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USC owned the 1972 college football season (but didn't have to play Oklahoma either)

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USC has had a more uneven history than we tend to think.

We act like USC should always be good -- and honestly, the Trojans probably should -- but we fail to notice that, since Howard Jones passed away in the summer of 1941, only four of 13 hires have resulted in at least one top-five finish. It takes a certain type of coach to hold the the reins at USC (and no, the requirement for being that kind of coach isn't "be a USC guy," Pat Haden). I think it's a harder job, or at least a more unique one, than we tend to think.

That said, find one of those "right guys," and you're going to win a lot. John McKay was one of those right guys, and his 1972 team was maybe the best USC team of all-time. SRS thinks so, and according to Est. S&P+, only the 1931, 1932, 1978, and 2005 teams can compare.

One thing's certain about the 1972 team, though: It left no doubt. The Trojans began the year ranked eighth in the preseason AP poll, crushed No. 4 Arkansas in Little Rock to start the season, leaped straight to No. 1, and never for a moment thought about relinquishing its ranking.

Only one USC game all year was decided by less than 17 points: a 30-21 win at Stanford, then ranked 15th in the AP poll. They beat Arkansas, Washington, UCLA, Notre Dame, and Ohio State (all ranked teams) by an average of 35-13, and they played only two of those teams in the Coliseum.

This was an amazing team, but it wasn't the most big-name team in USC history. Yes, some guy named Lynn Swann led the way in receiving yards (27 catches for 543 yards), but this was a receiving corps by committee, with three other plays amassing at least 296 yards. And the leading rushers, though excellent, were Anthony Davis and Rod McNeill, not Mike Garrett or O.J. Simpson or Ricky Bell or Charles White. The only unanimous All-American was tight end Charles Young. The defense only had one All-American. But the school with the most star power of all didn't need a ton of it to wreck shop.

Of course, though USC was quite obviously worthy of the title, I don't want to ignore how good Oklahoma was. Chuck Fairbanks' final Sooner team (he took the New England Patriots job and was replaced by offensive coordinator Barry Switzer) was amazing, only 0.07 percent behind in terms of national percentiles. But a whopper of a schedule tripped the Sooners up just once -- they beat No. 5 (at the time) Penn State in the Sugar Bowl and beat No. 5 Nebraska, No. 10 Texas, No. 14 Iowa State, No. 14 Missouri, and No. 20 Oklahoma State. But Colorado, No. 9 at the time, tripped the Sooners up, 20-14, in Boulder in mid-October. They otherwise outscored 11 opponents, 385-54.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 USC 12-0 26.0 99.39% 38.1 2 12.1 14
2 Oklahoma 11-1 25.5 99.32% 32.5 8 6.9 3
3 Alabama 10-2 23.9 98.95% 35.2 4 11.3 11
4 Nebraska 9-2-1 23.6 98.87% 36.8 3 13.2 18
5 Texas 10-1 22.0 98.33% 28.8 14 6.7 1
6 Tennessee 10-2 17.9 95.82% 25.3 27 7.4 4
7 Auburn 10-1 15.8 93.63% 23.7 34 7.9 5
8 Michigan 10-1 15.1 92.78% 22.0 45 6.9 2
9 Florida 5-5-1 14.3 91.69% 23.5 37 9.2 6
10 Penn State 10-2 14.3 91.62% 30.0 10 15.7 31
11 LSU 9-2-1 13.8 90.81% 23.3 40 9.6 7
12 Notre Dame 8-3 13.2 89.94% 28.5 15 15.3 25
13 UCLA 8-3 12.6 88.80% 33.2 7 20.6 61
14 NC State 8-3-1 12.3 88.23% 33.3 6 21.0 69
15 Louisville 9-1 10.9 85.36% 25.4 25 14.5 24
16 Georgia 7-4 10.5 84.37% 20.4 65 10.0 8
17 North Carolina 11-1 10.3 84.02% 27.4 17 17.1 40
18 Miami-FL 5-6 10.0 83.25% 21.2 54 11.2 10
19 Colorado 8-4 9.9 83.10% 26.6 20 16.7 36
20 Dartmouth 7-1-1 9.9 83.08% 29.4 13 19.5 56
21 Ohio State 9-2 9.9 82.95% 25.4 26 15.6 30
22 Arizona State 10-2 9.5 81.96% 40.8 1 31.3 118
23 Ole Miss 5-5 9.5 81.92% 21.4 51 11.9 13
24 Oklahoma State 6-5 9.2 81.16% 25.6 23 16.4 34
25 Yale 7-2 9.1 80.92% 29.9 11 20.9 64
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Tampa 10-2 8.6 79.56% 20.8 59 12.3 15
27 San Diego State 10-1 8.4 79.15% 22.8 43 14.3 22
28 Texas Tech 8-4 8.2 78.71% 23.7 35 15.4 27
29 Iowa State 5-6-1 8.2 78.51% 27.3 18 19.2 54
30 Stanford 6-5 8.2 78.47% 24.2 32 16.1 32
31 West Virginia 8-4 7.8 77.38% 33.4 5 25.6 102
32 SMU 7-4 7.6 76.95% 23.0 42 15.4 26
33 Georgia Tech 7-4-1 7.3 76.06% 24.9 28 17.6 42
34 Purdue 6-5 7.0 75.18% 20.7 60 13.7 19
35 Baylor 5-6 6.9 74.70% 18.6 75 11.7 12
36 Utah State 8-3 6.4 73.09% 29.4 12 23.1 85
37 Bowling Green 6-3-1 6.3 72.91% 18.6 76 12.3 16
38 Michigan State 5-5-1 6.1 72.16% 17.2 89 11.1 9
39 Houston 6-4-1 5.7 70.87% 26.9 19 21.2 71
40 Arkansas 6-5 5.6 70.72% 23.5 38 17.9 46
41 Tulane 6-5 5.4 69.95% 19.8 66 14.4 23
42 Washington State 7-4 5.3 69.72% 26.1 21 20.8 63
43 Washington 8-3 5.1 68.84% 21.2 53 16.1 33
44 Virginia Tech 6-4-1 4.7 67.52% 27.9 16 23.2 87
45 Drake 7-5 4.2 65.63% 21.2 55 17.0 38
46 Missouri 6-6 3.8 64.42% 24.0 33 20.2 58
47 Rice 5-5-1 3.4 62.91% 21.4 50 18.0 48
48 Cornell 6-3 3.4 62.85% 24.6 30 21.2 72
49 Florida State 7-4 3.2 62.24% 24.9 29 21.7 77
50 Pennsylvania 6-3 3.0 61.52% 26.0 22 23.0 83
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 East Carolina 9-2 2.4 59.30% 21.4 49 19.0 53
52 Mississippi State 4-7 2.3 58.76% 21.2 52 18.9 52
53 Air Force 6-4 2.2 58.52% 25.5 24 23.3 89
54 Oregon 4-7 1.7 56.64% 22.7 44 20.9 65
55 Kent 6-5-1 1.6 56.22% 17.1 90 15.5 29
56 Miami-OH 7-3 1.6 56.03% 18.1 79 16.6 35
57 Pacific 8-3 1.2 54.70% 16.7 95 15.5 28
58 Texas A&M 3-8 1.0 53.93% 19.0 72 18.0 47
59 Harvard 4-4-1 0.8 53.14% 21.1 56 20.3 59
60 Fresno State 6-4-1 0.7 52.70% 19.5 68 18.8 51
61 Duke 5-6 0.6 52.43% 13.3 111 12.6 17
62 TCU 5-6 0.3 51.16% 21.0 57 20.7 62
63 Kansas 4-7 0.3 50.98% 23.5 39 23.2 88
64 Illinois 3-8 0.0 50.00% 21.6 48 21.6 75
65 Maryland 5-5-1 -0.2 49.40% 20.8 58 21.0 67
66 California 3-8 -0.6 47.62% 24.4 31 25.0 97
67 Southern Miss 3-7-1 -0.7 47.20% 17.9 83 18.6 50
68 Columbia 3-5-1 -1.0 46.01% 13.3 109 14.3 21
69 Memphis 5-5-1 -1.2 45.38% 23.0 41 24.2 93
70 Kentucky 3-8 -1.2 45.27% 15.8 98 17.0 39
71 Richmond 6-4 -1.3 44.86% 16.8 94 18.2 49
72 Utah 6-5 -1.4 44.51% 30.9 9 32.3 121
73 William & Mary 5-6 -1.6 43.87% 19.7 67 21.3 73
74 Dayton 4-6-1 -2.0 42.43% 14.9 103 16.8 37
75 Navy 4-7 -2.2 41.52% 18.8 73 21.0 68
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 Boston College 4-7 -2.6 40.14% 21.9 47 24.5 94
77 Army 6-4 -2.8 39.44% 20.6 62 23.4 90
78 Minnesota 4-7 -3.4 37.11% 20.6 63 24.0 92
79 Western Michigan 7-3-1 -3.5 36.89% 17.5 88 21.0 66
80 San Jose State 4-7 -3.5 36.81% 19.4 69 22.9 82
81 Oregon State 2-9 -3.6 36.58% 17.6 87 21.1 70
82 Southern Illinois 1-8-1 -4.0 34.91% 10.2 123 14.2 20
83 Rutgers 7-4 -4.3 33.97% 17.6 86 21.9 78
84 South Carolina 4-7 -4.3 33.83% 18.1 80 22.4 80
85 Northern Illinois 7-4 -4.4 33.54% 13.3 112 17.7 43
86 Princeton 3-5-1 -4.5 33.35% 13.3 110 17.7 45
87 Clemson 4-7 -5.1 31.17% 15.0 101 20.1 57
88 Vanderbilt 3-8 -5.1 31.07% 14.3 106 19.4 55
89 Toledo 6-5 -5.2 30.77% 16.9 91 22.1 79
90 Kansas State 3-8 -5.2 30.68% 23.7 36 28.9 112
91 Temple 5-4 -6.0 28.27% 17.9 84 23.8 91
92 Holy Cross 5-4-1 -6.2 27.46% 15.3 100 21.5 74
93 Iowa 3-7-1 -6.4 26.99% 11.1 122 17.5 41
94 BYU 7-4 -6.6 26.33% 18.5 77 25.0 98
95 Tulsa 4-7 -6.7 25.98% 19.0 71 25.7 103
96 Arizona 4-7 -7.0 24.99% 19.1 70 26.1 104
97 Virginia 4-7 -7.1 24.66% 18.1 81 25.2 99
98 Colgate 5-4-1 -7.4 23.89% 20.6 61 28.0 110
99 Indiana 5-6 -7.5 23.48% 17.9 82 25.4 100
100 Syracuse 5-6 -7.7 22.84% 12.9 115 20.6 60
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 Idaho 4-7 -8.6 20.30% 16.9 92 25.5 101
102 Pittsburgh 1-10 -8.6 20.30% 20.5 64 29.1 113
103 Wisconsin 4-7 -8.8 19.89% 12.9 116 21.6 76
104 Long Beach State 5-6 -9.3 18.36% 16.8 93 26.2 106
105 The Citadel 5-6 -9.4 18.28% 13.5 108 22.9 81
106 Northwestern 2-9 -9.8 17.22% 14.9 102 24.7 96
107 Brown 1-8 -10.6 15.38% 22.0 46 32.6 122
108 Villanova 2-9 -11.3 13.74% 11.8 120 23.2 86
109 West Texas A&M 5-5 -11.5 13.43% 14.7 104 26.2 105
110 New Mexico 3-8 -11.5 13.35% 18.6 74 30.1 115
111 Wyoming 4-7 -12.3 11.75% 18.3 78 30.6 117
112 UT-Chattanooga 1-6 -12.9 10.70% 4.8 127 17.7 44
113 Xavier 2-8 -12.9 10.63% 10.1 124 23.0 84
114 Ohio 3-8 -13.6 9.38% 16.2 97 29.8 114
115 VMI 2-9 -14.4 8.20% 13.2 113 27.6 109
116 Wake Forest 2-9 -14.6 7.90% 12.1 119 26.7 107
117 Wichita State 6-5 -15.2 7.13% 11.7 121 26.8 108
118 UT-Arlington 5-6 -16.0 6.17% 12.8 117 28.7 111
119 Marshall 2-8 -16.3 5.82% 8.2 126 24.5 95
120 Davidson 3-7-1 -16.8 5.24% 16.6 96 33.4 124
121 North Texas 1-10 -17.8 4.31% 14.0 107 31.7 120
122 Cincinnati 2-9 -18.5 3.73% 13.0 114 31.5 119
123 New Mexico State 2-9 -19.9 2.72% 17.7 85 37.6 127
124 UTEP 2-8 -19.9 2.71% 15.5 99 35.5 126
125 Furman 2-9 -20.2 2.55% 12.5 118 32.7 123
126 Colorado State 1-10 -20.5 2.39% 14.4 105 34.9 125
127 Appalachian State 5-5-1 -21.4 1.95% 8.9 125 30.3 116

Your hypothetical Playoff race

USC was obviously the best team in the land, but as you see above, five total teams hit the 98th percentile. This was a tremendous year for bluebloods. So as with 2005, an amazing Trojan team wouldn't have been guaranteed the title.

So who might they have played in a hypothetical Playoff? Here's your end-of-regular-season AP poll:

1. USC (11-0)
2. Oklahoma (10-1 with 6-point loss at Colorado)
3. Ohio State (9-1 with 7-point loss at Michigan State)
4. Alabama (10-1 with 1-point loss vs. Auburn)
5. Penn State (10-1 with 1-point loss at Tennessee)
6. Auburn (9-1 with a 28-point loss at LSU)
7. Texas (9-1 with a 27-point loss vs. OU)
8. Michigan (10-1 with a 3-point loss at Ohio State)
10. LSU (9-1-1 with at 14-point loss at Bama and a Florida tie)

Holy crap, is that difficult to sort through. USC's obviously in. I think OU's in because of strength of schedule and general dominance. But Ohio State? With a loss to mediocre Michigan State and (not that this matters) an Est. S&P+ rating worse than Dartmouth's? Alabama, with a loss to another one-loss team (Auburn)? Auburn, which a blowout loss to LSU? Penn State, with a win over just one ranked team (WVU)? Texas, with a blowout loss to OU and only one win over a ranked team (Arkansas)? Michigan, with a better team overall than Ohio State's but with a head-to-head loss? I have no idea which two of these six teams gets in. And that's assuming LSU doesn't have a chance.

When in doubt, go with the AP, I guess. Ohio State wasn't good enough to be a Playoff team, but if the AP had the Buckeyes third, the Hypothetical Committee probably wouldn't have them lower than fourth. And if the AP had Alabama fourth, and with a more excuseable loss than Auburn (its head-to-head victor), then Bear Bryant's team probably gets the nod. So we'll say it's 1 USC vs. 4 Ohio State and 2 Oklahoma vs. 3 Alabama. Or, per Est. S&P+, 1 vs. 21 and 2 vs. 3. We get USC against one of two incredible teams with slight odds favoring OU. Can't go wrong either way.

Other thoughts

  • The early-1970s Dartmouth teams of Bob Blackman and John Crouthamel (32-3-1 from 1969-72) and Yale teams of Carmen Cozza (either 7-2, 8-0-1, or 8-1 nine times in 11 years) were legitimately strong teams.
  • 1972 Tampa: in the book.
  • The 1970s were fascinating. As I've written a few times, the bluebloods dominated, and 1972 was certainly indicative of that. But outside of that ruling class, things were pretty nuts. It was like everybody was either great or terrible at least once in the '70s. Hello, No. 14 NC State and No. 15 Louisville. And (four years before winning a national title) No. 102 Pitt.

Next up: 1971, when Nebraska was every bit as good as you assume.