Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
The penultimate College Football Playoff rankings made things simple for the Pac-12. If fourth-ranked USC wins the conference championship Friday evening, the Trojans are in the semifinals.
But the Hotline has passing interest in simple things.
We prefer the difficult, which explains this discussion: What happens if the Trojans lose?
The presumption among fans and talking heads is that a stumble against Utah would automatically eliminate USC from playoff consideration as a two-loss Pac-12 runner-up.
Except there isn't an obvious replacement.
If top-ranked Georgia (SEC), No. 2 Michigan (Big Ten) and No. 3 TCU (Big 12) all win their league titles, then only the ACC champ would be missing. But two-loss Clemson is far down the rankings (No. 9) and stands no chance.
Which means a loss by USC would leave the selection committee with no choice but to place a non-champion in that fourth semifinal slot.
Based on the rankings released Tuesday evening, there would be three options: No. 4 USC, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 6 Alabama.
Let's use three basic data points to frame the discussion:
Total losses (with CFP rankings)
USC: two (both to No. 11 Utah) Alabama: two (No. 7 Tennessee and No. 14 LSU) Ohio State: one (No. 2 Michigan)
Quality wins (with CFP rankings)
USC (three): No. 15 Oregon State, No. 17 UCLA and No. 21 Notre Dame Ohio State (two): No. 8 Penn State and No. 21 Notre Dame Alabama (two): No. 20 Texas and No. 24 Mississippi State
Strength of schedule (Sagarin ratings)
Alabama: No. 28 Ohio State: No. 44 USC: No. 46
Strength of record (ESPN)
Ohio State: No. 4 Alabama: No. 5 USC: No. 6
(Strength of record measures how the team in question performed against its schedule compared to how an average top-25 team would fare against the same lineup.)
In any evaluation of the three teams, the underlying question is this:
Should USC be punished for losing a game — its conference championship — that neither Ohio State or Alabama earned the right to play?
If the committee had the option to replace two-loss USC with a one-loss conference champion, the answer would be clear. But the choices in this case are all non-champions.
The Trojans would have the same number of losses as Alabama but a markedly more impressive lineup of quality wins, so let's remove the Crimson Tide.
(Also, how could No. 6 Alabama possibly jump No. 5 Ohio State if both teams are idle?)
In a resume standoff between USC and Ohio State, there is a case to be made for both:
Both teams beat Notre Dame by 11 points, but USC's victory was far more decisive.
The Buckeyes led Notre Dame by four points until scoring a game-clinching touchdown with five minutes remaining.
The Trojans led by 10 at that same stage, then took a 17-point lead before the Irish scored a meaningless touchdown.
The Buckeyes would have fewer defeats, but only because of USC's loss in a game the Buckeyes didn't play.
The Trojans would have two losses to No. 11 Utah, which seems likely to move into the top 10 of the final rankings with a neutral-field victory over the Trojans.
Two losses to the same team — a team that itself has three losses — would be a significant strike against the Trojans.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes' only loss would have been at home, in decisive fashion, to Michigan.
Ohio State's record against ranked teams (by the CFP) would be 2-1, while the Trojans would be 3-2.
The Trojans would have more quality wins, but the Buckeyes would have the single best result, thanks to their 44-31 victory over No. 8 Penn State.
USC's best win, based on the rankings, would be the 17-14 escape at No. 15 Oregon State.
That's an advantage for the Buckeyes, although there's a case to be made that the Nittany Lions are overrated: They have no wins — zero — over ranked teams.
Their best results are victories over two 8-4 teams from the muddled, mediocre Big Ten West (Minnesota and Purdue). And their losses to both Michigan and Ohio State were by double digits.
If USC loses Friday night and is replaced by Ohio State and committee chair Boo Corrigan bases the decision on the Buckeyes' victory over a top-10 team (Penn State), the Pac-12 will have good reason to fume.
In our view, the Trojans should not be punished for losing a game Ohio State didn't earn the right to play.
If they were good enough for a top-four ranking Tuesday afternoon with one loss, they are good enough for a top-four ranking Sunday morning with two losses (assuming it's a narrow defeat to Utah).
But the committee, which has repeatedly stumbled over itself this season, appearing alternately uninformed and hypocritical, is unlikely to see it that way.
To the championship game …
Last week: 4-3Season: 43-36-1Five-star special: 8-5
Spread taken from BetMGM Game total in parentheses All times Pacific
Pac-12 championship: USC vs. Utah
Kickoff: Friday at 5 p.m. on Fox
Line: USC -3 (total: 67)
Comment: Our assessment starts with the belief that USC has improved more since the 43-42 loss in Salt Lake City, especially on defense, than have the Utes.
Additionally, we expect the Trojans to contain Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid, who had 16 receptions in the first meeting, shifting the playmaking pressure to receiver Devaughn Vele.
(If the Utes cannot generate big plays in the passing game and are forced to move the ball five or seven yards at a time, their margin for error shrinks.)
Another expectation: More brilliance from USC quarterback Caleb Williams.
The outcome likely hinges on Cam Rising, who was superb seven weeks ago but has thrown several ill-timed interceptions this season (Florida and Oregon, for example).
USC's otherworldly turnover margin of +22 (four giveaways, 26 takeaways) is based on a combination of blind luck, first-rate opportunism by the defense and stellar decision-making by Williams.
If the turnovers are even, the finish should be riveting (and hopefully decided on the field, not in the replay booth).
But if the Trojans once again win the turnover game — and why would their success stop now? — the outcome won't be in doubt with two minutes remaining.