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Commentary: USC is No. 4 in CFP rankings. Would idle Ohio State slide into playoff if the Trojans lose to Utah?

USC coach Lincoln Riley talks with his players on the sideline during the fourth quarter against Notre Dame.
USC coach Lincoln Riley talks with his players on the sideline during the fourth quarter against Notre Dame on Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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The nation’s focus will be on Las Vegas on Friday night when USC and Utah play for the Pac-12 championship.

“That’s the only drama left,” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said Tuesday night after the College Football Playoff rankings reveal.

Based on the CFP selection committee’s ranking of the Trojans as No. 4, USC is in the playoff with a win over the Utes. But what if USC loses? That’s where things would get interesting.

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The playoff never has invited a two-loss team into the field, and it is unlikely to break that precedent for a USC squad whose best win would be at No. 15 Oregon State by a score of 17-14.

A USC win Friday over Utah in the Pac-12 championship football game likely would boost UCLA’s hopes of landing in the Alamo Bowl, the league’s third-best choice.

Waiting in the wings is Ohio State, 11-1, at No. 5. It would be easy enough for the committee to bump the Buckeyes to the fourth spot, but do they really deserve a trip to the playoff after being pulverized by rival Michigan, 45-23, on their home field in the last game of the season?

The Wolverines ran away from Ohio State, winning the second half by a 28-3 margin, which should be the lasting image for the committee — despite the strength of Ohio State’s win over No. 8 Penn State in Happy Valley. The Buckeyes and Trojans each share an 11-point win over No. 21 Notre Dame.

If USC loses to Utah a second time in close fashion, the Trojans at least would have finished on a competitive note, unlike Ohio State. That said, they also would have whiffed on a chance to avenge their only loss of the year.

A theoretical choice of the 11-1 Buckeyes over 11-2 USC would be punishing the Trojans for having earned a spot in their conference championship game while Ohio State sat at home, licking its wounds.

Michigan running back Donovan Edwards plays against Ohio State during a game.
Michigan running back Donovan Edwards plays against Ohio State during a game Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.
(Jay LaPrete / Associated Press)

USC fans will have to hope that they don’t have to be subjected to any debate between Friday night and Sunday morning when the committee announces which four teams will play in the semifinals for a trip to the national championship game at SoFi Stadium on Jan. 9.

As it stands, on New Year’s Eve, No. 1 Georgia would play No. 4 USC in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta and No. 2 Michigan would play No. 3 Texas Christian in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. The field would feature two schools making their first CFP appearances in the Trojans and Horned Frogs, which would be great for a sport that already is headed toward more access with the expansion to 12 teams, as early as 2024 but certainly in 2026.

Ironically, with USC headed to the Big Ten in 2024, one of the Trojans’ best arguments against Ohio State would be the strength of the Pac-12 this year compared to the Big Ten.

The Pac-12 has six teams in the top 17 of the CFP rankings, with No. 4 USC followed by No. 11 Utah, No. 12 Washington, No. 15 Oregon State, No. 16 Oregon and No. 17 UCLA.

The Big Ten has just three teams in the rankings, but they’re all in the top eight (Penn State is No. 8 despite not having one top-25 win).

This year the Pac-12 was a better league than the Big Ten top to bottom, which might come in handy for USC before departing for the Midwest.

Lincoln Riley was clearly going to immediately improve USC football, but no one predicted his team would be this good during his first season.

If USC holds its spot over Ohio State as the last team into the playoff, the Rose Bowl will have a decision to make between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions. Ohio State beat Utah in Pasadena last year, while Penn State hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl since its epic loss to USC on Jan. 1, 2017.

If USC wins the Pac-12 and heads to the playoff, Washington, at 10-2, would be the likely opponent for Ohio State or Penn State. If Utah wins the Pac-12, the Utes would head back to the Rose Bowl and USC likely would be sent to another New Year’s Six bowl game.


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