It’s the penultimate week of college football’s regular season, and I’ll give you four guesses as to which conference has the most ranked teams. I’d like to thank SEC fans for their quick response, but nope, it’s not them. Big Ten fans aren’t even chiming in because one of their two divisions doesn’t have a single team in the Top 25. It’s admirable that the Big 12 applied, while the ACC’s texts went not only unreturned but also unread.
If you’ve been counting, you’d know there’s only one conference left in the Power Five, and it’s the Pac-12. With half of its dozen teams currently ranked, it has the most ranked teams, and a level of football that has gone overlooked all season. That’s most likely because some games start at 11 pm. EST time, and a majority of college football fans are tired, drunk, or both by that time.
That’s what makes the USC-UCLA game so crucial. If the Trojans drop another one, and the conference champion has two losses, nothing any Pac-12 program did this season will have cachet. It’ll just be another, “I told you (conference X) was trash,” and everybody’s most frustrating sports argument outside of LeBron versus Jordan will have legs once again.
I’ve been closely following the resurgent (and supposedly resurgent) teams all season for the now 86’d Marty McFly Rankings. I’ve seen as much Caleb Williams as Hendon Hooker. If USC wins out, with the only loss on the road against currently No. 10 Utah by the margin of a two-point conversion because the Utes didn’t want to go to OT, they deserve to be in the College Football Playoff.
Even though Paul Finebaum emits smugness at the same rate that L.A. emits smog, I have a tremendous amount invested in the Volunteers. (When your girlfriend is a UT grad, and your team was one of the supposedly resurgent, a distraction/rooting interest is what gets you through the season.)
Still, if the college football gods deem it so, and Tennessee and the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State are left out peering in because the Big Ten winner, Georgia, and TCU are perfect, and Pac-12 champion USC’s only blemish is a one-point loss to a top 10 team, so be it.
If it feels like the committee has biases, it’s because they do. They’re human. Once a stance is agreed upon in that room, I imagine it’s hard to get them to waiver because no one likes to admit they’re wrong. And I think conference champions that look like conference champions in one of the best, albeit top-heavy, power five conferences in the country matter.
Despite Oregon’s credentials this century, USC is the biggest brand on the West Coast, with a history of their best being more than good enough against the sport’s blue bloods. It’s conceivable that they belong because we’ve seen it semi-recently.
The same goes for the coach. Lincoln Riley produces Heisman Trophy winners and CFP appearances. Add in a win over Chip Kelly this weekend, a W over a ranked Notre Dame team next week, and a victory in either a rematch with Utah or a showdown with Oregon in the conference title game, and the recency bias we want to say doesn’t exist in the committee will push USC over the top, if the quality of those wins does not.
Throwing your eggs in USC and Riley’s basket is safer than endorsing Josh Heupel because he’s never made them look stupid. I’m not saying Heupel will; it’s just the fear of the unknown, no conference title, and the Georgia game that makes the Vols a riskier proposition.
This pro-USC logic could apply to Clemson if the Tigers didn’t just get waxed by the Golden Domers, played in a better conference, and most importantly had a transcendent quarterback. Williams and Riley absolutely hold sway in a selection room that’s probably filled with the same shitty pastries and refreshments we’re all accustomed to.
Gary goes for the danishes and lemonade, Beth prefers a croissant and coffee, and Paul hovers over the beignets and tells you that they’re the best breakfast ever, and you’re stupid if you think otherwise. Yet, there are catered options that everyone can agree on, and it’s probably a fucking omelet station, but that’s beside the point.
The CFP panel loves Alabama because the Tide regularly checks the boxes they value and consistently makes them look smart. A 12-1 USC team wouldn’t be able to leave the interview room without at least three uncomfortable Bobs-in-Office Space advances.
Once the pool of teams extends to 12, fans will be able to poke holes in any line of reasoning the panel presents with so much ease it’ll lead to literal meltdowns on ESPN. Right now, the criteria are barely finite enough to justify a top four.
And with a win at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night, the Trojans’ résumé will be one step closer to the CFP stamp of approval.