SANTA CLARA — USC entered into its Pac-12 Championship Game matchup with No. 12 Stanford ranked 10th. Forget the College Football Playoff, a gridiron version of the Final Four — sitting at No. 10 wouldn’t land the Trojans in an Elite Eight.
But after a 31-28 win to claim the program’s first conference title since 2008, the USC College Football Playoff outlook suddenly looked a whole lot rosier.
Head coach Clay Helton was asked about the Trojans’ case shortly after the win.
“There are going to be a lot of games that happen tomorrow that are going to decide the future for a lot of football teams,” he said. “But we sit here with 11 wins. We sit here as a conference champion. We sit here with an unbelievable strength of schedule, and had the opportunity to show on national TV, I think we were the only game on, who we are. Obviously, the reality is we’ll need some help. But if you look up and there’s four teams that are two-loss champions, conference champions, I think we deserve to be in the discussion, especially the way these guys finished the season. They’re hot right now and they’re playing good football.”
Helton touched every base as it pertains to a USC College Football Playoff discussion. First and foremost, the Trojans need help.
The winner of the SEC Championship Game is in no matter if it’s Auburn or Georgia. There’s one bid locked. Either Clemson or Miami is guaranteed a berth following the ACC Championship. That’s half the field already guaranteed. Oklahoma is in with a Big 12 title. Despite the kvetching of some in college football media, Wisconsin should be a lock at 13-0 and Big Ten champion.
Basically, the College Football Playoff committee can call it night on Saturday and sip mimosas with breakfast before revealing the bracket should Oklahoma and Wisconsin win. But if one of either TCU or Ohio State wins Saturday, it complicates the process.
Should both win, the Playoff discussion will get more discussion than the Senate gave to sweeping tax code changes.
That bit of help suddenly pushes USC into the conversation. As Helton mentions, USC is a two-loss conference champion. That would put the Trojans on par with Auburn, Ohio State and/or TCU, should they win Saturday. The Trojans have 11 wins, as all those teams would boast.
However, USC differentiates itself from two of the three in one key area: both its losses came to teams currently ranked in the top 18 of the College Football Playoff poll. TCU lost to unranked Iowa State, and Ohio State to unranked Iowa, in addition to a shared defeat against Oklahoma.
To that end, USC is more comparable to Auburn — and with the Tigers looking like automatic Playoff qualifiers with a win Saturday, it’s understandably USC would draw a comparison.
“Hopefully the committee can look at us, as a two-loss team, right up there with Auburn as the best two-loss teams,” said offensive coordinator Tee Martin.
The parallel with Auburn is apt in another key manner. Coming into Friday’s Pac-12 Championship, USC played the No. 26 toughest schedule according to Sagarin metrics. Auburn checked in at No. 15. In contrast, Ohio State heads into the Big Ten Championship with the 42nd strength of schedule, and TCU with the 46th.
USC just won the Pac-12 and went 11-2 with a schedule that featured no regular-season byes and whose worst nonconference opponent was in the Cotton Bowl last year. That is a phenomenal year by any standard.
— Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna) December 2, 2017
And as for one-loss Alabama — an interesting case study for the committee for a variety of reason — the Crimson Tide wait anxiously this weekend with the nation’s No. 54 strength of schedule. That’s much more comparable to the maligned slate Wisconsin played than it is Auburn or USC’s docket.
There are other mitigating factors to consider with a USC College Football Playoff debate, too. The Trojans played 12 consecutive games with no bye week, and the losses came under unusual circumstances.
“Having 12 straight games was a tough situation to be in,” said quarterback Sam Darnold. “Then having an away game in Pullman [on a Friday night on six days’ rest], then having to play a hot Notre Dame team [coming off a bye week] on the road, it’s a tough schedule. It’s something to definitely take into account.”
The College Football Playoff committee might be spared having to take any of it into account if a few things break to make for an easy Final Four. But that wouldn’t really fit with the theme of the 2017 season.