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The FEI and S+P quickie for Stanford/USC: how our Rose Bowl chances look

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The national narrative is that USC may be back with Ed Orgeron righting the ship that Lane Kiffin sank, scuttled, set on fire and finally sacrificed in a volcano. USC has a world class defense, is playing with confidence and swagger and are clearly a team that Wants It More. Do they have a chance? Advanced stats say simply: sure, they do. But it's not a very good one.

This man is poised to be the most popular person in all of Oregon, and not just because of his name.
This man is poised to be the most popular person in all of Oregon, and not just because of his name.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

FEI is the Fremeau Efficiency Index, created by Brian Fremeau. Brian Fremeau is an author at Football Outsiders, ESPN and BCFToys. FEI is an advanced statistical measure for college football that tracks drive efficiency instead of per-play success.

S+P is created by Bill Connelly. Bill Connelly is an author at SBNation, RockMNation, Football Study Hall and Football Outsiders. S+P is an advanced statistical measure which combines success rate, explosiveness per play and opponent adjustments.

How S+P sees the game:

OVERALL When Stanford
Has the Ball ...
When USC has the ball...
Category Stanford


Stan Off USC Def Stan Def USC Off
F/+ Rk 3 9

S&P+ 4(269.5) 15(245.0) 22 (116.6) 6 (149.1) 4 (152.9) 71 (95.9)
Play Efficiency

26 (115.8) 6 (133.3) 3 (136.5) 59 (103.1)
Rushing S&P+

41 (111.2) 13 (125.6) 7 (130.0) 43 (109.2)
Passing S&P+ 15 (132.2) 7 (138.5) 4 (150.0) 54 (103.4)
Std. Downs S&P+

36 (112.5) 3 (143.9) 4 (143.2) 41 (108.4)
Pass. Downs S&P+

10 (135.6) 23 (121.9) 5 (141.8) 62 (100.7)
Drive Efficiency

22 (117.4) 5 (164.9) 3 (169.3) 85 (88.6)
Difference in Net Points

41 (0.20) 47 (-0.79) 46 (-0.82) 50 (0.04)

This preview isn't going to be as in-depth as my usual Oregon ones. Partially because I'm not nearly as invested or as knowledgeable about how Stanford or USC play, and partially because the numbers are so earthshatteringly depressing.

These two teams have absolutely great defenses. By S+P standards Stanford and USC are neck and neck in defensive quality. Stanford is just a small bit better against the pass and much better on passing downs, but otherwise they're almost identical. They're as good as the strong defenses we've seen from years past in the SEC. If USC ever gets their act together they could rival the Pete Carroll years of suffocating defenses and incredibly talented players that go to the NFL on a regular basis.

The primary difference is that Stanford's offense is good across the board; not great, but good. USC's offense is shockingly bad. I don't even know. How can a team with Marqise Lee be this meh? And USC doesn't have a standout anywhere; they're meh on running, meh on passing. Meh on standard and passing downs. They're poor on drive efficiency and score almost precisely what you'd expect given their field position. How you can take a team that had a top ten recruiting class 4 years running and make them mediocre is a kind of super power that only Lane Kiffin and Rich Neuheisel possess. I don't know enough about why USC is this bad, but from the numbers it just doesn't look good at all.

But, you say - they're trending up, right? Well...kinda. There are indications (as I'll get to in the FEI section) that they're doing better than they were earlier in the season. But we're not talking about an absurd turnaround. Their offense is significantly better than it appeared when Hawaii and Washington State dominated their scores, and that 19-3 win against Utah is shockingly good on both offense and defense. At the same time they looked horrible against a fairly mediocre Notre Dame team and one of their best offensive performances was in the savage beatdown to ASU - while Lane Kiffin was still around.

An aside: why does ASU look so good by advanced stats despite having this weird rollercoaster of scores and barely beating Wisconsin? Bill Connelly talked about it a bit last week, but to spell out even more - ASU lighting up the 6th best defense by S+P to a tune of 62 points AND scoring 29 points on the 4th best team means that ASU looks great on offense, even if they've not done a lot of scoring. Similarly, ASU holding Washington to 24 points and Utah to 19 also looks great (though that seems a bit weird).

If you like games that are close for the entire time, this looks like that kind of game. I could easily see this being a parallel to LSU-Alabama in 2011; I've never done a game where both defenses had such huge advantages over the offenses. For USC to score, they'll need a lot of luck, a lot of short fields, and a Stanford team to have a huge emotional letdown.

How FEI sees the game:

OVERALL When STAN has the Ball When USC has the ball
Category Stanford


F/+ Rk 3 9

FEI Rk 2(.315) 13 (.210) 17 (.408) 3 (-.732) 2 (-.810) 32 (.269)
Field Position 4(.571) 14(.545)


51 (.122) 9 (-.514) 19 (-.404) 75 (-.096)
First Down rate

29 (.736) 18 (.590) 15 (.581) 80 (.647)
Available Yards rate

25 (.542) 9 (.340) 24 (.382) 81 (.428)
Explosive Drives

22 (.187) 42 (.103) 10 (.065) 42 (.151)
Methodical Drives

57 (.154) 49 (.137) 122 (.247) 110 (.084)
Value Drives

41 (.453) 6 (.257) 32 (.321) 67 (.374)
Special Team rank 2(3.856) 37(.931)

Field Goal efficiency 70(.091) 96(-.304)

Punt Return efficiency 19(.09) 2(.338)

Kickoff return efficiency 1(.364) 105(-.269)

punt efficiency 72(-.032) 102(.033)

kickoff efficiency 18(-.287) 21(-.267)

FEI and S+P are shockingly aligned with respect to the Stanford/USC matchup. FEI is slightly more bullish on USC - likely because USC has had a fairly hard schedule and has had good but not stellar special teams. Mind you, this is only slightly. FEI thinks that both Stanford and USC have insanely good defenses; only the odd VTech team beats them in the country, and both are better than Bama. Both defenses have been tested by good to great offenses and met those tests. And both offenses...are also there. FEI is less down on USC's offenses than S+P, and that largely has to do with the game factors. Though looking at it - it's kind of odd. The three most relevant games for USC are Washington State, Utah and Notre Dame. The offense performance ranks of those three games? 440, 687 and a horrible 920. USC has an absurdly high variance in their offensive production - their standard deviation is 328. And if you're curious those recent games include some of the best performances (Oregon State, Cal, Arizona) and some of the worst (Notre Dame, Utah). They appear to be somewhat better than they were early in the season - but not significantly so.

The best shot - if you can call it that - is that USC is good at doing explosive drives on offense. If - and this is a huge, scary if - USC can get a couple of big shots they can get points on the board. Once they do that, they largely can shut down teams. There are a lot of buts, here - they need to take care of the ball, and they're bad at it. They need to not allow the other team opportunities, and they're not great at that. They need to minimize penalties, and they kind of suck at that too. They play exactly like a team with poor coaching - undisciplined, sloppy and occasionally brilliant.

The other chance that they have is on special teams. Stanford is still the second best team in the nation on special teams, but USC has a chance at a good matchup on punt returns. They're just behind Oregon on punt returns. A lot of that is the crazy game against Cal (Cal, by the way, gave up 5 TDs on punts between Oregon and USC; ouch), but a lot of that is that they have some real weapons there. It's possible that they can return some big ones against Stanford and get some good field position that their completely crap offense can squander aimlessly. The problem is that if you buy that USC can get big returns on punts, you also have to buy that Stanford is even more likely to get big returns on kickoffs, and USC is horrible at kick coverage. Once again, poor discipline rears its ugly head.

So what does this all mean?

It means that Oregon's likely hosed.

Betting on USC to do anything useful for Oregon appears to be as lucrative as betting on Lane Kiffin's post USC career or Ed Orgeron to retain the job. There are possibilities here; Stanford is on the road, and Stanford's home/road splits have not been awesome. They did lose to a talented Utah team on the road, after all. USC is getting better week to week and freshman QBs have been known to drastically improve. USC does have the raw physical talent that can compete at the point of attack against Stanford, and USC has a stellar defense. USC does have offensive stars that can take over games at times. There are chances. I can see a lot of ways that Stanford loses this game.

But I don't see it as particularly likely. Stanford is from all measurements an elite team this year. Significantly better than last year, as good as anyone in the country, as disciplined and smart as any team in the country. That they've lost is just one of those odd things that happens, like 41-point upsets or 15-13 scores against Cal. They happen. We love college football because these things can happen and we long for them to happen.

But don't bet on them.