After Pac-12 title win, USC makes its case to slip into playoff

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold took the final kneel down, and the USC sideline erupted with the 31-28 win over Stanford, the Pac-12 title confirmed. The players yelled and screamed. Some relished in how much the Cardinal had been talking trash the entire game. Others sprayed water bottles in the air, and then they doused head coach Clay Helton with Gatorade. They took turns picking players up in the air. Junior linebacker Cameron Smith bounced back and forth, in a state of euphoria. Later, in the celebratory locker room, Post Malone’s “Congratulations” blared from the speakers.

But on the field at Levi’s Stadium on Friday, minutes after the confetti had fallen on the Pac-12 champion Trojans during the trophy ceremony, Athletic Director Lynn Swann had to answer a question about Helton’s job security.

“We’ve got a head coach we’re going to keep,” he said to reporters, affirming that the coach who brought home USC’s first conference championship in almost a decade would, indeed, keep his job next season.

It seems ludicrous, but at USC, even winning the conference title is not enough to appease critics. And despite a season where the Trojans are 11-2, Helton and his staff have drawn complaints because the wins have largely been shaky and USC’s chances of making the College Football Playoff remain slim.

Never mind that all season, Helton has pushed the goal of the team controlling its own destiny and becoming Pac-12 champions — and it did.

“Nobody will remember the scores 10 years from now,” he said. “But they will remember that these kids were Pac-12 champions.”

Darnold went as far as ranking this win over the thrilling Rose Bowl victory a season ago.

“Right now this means the most in the world,” Darnold said. “Winning a Pac-12 championship is our goal at the beginning of the year and we achieved that goal.”

But when asked, no one could resist making the case for USC to sneak into the playoff, despite it being ranked 10th and behind both Penn State and Ohio State amongst two-loss teams. According to FiveThirtyEight, USC has a 23 percent chance of making the playoff, even with a conference championship on its resume.

Redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins made a passionate pitch to the committee by criticizing the Buckeyes, who were routed by an unranked Iowa team earlier this season but could vault into the top-four with a win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.

“We got the same record,” he said. “Is it because of the hype? You like [Ohio State quarterback] J.T. Barrett a little more than Sam? You like [Ohio State head coach] Urban Meyer more than you like Clay? I would like to know why they are being considered and we aren’t.”

Darnold asked the committee to consider USC’s schedule, which featured 12 straight weeks without a bye and a Friday night game in Pullman against Washington State and a road game at a surging Notre Dame team serving as their only losses. And the Trojans just beat the Cardinal, who beat up on the Fighting Irish last week.

“I think that’s something that the committee should definitely take into account when ranking the teams,” he said.

Helton acknowledged that USC needed the dominoes to fall in place, but tried to make his case by claiming the importance of winning the conference title.

“We sit here with an unbelievable strength of schedule and had the opportunity to show on national TV who we are,” he said. “I think we deserve to be in the discussion, especially the way these guys finished the season. They’re hot right now and they’re playing good football.”

Indeed, the Trojans have won five straight games since the debacle in South Bend. They have, objectively, had a stellar season. Yet, there is still a lingering inadequate taste, even with a Pac-12 title and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl likely looming. Because this is USC, and fair or not, there will be questions facing any team that doesn’t contend for a national title.

So instead of being asked to praise Helton, Swann was asked about whether he would keep the coach. At USC, the importance of being in the top four trumps being on top of the Pac-12 for the first time since 2008.

“We can be in the conversation, OK?” Swann said. “We won the Pac-12 championship. If they vote us in the playoff, we’ll take it.”