• USC took care of business against its Los Angeles rival to close out its regular season with a potential path to the playoff still intact. Now it must hope for mass chaos.
By Chris Johnson
November 19, 2017

The Week 12 meeting between Los Angeles rivals USC and UCLA was far more intriguing for NFL fans than college football ones. It was an NFL showcase pitting two California-bred quarterbacks who, if they declare for the draft, could be candidates for the No. 1 pick next spring—one elevated to ABC’s primetime slot in large part because of a lack of other interesting matchups across the country.

By next fall, both Trojans starter Sam Darnold and Bruins counterpart Josh Rosen could be slinging passes on Sundays after being tabbed to become the savior of some flagging pro franchise. But on Saturday, they were still functioning as the offensive leaders of two teams chasing postseason goals of varying prestige. Both of them entered Week 1 eyeing College Football Playoff berths, but only one remains even remotely in contention at the end of the regular season, which came to a close for the Trojans with a 28–23 win at the Coliseum. (The Bruins host Cal on Friday.)

UCLA blew an opportunity to become bowl eligible by notching what would have been its sixth win. Salvaging a consolation game against a mediocre opponent would still fall short of the Bruins’ preseason expectations, but head coach Jim Mora could have used a signature victory amid mounting speculation over his job status, and there’s some satisfaction to be derived from playing spoiler to the more glamorous program across town.

There was more on the line for USC, and it rose to the occasion. The Trojans were largely written off in the playoff chase after getting crushed, 49–14, at Notre Dame last month, but they entered Week 12 as one of a group of teams with a viable path to becoming the first two-loss team to make the playoff. USC needed to win out and hope for mass carnage at the top of the rankings, but it wasn’t a lost cause.

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The Trojans did what they needed to on Saturday. Rosen went off for 421 yards on 32 of 52 passing, and may have bolstered his draft stock at Darnold’s expense in the process, but USC didn’t need Darnold to match Rosen’s output through the air. Junior Ronald Jones pounded out 122 rushing yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns, another superlative showing for one of the nation’s most under-appreciated tailbacks.

The Trojans had clinched a berth in the Pac-12 title game, which will take place on Dec. 1 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., before Saturday by recording a 38–24 win at Colorado earlier this month. USC will meet whoever emerges from the league’s North division between Washington State and Stanford. (The Cardinal’s win over Cal on Saturday eliminated Washington.) The Trojans would need to beat the North champ to keep themselves in the CFP hunt.

From there, they would need to hope results involving other final four candidates break their way. A handful of squads ranked above USC will definitely suffer defeats between now and selection Sunday, and if the Cougars make it out of the North, the Trojans would have an opportunity to nullify their Sept. 29 loss in Pullman. Their status as the champion of a Power 5 conference might give them an edge over other teams vying for a spot.

Or maybe this win ultimately won’t matter for USC, and it’ll find itself well off the pace for a playoff bid when the committee reveals the field early next month. The Trojans will have two road performances earlier this season (at Washington State and Notre Dame) to blame for that. But they’ll leave their regular season-closing rivalry in decent shape. They stayed in the playoff picture.