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SJSU vs. USC: Five real reasons how the Spartans can pull off a Trojan stunner

Your week one insights, details & preview

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 28 Southern Utah at San Jose State
Spartans RB Shamar Garrett (24) takes a handoff against the Southern Utah Thunderbirds at CEFCU Stadium, August 28, 2021
Photo by Larry Placido

Location: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Date/Time: Saturday, September 4th @ 2 PM PST

Broadcast: Pac-12 Network

Radio: KDOW AM (1220, San Jose)

Head-to-head: The current 15th-ranked USC Trojans are 4-0 against San Jose State. Their first game was in 1995. In the last game in 2009, the Trojans walloped the Spartans 56-3.

Also...USC is 35-1 overall vs. Mountain West competition.

Time for a change.

Against all odds

Normally, it’s the writer’s job to find some credible reasons to go against the grain without too many what-ifs and hypotheticals - especially when the odds for the Spartans to win is less than 10%.

Team writers are obviously more biased, while some are cautiously optimistic and others blindly jaded.

In this case, yes, this writer is guilty to some degree on all counts, but it should also be our jobs to research just a bit deeper and juxtaposition things just a bit more to at least have some fun with it.

It’s scary how accurate oddsmakers compute the spreads and over/unders and are mostly correct on the greater analytics scale. This is how serious fans, long-time followers and bettors get their baseline expectations.

For the rest of us sports and entertainment consumers, we’re obnoxiously finicky, trendy and impressionable fans. A Spartan win would be all the rage.

With the Trojans, their aura and reputation truly precedes them. Most people think they’ll win without a closer look. Rightly so, because USC has a deep history and a lasting legacy. The Trojans are well-proven, well-branded, and of course, a nationally-recognized program.

Here we go:

1 - Are USC & SJSU really that far apart?

In the shortened 2020 season, both the Trojans and Spartans had undefeated regular seasons and both lost their last games, the conference title game and bowl game, respectively.

The Spartans made the AP rankings last year finishing 24th in national rankings.

Last year both programs were also in the top-25 nationally. The Trojans were 21st and as high as 13th at the time of their conference title game. Both universities were the only FBS programs on the west coast in the final top 25.

The question that brings this particular aspect altogether: how different is each team in terms of their 2020 play and their 2021 expectations? Not much (well, except if you know Southern California talent, it’s like they have something else in the water down there).

If USC wins as expected, the individual talent and skill level will be the difference.

But say if they happened to meet last year while both were at their peak and both ranked in the top 25, what would be that outcome? A two touchdown difference favoring the Trojans? It doesn’t seem too illogical to say...no.

Maybe with the new season and the G5 step-child syndrome, those 2020 Spartan accomplishments are a distant memory in those polling minds.

This Saturday’s matchup has the potential to be much closer. If a stunner did happen, it seems it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise, though it would. It would be huge, of course.

2 - Their QB, our QB

Trojan starter and junior Kedon Slovis is all-Pac-12 and an NFL-caliber talent in the 11th ranked passing offense last year.

As a football program’s success depends on at least having an above-average field-general, the 6’3, 200 lb. Slovis has it in spades - so does Spartan QB Nick Starkel.

Starkel is legit. Starkel is proven.

6’3, 214 lb., sixth-year quarterback Starkel has P5 and G5 numbers right in the power band of what should be considered a good college player. Starkel’s maturity, attitude, leadership and overall chutzpah ranks even higher on the subjective meter.

Just having Starkel should raise the percentage points north of 10% towards a win. That much is feasible, wouldn’t you say?

3 - A creative Spartan defense to outflank the Trojan offense

“Are you not entertained?!” As Maximus Decimus Meridius shouts to the blood-thirsty crowd in the movie Gladiator.

We’re going to see a big spread USC offense going against a Derrick Odum 3-4 defense that morphs into many things.

There’s some potential USC weakness around the collective play of their schemes that Odum can chess game out. Odum has a deep secondary that has more than a good chance to cover the heavy receiver sets and more linebackers also capable of some hybrid play.

The Trojan offensive line is big and Slovis has a quick strong release that will definitely challenge the Spartan defensive line all game long. But again, Odum has tools and toys to circumvent those strengths enough times to make a game of it. The Trojans will see one down lineman and other times three or four or none. That’s where it starts.

Odum will give lots for those young USC players to think about, which can possibly start to exploit those subtle weaknesses of their collective. The right pressure points can maybe find some holes and or create some things that look to be there and are not - enough for an experienced Spartan defense to read, adjust and pounce on.

4 - Blue-collar brotherhood vs. SoCal glitz

The divide and differences could not be more diametrically opposed.

NorCal culture vs. SoCal culture. Group of 5 vs. Power 5. CEFCU Stadium vs. LA Coliseum. Medium pockets vs. deep pockets. Tech-nerds vs. fancy star-power. (a few more could be said but this should cover it).

If you talk to different Spartan players, there’s a recurring theme into who they each are and what they play for. For most regular folks, “brotherhood” is an empty word, because most truly don’t understand what it means (unless you’re in the military).

Brotherhood is deep in Sparta. It’s embedded in the program thanks to head coach Brent Brennan showing and paving the way. Brennan is where all the energy starts and never ends.

It manifests itself in the way each Spartan player explains their level of play and reason of play in relation to how it helps the team. It doesn’t seem to matter if the first-stringers are sharing more playing time so others get more experience, because it helps the team as a whole.

For the sake of the Mountain West conference itself, we all should want the MWC to prevail. That should be a given.

Underdogs with heart like to move big mountains.

Corny as it sounds, there’s no words that can really explain it. There’s already lots of precedent dealing with mountains in the Brennan era.

5 - The coaches

No doubt USC head coach Clay Helton feels the pressure from USC constituents even with a 45-23 record over six years. One can’t imagine what it feels like to live up to Trojan expectations.

In the pressure to perform, Helton is still finding USC’s footing with its supporting cast of coaches. Helton has fired so many of them in fact, while the results seem to be about the same, that one has to wonder what kind of dynamics exists behind-the-scenes. There’s something more to unpack there.

In contrast, Brennan’s coaching staff are bought in and have been bought in. That brotherhood exists with them just like the players. That continuity and experience runs deep and can’t find a value. There’s some secret sauce there you can even create a recipe for.

It’s another reason the win probability should go higher than 10%.

The prediction

In the heart, San Jose State wins because they know they have depth, experience and leaders all around the field.

In reality, it just takes a couple few all-world talents to defeat that all-aroundness. USC has some burgeoning NFL horses to make all the difference.

There’s also some level of disrespect going on not just to the Spartans but to the MWC too, which isn’t a surprise. Though the spread is just two touchdowns or really, two possessions favoring the Trojans, the single-digit percentage chance for the Spartans to win doesn’t make total sense.

Often it takes far less level disrespect to make the difference in a win or loss. The case here considers all kinds of variables to say the Spartans win by the difference of one possession.