USC has won seven consecutive games after losing three of their first four. They are one of the hottest teams in the nation, led by quick study Sam Darnold and a suddenly staunch defense. After the Trojans easily handled cross-town rival UCLA on Saturday, some believe they’re hot enough to garner College Football Playoff consideration. This, of course, is crazy talk, mostly because it would take a flurry of dizzying upsets to become reality — in addition to the Trojans knocking off Washington on the Pac 12 title game.
In short, don’t hold your breath waiting for Fight On in the final four.
Even if an eight-team playoff was in place, USC’s prospects of making it would be shaky. For the sake of argument, let’s use a bracket with five autobids and three at-larges. If favored teams win out, it would look something like this:
- Alabama (SEC champ) vs. 8. ____________
- Clemson (ACC champ) vs. 7. Michigan (at-large)
- Washington (Pac 12 champ) vs. 6. Ohio State (at-large)
- Wisconsin (Big Ten champ) vs. 5. Oklahoma (Big 12 champ)
USC would be up against Louisville, Western Michigan, and Colorado for that final at-large bid. Our internal consensus is that, should they be 9-3, the Trojans would edge out both the Buffaloes and Cardinals. They’d also be given the nod over the 13-0 — and more deserving — Broncos. College football isn’t fair.
And yet I believe this belief in “fairness” is what’s driving the USC push. That a team finally firing on all cylinders will be on the outside looking in come playoff time doesn’t sit well. After all, wild card teams often excel in the NFL playoffs by getting hot at the right time.
Here’s what should upset people’s sense of fairness:
A three-loss team that failed to win its division getting another crack at an undefeated team that destroyed them by 46 on a neutral field earlier in the season in a single-elimination situation. That’s exactly what would happen in this theoretical playoff situation. USC would be rewarded with another game against Alabama.
USC hasn’t earned a rematch. Alabama proved its mettle against Clay Helton’s team in the season opener and proved it was no fluke in the 10 games which followed.
Look, it’s fair to make the argument the outcome would be vastly different. This is a different Trojans team than the one embarrassed in JerryWorld. But saying such detracts from Alabama, which is the team it’s been all year — a mobilized Death Star bringing nothing but destruction to all it sees.
Desire for an eight-team playoff is understandable. Watching all the above games would delightfully entertaining. I concede that, even as a hard-line believer in college football as a meritocracy.
This is the wrong year, however, to champion a system which rewards lesser teams. A closer inspection of the field highlights just how far the back is being bent over in the name of inclusion. The first at-large team, Ohio State, will have a special season if it defeats Michigan. The same can’t really be said for the Wolverines. With their level of talent and schedule, winning 10 games isn’t entirely impressive. They and USC would both be limping into the ultimate reward having underachieved — or, more kindly — proportionally achieved.
Doubling the field to reward lesser teams also hurts teams like Alabama who have done nothing but win and win big. If you believe, as I do, that the goal of college football’s postseason should be to crown the worthiest champion, expansion only makes that aim more difficult.
There are 12 games. They all matter. Sometimes the most important ones fall early in the year, sometimes they fall at the tail end of the year.
The College Football Playoff is designed to put four teams in based on what happened. It’s not about what should have happened or could have happened or would happen in the future. Every team that falls short can play the what-if game until the cows come home.
But for every member of a Power Five conference, the path is clear. Win the conference. If not, risk the unpleasant reality of needed to dazzle the committee enough — and have other cards fall right — for a chance to play.
USC may very well be one of the four best teams in the country right now. The problem is that they weren’t one of the four best — and maybe not one of the eight best — teams over the totality of the season. Just because their hot stretch came as the year closes doesn’t give them more validity.