USC Sports

USC mailbag: Breaking down playoff scenarios

Steven Mitchell, Deontay Burnett, Lorenzo Burns
USC wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr., second from right, celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Deontay Burnett, right, as Arizona’s Lorenzo Burns walks to the sideline during the first half of their Nov. 4 game at the Coliseum.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Every week*, The Times’ USC beat reporter, Zach Helfand, will answer your questions. Tweet yours to @zhelfand or email them to And after every USC game, you can leave a voice message on the USC Overtime hotline, at (213) 357-0984, for a call-in podcast posted the day after every game.


It remains mind-blowing that USC has been to exactly one Pac-12 Conference championship game. That’s as many as Washington, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado (!). It’s fewer than UCLA, Oregon and Stanford.

That could, and probably will, change this weekend, when USC plays Colorado. With a win, USC will clinch the Pac-12 South division and a spot in the conference championship game.


If USC wins that and remains at two losses, is there any chance USC makes the playoff?

Let’s go to the questions:

Fairly remote. FiveThirtyEight now puts USC’s odds at making the playoff at 30% if USC wins out. And there’s no guarantee that any of the following, with two losses, wouldn’t make it in over USC: Auburn, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Clemson or Georgia.


Here’s what I see as USC’s best chance to make the playoff:

  • No. 1 Georgia loses to No. 10 Auburn and then to No. 2 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Georgia is out.
  • No. 2 Alabama wins out and is in.
  • No. 3 Notre Dame wins out and is in.
  • No. 4 Clemson defeats No. 7 Miami but loses to Miami in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. USC jumps Clemson and its impressive resume because of the conference championship.
  • No. 5 Oklahoma defeats No. 6 Texas Christian in the regular season and the Big 12 championship game. Oklahoma is in. TCU is out.
  • No. 7 Miami loses to Notre Dame and Clemson but defeats Clemson in the ACC championship game. Miami, with two losses and few big wins, is out.
  • No. 8 Wisconsin loses in the Big Ten championship game to No. 13 Ohio State and is out.
  • No. 9 Washington loses to USC in the Pac-12 championship game and is out.
  • No. 10 Auburn loses to Alabama and is out.
  • No. 12 Michigan State loses to Ohio State and is out.
  • No. 13 Ohio State defeats Michigan State, defeats Wisconsin the Big Ten championship game but loses to Michigan and is out.

And that was one of the easiest routes in for USC. That would be a wacky finish. Any game described above breaking differently could keep USC out, of course, there are other ways in. There are many, many more ways out.

In other words, maybe hold off on buying playoff tickets.

Don from Houston emails: Taking a broader view of who could get in, where do you stand on the question of whether two teams from the same conference could get in? Specifically, if Georgia and Alabama both win their remaining regular seasons (Auburn standing in the middle of that) and then play a close game in the SEC Championship.

Alabama and Georgia are probably the only two legitimate possibilities in this scenario. The conventional wisdom says that’s likely if, say, Alabama hands Georgia its first loss in the SEC championship game, then both teams make it. And the conventional wisdom is right.

How could the committee keep Georgia out? Its resume is pristine, as evidenced by its top ranking. It defeated Notre Dame on the road. If Notre Dame wins out, could the committee really put Notre Dame — which doesn’t have a conference championship game to lose — in the playoff and not Georgia? Would Oklahoma/TCU or Clemson both have the resumes to keep Georgia out.

One intriguing scenario is Wisconsin winning out. There’s a case to be made for a one-loss Georgia team over undefeated but almost completely unchallenged Wisconsin.

Also, what if Alabama loses? Unlike Georgia, Alabama doesn’t have too many impressive wins on its schedule. It’s still likely that if Alabama’s only loss is in the SEC championship game, it gets in the playoff.


Ronald Jones II.

It would be a surprise if either came back. There are pluses for both in going professional. But it can at least be argued that there is value in Darnold coming back. There are basically only cons for Jones returning.

Many star running backs go professional after three seasons. Running back is arguably the most physically demanding position in the game. Mileage adds up. Jones has already showed he is a very capable runner. He has improved as a blocker and pass catcher. Another season won’t do him much good. It makes sense for him to get his money while he can.

Darnold is very likely to be the first or second quarterback taken in the draft. That’s big-time money. And he is good enough to succeed at the next level right now. It is possible that he could benefit from another season in college, where he can teach himself to be less reckless with the ball in a more forgiving environment. And there is less injury risk for a quarterback.

But don’t hold your breath on either player.


The February date remains. Now there’s an additional 72-hour signing window in December.

The move helps smaller schools, which often have their best recruits poached by bigger programs late in the process. It helps coaches and kids lock in their commitments, making for a much less stressful (and much less exciting to watch) signing day.

The drawbacks are mostly on the player side. As Steve mentions, schools will either react with very early coach firings (see: Florida) or very late ones. In the case of late firings, a kid who signs early can be stuck with a new coach he has no relationship with, with no recourse other than to try to transfer and sit out a season.

USC has 11 seniors (this class was smaller as part of the NCAA sanctions), plus Cary Angeline’s transfer and one open scholarship left over from this season, making only 13 scholarships available next season.

There will almost certainly be transfers or departures to the NFL draft. But unless there is a mass exodus, this class has to be small.

No, they just say “hi” like most people.

On a more practical note, one way to improve the quality of officiating is to pay some (or all) of the officials enough money to do it as a full-time job. It’s reasonable to think the product would improve if the officials can train, prepare and review at length during the week. More pay would also attract better, more experienced officials.

Until then, there will be some weirdness.

Just be thankful that you had no rooting interest in this game:

Nah. It was a sign of a poorly officiated game and a team that has consistently been pretty sloppy with penalties. The locker room still very much likes and supports Clay Helton.

Eat here

Brian Howell, who covers Colorado for Buffzone and the Boulder Daily Camera, offers this recommendation: The Sink.

Howell says it’s a “funky place with good pizza.” It’s an apt description. The walls are covered in bold, outlandish murals painted by a guy named Llloyd Kavich (yes, with three L’s.) People have written in marker all over the ceilings as if it were a stall in a public restroom. Barack Obama was a patron when he was president. Eat here and you too could be elected to public office.

Excitement level


Enjoy the game, everyone!

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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