depth. USC returns seven starters on each side of the ball and Sarkisian's staff has had a year in Los Angeles under their belt.
Quarterbacks run the Pac-12, and that's a huge advantage for the Trojans. Senior signal-caller Cody Kessler returns for his final year in cardinal and gold, and he is coming off an outstanding season, throwing for 3,826 yards, 39 touchdowns, and just five interceptions. Kessler has improved tremendously every season, and his last should be no different. In addition, it's his second year running Sarkisian's offense, and that experience will pay huge dividends.
Protecting Kessler is an offensive line that is considered one of the best in the nation. The line returns all five starters, including preseason All-American Max Tuerk. In 2014, three of the five starters were freshman. They're a talented group, but their youth and inexperience showed on the field last year. This time around, that won't be an issue.
Defensively, USC was a mess last season. At times in the season they showed they could play at an elite level, but there were other times they looked like they didn't want to be on the field. However, despite losing veteran leaders Hayes Pullard and Leonard Williams, this defense won't make the same mistakes. The team remembers their 2014 fourth quarter collapses all too well, and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will make the necessary changes to account for this. In addition, the return of linebackers Jabarri Ruffin and Lamar Dawson gives the Trojans two talented veterans whose leadership will be needed to develop the younger players.
After years of depth issues, what helps the 2015 defense the most will be the incoming recruiting class. Cornerback Iman Marshall and linebackers Cameron Smith, Osa Mesina, and Porter Gustin are all competing for starting jobs, and those who don't get in the starting lineup will certainly see time, especially late in games. In addition, the freshmen from the 2014 class now has a year of experience, and guys like Adoree Jackson, John Plattenburg, and Jonathan Lockett will be even better than they were their freshmen years.
In addition to increased depth and experience, it doesn't hurt the Trojans to have a schedule that has them playing five of their nine conference opponents in the Coliseum. But don't mistake that home field advantage for an easy schedule. With road games at Arizona State, Notre Dame, and Oregon, and home games against Stanford, Arizona, and UCLA, there's plenty of opportunity for the Trojans to slip up and add a couple of tallies to the loss column.
So that begs the question, what happens if USC drops two games, but wins the Pac-12, finishing 11-2? Will the playoff committee take a two-loss Pac-12 champion over, say, a one or two loss SEC runner-up?
While no one can guess the mind of the playoff committee (remember the TCU-Baylor rankings?), we think they would say yes to a Pac-12 champion, even with two losses. Over the last few seasons, the Pac-12 has emerged as an elite conference, and is closing in on the SEC. It's unlikely the committee would take two teams from the same conference, and to not take the champion from the second best conference in the country seems wrong.
The playoff committee showed us last year that they heavily value strength of schedule; one of the main reasons Baylor and TCU missed the playoffs last season. According to ESPN, the Trojans have the fourth toughest schedule in the country for 2015, which gives them a big advantage in the polls. If USC were to reach 11-2 and win the Pac-12, they will have beaten some combination of Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona, Notre Dame, Oregon (possibly twice), and UCLA—all teams ranked in the preseason Coaches' Poll.
At the end of the season, the Pac-12 winner will be in the playoffs, even with two losses. USC has everything in place to make a run for both the conference title and the playoffs; but 2015 for USC isn't a question of can the Trojans do it, but will they?