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In 2002 USC lost two games, then became the best team in the country

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Per the sidebar to the right, you can catch up on what I've done to date. The short version: using the same type of opponent adjustments and general "output vs. expected output" approach that I've created to set up the current S&P+ ratings, I used points scored and allowed to estimate S&P+ for years before 2005 (i.e. the years for which I don't have play-by-play data). And now I'm working backwards, year by year.

The further back we go into history, the more we generalize. That's how memories tend to work. But one of the purposes of this series, I hope, is to color in our increasingly limited memories.

I was really looking forward to studying 2002 for that reason. That entire season has basically been distilled into a single game (Miami vs. Ohio State) and maybe one other play from the regular season (Ohio State's fourth-down bomb against Purdue). Sure, I remember things about my own team and whatnot, but the national title picture has been boiled down to two teams.

This is a chance to remember the other awesome (or terrible) teams of 2002 ... and a chance to remember that Ohio State played in a ton of close games against iffy teams, I guess. Apologies in advance, Buckeye fans. Just remember how much my numbers liked you in 2014.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 USC 11-2 26.1 99.18% 40.1 1 14.1 4
2 Miami-FL 12-1 21.1 97.42% 39.5 3 18.4 19
3 Oklahoma 12-2 19.6 96.43% 36.8 4 17.3 13
4 Kansas State 11-2 18.0 95.12% 36.7 5 18.7 22
5 Georgia 13-1 17.9 95.08% 32.4 20 14.4 5
6 Ohio State 14-0 17.6 94.80% 29.9 33 12.3 1
7 Texas 11-2 17.3 94.43% 33.7 13 16.4 6
8 Florida State 9-5 16.7 93.79% 34.4 11 17.7 14
9 Alabama 10-3 16.6 93.72% 30.1 32 13.4 2
10 Washington State 10-3 14.8 91.35% 34.7 9 19.9 27
11 Michigan 10-3 14.5 90.94% 31.3 24 16.8 9
12 Penn State 9-4 14.4 90.71% 33.1 16 18.7 21
13 Iowa 11-2 14.2 90.47% 35.6 7 21.4 31
14 Colorado 9-5 13.3 88.97% 32.5 19 19.2 25
15 NC State 11-3 12.6 87.71% 30.6 28 18.0 15
16 Auburn 9-4 12.6 87.66% 29.7 35 17.1 12
17 Notre Dame 10-3 11.1 84.72% 25.0 74 13.8 3
18 Virginia Tech 10-4 10.9 84.33% 30.2 31 19.2 26
19 Maryland 11-3 10.7 83.73% 29.7 36 19.0 24
20 Texas Tech 9-5 10.3 82.96% 40.1 2 29.8 78
21 UCLA 8-5 10.2 82.64% 32.5 18 22.3 36
22 Florida 8-5 10.1 82.28% 28.6 47 18.6 20
23 South Florida 9-2 9.7 81.50% 28.2 51 18.4 18
24 Arkansas 9-5 9.7 81.32% 27.9 55 18.2 16
25 Pittsburgh 9-4 9.4 80.71% 26.3 65 16.9 10
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Iowa State 7-7 9.4 80.68% 33.0 17 23.6 40
27 LSU 8-5 9.4 80.67% 26.1 68 16.7 7
28 Virginia 9-5 8.9 79.44% 31.2 25 22.3 35
29 West Virginia 9-4 8.8 79.15% 30.9 26 22.1 33
30 Oregon State 8-5 8.7 78.97% 30.3 30 21.5 32
31 Boise State 12-1 8.4 77.95% 36.3 6 27.9 64
32 Wisconsin 8-6 8.2 77.45% 28.8 44 20.7 29
33 California 7-5 7.9 76.73% 35.1 8 27.1 58
34 Washington 7-6 7.7 76.09% 32.3 21 24.6 47
35 Boston College 9-4 7.3 74.80% 28.4 49 21.2 30
36 Purdue 7-6 6.8 73.48% 28.9 42 22.1 34
37 Cincinnati 7-7 6.2 71.55% 29.4 37 23.3 38
38 Tennessee 8-5 6.0 71.06% 23.0 87 17.0 11
39 Colorado State 10-4 5.9 70.75% 29.8 34 23.8 41
40 Arizona State 8-6 5.9 70.63% 34.5 10 28.6 68
41 Missouri 5-7 4.6 66.57% 32.0 22 27.4 59
42 Nebraska 7-7 4.4 65.87% 27.8 57 23.4 39
43 Georgia Tech 7-6 4.4 65.74% 23.2 85 18.8 23
44 Oklahoma State 8-5 4.2 64.95% 33.3 14 29.1 72
45 Texas A&M 6-6 4.1 64.69% 28.1 53 24.0 42
46 Toledo 9-5 3.9 63.86% 33.3 15 29.4 74
47 Wake Forest 7-6 3.8 63.77% 28.2 50 24.4 46
48 TCU 10-2 3.7 63.49% 26.1 67 22.4 37
49 Clemson 7-6 3.6 63.09% 27.9 54 24.3 45
50 Minnesota 8-5 3.5 62.56% 29.0 41 25.5 50
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Illinois 5-7 2.8 60.08% 28.6 48 25.8 51
52 Ole Miss 7-6 2.3 58.27% 27.4 60 25.1 49
53 Oregon 7-6 2.2 58.06% 31.9 23 29.7 77
54 Miami-OH 7-5 1.7 56.26% 30.4 29 28.7 70
55 Northern Illinois 8-4 1.3 54.87% 28.8 46 27.4 60
56 Southern Miss 7-6 1.3 54.71% 19.6 104 18.3 17
57 North Texas 8-5 1.1 54.06% 17.8 110 16.7 8
58 Kentucky 7-5 0.8 52.86% 29.0 39 28.2 65
59 Louisville 7-6 0.7 52.55% 27.0 62 26.3 52
60 Air Force 8-5 0.5 51.69% 28.8 45 28.4 67
61 Hawaii 10-4 0.4 51.48% 30.8 27 30.4 82
62 Bowling Green 9-3 -0.4 48.36% 33.8 12 34.2 99
63 Tulane 8-5 -0.5 48.12% 24.2 77 24.7 48
64 Central Florida 7-5 -0.6 47.79% 28.9 43 29.5 75
65 Marshall 11-2 -0.8 47.09% 29.0 38 29.8 79
66 South Carolina 5-7 -0.9 46.79% 19.8 103 20.6 28
67 Fresno State 9-5 -1.3 45.40% 26.4 64 27.7 61
68 Stanford 2-9 -1.7 43.79% 26.5 63 28.2 66
69 Arizona 4-8 -3.0 39.04% 21.0 97 24.0 44
70 Syracuse 4-8 -3.4 37.87% 29.0 40 32.3 91
71 Temple 4-8 -3.6 37.05% 23.3 82 26.9 55
72 Connecticut 6-6 -3.9 36.05% 23.9 79 27.7 63
73 New Mexico 7-7 -4.2 35.04% 22.4 91 26.6 54
74 North Carolina 3-9 -4.2 35.04% 24.7 76 28.9 71
75 Michigan State 4-8 -4.4 34.18% 27.6 59 32.0 90
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Utah 5-6 -5.0 32.22% 19.0 106 24.0 43
77 East Carolina 4-8 -5.6 30.31% 27.8 56 33.4 96
78 San Diego State 4-9 -5.6 30.22% 24.9 75 30.5 83
79 Vanderbilt 2-10 -5.7 30.08% 20.9 98 26.5 53
80 Western Michigan 4-8 -5.8 29.65% 22.9 88 28.7 69
81 Nevada 5-7 -6.5 27.56% 26.1 69 32.5 92
82 Houston 5-7 -7.1 25.76% 26.2 66 33.3 95
83 Duke 2-10 -7.1 25.69% 20.6 99 27.7 62
84 BYU 5-7 -8.0 22.94% 21.2 96 29.2 73
85 Memphis 3-9 -8.1 22.80% 21.9 93 30.0 81
86 UNLV 5-7 -8.2 22.39% 23.3 81 31.5 85
87 Ball State 6-6 -8.3 22.20% 21.6 95 29.9 80
88 Ohio 4-8 -8.5 21.69% 25.0 73 33.5 97
89 Northwestern 3-9 -8.7 21.12% 27.6 58 36.3 107
90 Mississippi State 3-9 -8.7 21.06% 18.4 107 27.1 57
91 San Jose State 6-7 -8.8 20.96% 28.1 52 36.9 110
92 New Mexico State 7-5 -9.3 19.54% 22.6 90 32.0 88
93 Indiana 3-9 -9.6 18.92% 25.3 71 34.9 103
94 Wyoming 2-10 -9.6 18.86% 25.1 72 34.7 101
95 Middle Tennessee 4-8 -9.8 18.32% 22.0 92 31.8 87
96 Louisiana Tech 4-8 -11.2 15.11% 25.5 70 36.7 108
97 Akron 4-8 -11.2 15.07% 23.2 83 34.5 100
98 UAB 5-7 -12.0 13.35% 20.6 100 32.6 93
99 Idaho 2-10 -12.4 12.68% 23.1 86 35.5 105
100 Utah State 4-7 -12.5 12.54% 27.2 61 39.6 114
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 Baylor 3-9 -12.5 12.51% 22.7 89 35.2 104
102 Navy 2-10 -13.2 11.18% 23.7 80 36.9 111
103 Rice 4-7 -13.3 11.04% 18.3 108 31.6 86
104 Rutgers 1-11 -13.3 11.01% 16.4 111 29.7 76
105 Central Michigan 4-8 -14.5 9.08% 20.4 102 34.9 102
106 Troy 4-8 -14.9 8.43% 12.0 117 26.9 56
107 UL-Monroe 3-9 -15.0 8.36% 21.8 94 36.8 109
108 Kent 3-9 -15.1 8.16% 18.1 109 33.3 94
109 UL-Lafayette 3-9 -15.3 7.89% 15.4 115 30.7 84
110 Kansas 2-10 -16.2 6.82% 23.2 84 39.4 113
111 Arkansas State 6-7 -16.2 6.79% 15.8 114 32.0 89
112 SMU 3-9 -18.8 4.13% 14.9 116 33.8 98
113 Buffalo 1-11 -20.0 3.29% 15.8 113 35.7 106
114 UTEP 2-10 -20.6 2.88% 20.5 101 41.1 115
115 Eastern Michigan 3-9 -21.1 2.59% 24.2 78 45.3 117
116 Tulsa 1-11 -21.6 2.34% 16.3 112 37.9 112
117 Army 1-11 -22.5 1.92% 19.1 105 41.6 116

How'd the BCS do?

Fine, obviously. It's easy when there are two undefeated teams.

To say the least, though, this is an interesting reminder of how this season played out. USC started out 3-2 with tight road losses to awesome teams (No. 4 Kansas State, No. 10 Washington State), then won eight games in a row. By the end of the season, the Trojans had beaten five top-30 opponents -- No. 13 Iowa, No. 16 Auburn, No. 17 Notre Dame, No. 21 UCLA, and No. 30 Oregon State -- by an average score of 36-14.

Miami, meanwhile, played plenty of strong teams in the regular season, too -- No. 8 Florida State, No. 18 Virginia Tech, No. 22 Florida, No. 25 Pitt, No. 29 West Virginia -- but won by only an average of 39-26.

From the perspective of comparable results, Miami beat No. 8 FSU at home by one while USC lost to No. 10 Wazzu by three on the road. Those results are basically equal. For that matter, so are USC's seven-point loss to No. 4 KSU on the road and Miami's seven-point loss to No. 6 Ohio State on a neutral field. (Sorry, Miami fans, there is no "late pass interference flag" adjustment in the numbers.) Those cancel out, and USC's margin of victory then gives the Trojans the edge.

And then there's Ohio State, of course. The national champion Buckeyes won the game that mattered most but just barely got to the BCS championship. And I kind of figured the numbers wouldn't love this team. Jim Tressel's squad beat Miami, posted two outstanding results (beating No. 10 Wazzu and No. 20 Texas Tech by a combined 70-28), and won two one-possession games over top-15 teams at home (No. 11 Michigan, No. 12 Penn State).

The problem: they also beat No. 32 Wisconsin by five, No. 36 Purdue by four, No. 37 Cincinnati by four, No. 51 Illinois by seven, and No. 89 Northwestern by 11. By nature, Tressel's plodding, defense-first style meant games stayed closer than they could have; beyond that, though, the Buckeyes just didn't have the offense to put too many decent teams away. The defense was impeccable (though here's your reminder that there are unfortunately no tempo adjustments in these ratings), and the offense was just good enough, but yeah, this team was both a) completely deserving of the national title and b) probably not the best team of 2002.

What would a Playoff have looked like?

The polls had Miami and Ohio State an obvious No. 1 and 2, and one-loss Iowa and Georgia teams followed. It's conceivable that the Playoff rankings would have looked exactly the same, giving us semifinals of Miami-Georgia and Ohio State-Iowa (or Miami-Iowa and Ohio State-Georgia).

USC would have been an interesting wild card, however. The two-loss Trojans indeed finished the season with outright romps over UCLA and Notre Dame and might have gotten a bit of a conference title bump. Meanwhile, Iowa's loss came to 7-7 Iowa State. That would have made for an interesting discussion. But Iowa's road wins over Penn State (by seven) and Michigan (by 25) probably would have gotten the Hawkeyes in.

Other thoughts

  • I long said that Mark Richt's biggest problem was timing. Some of his best teams suffered key injuries, and his 2002 squad pulled off something pretty difficult: The Dawgs were a one-loss SEC champion that DIDN'T make the BCS title game. The problem, of course, was that there were two unbeaten teams, plus a one-loss Iowa team that had a strong resume. The SEC wasn't amazing in 2002 -- Alabama was the only other team in the S&P+ top 15 -- and that dinged the Dawgs a bit. Still, this was a great team, one that fell to Florida by seven but beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Auburn in Auburn, Arkansas in the SEC title game (by 27 points) and Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. This would have been a dangerous team in a Playoff setting.
  • That's right, the Big Ten had four teams in the top 13, and the SEC had just two.
  • An early loss ruined Kansas State's season. This was maybe an even better team than the 2003 version that won the Big 12, but an early 35-31 road loss to Colorado gave the Buffaloes the upper hand in the division race. KSU beat USC and absolutely trounced decent to solid Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Nebraska, and Missouri teams by an average of 47-7 but watched the Buffs get thumped by Oklahoma in the title game. Win in Boulder, and KSU is probably the top-ranked one-loss team in the BCS standings (which wouldn't have mattered with two undefeated teams, but still).
  • Most highly ranked team with a mediocre record: No. 8 Florida State. The Seminoles lost to Louisville, Miami, Notre Dame, Notre Dame, and NC State by a combined 27 points and beat Virginia, Maryland, Clemson, and Florida. And as is customary for teams with better ratings than records, the record improved the next year (to 10-3).
  • The three worst power conference teams: No. 110 Kansas, No. 104 Rutgers, No. 101 Baylor. Four years later, Rutgers went 11-2. The next year, Kansas went 12-1. And four years after that, Baylor won 10 games and the Heisman.

2001 is up next. And no, there are no surprises about who was No. 1 in 2001.