Some USC fans might be upset that LSU is ranked ahead of the Trojans in the College Football Playoff rankings. It’s understandable to be frustrated, angry, or caught off guard. A lot of people certainly expected USC to move up to No. 5 behind No. 4 TCU, and thereby move into playoff position after the Ohio State-Michigan loser drops out of the top four.
However, LSU has a win over Alabama, which ESPN and the SEC will elevate over anything USC does in the Pac-12. We know how this game is played. We also know that since LSU plays Georgia in a few weeks, the Tigers will have their ultimate proving-ground moment. If they do upset the defending national champions and win the SEC title, that’s going to be a problem for USC regardless of whether the Trojans are currently No. 5 or No. 6. That threat existed regardless of Tuesday’s rankings.
There’s a key point to be made here, though: Lincoln Riley should be loving this. He really should. It’s great for him as he prepares this team for Notre Dame.
We’ll explain below:
CHANGE IN TEMPERATURE
This development with LSU leapfrogging USC for No. 5 — right behind No. 4 TCU — is great for Lincoln Riley because he can now tell his players, “Hey, we’re not guaranteed to get into the playoff if we win out. We have to earn this thing. No one’s going to give it to us.”
Riley can convincingly tell his players that no one believes in USC as a playoff team and that the Trojans can prove everyone wrong.
He can play the disrespect card in a way which would not have been available to him if USC was No. 5, ahead of LSU.
If USC had been ranked No. 5, it would have been easy for USC players to think, “Okay, if we win we make the playoff.” Now that certitude does not exist. That’s really important. It creates the idea that USC has work left to do, which would have been true regardless of the playoff rankings. Now, it’s a little easier to internalize how difficult this Notre Dame game will be.
FUN OVER FEAR
If a team thinks it will make the playoff if it wins a specific game or pair of games, it can slide into a fearful mentality — “If we lose, this will be taken away from us” — instead of continuing to have fun, as USC has this season.
USC can’t think of what it might lose these next two weeks. The Trojans need to look at Notre Dame and then the Pac-12 Championship Game as opportunities, not as “win or else” situations in which the Trojans have a lot to lose.
Being No. 6 behind LSU should help the Trojans maintain their “fun over fear” focus.
PLAYOFF BIG PICTURE
Throughout the offseason, we said it was expecting too much of USC to demand or insist on a College Football Playoff appearance in Year 1 under Lincoln Riley. Winning the Pac-12 title was the true and realistic goal for the team, and it will get that chance in a week and a half. This team is playing with house money as far as the playoff is concerned, because hardly anyone expected the playoff in this first season.
That mentality needs to remain in place. LSU being ahead of USC reinforces that. It’s good for the team.
AVOID THIS THOUGHT
USC cannot think that the 2022 season is a failure if it doesn’t make the playoff. That would be a terrible way to think about the Trojans’ current situation and their season.
BEAT NOTRE DAME
Winning the USC-Notre Dame game is a big deal on its own terms.
Beat the Irish. That’s the goal. That’s the focus. Shove the noise to the side and enjoy playing in this big game in prime time.
REALISTIC GOAL NO. 1
USC will play for the Pac-12 championship next week. If USC wins that game, this is a successful season no matter what. This should enable the Trojans to focus on Notre Dame without feeling extra pressure.
REALISTIC GOAL NO. 2
USC just needs to win one of these next two games to clinch a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl. If USC loses each of its next two games, it could fall all the way down to the Alamo Bowl.
Focusing on winning games and improving as a group should be the tunnel-vision priority for this team.
If USC wins out and does get into the playoff, the Trojans would likely face Georgia in the Peach. They might even face the Ohio State-Michigan winner in the Fiesta, which would be their best-case scenario.
If USC does not make the playoff, the Trojans will go to the Rose if they lose to Notre Dame and win the Pac-12 title game.
If USC beats Notre Dame and loses the Pac-12 title game, it will go to the Cotton Bowl.
If USC loses twice and finishes 10-3, it could fall to the Alamo Bowl.
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