Before the NCAA threw the book at USC, virtually every prognosticator had the Trojans in the top 10 and favored to win the PAC-10 title. But with no longer being able to compete for a conference title, national championship or play in the postseason – and "get out of jail free" transfer rules for junior and senior – few will expect USC to do much of anything this season. But when cataclysmic events such as this go down, I immediately look for ways to cash in. I see potentially four reasons why USC could be a “bet on” team in 2010.
1. The poop hit the fan - No matter how sharp or square a handicapper you are, you'd be right to assume USC will struggle in some capacity in 2010. Scholarship reductions, lack of motivation, no Pete Carroll, no longer invincible...those are all very REAL factors that could affect the outcome of their season. The question though is how much? As of now it doesn't look as if the cupboard will be left bare due to excess transfers. I think that most players recognize that while their dreams of playing for a title won't come true, the springboard to the NFL is as strong as any program in the country. Was Carroll such a great coach? Yes, he was good but USC won year in and year out because of superior talent. It is down from previous seasons but they still have the most in the PAC-10. And 5-4 in conference play last season provides the Trojans with a new role of playing games as an underdog. Also keep in mind two other factors. Motivation is often times a product of the coaching staff. When given a platform for competition, most athletes know nothing but full speed. Once these kids hit the field, all of the media hoopla will be tossed aside as simple tasks like tackling and catching the football take priority. And having first-year head coach Lane Kiffin can easily be considered a plus. Regardless of how you feel about him as a coach, the fact is he is going to try everything is his power to get USC to play with passion and win games. Let's put it this way, would you rather have a hungry Kiffin or Carroll coaching in swimming trunks knowing there is no shot at a Rose Bowl berth?
2. You are only as good as your last season - Prior to the poop hitting the fan, publications like Athlon and Phil Steele placed USC firmly in their top 10 preseason polls. But USC's 9-4 record, Carroll's departure and media rumblings about Reggie Bush’s daily Christmas presents were red flags to a lot of bettors. USC was a +175 favorite to win the PAC-10 prior to being taken off the board. Heading into the 2008 season, they were -300. Clearly the marketplace feels the large gap between USC and the rest of the PAC-10 is no longer present. But while the gap is indeed smaller, that still doesn't mean that USC can't win in the PAC-10. In my mind the combination of last season's decline AND all of the infraction could lead to USC being undervalued. The marketplace is more often than not accurate but that still doesn’t mean it isn’t susceptible to overreaction.
3. Overvalued in the marketplace - After a couple of national titles under Pete Carroll, USC's betting value was extremely limited, especially in league play. From 2005-09, they posted ATS records of 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-5-1 and 4-9. Fifteen of those 31 ATS wins came in non-conference play which meant for the past half decade, USC was a PAC-10 money-burner. USC's inability to cover spreads within the league coupled with what we discussed could potentially add to their value.
4. USC men's basketball team – During this past midseason, it was announced that the basketball team would be banned from postseason play including the PAC-10 tournament. How would the team respond? At that point, the Trojans were 10-4 SU and 5-6-1 ATS. They had a tough stretch of five of their next seven on the road an unsurprisingly went 2-5 SU but 4-3 ATS. And three of those four covers came immediately following the postseason ban – market anticipated a letdown, team rallied. The Trojans then won four straight, going 2-2 ATS in the process. But after a tough road loss at Washington State, the wheels came off and the team closed out the year with five straight losses (2-3 ATS). Different sport, somewhat different situation but I think it is reasonable to assume that we will see both "me against the world" and "we're mailing this one in" type performances this season from the football squad. The challenge will be predicting when.
Unfortunately USC's schedule isn't ideal to take advantage of my predicted "undervalue-ness". We are still waiting from word from the NCAA whether or not the season opener against Hawaii will be played. Assuming it is the Trojans play at Hawaii, vs. Virginia, at Minnesota and at Washington State their first four games. It isn't inconceivable that they finish that stretch 4-0 with a couple of blowout wins. Regardless, I am still going to look to cash in on USC's current predicament. I don’t know how or when but as of now I will be looking to “bet on” before I “bet against”.