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How USC football and the Pac-12 can return to play in time for the College Football Playoff

Sep 16, 2020, 1:41 AM PDT
USC football is aiming for the College Football Playoff. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
USC football is aiming for the College Football Playoff. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Can USC football and the Pac-12 restart in time to participate in the College Football Playoff?

USC football players made a public push to convince the state of California to let them play on Tuesday. In their open letter, they cited many things, including the Pac-12’s new partnership with Quidel Corporation to perform daily antigen tests as a strong reason to lift restrictions on practice and play.

They also said something else:

“Governor Newsom, our request of you is that work with us — urgently and purposefully — to find a path forward for us to resume competitions later this fall so that we can have the same opportunity as other teams around the country to play for a national championship.”

Is that realistic at this point? Could the Pac-12 restart in time to give USC a chance to play for the title? The ship may have already sailed on that.

USC football and the Pac-12 have a shrinking window to content for the CFP.

Everything hinges on the states of California and Oregon giving USC, UCLA, Stanford, Cal, Oregon and Oregon State approval to hold practices as soon as possible.

As of Sept. 16, the Trojans have been unable to hold full-team practices, limited to workouts with small groups. That’s why USC’s players sent Gavin Newsom their letter.

Even if state and local entities gave USC and the others approval to gather their more than 100 players, coaches and staff together on a football field, there would need to be a ramp-up to the season.

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Let’s say the go-ahead came as soon as new rapid testing machines are in place by the end of September. It would be a tight fit to match the Big Ten start date of Oct. 24.

Over the summer, Pac-12 coaches agreed they would need six weeks of training camp to be ready for a season.

Under those terms — if practice approval applied from Sept. 28 — the conference could kick off on Nov. 7 at the earliest. If “the end of September” means the literal end of the month, they would have to push a start back to Nov. 14, which is what sounds like the most realistic scenario based on Heather Dinich’s reporting for ESPN.

Mid-November is too late a start date to even think about putting a team into the CFP semifinal games scheduled for Jan. 1. At most a Pac-12 team could hope to play seven games by then.

In order to make a run at the playoff, that plan would have to be adjusted with an eye on fitting in eight games and a conference title game. Managing to pull that off would require a restart no later than Oct. 24.

It wouldn’t be impossible, even if making it happen is quite a stretch.

First, California and Oregon would have to give practice approval by the week of Sept. 28. Then coaches, trainers and administrators would have to be willing to contract training camp preparations to just four weeks. That could be a non-starter on its own given the conference’s preference for caution and emphasis on player safety.

With a start on the weekend of Oct. 24, the conference would have just eight weeks to play before Dec. 19, when the SEC will hold its conference title game. An eight-game conference schedule is viable, the SEC does it every year. The Big Ten is doing an eight-plus-one set up.

There would be no time for bye weeks under this plan. However, the Pac-12 has expected teams to make it through a 12-game schedule without a bye week. USC did it in 2017 and still managed to win the conference title. Teams should be able to manage eight weeks of play in a row.

Then, on the weekend of Dec. 19, the Pac-12 could crown a conference champion with hopes of sending that team to the playoff. They could even follow the Big Ten’s lead and pair put the remainder of the conference for a ninth game.

An alternative, but less ideal, plan would be to kickoff on Halloween and play an eight-game conference schedule alone. That would not allow the conference to host a title game.

The trouble, of course, is how all of that rushing to restart would probably be for naught. Even an undefeated Pac-12 team would be in danger of missing out on a playoff spot. Preference would almost certainly be given to the likes of Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State.

Like most years, the Pac-12 would have to cross their fingers and hope those teams trip up. Frankly, the perception of the Pac-12 may not be strong enough from a strength of schedule perspective for an Oregon or a USC to get in over a one-loss Alabama or Ohio State.

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Either way, the Pac-12 should fight tooth and nail to get on the same timeline as the Big Ten. However, they don’t control their own destiny right now.

First step, get approval for practice.

Second step, determine a realistic, safe and condensed training camp plan.

Third step, play ball.

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