If the USC Trojans beat the UCLA Bruins this week, then get past the Oregon Ducks or Stanford Cardinal in the Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30, the Trojans will play in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
It won't even matter how they do against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the week in between or what any other teams do. That spot would be secure.
But what if Lane Kiffin's squad doesn't win those two games? What if the Trojans beat UCLA and Notre Dame, but lose the conference championship, or lose to UCLA and beat Notre Dame? Where will they be headed then?
It's a good question that we're getting closer to answering.
Yes, in what would certainly qualify as a weird twist, it's conceivable that 9-4 USC could play for the Rose Bowl even with a Pac-12 title-game loss, so long as the Trojans remained in the top 14 of the BCS standings following that game. Here's what would probably have to happen for that scenario to occur: (1) The Trojans would have to win the next two games against UCLA and Notre Dame, obviously, then play a closely contested conference title game; (2) Notre Dame would have to win this week against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons -- not a tall task -- to stay undefeated for the matchup with USC; (3) Oregon would need to win out, beating Stanford this week and the Oregon State Beavers the week after, because then the Ducks would likely go to the BCS Championship Game as the No. 1 team and leave the Rose Bowl open for another Pac-12 bid.
All those outcomes are far from assured, obviously, and then, after all that, there could still be the matter of Notre Dame or someone else sneaking into Pasadena over the Trojans. In summary, it's unlikely the Trojans will play on New Year's Day unless they win the conference title game.
You know what would have made them a lot more likely to get to Pasadena on Jan. 1? A win against the Arizona Wildcats last month. It may well turn out that the loss in Tucson was USC's killer this season. As of now, it appears the Trojans would have been a prime Rose Bowl candidate even with a title-game loss … had they outlasted the Wildcats.
So, the top bowl possibilities look something like this right now for the Trojans: (1) win against UCLA and Oregon/Stanford in the Pac-12 title game, and play in the Rose Bowl at 10-3 or 9-4, depending on the outcome against Notre Dame; (2) win against UCLA and Notre Dame and lose to Oregon/Stanford, and play in the Alamo or Holiday Bowl at 9-4 -- with an unlikely chance of playing in Pasadena.
It gets a lot trickier after that, with the Holiday, Sun and Las Vegas Bowls all still in play based on what the Trojans do in their final two or three games. If they lose out, another appearance at the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco (formerly known as the Emerald Bowl) is very much a possibility, too.
It's a lot to follow. But, as Lane Kiffin has said over and over the past week to his team and the press, the Trojans still control their own destiny.
If they win all their games, they're in -- not the national title tilt, but the Rose Bowl, which is still a worthy goal.