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Slate's Sports Nut: The Overrated USC Trojans

ALEX CHADWICK, Host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

T: Jonathan Chait, welcome to DAY TO DAY. Give us some examples of great historical match-ups that ESPN thinks USC would win.

JONATHAN CHAIT: I actually first came across this when I saw that they imagined what would happen if the Trojans played the 1997 Michigan Wolverines. I know this because Michigan's my alma mater. I'm a Michigan fan. And they decided that USC would win, 49-14. Now that was a Michigan team that had the only defensive player ever to win a Heisman trophy and gave up less than 9 points a game, 23 interceptions and five touchdowns. It was just an awesome, awesome defense. And the idea that USC would score 49 points on them made me think, `Wait. Something kind of funny is going on here.'

CHADWICK: Something's happening with these kind of expectations of USC.

CHAIT: Right.

CHADWICK: And there are other examples you cite.

CHAIT: Right. I thought what was the most extreme was the 1991 Washington Huskies. That was just an absolutely awesome team. They just destroyed every team they played. They didn't have any close games. They won their games by an average margin of 42-to-9.

CHADWICK: So what is it that leads sportswriters and sports analysts to, in your view, so overrate USC? There are--in fact, you identify some kind of traits of overrated teams.

CHAIT: The elements of overrated teams--I think you find this kind of year in and year out. There are a couple, and the first is that they tend to be better on offense than on defense. People tend to put more weight on offense than defense in gauging who's a good team.

CHADWICK: It's more fun to watch. It's more spectacular.

CHAIT: It's more fun to watch...

CHADWICK: Yeah.

CHAIT: ...and it makes for better highlights.

CHADWICK: Yeah.

CHAIT: So offensive teams tend to capture the imagination in a way that defensive teams don't. Nonetheless, there's more to a team than just offense. Defense matters as well. So I would say if you had a team that was the opposite of USC, if you'd have had a team that a pedestrian offense and a fantastic defense, they would not be regarded anywhere nearly as high as USC is.

CHADWICK: What about the Longhorns then? If USC is overrated, is Texas underrated? And are you saying here, on a national broadcast, that Texas is going to win?

CHAIT: No, of course not. I would say the teams are pretty equal. I would give USC a slightly better chance of winning. If you want to know what I think, not that I'm an oddsmaker and do not take money out of your house and put it on the game based on what I'm telling you...

CHADWICK: Hold on. That's the next interview, but go on.

CHAIT: This is a legal disclaimer. USC was not as good as Texas over the course of the year. Texas had a slightly better off--it's basically the same offense and a considerably better defense over the course of the year. Now USC had a lot of injuries on their defense over the course of the year, and that was a big reason that their defense underperformed. And a lot of those injured players should be back by tomorrow night's game, which would mean that the USC team that takes the field against Texas might be much better than the one that played over the course of the year.

CHADWICK: So what are you saying? Texas or USC?

CHAIT: I'm not going to say. It's a close match-up.

CHADWICK: Jonathan, thank you.

CHAIT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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