USC, Oregon State as potential 'sleeper' teams

June, 5, 2013
6/05/13
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ESPN.com's Brad Edwards is our college football numbers guy, a pundit so skilled that the BCS (sometimes) makes sense to him. Therefore, he's not afraid to use advanced metrics to evaluate an upcoming college football season.

He shifted through some data and found five potential "sleeper" teams in 2013. And two are from the Pac-12: USC and Oregon State.

By sleeper, he means "teams that played better than their records showed in 2012 -- and might not need to improve all that much to be a factor in their conference races in 2013."

Here's his methodology:
Expected Points Added is a metric that surveys the game situation to measure how much a given play or drive affects a team's likelihood of either scoring or allowing points. ESPN's Production Analytics team has used EPA with the NFL for a couple of seasons, and this is how it works. This season, we'll be unveiling college football EPA.

Our college EPA operates in the same framework as the NFL, except for one significant addition -- an adjustment must be made for opponent strength, since it varies so greatly across college schedules. Offensive performance is graded against the quality of the opposing defenses, defensive performance is graded against the quality of the opposing offenses, and even the special teams are graded against the quality of the opposing units (kick return versus kick coverage, etc.).

USC was the most disappointing team in the nation last year. So why does Edwards like the Trojans?
To look at USC in this light, you must focus on the schedule. While the average fan might scoff at the suggestion that Pac-12 teams play defense, the truth is that the Trojans played several well-above-average defensive teams in 2012, and all but one of those games came in conference play. Three USC opponents -- Stanford, Notre Dame and Oregon -- ranked among the nation's top 10 in adjusted defensive EPA, and the Trojans' offense performed extremely well against the Ducks and moved the ball relatively well against the Irish.

Therefore, the opponent adjustment makes the 2012 USC offense look a lot better than it seemed on the field, although it still wasn't close to matching the preseason hype. When you consider that Barkley missed the final two games due to injury, including the offense's dismal showing in the Sun Bowl, there was at least an excuse for the late-season swoon.

As for Oregon State, Edwards believes the Beavers were underrated in 2012, ranking 20th at season's end when they should have been nearer the top-10.
There was nothing flashy about this group from an EPA standpoint. After opponent adjustment, the OSU offense and defense both ranked top 20 in the nation for the season, and the special-teams unit was top 30. The Beavers had the best single-game offensive EPA performance of the year against the BYU defense and the best single-game defensive EPA performance of the year against the Wisconsin offense.

The one thing that stood out in the EPA numbers for Oregon State is that the team was consistently solid but rarely dominant. Typically, when one side of the ball played well, the other side was fairly average. That explains why five of the Beavers' 12 games against FBS competition were decided by four points or fewer. If OSU had found a way to win more than half of those games, it might have had a final poll ranking in line with its EPA numbers.

The Pac-12 blog views both as potential top-25 teams with the potential to win as many as 10 games.

It will be interesting to see if one or the other potential sleeper -- or both -- becomes fully awake this fall.

Ted Miller | email

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