USC

Latest rankings give USC a possible path to playoff, narrow and unlikely as it may be

Steven Mitchell Jr.
Is a College Football Playoff spot within the grasp of Steven Mitchell Jr. and the Trojans? Not yet, but hope remains.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

USC’s practice schedule conflicts with the weekly College Football Playoff rankings reveal every Tuesday late in the season. So the Trojans were on the field stretching when the biggest surprise of the week was revealed. Two hours later, the players and coaches still hadn’t been told the news by the time they walked off the practice field: The playoff selection committee jumped USC up six spots, from No. 17 to No. 11.

“Oh for real? Dang, for real?” running back Ronald Jones II said when he was told the news.

He sounded surprised. Then he thought on it and reconsidered.

“It’s not surprising,” he said. “I feel like we should be there. I didn’t know that we jumped that far. But that’s what’s up. I like that.”

The rankings put USC ahead of every two-loss team except Auburn, which still must play Alabama, Georgia and, potentially, a Southeastern Conference championship game. The Trojans rank ahead of Big Ten powers Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State. They rank ahead of Washington State, which defeated them in December and also has two losses. They aren’t far behind two undefeated teams, Miami and Wisconsin.

Not long after USC players like receiver Michael Pittman Jr. conceded that “it’s not really in our future, the playoffs,” the new rankings opened a possible path. The path is narrow and extremely unlikely. But possible.

Some players, like Jones, would not have guessed USC would end up at No. 11 when they left practice. Others were more confident.

Right tackle Chuma Edoga guessed USC’s spot exactly. His predictive powers were not powerful enough to divine if USC really could make the playoff.

“I really don’t know,” he said. “College football this year has been really unpredictable.”

Quarterback Sam Darnold said he wasn’t surprised by the ranking. He said USC’s wins have been impressive, its losses have come to strong teams and it is beginning to string together impressive performances. The playoff, he said, is in the back of players’ minds — but far back.

“We do have that hope,” Darnold said. “But at the same time, we’re focused on taking it one week at a time.”

The odds remain extremely slim. USC needs lots of help and luck. No two-loss team has made the playoff. Even if everything breaks USC’s way — even if the Big 12 cannibalizes itself, Auburn wreaks havoc in the SEC, Clemson and Miami stumble and Wisconsin loses a game — another lower-ranked two-loss team could jump USC.

And, of course, USC must also win its final two regular-season games and then win the Pac-12 Conference title.

“It’s still so early in November and there’s so many games still to be played and decisions to be made,” coach Clay Helton said. But, he conceded, “It’s nice to be thought of that way.”

McGrath held

Kicker Chase McGrath did not practice Tuesday because of a groin injury and likely will be shut down for the entire week of practice, Helton said.

McGrath played through the injury last weekend against Arizona. He was pulled from kickoffs in the third quarter but continued performing place-kicking duties. Helton said longer field goals “might have been an issue.”

“He gave us a great effort on Saturday night,” Helton said. “He feels good kicking field goals. It’s a little bit more stress when you’re having to do kickoffs.”

Helton said USC will use punter Reid Budrovich, who filled in for McGrath last weekend, on kickoffs Saturday at Colorado.

Quick hits

Tight end Tyler Petite (sprained shoulder), left tackle Toa Lobendahn (sore knee) and linebackers Connor Murphy (hip pointer) and Uchenna Nwosu (ankle) did not practice Tuesday. … Defensive end Rasheem Green (shoulder) was limited. … Linebacker Christian Rector (broken hand) did conditioning work. … Cornerback Iman Marshall (sprained knee) was a limited participant for the first time in two weeks and Vavae Malepeai (knee) was a participant for the first time in a week. ... Helton said linebacker Juliano Falaniko (bruised thigh) “was actually better than I thought he would be.”

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand