Pac-12 bowl projections: USC, the New Year’s Six and four scenarios for the stretch run

With two weeks remaining, four postseason scenarios are in play for the Pac-12.

None of them could be considered ideal for the 10 continuing members and one would be received poorly.

Let’s dive in …

*** Scenario No. 1: USC breaks through

The details: The Trojans beat Notre Dame this week, then win the Pac-12 title to finish as a 12-1 Power Five champion. That’s good enough for the College Football Playoff selection committee.

The good: For the first time in six years, the Pac-12 receives an invitation to the sport’s biggest event, removing a giant stain from its resume. USC’s ascent clears a spot in the Rose Bowl for a second team to participate in the New Year’s Six bowl games. That generates extra revenue, with the $6 million playoff paycheck split equally among all 12 schools.

The bad: The CFP breakthrough is bittersweet for many in the Pac-12 given that a defector is responsible. USC’s success highlights its importance to the conference and the void created when the Trojans bolt for the Big Ten in the summer of 2024. One stain has been removed, but another remains.

(Note: The New Year’s Six bowls are the Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Fiesta and Peach. This year, the Fiesta and Peach are hosting playoff games.)

*** Scenario No. 2: USC just misses

The details: The Trojans beat Notre Dame but lose in the Pac-12 championship. While the winner (Oregon, Washington or Utah) represents the conference in the Rose Bowl, the Trojans are ranked high enough by the committee to earn an at-large berth in the Cotton Bowl.

The good: USC’s berth in the Cotton gives the conference two New Year’s Six participants for the first time since the 2017 season, plus a $4 million cash windfall (split equally). What’s more, Pac-12 administrators can delight in having one of the remaining 10 schools hoist the trophy.

The bad: While the Pac-12 avoids having a defector make the playoff, the semifinal drought continues — and so does the narrative that it’s a distant fifth in the Power Five pecking order.

*** Scenario No. 3: USC and Granddaddy

The details: The Trojans lose to Notre Dame and are eliminated from the playoff race — no two-loss team has ever qualified — but they win the Pac-12 title to secure a Rose Bowl berth.

The good: The conference avoids the angst over a defector reaching the playoff.

The bad: The Pac-12 doesn’t receive a second berth in the New Year’s Six, or the cash windfall, while peer conferences bask in having two or three participants. Meanwhile, the continuing members must watch USC claim the trophy in their penultimate season in the conference. For the remaining 10 schools, this is the least appealing scenario.

*** Scenario No. 4: USC falters, twice

The details: The Trojans lose to Notre Dame and then in the Pac-12 championship, falling out of the New Year’s Six entirely.

The good: Across the conference, except in Los Angeles, there is quiet celebration as a defector has been relegated to second-tier status. Either Washington, Oregon or Utah represents the conference in what might be the last traditional Rose Bowl.

(The Granddaddy is scheduled to stage a semifinal next year, and playoff expansion could begin as early as 2024. At that point, it would become a permanent quarterfinal/semifinal host.)

The bad: With only one New Year’s Six participant, the Pac-12 is once again subjected to sneers and snickers across the Power Five.

The Hotline will reassess the situation Saturday night, following USC’s date with the Irish.

Our latest bowl projections …

Rose Bowl
Team: USC (10-1/8-1)
Next up: vs. Notre Dame
Comment: Our latest projections call for the Trojans to lose to Notre Dame but win the conference championship. Their opponent in Pasadena isn’t Michigan or Ohio State — both make the playoff — but Penn State.

Alamo Bowl
Team: Oregon (9-2/7-1)
Next up: at Oregon State
Comment: With a victory in Corvallis, the Ducks advance to face USC in Las Vegas. But as was the case against Washington, their secondary cannot cope with an elite aerial game.

Holiday Bowl
Team: Washington (9-2/6-2)
Next up: at Washington State
Comment: Loads of possibilities exist for the Huskies, from a berth in the Granddaddy to a spot in Las Vegas or El Paso.

Las Vegas Bowl
Team: Utah (8-3/6-2)
Next up: at Colorado
Comment: When a date in Las Vegas against an SEC opponent constitutes a disappointment, expectations are high — but not too high.

Sun Bowl
Team: UCLA (8-3/5-3)
Next up: at Cal
Comment: Given the super-soft schedule, which featured four guaranteed wins, a loss in Berkeley would render UCLA’s season a major disappointment.

LA Bowl
Team: Oregon State (8-3/5-3)
Next up: vs. Oregon
Comment: How high could the Beavers climb? The first Holiday Bowl invitation in program history is probably the ceiling — but only if the Beavers win this week and USC makes the playoff or Cotton.

ESPN bowl
Team: Washington State (7-4/4-4)
Next up: vs. Washington
Comment: Based on our current projections, the Cougars will land in either the Gasparilla, First Responders or Armed Forces bowls. (ESPN arranges the pairings from a pool of candidates.)

Team: Arizona (4-7/2-6)
Next up: vs. Arizona State
Comment: The loss to WSU last week, in which the Wildcats weren’t competitive, underscores just how much work remains for coach Jedd Fisch.

Team: Arizona State (3-8/2-6)
Next up: at Arizona
Comment: Easy to pinpoint the missed chances: Beat Eastern Michigan and Stanford, and the Sun Devils would be one win from the postseason.

Team: Cal (4-7/2-6)
Next up: vs. UCLA
Comment: Likewise, the Bears would be on the brink of a bowl berth if they had simply beaten the worst team in the Power Five.

Team: Colorado (1-10/1-7)
Next up: vs. Utah
Comment: It’s about time to place CU on the short list of the worst Pac-12 teams of the expansion era.

Team: Stanford (3-8/1-8)
Next up: vs. Brigham Young
Comment: An important date looms for the Cardinal: How many players will enter the transfer portal when it opens on Dec. 5?

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