As Washington pulled away from Colorado in the second half of the Pac-12 championship game on Friday, Huskies fans rejoiced. Surely, a 41-10 win against the No. 8 team in the country was enough to solidify their spot among the top four and ensure a place in the College Football Playoff.
This, of course, turned out to be true, and now Washington is preparing for a date with No. 1 Alabama.
But the Huskies’ win had more than playoff ramifications. Sitting at home, USC’s chances at playing in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual received a huge boost by the lopsided nature of the game.
Last week’s playoff rankings slotted USC at No. 11, three spots behind Colorado, and the Rose Bowl selection criteria stipulates that if the Pac-12 champion goes to the playoff, those rankings would be used to select a replacement team. In other words, the committee would pick from Colorado and USC.
USC coach Clay Helton didn’t want to admit it, but when he woke up Sunday morning he had to be pretty optimistic about the Trojans’ chances of jumping Colorado. A close loss to Washington might have been enough to keep the Buffaloes ahead of USC, but their 31-point loss was an ideal result for the Trojans.
“It’s another group’s job to decide where you fall,” Helton said, “and you hope you’ve done enough to put yourself in a good light and have the opportunity at a Rose Bowl.”
Just before noon, his hopes were confirmed: No. 9 USC was paired with No. 5 Penn State in the "Granddaddy of Them All" (Jan. 2, 2 p.m. PT, ESPN).
It was obviously welcome news for the Trojans, but it’s also easy to see why Colorado, which dropped to No. 10, could feel overlooked. The Buffaloes finished ahead of USC in the Pac-12 South standings, and from their standpoint there is a feeling they were punished for playing in the Pac-12 title game. It’s a valid complaint, but the game did provide an additional opportunity for the committee to evaluate Colorado -- against a team USC beat handily a few weeks earlier -- and the Buffaloes didn’t rise to the occasion.
Combined with USC’s head-to-head win against Colorado (sans a healthy Sefo Liufao) and its play over the last two months, the committee’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise. If the conference or Rose Bowl wants to institute a rule in which a team can't be selected ahead of a team it finished behind, there probably wouldn't be much opposition, but in this case the better team was selected.
A little over two months ago, this matchup didn’t seem possible.
After USC began the season 1-3 -- its worst start in 15 years -- it was fair to wonder if the Trojans would reach bowl eligibility, let alone the Rose Bowl. At the time, Helton’s job security was a national talking point, with some already in full-on speculation mode about who would replace Helton at season’s end.
Instead, Helton and his staff deserve praise for a masterful job navigating past that rough patch to become one of the hottest teams in the country. Since losing to Utah on Sept. 23, the Trojans have won eight in a row and outscored their opponents by 19.8 points per game.
“Maybe the most dangerous team in the country right now,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of USC. “And there was a lot of people hoping that they wouldn't make the playoffs because they’re very, very talented. They’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
The same can be said of Penn State, which beat Wisconsin to win the Big Ten title Saturday night. Penn State and USC are two of the five teams nationally that have not lost since the start of October, and the Nittany Lions have won by 20.9 points per game.