It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
No, USC’s dream season was destined for something more.
The (soon-to-be) Heisman-winning quarterback was supposed to carry his team to a conference championship in his first year on campus. A program that has been down for so long was supposed to be reborn with its new head coach leading the surge.
But football doesn’t work that way. Results are imperfect and (at times) unfair. The sport doesn’t care about what narrative fits each situation best. The games are played, the results are tallied and things trudge forward.
Instead of gliding into a Heisman win, Caleb Williams spent most of the Pac-12 Championship limping around the field. He still dazzled on occasion, especially early on. When his knee limited his mobility, however, USC fell apart—slowly at first and then violently at the end.
And the Trojans’ defense? In a word, yikes.
A team that has thrived off opportune turnovers this season gave up yards and points in chunks. Tackling, at times, seemed almost optional.
A strong start gave way for a blowout, and it wasn’t the one most we were expecting. Utah clobbered USC 47-24, all but ending the Trojans’ stranglehold on the fourth and final playoff spot.
Thousands of miles away, a team still licking the wounds from last Saturday rejoiced. A playoff spot should not be earned from sitting on the couch, although that’s precisely what happened here.
Regardless of where you stand on that matter, the outcome seems somewhat straightforward: USC is out, and Ohio State is in.
With games still to be played and conferences still to be decided, the College Football Playoff field feels set.
A team that just lost at home by 22 points can now win the national title. While many were connecting the dots this week to find the next Ohio State coach, Ryan Day will now get a crack at redemption in the postseason.
Reaching this conclusion is simple. USC, which was No. 4 in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings, will drop. Ohio State, which lost out on a Big Ten title when it lost to Michigan 45-23, will jump up from the No. 5 spot despite watching, waiting and hoping.
The No. 6 team, Alabama, isn’t going anywhere despite calls from many. Neither will Tennessee or Penn State, the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds. Clemson, which came in at No. 9, will not be capable of making the top four with an ACC title.
Seeding, of course, might still be jostled. But it would take something truly unique for the playoff not to feature Georgia, Michigan, TCU and Ohio State.
What happens if TCU is blown out by Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship? We’ll have to wait and see, although probably very little. That result will not have an impact on what happened Friday night. Ohio State was given a gift and new life.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged as such on the broadcast following the game. “Coach Day, Whittingham said while gesturing a thumbs up, you’re welcome.”
In a week where the College Football Playoff announced it would be moving to a 12-team playoff in 2024, the current format was once again exposed for all that it is and all that it can't be.
The fact that USC is now out of the postseason despite having to play an extra football game is deeply unfair. It’s made even more challenging given Williams’ health during much of the game. It’s the way it goes. Oh, and the Trojans’ effort on defense certainly doesn’t strengthen this argument.
Still, one can't help but question the sheer logistics of it all.
Ohio State is not the first team that made the playoff by being dormant in the final weekend. In 2017, Alabama snuck its way into the College Football Playoff after being left out of the SEC Championship Game.
The Crimson Tide went onto win the national title thanks largely to a second-half performance from a freshman quarterback named Tua Tagovailoa. History, of course, is not guaranteed to repeat itself. But all you need is a chance, and Ohio State has one now.
Earlier in the week, the College Football Playoff announced it would be expanding its postseason to 12 teams in 2024. In this version, USC and Ohio State both easily make the first round without drama or conversation.
Right now, however, that discussion means very little. After suffering one of its worst losses in program history, there is joy in Columbus after a long, loud week. And after delivering a debut season that somehow surpassed all reasonable expectations, Lincoln Riley’s first season with USC ends with an emphatic thud.
Ohio State is very much alive, and USC is very much not.
You don’t have to like it or agree with it. Regardless, at least for the time being, it’s the way things were ultimately meant to be.