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Is USC the third-best team in college football?

The question was simple enough: Given another shot at Alabama, could USC defeat the top-ranked team in the nation?

Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, the Trojans’ massive nose tackle, paused a moment and smiled the slightest bit before answering.

“No comment.”

With bowl season now in the record books, only the national championship game left to be played on Monday, it seems evident that Alabama and Clemson have set themselves apart as the two best teams in the nation.

So where does that leave USC, which scored a thrilling comeback win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl?

The Trojans, who ended the regular season at No. 9, certainly rank among the hottest teams in the nation with nine consecutive victories since a 1-3 start that included a lopsided loss to the Crimson Tide.

Their streak features a mid-November victory over No. 4 Washington, which made the College Football Playoff. It  was bolstered by that instant-classic win over No. 5 Penn State.

All of which gives the Trojans a reasonable claim for the third spot.

They could arguably rank above No. 3 Ohio State, which lost to Penn State during the regular season and got swamped by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. Above No. 6 Michigan, which lost in the Orange Bowl. And above No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 8 Wisconsin, both of whom defeated lower-ranked opponents in their bowl games.

“That’s a great football team,” Penn State Coach James Franklin said of USC.

While Tu’ikolovatu wasn’t about to offer an opinion, he did have a prediction.

“You’ll probably see us in the playoffs next year,” he said.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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