Man versus metric: How can you pick USC over Utah?

Have you ever watched a game and thought: "That team is way better than the score suggests"? Or the opposite: "Geez, I cannot believe that team is unbeaten."

Of course you have. It's the eternal battle of eye test versus stat sheet, or as we're calling it, man versus metric. ESPN Stats & Information analytics writer Sharon Katz takes a run through some of the more debatable data, and then ESPN senior writer Mark Schlabach offers his take.

Let's just say they agreed to disagree ... but their conversation is engaging, just the same.

How can USC really be projected to beat No. 3 Utah?

Sharon Katz: ESPN's Football Power Index projects that three-loss USC has a 72 percent chance to beat undefeated Utah in Los Angeles. Before you insist I double check the "computers," let me start by saying that the FPI is not the only system favoring the Trojans; USC is a 3.5-point favorite in Vegas, according to the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, and is ranked higher than the Utes in Football Outsiders' S&P ratings.

What do these systems see that is not reflected in each team's record?

First, USC has a number of close losses, and Utah has a few close wins. Scoring margin is generally a better predictor of future performance than a team's win-loss record itself, and USC and Utah have the exact same scoring margin (plus-17 points per game) through six games. The Trojans may be playing with an interim head coach, but they have arguably more talent, particularly on offense, than any team in the Pac-12. USC obviously does not have as impressive a résumé as Utah's, but this weekend, the FPI and Vegas expect them to be stronger at home.

Mark Schlabach: I don't need a computer to tell me who is going to win at the Coliseum. The Trojans need a psychologist to convince themselves they can do it. Unless USC finally starts playing up to its potential under interim coach Clay Helton, I can't see how the Trojans have a 72 percent chance of knocking off the Utes. The Trojans might look better on paper, but the Utes look like a much tougher team. Utah has already won two road games this season, beating Fresno State by 21 points and Oregon by 42. Sure, the Utes have had a couple of close victories, but they came against much-improved Michigan and Cal. The Trojans were probably a more talented team last season, too, but Utah walked away with a 24-21 upset of then-No. 20 USC in Salt Lake City. Utah is at a point where it knows it can win, while the Trojans are still trying to figure out how to close games.

Does LSU have the most impressive body of work?

Katz: We have spent a lot of time discussing the FPI -- a forward-looking measure of team strength. ESPN has another metric, strength of record, that becomes more important as the season goes on to evaluate which teams are most deserving of making the College Football Playoff. Strength of record measures the difficulty of achieving a team's record or better, given its schedule. It doesn't account for scoring margin but factors in opponent strength, game site and game result. Based on this metric, LSU has the most impressive record in the nation, followed by Utah and Clemson. LSU's schedule includes only one game (versus Eastern Michigan) in which an average FBS team would currently be the favorite. The Tigers own four conference wins and have at least attempted to challenge themselves with a road game against Syracuse. The case can be made for Utah or Clemson. But by the slightest margin, LSU has accomplished more than any other team at the midpoint of the season, looking at the total body of work.

Schlabach: I wouldn't have a problem with LSU being No. 1 in strength of record -- if the calendar had already flipped to late November. By then, the Tigers would have played five legitimately ranked teams (I can't count Auburn): No. 25 Mississippi State, No. 8 Florida, No. 8 Alabama, No. 24 Ole Miss and No. 15 Texas A&M. Until now, only the Bulldogs and Gators have really tested the Tigers. Beating Syracuse on the road doesn't mean much of anything, especially after the Orange just lost to USF and Virginia in consecutive games, and wins over Auburn and South Carolina won't carry much weight this season. I think Alabama probably has a better overall body of work, with victories over Wisconsin on a neutral field and Georgia and Texas A&M on the road. And you could certainly argue that Stanford, even with its opening loss at Northwestern, has accomplished as much with wins over USC, Arizona and UCLA.

Is Baylor's Seth Russell the nation's top QB?

Katz: Trevone Boykin may have more passing yards and game-winning drives than Russell, but on a per-play basis, Russell has been the most efficient quarterback in the nation. Not only does Russell lead the nation with an 88.9 Total QBR, but he is averaging a whopping 11.7 yards per attempt and has been responsible for a touchdown once every 6.4 touches (passes or rushes). Overall, Russell has accounted for 32 touchdowns, the most for a player through six games in the past 10 seasons, and that's without playing the majority of fourth quarters (also a decent reason for the lack of fourth-quarter comebacks). The biggest argument against Russell is Baylor's schedule, but QBR adjusts for opposing defenses faced, and he still leads the country. As the signal-caller for the hottest offense in recent memory, there is no doubt that Russell has been the top quarterback in the nation through the first half of the season.

Schlabach: I love what Russell is doing in Baylor's offense. In fact, he might end up being the best quarterback who ever directs Bears coach Art Briles' spread offense. But it's also difficult to ignore what Boykin is doing this season. He might be even more valuable than Russell because of TCU's myriad injuries on defense. There is very little margin for error for TCU's offense. Boykin has been responsible for at least five touchdowns in six games during the past two seasons, second most among FBS players, and he has put up 500 yards of total offense and at least four touchdowns in three games this year. He is completing 66.4 percent of his passes for 2,539 yards with 25 touchdowns and five interceptions, while rushing for 440 yards and five scores.