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Coming close just isn't good enough in college football

USC is one of many teams playing the what-if game

Only four schools will end up playing in the two most important games of the year. A handful of others will play the what-if game.

We've already learned that in the new college football playoff system there is a fiber-optic fine line between preparing for the final four and waking up in a cold sweat, mumbling the words to a Frank Sinatra song.

"Regrets, I've had a few …"

The competition has been so tight that even USC, a four-loss team that reentered this week's College Football Playoff ranking at No. 25, is lamenting fate's fickle finger.

"There are a couple of gut-wrenching losses that will haunt us," Trojans Coach Steve Sarkisian said after last week's 49-14 victory over Notre Dame.

He didn't have to mention the two — every Trojan knows.

• The Haunting, Part 1

On Oct. 4, at the Coliseum, USC squandered a fourth-quarter lead against Arizona State but still would have won had someone — anyone! — knocked down a final Hail Mary pass.

Let's not discount the incredible, intuitive play made by Sun Devils receiver Jaelen Strong, who waited until the last second to step in front of USC's Hayes Pullard to complete an incredible play.

Strong baited Pullard and others into thinking they had a read on quarterback Mike Bercovici's heave; Pullard acted as if he was waiting to fair catch a punt.

There was still no excuse for Strong being able to outsmart the entire USC secondary. Final score: Arizona State 38, USC 34.

• The Haunting, Part 2

On Oct. 25, in Salt Lake City, USC needed two yards for a first down that would have sealed a 21-17 road win at Utah. On third-and-two at the Utah 28, quarterback Cody Kessler had Jahleel Pinner open in the right flat. Kessler, one of the nation's most accurate passers, completed 24 of 32 passes that night.

Except this pass slipped out of his hand and fell short.

On fourth down, Sarkisian made the gutsy, but correct, decision to attempt the secure the win by getting a first down. The play he called worked too, as receiver Nelson Agholor took a handoff and skirted around left end for the necessary yardage. Except Agholor inadvertently stepped out of bounds a yard short.

Utah took possession and scored the game-winning touchdown with eight seconds left.

Had USC finished 10-2 instead of 8-4 the Trojans would be playing Oregon on Friday for the Pac-12 Conference title, possibly one win away from securing a spot in the four-team playoff.

USC is one team on a what-if wonder list.

• What if Wisconsin (10-2) had handed the ball to star running back Melvin Gordon more than four times in the second half of the team's Aug. 30 opener against Louisiana State?

Wisconsin led LSU, 24-7, in the third quarter when Gordon, the soon-to-be Heisman Trophy finalist who rushed for 408 yards in a later game, disappeared from action.

There was confusion as to why Gordon didn't play. It took the school about 48 hours to coordinate an answer. Coach Gary Andersen explained that Gordon had suffered a slight hip flexor injury late in second quarter, which was interesting because it didn't stop Gordon from gaining 63 yards on a third-quarter run — or from 17 carries the next week.

"I've played through way worse," Gordon said. "I was still good."

With Gordon out, LSU rallied to win, 28-24.

Had Wisconsin won, the Badgers would be 11-1 entering Saturday's Big Ten Conference title game against Ohio State, probably one victory from a playoff spot.

Gordon told reporters he should have been more forceful in saying he was fine. "Maybe I should've really let them know," he said.

•What if Missouri (10-2) had not lost at home on Sept. 20 to lowly Indiana?

Missouri won the Southeastern Conference East Division last week but jumped only one position, to No. 16, in this week's playoff ranking.

Because of that loss, not even a win over No. 1 Alabama in Saturday's SEC title game will be enough to get Missouri into the playoff.

Indiana, which finished 1-7 against Big Ten competition, scored the winning touchdown on a three-yard run with 22 seconds left.

"This should have never happened," Missouri linebacker Michael Scherer lamented afterward. "But it did."

•What if Mississippi star receiver Laquon Treadwell, on Nov. 1, had not suffered a gruesome leg injury in a 35-31 loss to Auburn in Oxford?

Treadwell was inches short of the go-ahead touchdown when, with 1:30 left, he was wrenched backward by a tackle that broke his leg and forced a fumble that was recovered by Auburn. The play was originally called a touchdown, then reversed on review.

You could argue that, without that crushing loss of player and game, Mississippi would have never lost a subsequent game to Arkansas and would be 11-1, with the tiebreaker over Alabama in the SEC West.

• What if ninth-ranked Kansas State (9-2) had not turned the ball over three times and missed three field goals in a 20-14 home loss to Auburn, the defending SEC champion?

A win over Auburn would have put Kansas State on the cusp of the playoff, with, by far, the best nonconference win among Big 12 Conference contenders.

• What if No. 11 Georgia Tech (10-2) had held on to beat North Carolina on Oct. 18 in Chapel Hill? The Yellow Jackets led, 43-42, with 3:07 left, but North Carolina won on T.J. Logan's two-yard run with 11 seconds left.

Had Georgia Tech prevailed, it would now be a one-loss team coming off a win at Georgia, with a shot in Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference championship game to end Florida State's 28-game winning streak.

Georgia Tech will have all off-season to commiserate — along with USC, Missouri, Kansas State, Mississippi, Wisconsin and others in the oh-so-close club.

"I do think 'what-if?'" Sarkisian said of USC's lost chances. "But there are some valuable lessons in those games that will help us in the years to come."

Sarkisian is right: it's never too late to learn.

It's just too late this year.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

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