USC will play Oregon, not Washington in the Pac-12 title game
In the decisive game of a Pac-12 season pieced together as it went along, USC will play for a conference title against a team that didn’t even win its division.
USC and Oregon will meet Friday night at the Coliseum to decide thePac-12 champion, after Washington, the North division winner, was replaced amid a coronavirus outbreak that wiped out its offensive line and left the Huskies without the minimum number of players to carry on.
The matchup with Washington lasted less than 36 hours before it was called off by the Pac-12, calling into question why it was announced in the first place.
Washington (3-1) and Oregon (3-2) were supposed to meet last Saturday to decide the Pac-12’s North division and who would face USC (5-0), the South champion. But that game was canceled because of the same coronavirus outbreak, leaving Washington as the de facto division winner.
However, those COVID-19 issues have officially ended Washington’s pursuit of a Pac-12 title, paving the way for an alternate that lost its last two games to potentially upend the conference’s last undefeated team and only hope, however slim, for the College Football Playoff.
At least USC now has clarity on which team it should prepare for this week. The Trojans began the week studying Washington and Oregon in the event that the Pac-12 was forced to pivot from its plan.
That pivot fortunately came early, leaving USC with just one fewer day than usual to prepare for the Ducks, who didn’t play last week and received a day’s head start in devising their plan for the Trojans.
The Pac-12 Conference has set the schedule for its final weekend of football games, which includes UCLA hosting Stanford at the Rose Bowl and USC in the championship game.
With those circumstances in mind, coach Clay Helton was asked before the Pac-12’s decision Monday morning if he felt USC was at a competitive disadvantage, whomever his Trojans ended up facing.
“Obviously, 2020 has been a different year,” Helton said. “We’ve taken the approach that anytime, any place, anywhere, anyone, you roll with it because you don’t know. … Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.”
Those feelings might change if the Pac-12’s automatic bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game goes to Oregon, a divisional runner-up that lost to Oregon State (2-4) and California (1-3) in its most recent games.
Other conferences, like the American and Sun Belt, created contingency plans to assure a similar situation didn’t derail their top team’s postseason hopes. The Big Ten, meanwhile, adjusted its rules midseason to clear the way for Ohio State to play in the conference championship game.
The Pac-12 never considered any such plans, announcing instead on Monday that it would replace Washington with Oregon, in accordance with the championship game policy it devised before the season.
No matter how they got there, Huskies coach Jimmy Lake said Monday that he believed the Ducks still would be deserving of the Pac-12 title if they beat the Trojans in Washington’s place.
“I love this way better than people voting and looking at some vote,” Lake said. “Let’s settle it on the football field.”
The larger stakes for USC, beyond simply conference supremacy, won’t be entirely clear until Tuesday night, when the College Football Playoff committee announces its new rankings. If the Trojans make a significant move from the 15th spot, they could find themselves at least in the conversation ahead of Friday’s conference title game.
Through six chaotic weeks of its conference-only schedule, USC has attempted to build a resumé worthy of CFP consideration. But after its matchup against South division runner-up Colorado was canceled because of USC’s outbreak, the Trojans also were unable to play a full complement of Pac-12 contenders.
Colorado’s loss to Utah in a morning game Saturday gives the Trojans the Pac-12 South title. Their opponent remains to be determined.
On Monday, shortly after his team was forced to bow out of the title game, Lake wondered aloud how the Pac-12 season might have been different if it would’ve kept the Sept. 26 start date it announced at the end of July.
“We definitely would have had way more wiggle room as a conference to replay games, make up games,” Lake said. “I do know this, the Pac-12 leadership was trying to do what was best for the health and safety of our players and staff.”
After becoming USC’s first 100-yard rusher of the season, senior running back Vavae Malepeai suffered a knee sprain late in Saturday’s win over UCLA. Malepeai didn’t practice Sunday and will be monitored throughout the week.
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