Can USC Cover 14 Points Against San Jose State?
The USC Trojans will host the San Jose State Spartans on Saturday, September 3. Clay Helton and the Trojans enjoyed an outstanding shortened 2020 season. They nearly completed the undefeated season, recording a 5-1 record over 6 games. Their only loss came in their season finale, losing by a touchdown to the 25th ranked Oregon Ducks.
Head Coach Brent Brennan and the Spartans nearly completed an undefeated 2020 season, as well. They recorded a perfect 7-0 record in the Mountain West, beating more well-known teams, including Boise State, UNLV, and San Diego State. San Jose State’s only loss came to Ball State in the Arizona Bowl. They picked up where they left off in 2021, beating Southern Utah by 31 points in Week 0.
These were two of the more successful teams in the NCAA last season. Which one will be able to continue the momentum into this game, though? Will USC prove they’re ready to make a push toward the College Football Playoffs or will San Jose State prove they’re taking the next step forward for their program?
Although both of these teams were successful in terms of wins and losses in 2020, they were drastically different in covering the spread. San Jose State was one of the best teams in the NCAA, recording a 6-1-1 ATS record. They boasted an 8.8 average margin of victory and a +6.8 ATS +/-.
USC wasn’t nearly as successful, posting on a 3-3 ATS record in a shortened, Covid-filled 2020 season. They featured a 7.3 average margin of victory to go along with a +0.2 ATS +/-. The big takeaway from last season was the difference in conference games, though. Will the Spartans be ready to step up to one of the Pac-12s best in 2021?
One of the major factors in this game will be whether San Jose State’s players are ready to face a step up in competition. Phil Steele’s final conference rankings for 2020 saw the Pac-12 sit in fifth with the Mountain West finishing ninth. The Pac-12 stuck in fifth while the Mountain West jumped to seventh in his “Toughest Conference for 2021” section.
The major concern here is that San Jose State isn’t the reason for that jump. Instead, Boise State and Nevada rank first and second in the Mountain West in his “2021 Plus/Minus Power Rankings.” San Jose State ranks third, while USC ranks second in the Pac-12 rankings. Overall, the Trojans Plus/Minus sits over 10 points higher than the Spartans.
It’s clear there will be a massive difference in talent between these two teams. USC ranks 11th in the country in “Phil Steele’s Power Poll,” while San Jose State drops to 66th for the season. The question now becomes whether the Trojans can cover the spread or the Spartans can keep this game within a pair of touchdowns.
As is the case with most big spreads, the tempo will play a major factor in which team covers it. USC is a team that wants to push the pace in their games, averaging 77.3 plays per game in 2020. That ranked 19th in the NCAA. That average also jumped to 79 at home last season.
San Jose State was on the opposite end of the spectrum, ranking 111 in plays per game last season. They averaged only 65.6 plays per game, although it did increase slightly to 66.6 on the road. It also jumped to 68.7 over their final three games. With that being said, it’s still one of the slower paces in the NCAA.
Although they generally slowed the pace down when they had the ball, the Spartans only averaged 29:27 minutes per game on offense in 2020. For comparison, USC, who loves to speed their games up, averaged a 30:06 time of possession last season.
Can San Jose State control the clock with their running game, though? This would limit USC’s possesses and potential to cover such a large deficit. The answer’s relatively simple.
These are two offenses that will try to win the same way - through the air. San Jose State ranked 122nd in the NCAA in rushing attempts per game in 2020, averaging only 28.6 per game. Although the number’s low because of their slow pace, they ranked 119th in run percentage (43.6%) in 2020.
The Spartans will win and lose behind the arm of Nick Starkel this season. That was evident when they recorded only 23 rush attempts in a 45-14 blowout against Southern Utah. Luckily, we have plenty of data on Starkel in Power Five conferences. He struggled over 11 games with Texas A&M before taking a step back in 8 games with Arkansas. Starkel didn’t take a step forward until he saw lesser competition with San Jose State in 2020. The expectation is that he’ll struggle to lead his team against USC on Saturday, as well.
The Trojans, on the other hand, feature one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Kedon Slovis. He’s played at an elite level over 18 games as a freshman and sophomore for USC. It’s expected that he takes another massive step forward in 2021.
USC ran the ball on only 39.7% of their offensive snaps in 2020. They’re expected to continue that trend, as Phil Steele’s projecting they average 325.5 passing yards per game in 2021. On the other side, San Jose State’s projected to allow 238.8 passing yards per game this season, which ranks third-last in the Mountain West.
This game feels as if it’s designed to be a showcase early in the season for Slovis and USC against a team that made national waves in 2020. Both teams will rely heavily on their quarterback and passing attack, although the Trojans have a significant edge in that aspect.
It’ll be difficult to control the tempo and limit USC without asserting the run game. Even slowing the pace down when on offense isn’t likely to matter that much with the pass-heavy attack from San Jose State. This spread should be closer to three touchdowns than two, giving us a huge edge for betting.
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