It all could’ve been so easy.
No. 4 Southern California could’ve avenged an earlier loss to No. 12 Utah by beating the Utes, claiming the Pac-12 championship and punching a ticket into the College Football Playoff.
If so, the Bowl Subdivision would’ve entered Saturday with almost zero intrigue surrounding the playoff: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 TCU and USC would’ve completed the field almost regardless of what happened in the weekend’s larger slate of conference championship games.
But the USC’s 47-24 loss brings late-in-the-day chaos to the playoff, setting up a comparison between the two-loss Trojans and No. 5 Ohio State for the fourth spot in the semifinals and potentially bringing No. 6 Alabama back into the mix.
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An argument the playoff selection committee had hoped to avoid will now define the larger selection process after an almost debate-free home stretch toward the postseason.
The big winner is clearly OSU, which has the brand name and recognition to overcome a résumé highlighted by last weekend’s 45-23 loss to Michigan. Less than a week later, the Buckeyes are in great position to become the second team in program history to backdoor into the playoff without winning a conference championship.
Here’s what you’ll hear in the 24 hours leading into the final rankings:
Ohio State was dominant for all but one game. Or even less than that, as Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said Friday. “If they’ve played 48 quarters of football, they have 46½ excellent quarters of football,” he told the Associated Press.
Neither team won a conference championship. OSU and USC finished second in the Big Ten and Pac-12, respectively, and that reflects better on the Buckeyes since the Big Ten is the better league.
OSU has one of the best wins in the country. That’s the 44-31 victory against No. 7 Penn State that joins the season opener against No. 19 Notre Dame to highlight the Buckeyes’ resume.
How teams will do in the playoff matters. And, this argument goes, OSU is built to succeed in this best-of-best tournament format. The Buckeyes’ talent level supports this idea; the 22-point loss at home to the Wolverines might not.
And did you see USC lose to Utah by 23 points?
That this debate will occur at all represents a huge failure on the part of USC and the broader Pac-12, which hasn’t sent a team to the playoff since 2016 despite several opportunities to do so during conference championship weekend.
A slam-dunk pick at 12-1, the Trojans’ argument is weakened dramatically by a second loss on the year to Utah. But should it be? Think about this point: USC had the better résumé than OSU heading into Friday night — hence why the Trojans were fourth in the penultimate playoff rankings and the Buckeyes fifth.
The loss impacts that résumé, sure. But it doesn’t change the fact that USC had a better playoff case than OSU at 11-1, as the committee said this week, and had earned the opportunity to play for a Power Five championship, something the Buckeyes gave away with a faceplant against the Wolverines.
USC and the Pac-12 will make the argument, but it isn’t good enough.
Alabama could sneak into this conversation as a reflection of the committee’s belief that the SEC is the best league in the country, and more deserving of a second team than the Big Ten. If so, the Crimson Tide would be the league’s second-best option behind Georgia, should the Bulldogs take care of No. 11 LSU.
And if the Tide are part of this conversation, all bets are off. With three of the biggest programs in the country poised to fight a 24-hour battle of public perception, controversy is back in the playoff debate at the finish line of the regular season.