- USC hung on to defeat Utah on Saturday, but either the Trojans or one of their fellow Pac-12 contenders might need to win out to secure a spot for the conference in the final four.
(Update: Washington later suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday night, falling on the road to Arizona State, 13–7)
Washington State’s 37–3 loss at Cal on Friday night wasn’t just a shocking result for a Cougars team that had surged into the top 10 of the polls with six consecutive wins to open the season. It was a huge setback in the Pac-12’s quest to avoid missing the College Football Playoff for the second time in in three years. The conference nearly suffered another blow to its playoff hopes on Saturday night, when star quarterback Sam Darnold led No. 13 USC on a 14-point second-half comeback to squeak past unranked Utah, 28–27.
The Utes, which traveled to the Coliseum having won two of their last three games in this series, capitalized on three Trojans fumbles, one of which was returned 18 yards for a touchdown, rode steady production on the ground from sophomore tailback Zack Moss and got both a throwing and trick-play receiving touchdown from senior quarterback Troy Williams—starting in place of injured sophomore starter Tyler Huntley—to stake a two-score lead heading into the break.
But a pair of long drives capped by touchdown passes from Darnold to tight ends—the first to junior Tyler Petite, his second on the night, and the second to true freshman Josh Falo—erased the Utes’ deficit by the early part of the fourth quarter, and an 11-yard run from USC junior tailback Ronald Jones II put the Trojans up by seven points with around five minutes remaining. The game came down to an attempted two point conversion following a one-yard touchdown run from Williams in the final minute.
Rather than settling for an extra point to send the game to overtime, Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham decided to put the game in Williams’s hands and go for the win. Williams dropped back and faked a handoff to Moss before planting his back foot, cutting upfield and making a dash for the right corner of the end zone. But a Trojans defender tripped up Williams near the five-yard line, before he could get close enough to dive for the goal line, sealing the one-point margin and keeping USC in the playoff picture.
The Pac-12 South is there for the Trojans to take, particularly after the they fended off what looks like their biggest challenger in the division on Saturday. But USC travels to face a bye-week rested, 5–1 Notre Dame team next Saturday, and it has already dealt with a rash of injuries this fall. The cumulative effect of playing 12 consecutive weeks (with no bye) could take a toll by the time the Trojans reach their intra-city rivalry game against UCLA to close the regular season.
If USC can beat the Fighting Irish and then navigate the rest of its Pac-12 schedule without any slip-ups, the conference championship game could serve as a de facto final four play-in, but the Trojans probably can’t afford to take another L before Selection Sunday.
The loss in Berkeley on Friday didn’t eliminate Washington State in the playoff chase, but as is likely the case with USC, a second defeat could be disqualifying. The Cougars should get right with comfortable victories the next two weeks against Colorado and Arizona, but Stanford comes to Pullman on Nov. 4, and then Washington State embarks on a grueling two-week road stretch: Utah and Washington. At the very least, it’ll need to take the finale in Seattle; the Huskies are the Cougars’ prime competitor in the North.
Washington, undefeated at 6–0 heading into Saturday night’s game at Arizona State, remains a viable threat to make the national semifinals, but other Power 5 squads with more robust non-conference schedules are better equipped to absorb a loss during conference play. Although the Huskies’ remaining SOS ranks 11th in the country, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, they played no one of note before the start of Pac-12 play (Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State).
Washington made the CFP despite coasting through a soft out-of-league slate last season, but it may not be as fortunate this time around. Plus, it’s far from a sure thing the Huskies will be in that same position a couple of months from now. Washington still has to play at Stanford on Nov. 10, and it will host Washington State in the Apple Cup a week after taking on Utah at home. The Huskies won’t have a case if either the Cardinal or the Cougars, both 3–1 in conference play, win the North.
The Pac-12 is still in the playoff mix, but the league was one converted two-point attempt away from being in serious trouble at the midpoint of the season. One of the conference’s top CFP candidates (Washington State) must now overcome an ugly road loss, another (Washington) has such a flimsy non-league body of work that it may not even be able to survive a single toe-stub, but the third (USC), for a week, at least, is still on track to meet its preseason expectations.