SANTA CLARA, Calif. — About an hour before the Pac-12 championship game kicked off Friday, conference commissioner Larry Scott tried to make the case that USC still had a route to the College Football Playoff.
“When I look at the landscape this year, I don’t think there is a one-loss, non-champion out there that would trump a two-loss champion from the Pac-12,” he said.
Put mildly, it was wishful thinking.
USC came into the game ranked No. 10 in the playoff rankings, five spots behind one-loss Alabama, which won’t be playing for the SEC title on Saturday. To any casual observer, it was clear USC was stuck behind the Crimson Tide, regardless of how it played against No. 12 Stanford. And unlike Alabama, there wasn’t a possible combination of championship game results to vault USC into the top four.
After the Trojans’ 31-28 victory, of course, nothing changed. Their first conference title since 2008 should be celebrated, and they’ll get a nice reward in a New Year’s Six bowl, but that’s where things will end this season for USC — and likely for quarterback Sam Darnold in a Trojans uniform.
Still, USC coach Clay Helton made his case.
“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.”
Darnold completed 17 of 24 passes for 325 yards with a pair of touchdowns — earning game MVP honors — and Ronald Jones II ran for 140 yards and two scores on 30 carries as the Trojans (11-2) became the first Pac-12 South team to win the conference title game in the seven years it has existed. Michael Pittman Jr. racked up 146 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions.
That the Pac-12 commissioner lobbied for a Pac-12 team in the playoff conversation wasn’t surprising, but Scott’s stance on his two-loss champion was too little, too late. In fact, it’s fair to look at the schedule the conference handed USC this season — which included 12 consecutive weeks without a bye — and come away thinking it contributed to the Trojans finishing on the outside looking in.
When USC went to Pullman to play Washington State on Sept. 29 — a Friday — it was the second of back-to-back road games on a short week against a ranked team that hadn’t played on the road all season. The Trojans were undermanned due to injuries, were outplayed and lost 30-27 to the Cougars.
USC wasn’t the only Pac-12 contender that lost under similar circumstances this season. Washington and Washington State also lost Friday night road games after playing on the road the week before. It was an obvious scheduling flaw that never should have been allowed in the first place, and it was something Scott acknowledged by announcing a change to the scheduling procedure.
“We added a parameter that says you cannot schedule a team to play a Friday night road game after a Saturday road game,” Scott said. “Hindsight’s 20/20. If we could re-engineer some things, there would probably be a long list of things we’d do differently.
“But, you know, no one’s got the benefit of doing that.”