Rankings should not count the Trojans out

I don’t really understand how national rankings work.

Of course, I understand the premise of voters and polls based on point differentials and strength-of-schedule statistics. I’ve read plenty of explainer columns that break down the variety of factors that are put into deciding the national rankings for teams every week.

But when it comes down to it, national rankings are consistently subjective. How do you judge the quality of dozens of football teams playing wildly different matchups? How do you factor in the effects of injuries and away games, or the impact of a short week for a Friday night matchup? Is a win over a No. 3 team really that much more important than a win over a No. 6 team?

The list of questions goes on and on, but at the end of the day, the same general conclusion can be drawn. The AP and Coaches’ Polls are many things, but most often, they’re inaccurate in some way or another. And the place where these rankings cut the least slack is the Pac-12.

Last week, Washington fans exploded on social media after a barrage of comments from ESPN about the team’s opening schedule. The fans’ reactions ramped up to full-on outrage when ESPN commentator Quint Kessenich compared the first three teams of the Huskies’ season to a trio of vanilla cupcakes on air during the channel’s broadcast of the game.

The comments came after Washington head coach Chris Petersen bemoaned the East Coast broadcasting bias that causes big-ticket Pac-12 games to kick off as early as 11 a.m. on some weekends. Commentator Kirk Herbstreit fired back on ESPN College Gameday, saying coaches should be “thanking ESPN” for covering the games at all. Another commentator described Petersen as “irascible and cantankerous.”

Fans lashed out on Twitter, but the flames died down quickly after several days, especially after Washington beat down Cal in a 38-7 victory. It’s easy to not be angry, of course, when your team is ranked at the top of the Pac-12 and the top 5 of both national polls. But whether it’s noticeable or not, the Pac-12 suffers from the same bias that Petersen cited from top to bottom. And this season, the Trojans have taken some of the harder hits.

In making this argument, of course, I have to acknowledge the struggles of this year’s USC football team. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold has underperformed mightily, tumbling from the inarguable Heisman frontrunner to simply become a competent quarterback (this is something, however, that still shouldn’t be taken for granted).

Injuries have plagued the front five of the offensive line, and special teams have been mediocre at best. The defense has been the sole highlight of this year’s season, and that’s rather reflective of the lack of success of a team that was most touted for its offense before the season.

So no, I’m not here to claim that USC deserves better than its current ranking. But last week, a specific game reminded me of how quickly and mightily the Trojans will be punished for taking losses that are rather typical in a competitive conference.

After bobbing up and down in the top 10, the Trojans tumbled nine places from No. 5 to No. 14 after losing to Washington State. It was an understandable drop to take — after all, the team had been cruising for a bruising for weeks after kicking off the season by struggling to put away Western Michigan at home.

But the Cougars weren’t exactly cupcakes. At the time, the team was ranked No. 16, and since then has climbed to No. 8. Quarterback Luke Falk is a certified superstar, rising from walk-on status to pass Marcus Mariota in the Pac-12 all-time passing records as he quickly becomes a sleeper candidate for the Heisman. Combine that with the fact that the Trojans had to travel to Pullman, Wash. on a short schedule while dealing with a litany of injuries — and a staph infection — and the loss is rather understandable.

You know what’s not understandable? A No. 3 team with a Heisman frontrunner falling to an unranked opponent’s second-string quarterback at home. That’s what happened last Saturday when Iowa State upset Oklahoma in Norman, Okla. Of course, this is part of the beauty of college sports — pretty much any team can beat any other team on any given Saturday, regardless of rank or Heisman candidacy.

But what’s even harder to understand is how the same Sooner team somehow only fell to No. 12. That’s right — a loss to an unranked, battered team at home dropped Oklahoma the exact same number of spots as a loss on the road to an up-and-coming team did to USC.

After Saturday’s game, senior captain Chris Hawkins shook his head in frustration as he considered the next week’s rankings, which had yet to be released.

“They don’t take us seriously,” he said with a shrug.

Hawkins was right. The polls don’t take this team seriously, and they might not for the rest of the season. But national voters would be foolish to turn their TVs off before catching this weekend’s Pac-12 games — especially when it comes to the Trojans.

With the offense slowly warming up, and key players returning from injury, this team is on the cusp of reclaiming its preseason glory. Darnold has settled into solid production; the young corps of receivers grows every week, and the defense remains one of the most formidable in the country.

The time for underestimating USC has officially come to its end. Let’s hope that next week’s polls will take due note.

Julia Poe is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, Poe’s Perspective, runs Thursdays.