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By the Numbers: What does it take to win the Pac-12?

By Shravan Janakiraman

In nine years of Pac-12 football, USC has won just one conference title and played in just two championship games. Heading into the tenth season of the Pac-12, we take a look at where the Trojans have ranked against the Pac-12 champion in a number of statistical categories from year to year and a few trends that have emerged.

Recapping the Pac-12 champions

2011 – Oregon
2012 – Stanford
2013 – Stanford
2014 – Oregon
2015 – Stanford
2016 – Washington
2017 – USC
2018 – Washington
2019 – Oregon

Explaining the charts

Blue line = Pac-12 Champion
Red dot = USC (number indicates where the Trojans finished in the Pac-12 standings)

Offensive Stats

Passing

Completions per game

Passing attempts per game

Pass completion percentage

Passing yards per game

Passing touchdowns per game

First downs passing per game

Passing Stats Summary:

1. In the Pac-12 era, USC has attempted, completed, and thrown for more yards (except for 2014) than the eventual PAC 12 champion. USC is likely to lead the PAC 12 or end up close to the top spot in passing stats in the 2020 season, given Graham Harrell’s proclivity for throwing the football and Mike Leach exiting the division. However, based on the above data, leading the pass stats does not mean much in terms of winning the division.

2. Outside of USC in 2017 (35.1 pass attempts per game), no Pac-12 champion has attempted more passes than Oregon in 2014 (31.6) and 2019 (31.8). Oregon was quarterbacked by eventual first rounders Marcus Mariota and Justin Herbert in 2014 and 2019, respectively.

In Graham Harrell’s first year, USC attempted 39.5 passes per game. If this style of offense were to continue, USC will have to break the mold with a talented sophomore QB to win the Pac-12. Sam Darnold, Juju Smith-Schuster and others did it in 2017. Can Kedon Slovis, Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown and an inexperienced offensive line with reduced practice time, do the same in 2020?

Rushing

Rush attempts per game

Rushing yards per game

Average yards per rushing attempt

Rushing touchdowns per game

First downs rushing per game

Rush Stats Summary:

1. The eventual Pac-12 champion has attempted and rushed for more yards than USC each year except for 2016. In 2016, Tailback U, behind a potent Sam Darnold, Justin Davis and Ronald Jones offense rushed for more yards than the eventual Pac-12 champion, Washington, who they also beat for a signature win at Husky Stadium.

2. USC had its two best rushing seasons in 2016 (201 ypg) and 2017 (186.2 ypg), which coincided with their most successful years in the Pac-12.

3. No Pac-12 champion has ever rushed for less than 4.4 yds per attempt. In 2019, Graham Harrell’s first season at USC, USC rushed for 3.9 yards per attempt.

4. The fewest rushing yards per game to win a Pac-12 championship was 174.3 in 2012 (Stanford). USC rushed for just 118.2 yards per game in 2019.

5. In 2019, USC gained twice as many first downs passing the ball compared to rushing (14.1 vs 7.1). No previous Pac-12 champion has ever had a higher ratio than 1.42 (USC, 2017). Oregon, in 2019, had a ratio of 1.39.

Defensive Stats

Passing defense

Passing yards allowed per game

Passing touchdowns allowed per game

Completions allowed per game

Passing attempts per game

Completion percentage allowed

Pass Defense Summary:

1. The USC defense has allowed more passing yards than the eventual non-USC Pac-12 champion in six of eight seasons.

2. The USC defense has allowed more passing touchdowns than the eventual non-USC Pac-12 champion in six of eight seasons.

3. Interestingly, in 2012, at the height of the famed Monte Kiffin bend-but-don’t-break scheme, USC allowed fewer passing yards than the eventual champion Stanford. They did however break to give up more passing touchdowns than Stanford. The opposition also ran for 167.0 yards per game, the most USC has allowed in the Pac-12 era.

Rushing defense

Rushing yards allowed per game

Rushing yards allowed per attempt

Rushing touchdowns allowed per game

Rushing attempts allowed per game

Rush Defense Summary:

1. USC has allowed fewer rushing yards per game than the eventual Pac-12 champion only twice in the Pac-12’s nine-year history

2. USC has never allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than the eventual Pac-12 champion.

3. USC’s offensive and defensive rushing stats show that it has not consistently won the physical battle in the trenches compared to the Pac-12 champion. The last three seasons have produced three of the four worst seasons in Pac-12 play in terms of rushing yards allowed per game for the Trojans.

Penalties

Offensive penalties per game

Offensive penalty yards per game

Defensive penalties per game

Defensive penalty yards per game

Penalties Summary:

1. Except for the 2011 season, USC has had more offensive penalties and offensive penalty yards per game than the eventual Pac-12 champion.

2. On the defensive side, USC performs marginally better. They had fewer defensive penalty yards than the eventual champion in 2015, 2016 and 2019.

3. USC improved moderately in terms of offensive penalties from 2018 to 2019, but there was a noticeable uptick on the defensive side. Penalties will again be a likely talking point for Helton during the 2020 season.

Miscellaneous Offense

Total offensive plays per game

Total offensive yards per game

Offensive yards per play

First downs gained per game

Offensive turnovers per game

Sacks allowed per game

Miscellaneous Offense Summary:

1. USC ran more offensive plays per game in 2019 than 2018, but it wasn’t the huge uptick that was expected in the first year of Harrell’s offense. The Trojans ran more plays per game in 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

2. Turnovers continue to be a major problem for the USC offense. USC’s mark in each of the past four years is more than any non-USC Pac-12 champion.

Miscellaneous Defense

Total offensive plays allowed per game

Total offensive yards allowed per game

Offensive yards allowed per play

Passing first downs allowed per game

Rushing first downs allowed per game

First downs via penalty allowed per game

Total first downs allowed per game

Turnovers created per game

Miscellaneous Defense Summary:

1. USC’s defense must create more turnovers. Not only are the marks in the last two years’s well below the Pac-12 champions, they are also the two lowest marks of the past nine years for the Trojans.

2. The new defensive coaches will have a few trends to stop, as USC’s numbers declined from 2018 to 2019 in total yards, yards per play and first downs allowed in every way.