Remember those old Saturday Night Live sketches featuring Chicago Bears fans who go to comic extremes in their genuflection before their team and its coach? The “Super Fans” are so confident in their team that they quickly dispense with predictions (“Da Bears, 62 to 3”) and focus instead on hypothetical matchups. What would happen if the Bears players were all 14 inches tall? What about if Coach Ditka had to play the New York Giants by himself? “I gotta say Ditka 17, Giants 14.”
Something eerily similar to this is happening on ESPN this week. In the run-up to what promises to be a classic Rose Bowl game between Texas and USC, the network has glossed over the question of whether the Trojans are better than the Longhorns. Instead, they’ve taken it upon themselves to decide whether USC is the greatest team in the history of college football. In recent days, a SportsCenter feature has pitted this year’s USC team against the great national champions of the last 50 years. So far, at least according to ESPN, the Trojans have dispensed with history’s great football juggernauts with greater ease than they dispatched, say, the 2005 Fresno State Bulldogs.
For instance, the ESPN crew discussed a hypothetical game between USC and the 1997 Michigan Wolverines. That Michigan team had a spotty offense, but its defense was phenomenal, allowing less than nine points a game. The Wolverines had probably the best pass defense in college history, with 23 interceptions and just five touchdown passes allowed. It had Charles Woodson, who bucked history by winning the Heisman Trophy as a defensive player, along with three other future NFL cornerbacks. They held what was then the highest-scoring team in the history of the Pac 10 to 16 points.
What did ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit predict as the final score? 34-17, Trojans. ESPN’s Mark May? USC, 49-14. Will the reader please note that mediocre defenses like Arizona State and Notre Dame held USC well below 49 points this year?
My favorite, though, was the matchup with the 1991 Washington Huskies. That team outscored its opponents by a staggering average margin of 42-9. Herbstreit’s conclusion? “There’s no way that that defense could stop SC.” May: “It wouldn’t even be close.”
The ESPNers also entertained the thought of this year’s Trojans facing off against great powers from a generation ago. May noted that the 1969 Texas Longhorns (“the size of the players … forget it, they’re gonna roll over them”) and the 1955 Oklahoma Sooners (“Not even close, and I look at the size of the players … their starting center was 5-8, a sophomore, and 158 pounds”) would both be overwhelmed by today’s Trojans. Which is probably true, though one could use this method to prove that the 2005 Temple Owls were the greatest team of all time. Fielding H. Yost’s 1901 Michigan teamtrampled opponents by a cumulative score of 550-0. But, hey, the forward pass wasn’t legal then, and those guys didn’t even wear helmets. The concussions alone would make this a huge Temple blowout.
What makes this orgy of genuflection so odd is that there’s a team from the very recent past that could beat this year’s USC Trojans—last year’s USC Trojans. There’s no one perfect statistical gauge, but the best measure of football dominance is probably a team’s ratio of points scored to points allowed. If you score 200 points and allow 100, that’s a ratio of 2.0. The 2005 Trojans have a ratio of 2.3, which is not terribly impressive for a national championship team. Last year’s USC team had a ratio of 2.9. The 1997 Michigan team had a 3.1, and the 1991 Washington Huskies outscored their opponents 4.6 to 1—twice the ratio of this year’s Trojans.
Nor is it clear that USC is better than this year’s Texas Longhorns. Both teams have fantastic offenses. (USC averages 50 points a game, Texas 51.) But Texas’ defense is very good (allowing 14.6 points a game), while USC’s is barely above average (allowing 21.3.)
Why, then, is USC considered so clearly superior? As I wrote a few years ago, overrated teams tend to share certain factors. USC has two of them in spades. First, they’re an offensive-oriented team with great skill-position talent. Teams with great offenses and shaky defenses tend to be overrated, while teams with great defenses and shaky offenses are usually underrated. Second, they’re piggybacking off the reputation of a predecessor. The 2002 Miami Hurricanes were overrated because the 2001 Hurricanes were genuinely awesome. (So awesome, in fact, that the ESPN crew actually acknowledged that the 2001 ‘Canes would give USC a good game.) The 2005 version of USC is similarly basking in the reflected glow of its 2004 team.
While USC may be wildly overrated, they’re still very, very good. They were not as dominant as Texas throughout the year, but their battered defense will return a lot of injured players in the Rose Bowl, they’ll be playing in their hometown, and they have a coach who makes the most of bowl preparation. But maybe we should play the game before considering how much they would win by if the team consisted of a bunch of 14-inch-tall Pete Carrolls.