| USA TODAY
In a season that’s been shaken by more than 120 canceled or postponed football games, the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conferences recently demonstrated leadership and flexibility by rewriting rules or changing schedules to benefit their best football teams – Ohio State, Notre Dame and Clemson.
And why not? Unusual times call for unusual measures.
But the Pac-12 is a different animal and now is faced with a different kind of pandemic predicament after Southern California (5-0) finished the regular season as the league’s only undefeated team. The Trojans beat UCLA in the final minute Saturday night, 43-38, and Colorado (4-1) lost at home to Utah, 38-21.
Should the league change its own rules, decree USC to be the Pac-12 champion and cancel the league championship game scheduled for Friday? Or should it proceed with a title game that is starting to look like a sham because of more COVID-19 chaos?
It would look like a sham because USC, as winner of the league’s South Division, would play the winner of the league’s North Division on Friday for the title – an opponent that will have gotten much more time to rest and prepare and arguably didn’t deserve to be there.
That opponent would appear to be Washington (3-1) after its game Saturday at Oregon was canceled because of the Huskies’ COVID-19 outbreak. But Washington’s COVID issues could linger into next week, possibly preventing the Huskies from playing for the title Friday and putting second-place Oregon (3-2) in the title game instead.
The Pac-12 already confirmed to USA TODAY Sports on Saturday night that if Washington couldn’t play, Oregon would take its place. If USC couldn’t play, Colorado (4-1) would takes its place.
Think about that. The league is willing to let alternates play for the championship even though they didn’t earn it and got into the game on a fluke. It’s yet another reason USC should be declared champion now, preserving the integrity of the league’s title.
Other reasons to do so include:
►Both Washington and Oregon would have had two weeks off before playing USC, while the Trojans would be faced with a short week of preparation for a Friday game.
►Even if Washington could play, the Huskies would have won the North Division by default, benefiting from avoiding Oregon and getting sick at the right time.
►If Washington couldn’t play Friday, USC would face a twice-beaten, second-place team participating in Washington’s place (Oregon).
►If Oregon were to beat USC in such a title game, the Pac-12 will have ended up with a fluke champion while its highest-profile team – Southern Cal – got knocked out of contention for a top bowl.
If the Pac-12 were to cancel the title game, the league ostensibly would take a financial hit in its deal with Fox, the game’s broadcaster. That is why the conference is willing to stage this game with alternates if necessary – and why it almost certainly won’t cancel.
Delaying the game a week also is not a good idea, since it would push it to Christmas weekend, when other leagues will be preparing for or playing in bowl games.
The bigger question is what the Pac-12 should do in this case, regardless of money. Even though the league will schedule consolation games for other Pac-12 teams next weekend, it doesn’t mean it has to put its championship on the line in these circumstances.
If it canceled the title game, Washington and Oregon wouldn’t have much to complain about anyway. Not only is Washington’s readiness in question because of COVID, so is its argument for deserving a shot. The Huskies backed into the North title, haven’t played a road game all year and lost last week against Stanford, 31-26.
Other leagues already have shown a willingness to reform this rumpled season to boost their top programs.
In the ACC, athletic directors recently voted to shorten the regular season for its top two teams, No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 Clemson, clearing the way for them to meet in the league championship game Dec. 19.
In the Big Ten, the league amended its own rules this week to advance No. 4 Ohio State into the championship game next weekend against No. 14 Northwestern, despite the fact that the Buckeyes (5-0) hadn’t played the minimum six games to qualify.
Now it’s the Pac-12’s turn. The league can stick to protocol and avoid losing money by staging a dubious, unnecessary game to the detriment of its marquee team. Or it can pull the plug and stand behind a deserving champion.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org