The prevailing consensus in the offseason was that USC was not yet ready to be a College Football Playoff team.
Pac-12 champion? Yes. Rose Bowl team? Yes. New Year’s Six bowl team? Yes. Not the playoff. That was — and still is — unlikely. Too many holes on defense. Too many questions along the defensive front. Too many weaknesses a good offensive line can exploit.
USC should have a playoff-caliber team in 2023, once more depth is infused into the program through another recruiting cycle and another transfer portal cycle. Roster limitations inherited from Clay Helton will continue to be addressed. More reinforcements and more bodies will improve USC at its weakest points. When a weakness becomes a strength, that’s when a program is ready to become a true giant. USC is not there yet.
Therefore, if USC has the best chance to make the College Football Playoff from the Pac-12 as of Labor Day 2022, that’s not what the Pac-12 wanted. Utah was supposed to carry the banner this year, and Oregon was supposed to at least be competitive against Georgia.
The Pac-12 went 0 for 2, meaning USC already has more margin for error than the Utes or Ducks.
We’re not talking about what we think will happen the rest of the season. We’re discussing the current situation as it is.
Let’s explore some of the nuances of this situation in greater depth:
UTAH MUST WIN ITS NEXT 12 GAMES
Sep 3, 2022; Gainesville, Florida, USA; Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) and Florida Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson (15) meet after a game at Steve Spurrier-Florida Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
It’s really pretty simple: Utah has to win its next 12 games to have a shot at the playoff. What do we always tell you about the Pac-12 and the playoff every year? The Pac-12 champion has to be 12-1. It cannot be 11-2. Period. Utah cannot lose another game. It’s not complicated.
USC CAN LOSE ONCE
Sep 3, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans mascot Tommy Trojan leads the Sprit of Troy marching band onto the field during the game against the Rice Owls at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Utah is alive but without margin for error. If Florida produces a quality season, then the three-point loss won’t be held against the Utes — so long as they don’t lose again.
As we see it, the conference has two paths to the CFP:
— Utah wins out and finishes 12-1.
— USC finishes 13-0 or 12-1.
OREGON IS DONE, WITH NO CHANCE AT THE PLAYOFF
Sep 3, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; A general view of the line of scrimmage during a game between the Georgia Bulldogs and Oregon Ducks in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Oregon was embarrassed by Georgia (49-3) in a manner we didn’t think possible. The Dawgs did to the Ducks what we would expect Oregon to do to Western Oregon.
As the CFP goes, the Ducks are done: Even if they run the table, the 46-point loss will undermine their playoff bid.
Sep 3, 2022; Pasadena, California, USA; UCLA Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (1) moves out to pass against the Bowling Green Falcons during the second half at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
No other team has the talent or schedule juice (hello, UCLA) to be considered potential contenders.
That cupcake-rich nonconference schedule carries a cost for the Bruins.
THE NOTRE DAME FACTOR
Nov 20, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman sits on the bench in the fourth quarter against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
If USC is 10-1 heading into the Notre Dame game, and the Irish are also 10-1 with a good, tough performance against Ohio State as the only loss on their resume, the winner of that game would become a serious playoff contender heading into the selection show in December. USC could cement itself as a playoff team by winning the Pac-12 Championship Game (which it would play in if it is 11-1 through 12 games).
UTAH WILL HAVE TO GO 2-0 AGAINST USC OR OREGON
December 3, 2021; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Oregon Ducks running back Travis Dye (26) is brought down by Utah Utes defensive end Van Fillinger (7) and linebacker Karene Reid (32) during the second half in the 2021 Pac-12 Championship Game at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Utah needing to win its next 12 games means the Utes, who play both USC and Oregon in the regular season, will have to beat one of the two teams (barring an unlikely turn of events) a second time in the Pac-12 Championship Game to have any shot at the playoff.