Forde-Yard Dash: USC's awful night likely dooms Pac-12's playoff hopes

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (fake flea-flickers sold separately in West Lafayette):

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ROSE BOWL AFTERMATH: TWO DIVERGENT PATHS

On the first day of 2017, Penn State (1) and USC (2) played one of the most exciting and entertaining Rose Bowls ever, a 52-49 thriller won by the Trojans on the last play. Even though it wasn’t a College Football Playoff matchup, the game showcased two of the hottest teams in the nation (both had won nine straight) and the outcome left two prevailing thoughts:

Either of those teams might have won an expanded playoff.

Both figured to be contenders for the national title the following season.

Here in late October of that following season, one of the two is in the thick of the championship race. The other has faded from contention.

So what happened? Why has undefeated Penn State thrived while two-loss USC has taken a dive? The Dash offers a few deductions.

The coaches: James Franklin has done a better job than Clay Helton at dealing with the increased expectations, pressure and attention that accompany coaching a preseason title contender. Neither man had been in this position before this season, but Franklin has navigated it well while Helton has rarely been able to get his team to play with peak efficiency and urgency. Aside from a dominant performance against Stanford, USC spent all season playing down to the level of inferior competition. Then the Trojans were destroyed Saturday by a superior opponent, Notre Dame.

USC was exposed in a big way against Notre Dame on Saturday. It’s evident now the Trojans were never national title contenders this season.

(It’s significant that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was so confident against USC that he said he wrote on a notecard before the game that he would be disappointed if his team didn’t win big. While that certainly reflects confidence in his own team, it also indicates that Kelly wasn’t terribly impressed by what he’d seen from the Trojans on film.)

The star players: Similarly, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is having a much better season than USC quarterback Sam Darnold. Barkley might be the Heisman Trophy frontrunner at this point, while preseason favorite Darnold has faded from the race after a turnover-plagued eight games. Both players garnered plenty of preseason attention, but the spotlight on Darnold became ceaseless during the summer – he did interviews with most of the free world.

Some people close to Darnold were worried that the hype buildup was becoming too much; on the surface he handled it all with SoCal serenity, but in hindsight you wonder. Barkley was more sheltered by Penn State, which didn’t even take him to Big Ten media days.

The new faces: Penn State had to replace five starters on defense and has done so brilliantly – the Nittany Lions are better this year on that side of the ball than last year, ranking third nationally in yards allowed per play at 3.98. USC’s major rebuild was on offense, replacing six starters, primarily at receiver and offensive line. The Trojan line hasn’t protected Darnold well – he’s been sacked more times in eight games than he was last year in 13.

Schedule and injury luck: The Nittany Lions have had an easier path, and fewer injuries. Both teams opened with three straight home games, but that stretch included Stanford and Texas for the Trojans while Penn State was playing Akron, Pittsburgh and Georgia State. Sagarin schedule ratings thus far: USC has played the eighth-hardest schedule in the country, and Penn State’s is 45th.

Perhaps most importantly, the Nittany Lions had a bye week before the showdown with Michigan last week, while the Wolverines were not coming off a bye. USC, meanwhile, has played eight straight weeks and took a battered team into South Bend – to face a Notre Dame team coming off a bye. The Trojans also had consecutive road games earlier, at California and Washington State, with the latter game on a Friday. The short turnaround caught up with USC in its first loss of the season.

In sum, the great expectations borne from a Rose Bowl classic have (thus far) been fulfilled in State College, while USC crash-landed in disappointment territory Saturday night.

SURVEYING THE PLAYOFF PICTURE

Some observations on what has already played out, and what could still happen in the race for the College Football Playoff:

The Pac-12 (3) is likely out. The league was the first of the Power Five to run out of unbeatens, and USC was the only one of three one-loss teams to play a quality non-conference schedule. When the Trojans were smashed by Notre Dame, it left the league with only Washington (6-1) and Washington State (7-1) as potential playoff contenders. To land a spot in the four-team bracket, the conference needs one of those two to finish 12-1, while at least one other league has a two-loss champion and Notre Dame loses again. It could happen, but the Pac-12 appears headed for its second playoff whiff in four seasons.

The SEC (4) and Big Ten (5) both can still harbor greedy dreams of two unbeaten teams facing off in the league championship game, and possibly two teams in the playoff. The SEC could be looking at 12-0 Alabama against 12-0 Georgia in Atlanta, and a close game could make a case for the loser to make the bracket as well as the winner. The Big Ten could have the same scenario if Penn State and Wisconsin both win out and play a second straight competitive championship game. But there are a million moving parts that would need to align, which makes it all unlikely.

Will college football fans see Jake Fromm and the Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff this season? (AP)

A couple of borderline insane spoiler scenarios:

Could Auburn (6) be the ultimate SEC saboteur? The 6-2 Tigers are the only remaining team that plays both Georgia (Nov. 11) and Alabama (Nov. 25) – and plays them both at home. If Auburn beats them both and wins out in the regular season, it would play in the SEC title game. A win there to finish 11-2, with victories over Alabama and Georgia (perhaps twice), plus two close road losses to decent teams (Clemson and LSU), and Auburn could present an intriguing résumé to the selection committee. Of course, all that presupposes that the Tigers could beat Alabama and Georgia, which at present doesn’t appear likely. But the scenario exists.

What if Iowa State (7) blows up the Big 12? OK, this requires some flexible thinking and fertile imagination, but work with The Dash here. The serially sad Cyclones have put smiles on every face in Ames with their abrupt season turnaround, authored by a third-string, fifth-year quarterback who had thrown two collegiate passes until becoming the emergency starter three games ago. Under Kyle Kempt (70 percent accuracy, seven touchdowns, one interception), Iowa State has beaten Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas Tech in succession to reach 5-2. The ‘Clones actually control their own Big 12 destiny heading into a stretch of three straight games against ranked opponents: TCU at home Saturday, at West Virginia on Nov. 4 and at home against Oklahoma State on Nov. 11. Win out and Iowa State will play for the Big 12 title, at least. Hey, crazier things have happened – wait, no they haven’t.

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF

The Dash’s Fab Four if the bids were handed out today:

Georgia (8) remains the top overall seed. Nothing happened over the weekend to cause the Bulldogs to drop – they had a bye week, and their two biggest wins only look better as Notre Dame beat USC by 35 and Mississippi State dominated Kentucky to improve to 5-2. Next: Nemesis Florida in the Cocktail Party game in Jacksonville. Georgia has lost three straight in this rivalry, which is a big reason why Florida has won the SEC East the last two years.

Alabama (9) is the strongest No. 2 seed in the playoff’s brief history. The Crimson Tide won its 22nd straight SEC game Saturday, crushing Tennessee and quite likely extinguishing any faint hope that Butch Jones might have harbored about saving his job. Next: Alabama coasts into a bye week before hosting quasi-resurgent LSU on Nov. 4.

Penn State moves up a spot by virtue of demolishing Michigan. Since emerging from the near-death experience at Iowa on Sept. 23, the Nittany Lions have won three Big Ten games by a combined 84 points. They are rolling at the right time. Next: at Ohio State, in what is the national game of the week, the Big Ten game of the year and possibly the most enticing regular-season game of 2017.

TCU (10) had a free pass, hosting pathetic Kansas and delivering the requisite blowout. That might have been the Horned Frogs’ last easy game for a while, with three of the next four on the road. Next: at Iowa State, kicking off The Dash’s above Farmageddon Scenario.

Dropped out: none.

Also considered: Miami, Notre Dame, Wisconsin.