For Pac-12 playoff contenders, it's all about living with no margin for error

USC quarterback Sam Darnold insists that when he's on the field, he tries to stay in the moment.

It can be, however, a battle against human nature. The stakes for what each game means to the season are too high not to think about at times.

"I try not to, but sometimes it can slip into your mind, honestly," Darnold said. "But at the same time, I try to stay on course. Personally, I think I do that really well."

One of those tests came Saturday. USC went into halftime against Utah down 14 points. It was the Trojans' biggest deficit of the season and Darnold had turned it over three times. For a team with College Football Playoff aspirations and a loss already to its record, another defeat would have effectively ended any realistic hope for accomplishing its preseason goals. And if that happened, Darnold would have shouldered a lot of the blame.

Did those thoughts slip into your mind against Utah, Sam?

"Umm, no," he said unconvincingly with a smile on his face.

Darnold was able to have fun with the question because, in the second half against the Utes, he rediscovered the form that made him the darling of the offseason. He led the Trojans on three touchdown drives of 88-plus yards and a stop from the defense on Utah's go-ahead, two-point conversion attempt in the final minute allowed the team to breathe easy.

The night before No. 8 Washington State was run off the field in Berkeley and a couple hours after the USC game went final, Arizona State fans were rushing the field to celebrate a shocking 13-7 victory against No. 5 Washington. USC, all of sudden, is again the Pac-12 team best positioned for a shot at the playoff.

The reality about playoff discussions in mid-October is that there is too much season left to make any definitive statements about who will be in and who will be out. Will a 1-loss USC make the playoff? It's fun to ask, but the only acceptable answer is boring: maybe. There are possible scenarios in which it would get in and a few in which it wouldn't.

USC hasn't looked like a playoff team, but its nonconference schedule -- Western Michigan, Texas and this week at Notre Dame -- is strong enough that a 12-1 record would stack up well against other one-loss Power 5 champions. That's not the case for Washington and Washington State, both of which entered last week firmly a part of the playoff discussion only to flame out against unranked teams that had been struggling.

"The tough thing is if you've had some success, you get to that midway point and it happens every year, a bunch of teams get upset," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "It was my hope we were mentally tougher than that, but we're not."

Mathematically, though, both Washington schools aren't out of it, either. Their margins for error are just about nonexistent, but who would have thought a Clemson loss to Syracuse was possible? There will be more upsets to come and any one-loss Power 5 champion will certainly receive strong consideration from the committee (See: Washington, 2016).

Just don't expect Huskies coach Chris Petersen to handicap his team's chances of a repeat performance.

"There's no point in talking about that," he said. "[The players] get it. Little kids at 6 years old get you don't need to have a scoreboard because they're going to keep score in their heads.

"So our guys get what the goal is, but we don't focus on that. That's the wrong thing to focus on. The focus on is how to score touchdowns and field goals. We talk about what a joke it is to talk about that right now. That's the conversations we have. No point in it."

Maybe it's pointless for a coach or player to discuss publicly, but the obvious counterpoint is that for everyone else these types of conversations are fun. And that's really the only reason that's needed.