USC still hangs on to playoff dreams
Luke Holthouse is a sophomore majoring in broadcast and digital journalism and policy, planning and development. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs Wednesdays. Reading quiz!Of the following conferences and divisions, which has the most teams in the AP Top 25?A. The SEC WestB. The Pac-12 SouthC. The Big 12D. The ACC and Big Ten combinedE. All of the aboveIf you guessed E, then congratulations, you’re correct! As a prize, you can keep this copy of the Daily Trojan for free.Yes, you read that right. The Pac-12 South has as many teams in the Top 25 as the almighty SEC West. Sure, the SEC West’s poll presence is a little more top-heavy — No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 4 Alabama, No. 5 Auburn and No. 24 LSU — than the Pac-12 South’s — No. 14 Arizona State, No. 15 Arizona, No. 19 Utah, No. 20 USC and No. 25 UCLA — but both have five represented in the AP Poll (sorry Arkansas and Colorado).Of all the numbers I could point to after last week’s 56-28 win over the Buffaloes, from redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler’s record seven touchdowns to Colorado’s rank of 121st out of 124 Division 1-A football teams for scoring defense, the number that sticks out most is that number five.Fellow Daily Trojan columnist Jake Davidson wrote Monday that the media gives way too much credit to the SEC and not enough to the Pac-12. I don’t buy into the “SEC Media Bias” idea as much as he does; I think the SEC really is that good. But I totally agree that the Pac-12 is at least the next best thing, and I really hope the Bowl Selection Committee feels the same way at the end of the season.The Big 12 has the same number of representatives in the AP Poll as the Pac-12 South — No. 10 TCU, No. 11 Kansas State, No. 12 Baylor, No. 17 Oklahoma and No. 22 West Virginia — but not nearly the same depth with 10 teams in the conference. The Big Ten has 14 teams that could crack the Top 25, but only three did — No. 8 Michigan State, No. 13 Ohio State and No. 16 Nebraska. Yes, the Big 12 has 10 teams and the Big Ten has 14 teams, because real institutions of higher learning challenge the basic assumptions of mathematics. The ACC also has 14 teams, but only two representatives — No. 2 Florida State and No. 21 Clemson.Oregon is currently the only ranked team out of the Pac-12 North, coming in at No. 6. Though the Pac-12 North’s lack of depth may undermine the South’s dominance a little, the fact that the South winner will more than likely face the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game further reinforces how good a team has to be to come out of the South half and win the conference championship.And with that, time for this week’s edition of “Absurdly Ridiculous Scenario in which a Two-Loss USC Team Still Makes the Playoff.”Last week, I laid out the most plausible chain reaction of USC victories and Top 25 upsets I could think of that would leave the Trojans in the Top 4 at the end of the year. It was so ridiculous that Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Dufresne quoted it in his Saturday column.Well, my hopeful predictions didn’t really go as planned. In fact, I based the entire scenario on Notre Dame beating Florida State to maximize USC’s strength of schedule, and sure enough, the Irish fell to the Seminoles on a controversial last play.So USC’s playoff hopes are over?Nope! Somebody turn up the John Denver, because West Virginia is coming to take us home to the place we belong!My miracle scenario assumed then-No. 4 Baylor would go undefeated and claim a playoff spot. The West Virginia Mountaineers had other plans and upset the Bears 41-27. So while Florida State remained the undefeated leader out of the ACC and SEC juggernauts Mississippi State and Ole Miss stayed perfect, the Big 12 no longer has an undefeated leader poised to take a playoff spot.My new best guess is that two SEC teams and Florida State will claim the first three seeds. That leaves the fourth spot open for either the Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12 winner. If USC runs the table, a Big Ten or Big 12 winner will almost certainly rank ahead of USC with one loss but almost certainly rank behind with two losses. This also assumes a third SEC team — God forbid — won’t make the playoff. But non-qualifiers out from there would probably need three losses to fall behind USC, especially after Notre Dame’s loss.So this is still really, really complicated. Basically, Michigan, Texas and LSU all need to wreak havoc in their respective conferences, and USC still needs to go undefeated.What is in some ways USC’s best hope — the strength of the team’s schedule — is also USC’s biggest obstacle. The Trojans looked great against Colorado, but the Buffaloes are worlds behind the rest of the Pac-12 South. USC is an even .500 against ranked Pac-12 South teams, with a last-play loss against Arizona State and a last-play win against Arizona. With the parity in the conference, that seems like a perfectly fair result halfway through, and a pretty accurate prediction of what’s to come the rest of the way.USC still has to visit Utah and UCLA. The Trojans will probably win one of those games and probably lose the other. The result will probably be an absurdly confusing tiebreaker for the Pac-12 South championship, and that’s just for the right to play Oregon. The Trojans hail from a conference so aptly characterized by depth, and yet depth is the ultimate Achilles’ heel for the team as it continues to deal with the hangover of NCAA sanctions.So the mountain to climb is still pretty steep — literally, considering the Trojans play at high altitude this weekend in Utah and depth will be tested even more. But inexplicability is the norm in college football today, and there’s plenty more craziness to come this season. I’m really grateful USC came through with the non-stressful blowout I asked for last weekend, but I’m ready to dive back into the chaos this Saturday at Utah.