Pac-12 recap: USC survives, keeps playoff hopes alive

Instant reaction to Pac-12 developments on the field …

1. Hype met, attention warranted

The most anticipated Saturday of the conference season — in many conference seasons — more than met expectations with two three-point thrillers.

In the primetime showdown, USC outlasted UCLA 48-45, thanks to a Heisman Trophy-level performance by quarterback Caleb Williams.

In the nightcap, Oregon held off Utah 20-17 as quarterback Bo Nix played through an injury to generate just enough offense.

(Of note: The losing quarterbacks, UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Utah’s Cam Rising, threw three interceptions.)

All in all, the doubleheader perfectly reflected the Pac-12 season thus far.

It has more teams in the College Football Playoff rankings (six) than any other — that should hold through next week’s rankings — and an impressive array of riveting conference matchups:

USC 17, OSU 14
WSU 44, Oregon 41
Utah 43, USC 42
Oregon 45, UCLA 30
Washington 24, OSU 21
Washington 37, Oregon 34
USC 48, UCLA 45
Oregon 20, Utah 17

It has been years since the conference produced so many taut, high-level games — or had so many quality teams.

That comes at a price, of course: The bottom feeders have been bludgeoned repeatedly and were effectively eliminated from bowl contention weeks ago.

But it’s a fair trade, in our view. The Pac-12 desperately needed to reclaim national respect, which could only be accomplished with heavyweight teams.

This was the ideal year for parity to disappear.

2. Bound for Las Vegas

USC clinched a berth in the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas while eliminating UCLA from the race.

Three teams remain alive for the second spot:

— Oregon clinches a berth with a victory over Oregon State or a loss to the Beavers and a Washington loss to WSU.

— Washington has a chance to reach Las Vegas, as well, but it’s tricky. In addition to winning the Apple Cup, the Huskies need Oregon to lose to OSU and UCLA to lose to Cal. (There’s another path for UW, but it involves Colorado beating Utah, which isn’t happening.)

— Utah would reach the title game with a win over Colorado and victories by Washington, UCLA and OSU. That set of  results would create a three-team tie with UW and Oregon and trigger the fourth tiebreaker, which involves the combined winning percentage in conference games of conference opponents.

In that scenario, the Utes would have the edge.

3. USC and the CFP

The Trojans (10-1) are the Pac-12’s only remaining playoff contender, and they took a giant step Saturday toward breaking the conference’s five-year drought.

The victory over UCLA was vital to their cause, of course. But Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina eliminated the Volunteers, who now have two losses, while North Carolina’s stumble against Georgia Tech greatly undermined the ACC’s prospects.

The Hotline believes USC will make the playoff with victories over Notre Dame and its opponent in the Pac-12 championship.

In that scenario, the Trojans would be a one-loss Power Five champion with back-to-back-to-back wins over ranked opponents.

Add the subjective factors — from the appeal of Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams to USC’s pedigree (because brand bias is real) — and the Trojans would have the advantage over one-loss Clemson and the Michigan-Ohio State loser.

4. Bowl math made easy

Arizona became the fifth and final team eliminated from the postseason following a 31-20 loss to Washington State in which quarterback Jayden de Laura threw four interceptions against his former mates.

That leaves the Pac-12 with seven bowl-eligible teams: USC, UCLA, Oregon, OSU, Washington, WSU and Utah.

(If you’re wondering when it last sent seven to the postseason, well, it hasn’t been very long: 2019.)

We cannot begin to predict the bowl assignments, because so much depends on USC.

If the Trojans reach the playoff, then the next-highest-ranked team would fill USC’s spot in the Rose Bowl, and everyone else would move up one rung.

If the Trojans don’t reach the CFP, the Pac-12 champion would head to the Rose Bowl with everyone slotted accordingly in the Alamo, Holiday, Las Vegas, Sun and LA bowls, plus an ESPN-arranged game.

That likely would mean a ranked, nine-win team would be heading to the Sun Bowl. We’re quite sure that would not be well received across Pac-12 fandom.

5. Eyeing the awards

In the Hotline’s humble opinion, we can eliminate three names from the Pac-12 Coach of the Year race: Arizona’s Jedd Fisch, UCLA’s Chip Kelly and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham.

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All three have done quality work, but Fisch’s case hinged on Arizona becoming bowl-eligible while Kelly and Whittingham probably needed victories Saturday.

That leaves Washington’s Kalen DeBoer, Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith, Oregon’s Dan Lanning and USC’s Lincoln Riley.

All but Smith are in contention for the conference championship, and coaches often vote for the last man standing.

(The voting will take place after the conference championship.)

Meanwhile, USC quarterback Caleb Williams took a giant step toward becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist with his 470-yard performance against UCLA.

Williams has the name recognition, the victory total and the platform necessary for a serious charge.

If he plays well against the Irish next weekend and wins the league title, Williams likely will become the first Pac-12 player to receive an invitation to the Heisman ceremony since Stanford’s Bryce Love in 2017.

*** Lastly, the Hotline would like to extend a word of thanks to Jim Thornby, the Pac-12’s senior manager for strategic sports communication, for helping us decode the intricate, multi-team tiebreaker scenarios.

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*** Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

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