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CHRIS DUFRESNE / COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW

USC vs. Oregon: It's the real Pac-12 championship game

Saturday's matchup between USC — which is the best team in Pac-12 South but can't go to the official title game — and Oregon should settle who gets the bragging rights as the conference's best team.

November 18, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Coach Lane Kiffin and USC can view Saturday's game against Oregon as their Pac-12 championship battle.
Coach Lane Kiffin and USC can view Saturday's game against Oregon… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

The Pac-12 Conference championship game trophy was unveiled before last Saturday's game in Palo Alto between Stanford and Oregon.

The trophy, for the record, is shaped like a "V."

In a hastily arranged presentation squeezed between the elevator and media buffet in Stanford Stadium's press box, Commissioner Larry Scott introduced trophy creator Archie Held.

Held wore an un-tucked, checkered blue-and-white, long-sleeved shirt. He's a UCLA graduate.

The trophy is stainless-steel stunning, sleek and shiny. It's 30 inches tall, 17 inches wide and weighs 58 pounds — roughly half as much as Oregon freshman De'Anthony Thomas.

Held said his inspiration was the NFL's Lombardi Trophy. "It has a very clean and elegant design," he explained. "I am fairly obsessed with form and the strongest forms are simple, elegant designs."

The first Pac-12 title game will be held Dec. 2 on the home field of the division champion with the best record. That host team will be Oregon if it wins one of its last two games.

It's not the trophy in the room, though, that people should be talking about — it's the elephant.

The North-South champion could not be decided last week because Oregon and Stanford both represent the North.

And what is the Dec. 2 game going to mean if Oregon crushes any one of the mediocre teams — UCLA, Arizona State or Utah — that end up representing the South?

The real Pac-12 title will be won Saturday night when USC visits Oregon at Autzen Stadium. It's just that nobody can officially say it because USC's two-year bowl ban has rendered the Trojans' ineligible for the inaugural championship.

If USC pulls off the shocker, Trojans fans can hold their own private championship party with an invisible trophy on symbolic display.

None of these Trojans, of course, had anything to do with the sanctions that led to USC's NCAA probation. They could be called non-champion victims of circumstance.

The 1981 Cincinnati Reds could relate. They had the best overall record in the National League West that year but did not make the playoffs. Because of the midseason baseball strike, the season was divided into two parts. The Reds finished a half-game behind the Dodgers in the first half and 11/2 games behind Houston in the second.

The Dodgers ended up winning the World Series, but Cincinnati can always wonder what might have been.

USC experienced similar emptiness in 2003. The Trojans were No. 1 in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches' polls but ended up third in the Bowl Championship Series standings. The Trojans had to watch Louisiana State and Oklahoma play for the title.

LSU deserved to be in the game, but Oklahoma had been crushed by Kansas State in the Big 12 Conference title game. The one-loss Sooners still finished first in the BCS standings because of a glass-basement formula conundrum that didn't allow voters to drop them lower than any two-loss team.

USA Today coaches were mandated to switch their No. 1 votes for USC to the LSU-Oklahoma winner. A few refused out of protest after USC beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, but LSU officially ended up the BCS champion.

USC won the Associated Press title.

Award presentations don't always tell the whole story.

Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing crown for refusing military induction, but everyone knew Ali was the champion.

USC, if it wins in Eugene, will get the respect accorded a champion.

The Trojans should not otherwise gripe, beef or complain about their fate. Sports, sometimes by design, are unfair. How, on Earth, did Pete Carroll's Seattle Seahawks deserve to make the NFL playoffs last year with a 7-9 record?

If USC shocks Oregon, it will have the ultimate satisfaction of knowing what it did.

An Oregon victory, which is expected, will solidify the Ducks' three-year league dominance and all but clinch the first Pac-12 title. Oregon will have defeated the conference's other top teams, Stanford and USC, in consecutive weeks.

Oregon's closing acts would be anticlimatic matchups against lowly Oregon State followed by a Dec. 2 home game against whatever team crawls out of the South.

Oregon has already defeated Arizona State this year, in Eugene. The score was 41-27. Oregon has not played the other South contenders, UCLA or Utah, but would be favored by three touchdowns or more.

UCLA reaches the title game if it beats Colorado and USC. Arizona State gets there if it wins its last two and UCLA loses once.

Utah, which started 0-4 in league, claims the South if it beats Colorado and Washington State, Arizona State loses twice and UCLA loses once.

Frankly, though, this South Division doesn't add up.

Held's trophy won't be presented to the USC-Oregon winner. It can't be.

But don't worry, everyone will know.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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