While USC’s latest ranking at No. 13 in the College Football Playoff is impressive, there are two things that are still quite frustrating about the whole situation. First of all, and most importantly, the Trojans don’t control their own destiny. Second, the CFP rankings are already inconsistent and filled with human bias.
Despite the hand of redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold that has saved their season, the early season losses destroyed any hope that this surging team could be in the conversation for a playoff spot. Of course, in hindsight, we can speculate that had Darnold been named the starter from the beginning of the year, it’s quite possible that USC would be just a one- or two-loss team, but the blame can’t squarely be placed on redshirt junior quarterback Max Browne or head coach Clay Helton.
Since both quarterbacks wear the non-contact jersey in practice, how could Helton have known of Darnold’s exquisite ability to connect with receivers when under pressure while Browne struggled so much in similar situations? Changing quarterbacks undoubtedly saved USC’s season, but no one knew how great the transformation would be.
As in life though, everything comes with a price. A mistake made at the beginning of the season is still a mistake, and still haunting the Trojans who need a lot of help the next two weeks if they want to make it to the Pac-12 Championship game.
Granted, probably no one thought we would be having this conversation after week four when the team was strapped with a 1-3 record; but now we are. In college football more so than in other sports, every single game matters because you only play each team once. There will be no chance of redemption against Stanford with a new quarterback or Utah in a game that isn’t Darnold’s debut. These things hurt.
However, the CFP committee has looked upon the Trojans with great favor and it is reflected in their ranking. Thirteen is a lot higher than anyone thought USC could be ranked after week four, but how much does the committee’s own bias contribute to this? Is it possible that a small factor in their decision — whether conscious or unconscious — is based on USC’s reputation and brand as a football team?
If the argument is that USC is a completely different team and has turned their season around from their early woes, then that’s fine. But why is Washington State still ranked so low? The Cougars’ record has undergone just as dramatic a transition as the Trojans, if not more so since they are undefeated in conference play. With two tough games coming up against a ranked Colorado and a ranked Washington, they will have a terrific chance to prove their worth, but shouldn’t they be getting more respect as it is?
USC is the highest ranked team with three losses, and maybe part of that is because the Trojans lost at the beginning of the year, to ranked opponents and away from home. The committee has placed an immense emphasis on strength of schedule, but doesn’t seem to consider quality of win or loss in their calculations.
For example, sure Clemson has a great record, but they don’t have to play as tough a schedule as other teams, and they are barely escaping with wins. Three of their last four games have been decided by a touchdown or less. They beat NC State in overtime by 7, Florida State by 3 and lost to Pitt by 1. This doesn’t make for an impressive resume.
Of last week’s top four teams, three of them — Michigan, Clemson and Washington — lost last Saturday. Washington was the only one who lost to a ranked opponent, but they dropped the furthest, falling from No. 4 to No. 6 while Michigan and Clemson remained in the top four sitting at No. 3 and No. 4, respectively.
Human bias is there, and that is why the playoff committee consists of people who have the capacity to think instead of computer algorithms. But they aren’t being consistent in their job and are letting their biases affect the rankings.
Surely anyone who has watched a lot of Pac-12 football this season knows that no one would want to face this current USC team, but the Trojans are the fourth-highest Pac-12 team. No, there is never a clear-cut answer, and nothing will ever satisfy everyone, but in an attempt to not only make the playoff as fair as possible, but also including the best teams in the country at the time, human judgment needs to be put at a higher priority instead of the reputations and egos that are on the line.
The Trojans blew their chance to be included in this conversation. No matter how well they are playing at the end of the year, with three losses they won’t make the playoff. However, with a little help, they could still find their way into a great bowl game, and maybe next year, when they can hit the ground running, they too will be in the conversation for the top four spots in the land.
Hailey Tucker is a junior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Tucker Talks,” runs Thursdays.