Commentary: To reach playoff, USC would likely need to win heated Tennessee debate

USC's Korey Foreman celebrates his tackle for a loss with Tyrone Talent and Stanley Taufo'ou against Colorado.
USC’s Korey Foreman (0) celebrates his tackle for a loss with Tyrone Talent (31) and Stanley Taufo’ou against Colorado in the second quarter at the Coliseum on Friday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Lincoln Riley says he doesn’t pay any mind to the College Football Playoff’s weekly rankings reveal. And certainly, with a massive rivalry game against UCLA just days away, that’s probably a sound decision. No wasted minutes and all.

If he did happen to tune in Tuesday night, he would have seen some positive signs of the CFP selection committee’s respect for the 9-1 Trojans, who moved up a spot to No. 7.

USC stayed in front of No. 8 Alabama, which won a hard-fought game on the road at Mississippi, a result that certainly could have nudged the committee to say the Crimson Tide, even with two losses, had still clearly accomplished more in 2022 than the Trojans. USC also sits above No. 9 Clemson, which could finish as another one-loss Power Five conference champion when the dust settles.


Riley’s Trojans, then, have everything in front of them. The top five of No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 Texas Christian and No. 5 Tennessee didn’t change. No. 6 Louisiana State, with two losses, joined USC in moving up a spot after Oregon’s loss to Washington.

With Travis Dye out for the season, Austin Jones is expected to take the lead role at running back for USC when it visits UCLA on Saturday night.

Nov. 15, 2022

One of the Buckeyes and Wolverines teams will lose in “The Game” Nov. 26 in Columbus. The loser would not remain above a 12-1 USC that finishes with wins over No. 16 UCLA, No. 18 Notre Dame and No. 10 Utah or No. 12 Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. Conference championships matter to the committee, and so do blue-blood brands that will drive viewership.

To keep things simple, USC needs Georgia to knock off LSU in the SEC championship game in Atlanta. The Bulldogs will be an overwhelming favorite to beat the Tigers, who would be a threat even with two losses if it boasted wins over Georgia and Alabama.

With one of the Big Ten powers and LSU out of the way, TCU and Tennessee still stand in the way. The Trojan faithful should be rooting hard against those two teams from here if they want a fully clear path with minimal debate.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the Horned Frogs and Volunteers win out. TCU would be in as an unbeaten Power Five champion. Then it would be down to 11-1 Tennessee, which did not win its own SEC division, and 12-1 USC, which powered through a tough finishing stretch and won an extra game to win its conference.

Tennessee running back Dylan Sampson escapes from Missouri defensive lineman DJ Coleman.
Tennessee running back Dylan Sampson (24) escapes from Missouri defensive lineman DJ Coleman (7) during the second half Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn.
(Wade Payne / Associated Press)

The SEC bias would have to be pretty strong for the committee to pick Tennessee over USC in this unlikely scenario of the Trojans catching fire and playing their way to the brink of a historic season.

This would be the part where we have to remember: The CFP four-team playoff is an invitational meant to create compelling television programming for the masses.

Who wants to see No. 1 Georgia and No. 4 Tennessee in a national semifinal? Millions watched as the Bulldogs dominated the Vols Nov. 5. The 27-13 final score was not indicative of how easily Georgia handled its business.

The No. 2 team from the Big Ten against No. 3 TCU would be locked in.

Who wants to see Georgia against No. 4 USC? Many, many more people across the country.

USC against Tennessee would be one of the most fascinating debates the committee has made to this point.

UCLA is out of the running for the College Football Playoff semifinals. Now the Bruins will eliminate rival USC from contention.

Nov. 15, 2022

If the committee wanted to lean into its SEC love, it could pull something like vaulting the winner of Ohio State-Michigan to No. 1, placing Georgia No. 2, slotting TCU No. 3 and dropping Tennessee to No. 4, avoiding the SEC rematch in the first round.

If that happens, we won’t have to guess why.

Of course, this is all moot if USC drops a game within this gantlet. But this is what the Trojans, who did not lose to any Pac-12 bottom feeder this season like UCLA, have provided us: The chance to happily keep dreaming.