LSU crept to fifth in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, a bit of a surprise after the Associated Press propelled USC past the Tigers in its latest poll. The CFP committee resisted the urge to do the same and was justified in doing so.
Committee head Boo Corrigan told ESPN after the reveal that the main reason for two-loss LSU ranking ahead of one-loss USC was the committee not believing the Trojans’ defense has been strong enough. The numbers back up those worries.
USC (10-1, 8-1 in Pac-12) has three good defensive performances against Pac-12 competition. Against Colorado (1-10, 1-7 in Pac-12), Oregon State (8-3, 5-3 in Pac-12), and Washington State (7-4, 4-4 in Pac-12), the team gave up an average of 16.7 points and 298.3 yards.
The team has been dismal in its other conference games.
It’s fair for the Trojans to have struggled to slow down No. 14 Utah (8-3, 6-2 in Pac-12) and No. UCLA (8-3, 5-3 in Pac-12); USC gave up 88 points and 1,075 yards in those two games.
It’s far less understandable for the defense to give up an average of 31.3 points and 446 yards to four teams — Arizona, Arizona State, California, and Stanford — that have a combined record of 14-30 and 7-26 in Pac-12.
In a sort of « Butterfly Effect, » Utah’s loss in Week 1 at unranked Florida (6-5, 3-5 in SEC) could be the lynchpin in USC consistently ranking behind a two-loss LSU team.
Utah lost 29-26 to Florida and then proceeded to defeat USC 43-42 on Oct. 15. On that same day, LSU traveled to Florida and won 45-35. That opening week Utah-Florida result is significant. A top Pac-12 team losing to a mediocre SEC team should be considered when evaluating the strength of the two conferences.
LSU (9-2, 6-1 in SEC) has bad losses, even as No. 16 Florida State (8-3, 5-3 in ACC) proves to be much better than preseason projections. A 27-point loss to No. 10 Tennessee (9-2, 5-2 in SEC) appears to demonstrate there are limitations to this LSU team, but there’s no doubt the defense is much improved since that loss. Freshman Harold Perkins Jr. emerged as one of the best defenders in football with standout performances against No. 7 Alabama (9-2, 5-2 in SEC) and Arkansas (6-5, 3-4 in SEC) in November.
The Tigers appear to be past their defensive struggles while USCs remain evident. Some may view LSU’s offense as big a weakness as the Trojans’ defense, but LSU ranks 34th in points per game (33.4) while USC ranks 68th in points allowed per game (26.3). Ineffective outings against Auburn (5-6, 2-5 in SEC) and Arkansas for LSU have been the exception and not the rule.
ESPN’s Football Power Index favors the Tigers, ranking them 10th and USC 14th. LSU (No. 8) ranks one spot higher in the strength of record metric and the Tigers’ strength of schedule (No. 15) is considerably better than what USC (No. 58) has faced.
The SEC Championship on Dec. 3 will settle the debate once and for all. An LSU wins easily gives them a stronger resume than anything USC can do in its final two games despite the Trojans playing two ranked teams, No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3), and No. 9 Oregon (9-2, 7-1 in Pac-12) or No. 13 Washington (9-2, 6-2 in Pac-12).
If LSU loses — as many expect — USC will have a red carpet laid out for it as it heads to its first CFP appearance. Or maybe not.
There’s a likelihood the Trojans lose one of their final two games as ESPN gives USC only a 31.7 percent chance of winning its remaining games. FPI projects USC to finish 11-2.
The CFP committee got the decision right on Tuesday. USC is certainly in the mix for the playoffs but clinching a spot won’t be easy. The Trojans will have to earn it.