Larry Scott did his best to empathize with USC football fans during a virtual news conference Thursday. He claimed he was just like them, “frustrated and disappointed” that the undefeated Trojans are only 13th in the College Football Playoff rankings and confused as to why the CFP committee hasn’t valued their 5-0 record more.
He remained optimistic that a catapult up the rankings was still possible, that a Pac-12 title game victory on Friday night might still be enough to make USC the conference’s first playoff participant in four seasons.
But when Scott was asked if there was anything more he thinks the conference could have done to help the Trojans, he offered a staunch defense.
“There’s a lot that we do,” he said.
Apparently, just not enough.
Even with a win over two-loss Oregon on Friday, it appears almost certain that the Trojans will not crack the CFP’s top four when its final rankings are released next week. Instead, they will be left to wonder what more they could have done, and whether different circumstances could have helped them achieve a brighter end result.
“I’m still holding out some hope,” Scott said. “I know the committee is going to watch the game, and depending on how USC does, if they continue to improve and look good as they have … we’re hoping that they will be in the discussion for a playoff spot. But certainly, 13 does not come close to reflecting where we think they deserve to be right now.”
There are plenty of internal factors that have held USC back during this truncated pandemic season. The Trojans needed late comebacks to narrowly defeat Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA, teams with a combined 4-10 record. They haven’t played a ranked team and only have Oregon — which backdoored its way into the Pac-12 championship game after a COVID-19 outbreak prevented Washington from participating — left to pad their résumé.
Scott on Thursday tried to hype up the conference title contest, billing it as a “thrilling” matchup between two historic heavyweights with “College Football Playoff and important bowl implications.”
“I’m glad we’re going to have a championship game where the Pac-12 championship will be earned on the field,” he added. “Which our football people felt was essential.”
But in a season in which even Scott acknowledged Pac-12 schools would be “playing some catch-up” after their schedules were delayed until November, it’s fair to wonder if Colorado deserved a Pac-12 title game bid more.
The Buffaloes went 4-1 this season, had their originally scheduled contest against the Trojans canceled because of COVID-19 issues, and are the only other Pac-12 team in the CFP rankings, at No. 25. They would have been the strongest possible opponent for USC in its uphill pursuit of a playoff berth. And they are set to be idle this weekend, as Oregon was their originally scheduled opponent.
“I do have a lot of empathy for Colorado,” Scott said, trying to tiptoe around the awkwardness of having the team with the conference’s second-best record sitting at home while the one with its fourth-best mark will have a shot at the trophy. “A new coach, a lot of optimism, a lot of bright spots, and a lot of frustration about having so many games canceled. I completely understand the frustration.”
Scott said the league supported USC’s playoff case in other ways. He cited “behind-the-scenes” discussions between league officials and CFP committee members. He said the conference collaborated with USC to provide the voters with information and stats they hoped would aid the Trojans' cause. He pointed to the nationally televised games USC played on Fox and ESPN, too.
“I certainly feel that we’re doing everything we can to advocate for them,” Scott said. “I’m frustrated and disappointed with where they are in the standings right now, for sure.”
Talk, however, is cheap. And if an undefeated USC team does get left out of the playoffs, and the Pac-12 is again denied an opportunity to compete for a national championship, there will be only more questions as to how much Scott and his fellow league leaders should take the blame — and how much more they could have done.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.