USC on the verge of a Pac-12 title — and a College Football Playoff berth?
In the final stretch of a season so uncertain, in the afterglow of another improbable comeback, the USC coach whose job had so consistently been called into question was right where he had intended to end up.
The Trojans were undefeated, on the verge of a Pac-12 Conference title, and suddenly potential insurgents in the College Football Playoff picture — and Clay Helton stood at the center of the Rose Bowl locker room, ringing the Victory Bell as water bottles emptied joyously overhead following a 43-38 win over UCLA.
It didn’t matter amid the postgame ecstasy just how uncertain the path ahead remained. To win its first Pac-12 title since 2017, USC (5-0) will have to win a third game in 13 days against an opponent it might not know for certain until midweek, a fitting finish to a season of unforeseen circumstances.
USC’s 2020 reputation for comebacks hit its high mark for the season Saturday in the Trojans’ gutsy 43-38 victory over crosstown rival UCLA.
When Helton awoke early on Sunday, he and his staff set out to prepare for two teams, Washington and Oregon, just in case COVID-19 issues kept enough Huskies out ahead of Friday night. No Pac-12 team that has canceled its previous game this season was able to forge ahead with another game the following Friday or Saturday, making it unlikely that Washington will buck that trend this week.
If the Huskies are unable to play, the Pac-12 has said the Ducks will take their place as alternates. It’s unclear when that final decision will be made, but either team will have had nearly two weeks of rest and preparation before playing USC for a Pac-12 title that neither has done much to earn.
That uncertainty doesn’t appear fair to USC, which has done everything in its power to drag the Pac-12 into CFP contention. But Saturday night, in the wake of their celebration, Helton didn’t seem to mind.
“What a great opportunity,” he said. “We said any time, any place, anywhere, and we’re fortunate. We’re glad that we’re home. We’re glad that we’re in the great city of Los Angeles, and we’ll see who we get and we’ll go put the ball down and play.”
Kevon Slovis’ fifth touchdown pass, with 16 seconds left, lifted USC to a 43-38 win over UCLA and a 5-0 record. Up next is the Pac-12 title game.
Where USC might end up after Friday is also anyone’s guess. But if it weathers another challenge to win a Pac-12 title at 6-0, the notion of the unblemished yet imperfect Trojans somehow sneaking into the playoff might not be as inconceivable as it once seemed.
Unlikely? Sure. Implausible? Probably.
USC ranks only 13th in the latest Associated Press poll, behind four teams with two losses. It would have to rise substantially from its spot at No. 15 when the new College Football Playoff rankings are revealed Tuesday, past other dark horses such as 11-0 Coastal Carolina or 8-0 Cincinnati as well as big-conference contenders Iowa State (8-2), Clemson (9-1) or Texas A&M (7-1).
It’s doubtful how much a victory over Washington, whose three wins came against teams with a combined record of 4-11, could shift that scale. A win over Oregon, which has two losses in five games, probably offers less in the way of a resume boost.
The USC men’s basketball team has shut down team activities and postponed Sunday’s Pac-12 opener against Stanford because of a positive coronavirus test.
Still, an ESPN graphic circulated on social media Saturday night touting a 49% chance of the Trojans making the CFP unleashed a torrent of takes online. That stunning mark, courtesy of ESPN’s Football Power Index, was better than Clemson, Texas A&M and all but three teams, suggesting the algorithm has a soft spot for dramatic comebacks over dubious opponents.
Even an optimistic FPI couldn’t bring itself to put the Trojans in its top 10, ranking them 14th behind the likes of Texas, whose coach was nearly fired last week, and Wisconsin, whose record is 2-3.
Climbing past its current place in the playoff picture means first navigating the precarious position the Pac-12 has given USC this week. Helton has said the team’s preparation won’t be much different than last week, when the Trojans played UCLA on Saturday after beating Washington State the previous Sunday. Still, refocusing by Friday, without knowing which team you might face, will be no easy feat.
But at the end of a season in which nothing has come easily, USC should at least be used to it by now.
The final week slate of the Pac-12’s chaotic, shortened season has been set. After USC and potentially Washington decide the Pac-12 championship at the Coliseum on Friday, eight other conference teams are scheduled to play another game the next day.
Oregon and Colorado will meet in the same stadium in L.A. on Saturday, just in case either needs to be called into action as an alternate the night before.
UCLA will stay at the Rose Bowl to face Stanford with the hope of finishing above .500 and earning bowl eligibility for the first time in the Chip Kelly era. Washington State will head to Utah, and Arizona State will play at Oregon State.
Arizona, which fired coach Kevin Sumlin on Saturday, was supposed to play California, but the game was canceled by the Pac-12 because neither had enough available players because of COVID-19 issues.
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