LOS ANGELES -- College football's screws are tightening. There are 12 unbeaten teams remaining, including three apiece in the American and Big 12, but none in the Pac-12 -- which sets it apart from the other Power 5 conferences in an undistinguished way.
With previously unbeaten and third-ranked Utah going down hard at USC, 42-24, the national storyline as we await the first rankings from the College Football Playoff selection committee on Nov. 3 will be the Pac-12 getting left out of the playoff. ESPN Stats & Information has been telling us for weeks that the conference is the most likely to have a two-loss champion, and a two-loss champion is like being a billionaire with cirrhosis of the liver. It's a good news/bad news deal.
The expectation is that a two-loss Pac-12 champ will only get some nice parting gifts, such as a Rose Bowl berth opposite the second-best Big Ten option among Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and perhaps Michigan. As far as college football real estate goes, that's not exactly the Tenderloin, but the conference's national title drought will extend to its 11th year.
That acknowledged, let's move on to three cliches that were made manifest in their nagging, impish glory during USC's victory. First, the Pac-12 isn't a sprint. It's an injury-riddled marathon of attrition. Second, to pull on our ridiculous old-school polyester coaching shorts -- growl -- you must learn how to finish.
Utah could have firmly established its CFP bona fides with a victory in the Coliseum and a forgiving schedule ahead. Instead, USC actually played like USC from bell-to-bell, and it was impossible not to recall that these Trojans were once viewed as national title contenders. Utah has been mostly adept over the past two seasons at finding ways to get it done and closing out opponents in the fourth quarter, while the Trojans were known for wilting late, for yielding at critical moments.
On Saturday, though, USC overcame an early 14-7 deficit and asserted itself in the second half. After forcing a three-and-out on Utah's first third-quarter possession, the Trojans drove 83 yards in nine minutes for a touchdown that made the score 35-17. It was a decisive statement that suggested there would be no #Pac12AfterDark this night. Utah was finished and USC was doing the finishing, something it had failed to do under now-terminated coach Steve Sarkisian.
The irony is that was the repeated preseason message from Sarkisian -- we must learn how to finish! -- who couldn't even finish the season.
Utah linebacker Gionni Paul, whose postgame demeanor alternated between shell-shocked and redoubled determination, said, "Wow, credit USC, they came to play today. Didn't expect to get punched in the mouth like that. It was a reality check. I had forgotten what it was like to lose. It's a bad feeling. Got to back to work Monday."
That third cliche? There's a lot of football left. This week's storylines could be quickly forgotten.
Utah out of it? Balderdash. If the Utes win the rest of their games and finish as the 12-1 Pac-12 champions, their resume will be impressive, particularly if they beat a Stanford team that boasts a win over Notre Dame in the Cardinal's season finale. Yes, the selection committee would probably give the Utes a boost for beating the team (Stanford) that beat the team (Notre Dame) that beat the team (USC) that beat them.
That scenario, however, is complicated by the re-emergence of quarterback Travis Wilson's shaky persona behind center. The four-year starter turned in his worst performance of the season on Saturday, throwing four interceptions, the three that really mattered being returned for 122 yards, including a 54-yard pick-six.
Utah entered the game ranked second in the nation in turnover margin, having forced 19 and given away just seven. They lost that count 4-zip on Saturday. The Trojans had seven turnovers in their previous three games.
"In my opinion that's the best team we've played all year long -- certainly from a personnel standpoint," Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said of USC. "Give them credit. It was tough to give them essentially three touchdowns on turnovers and hope to have a chance to win against a team of that caliber."
Ah, USC. If the Trojans win out, they'd only need Utah to slip once more to take the South Division. That then could mean a shot at the Rose Bowl under interim coach Clay Helton. A Rose Bowl berth certainly could complicate the search to replace Sarkisian.
Of course, speculating about any Pac-12 team winning out feels like a fool's errand. Take Stanford. Since its opening loss at Northwestern, it is playing as well as any team in the nation. Yet the Cardinal's trip to Pullman this weekend to face resurgent Washington State should come with the "Lost in Space" robot running around flapping its arms, squawking its signature "Danger, danger, David Shaw!"
Heck, the Pac-12 title game realistically could be UCLA or Arizona State vs. Washington State.
After the game, USC linebacker Su'a Cravens held court with reporters with humor and defiance. "They forgot about USC," he said. "We should be the best!" He said the Trojans' 3-3 record was due to a lack of execution, not any lack of, or overrating of, talent, so he agreed with Whittingham and just about everyone else: USC's problems aren't about its capability. It's about leadership, about showing up with a good plan and playing aggressive, smart football for four quarters. And about caring enough to do that on a weekly basis.
Maybe USC has rediscovered its mojo. Or maybe this was just a singular, negative blip from the Utes. Maybe Stanford just runs away with the conference. Or maybe we end up with a shocker, a champion that sneaks up on everyone.
Entering the weekend, it seemed possible we were on the cusp of beginning to contemplate a Utah-Stanford, top-10 matchup for the title. But now the maybes and muddles are back. We probably shouldn't be surprised.