USC head coach Clay Helton loves to preach to his players about staying focused on the task at hand. Don’t worry about what you can’t control, he likes to say, and don’t look too far into the future.
The thing is, this week USC can’t afford that luxury.
The 13th-ranked Trojans (5-0) are scheduled to play Washington (3-1) on Friday in the Pac-12 championship game. USC will play host at the Coliseum, a fitting reward for the only team in the conference to finish with an undefeated record.
If only it were that simple. Instead, it’s 2020.
The Huskies are in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak on their roster that forced Washington to cancel its regular-season finale against Oregon, a game that was supposed to decide who won the Pac-12 North. Instead, Washington was able to back into the conference championship game.
But there remains the little question of whether Washington will be able to play on Friday.
No Pac-12 team that had to cancel a game this season due to COVID-19 cases was able to play the following Friday or Saturday. When USC had to cancel its game against Colorado when COVID-19 wiped out its offensive line, the Trojans’ next game was delayed two days to give USC the opportunity to get its numbers back to an acceptable level.
The Pac-12 is unlikely to delay its conference title game, scheduled for Friday to maximize television numbers during a crowded weekend of college football. So what happens if Washington has to cancel for the second consecutive week?
You would see North runner-up Oregon slide in to replace the Huskies. And if things go really sideways, then South runner-up Colorado would play instead and play division rival USC. The Ducks and Buffs are scheduled to play at the Coliseum on Saturday, so one or the other could step in should USC suddenly require a dance partner.
So that puts USC in the unenviable position of having to game plan for two, or maybe even three, teams this week rather than focus solely on Washington.
“We’re gonna have to prepare for two teams, while probably Washington and Oregon are obviously preparing for us,” Helton said after Saturday’s win over UCLA. “We’ll take a nap tonight, get up really early in the morning tomorrow and get back to work.”
This isn’t a unique problem to the Pac-12, but other leagues have so far announced contingency plans for if their championship games are canceled.
The American Conference will cancel its championship game if either Cincinnati or Tulsa cannot play, with the team with the higher College Football Playoff rankings being named champion. The Mountain West will declare San Jose State and Boise State co-champions if the game is canceled, as the Sun Belt will do for Coastal Carolina and Louisiana in that situation.
The Pac-12 has yet to decide what will happen if Washington can’t play. USC will play a game, but will it still be a conference title match? Or will the Trojans be named Pac-12 winners and receive the league’s New Year’s Six bowl spot regardless of the result of a rescheduled game against Oregon or Colorado?
That’s when you get back to what USC can and can’t control. The Trojans will instead focus on a second consecutive short week of preparation and come up with contingencies.
“This was a short week for us, so the kids got a feel for what it is for it to pop on you pretty quick,” Helton said. “We said anytime, any place, anywhere, and we’re fortunate. We’re glad that we’re home. We’ll see who we get, and we’ll put the ball down and play.”