USC wins Pac 12 title but now must pray to the playoff gods

SANTA CLARA—It has long been the mission statement of USC football to compete for national titles and, if that fails, win the Pac and go to the Rose Bowl.


That’s what made Friday night’s 31-28 win over Stanford so Silicon strange. The Trojans won the Pac 12, their first crown since 2008 and first in the four-team playoff era, yet were left begging for national title consideration.

“We sit here with 11 wins,” USC Coach Clay Helton said in the post-game press conference at Levi’s Stadium. “We sit here as conference champions and we sit here with an unbelievable strength of schedule.”

Those would be gold standard credentials for the Southeastern Conference, or Big Ten, but not in the Pac 12.

At least not this year. Helton also sat there with two losses and ranked No. 10 in the latest College Football Playoff ranking.

And here’s the real crap kicker: winning the Pac 12, this year will likely earn USC a trip to the Fiesta Bowl.

The Rose Bowl has been leased out for a national semifinal game this season. And the Trojans, who have won 25 of those suckers, won’t even get to sublet a place they've owned.

Friday night summed up, neatly, the plight of this Pacific Coast league. The Pac 12 put on a good show in an atmosphere of ambivalence.

The game was mostly compelling, the stadium was mostly filled (48, 031), with seats mostly not covered up in tarp. And we can assume a nation was mostly watching.

USC will almost make the playoff and a Stanford player will almost win the Heisman Trophy.

What is it about the Pac 12 that causes it to, so often, end up (mostly) with the short end?[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

The game? Well, it was a real hoot the way it ended.

Trailing, 24-21, in the fourth quarter, Stanford faced fourth-and-goal at the USC one-yard line.

David Shaw, Stanford’s notoriously conservative coach, opted not to tie the game with a field goal. Shaw ordered his “jumbo” package into the game with the idea of bull-rushing into the end zone.

That’s a good idea with Bryce Love in the backfield. Except Love was out of the game, seemingly nursing an ankle that has slowed him for weeks. Shaw, however, said it wasn’t Love’s ankle that kept him out of the play.

"No, that's not the case at all," Shaw said. "We have our short goal line package that we've been using all year, and we went to that."

What? How do you keep Love, a guy you’re selling as the best player in the country, on the sideline for the most important play of the season?

USC linebacker Uchenna Nwosu crashed the play, unblocked, from the left side and stopped Cameron Scarlett cold. The Trojans then went 99 yards on eight plays to put the game out of reach, with quarterback Sam Darnold doing Sam Darnold things.

I voted Nwosu for MVP but everyone knows it’s an offensive world. So Darnold won, with a strong argument to be made for receiver Michael Pittman (seven catches for 146 yards).

Victory left USC joyful players prancing around the field, with fans chanting “One More Year!” as Darnold waited to conduct an on-field interview with ESPN.


Yet, the day and the season had that falling-short feeling.

In the new playoff system, with four playoff spots allotted for five Power 5 leagues, some conference is always going to get left out.

How many times will it be the Pac?

If two-loss USC doesn’t make this year's playoff, that will make the Pac 12 two-for-four in the short history of the CFP.

Oregon made it the first year, 2014, and Washington made it in 2016.

A .500 average is great in baseball--but how good is it for one of the nation’s leading conferences?

“I don’t think it bothers me at this point in time,” Pac 12 Commissioner Larry Scott answered a question I asked him at his pre-game press conference. “I think if we get to year 10 or 12 and that’s a trend, I might feel differently about it.”

If TCU defeats Oklahoma on Saturday in the Big 12 title game, and Ohio State defeats Wisconsin to win the Big Ten, college football will have three, two-loss champions.

Yet, until Friday, no one in the league really seemed to be pushing USC’s case with a unifying voice.

“Well, first of all, I think they are in the discussion,” Scott insisted to me, suggesting strongly that the selection committee hasn’t written off the Trojans. “They’re in the discussion that matters.”

We won’t know if that’s true unless we get a two-loss bake off.

Scott also felt comfortable making the closing argument that USC, as a two-loss champion, would deserve a playoff spot over one- loss Alabama, which cannot win the SEC.

My thought: Fat chance of that happening.

USC’s path to the playoff is narrow, though, but not impossible. It needs TCU to beat Oklahoma and also for Alabama to NOT get in the playoff.

Two-loss Ohio State, if it beats Wisconsin, will get in—trust me.

What else should Trojan fans be rooting for? Hope that TCU wins but also that Auburn loses a close game to Georgia in the SEC championship.

Would the committee dare drop Auburn below No. 5 Alabama? Auburn would still own wins over Georgia and Alabama.

If Auburn doesn’t drop below Alabama, the Crimson Tide can’t get to No. 4, right?

Anyway, it looks from here that USC is going to fall a yard short of the playoff end zone.

I asked Scott if he studied how the SEC has become so good at getting its teams aligned for championships.

The SEC, a 14-team league, really hasn’t been that strong this year. Yet, it has three teams competing for at least one playoff spot.

Why are they so good at this?

“Of course we look at what others are doing,” Scott said. “It raises conversations all the time.”

Part of the Pac’s problem is baked in the ingredients. It plays nine conference games to the SEC’s eight, which allows many schools in that league to schedule an extra “cupcake” in November.

Scott even broached the idea of clearing out a weak week for his own schools in November. Yet, there are other intractable scheduling and logistical factors involved.

“We’ve decided not to,” Scott said. “For a variety of reasons we prefer playing each other more.”

Once again, though, that probably means the Pac ending up with less. [/membership]