With Tuesday’s release of the first College Football Playoff top 25 rankings, we can officially start thinking about the road to SoFi Stadium for the CFP national championship on Monday, Jan. 9.
And most important: What is the path to the title game for USC and UCLA, which have slipped into the top 10 of some of the polls with one month left in the season?
The selection committee confirmed what hopeful Trojans and Bruins fans already knew — the winner of the Nov. 19 crosstown rivalry showdown is going to need some help to be one of the four teams selected to the bracket with a shot at SoFi glory. The good news? The machinations are not totally unreasonable.
USC is ranked No. 9, the Trojans, in Lincoln Riley’s first season, making their return to the CFP top 10 for the first time since 2017.
UCLA is ranked No. 12, making its return to the CFP top 15 for the first time since 2014 under Jim Mora.
USC is looking up at: 1. Tennessee (8-0); 2. Ohio State (8-0); 3. Georgia (8-0); 4. Clemson (8-0); 5. Michigan (8-0); 6. Alabama (7-1); 7. Texas Christian (8-0); No. 8 Oregon (7-1). No. 10 Louisiana State (6-2) and No. 11 Mississippi (7-1) are slotted between the Trojans and Bruins.
Should UCLA feel slighted by its ranking compared with USC, considering the Bruins easily handled the Utah squad that handed the Trojans their only loss, by one point on the road? Quickly, no. Chip Kelly’s team will have its chance to prove its worth in the Rose Bowl the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
Before USC and UCLA can spend any time thinking about the CFP — the coaches certainly won’t — they have to win the games in front of them and make the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2.
“Most of the time, I don’t even know what it is, because it doesn’t matter right now,” Riley said Tuesday. “It does not matter one bit. You can go be ranked whatever, you go lose, it don’t matter. You keep winning, it takes care of itself.”
Playing it out, we can assume that two spots of the playoff field will go to the Southeastern Conference champion (likely one of Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama) and the Big Ten champion (likely one of Ohio State or Michigan). Tennessee and Georgia play Saturday in Athens, Ga. Ohio State and Michigan play Nov. 26 in Columbus, Ohio. If Alabama beats LSU and Ole Miss, it will play the winner of Tennessee-Georgia in the SEC championship game Dec. 3.
In other words, the last month of the regular season will function like a playoff for five of the top six teams. Only two will definitely survive.
USC and UCLA need to root against Clemson and TCU the rest of the way. The Tigers and Horned Frogs are unlikely to stay ahead of a one-loss Pac-12 champion that has built a ton of momentum late.
The Trojans and Bruins — and this might be hard to stomach — should also root for Oregon to win out until the Pac-12 title game. The more impressive the Ducks look going in, the more USC or UCLA would benefit from knocking them off in Vegas.
The Trojans have the opportunity to finish the season with wins over a top-10 UCLA, an improving Notre Dame and a top-10 Oregon.
Because of that gantlet of a finishing kick, if there aren’t four unbeaten Power Five conference champions, it would be hard to imagine a one-loss USC in particular being left out of the four-team field — especially with Los Angeles hosting the CFP title game.