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College Football Playoff bid on the line for USC

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Trojans coming at you!

Trojans coming at you!
Image: Getty Images

It’s the penultimate week of college football’s regular season, and I’ll give you four guesses as to which conference has the most ranked teams. I’d like to thank SEC fans for their quick response, but nope, it’s not them. Big Ten fans aren’t even chiming in because one of their two divisions doesn’t have a single team in the Top 25. It’s admirable that the Big 12 applied, while the ACC’s texts went not only unreturned but also unread.

If you’ve been counting, you’d know there’s only one conference left in the Power Five, and it’s the Pac-12. With half of its dozen teams currently ranked, it has the most ranked teams, and a level of football that has gone overlooked all season. That’s most likely because some games start at 11 pm. EST time, and a majority of college football fans are tired, drunk, or both by that time.

That’s what makes the USC-UCLA game so crucial. If the Trojans drop another one, and the conference champion has two losses, nothing any Pac-12 program did this season will have cachet. It’ll just be another, “I told you (conference X) was trash,” and everybody’s most frustrating sports argument outside of LeBron versus Jordan will have legs once again.

I’ve been closely following the resurgent (and supposedly resurgent) teams all season for the now 86’d Marty McFly Rankings. I’ve seen as much Caleb Williams as Hendon Hooker. If USC wins out, with the only loss on the road against currently No. 10 Utah by the margin of a two-point conversion because the Utes didn’t want to go to OT, they deserve to be in the College Football Playoff.

Even though Paul Finebaum emits smugness at the same rate that L.A. emits smog, I have a tremendous amount invested in the Volunteers. (When your girlfriend is a UT grad, and your team was one of the supposedly resurgent, a distraction/rooting interest is what gets you through the season.)

Still, if the college football gods deem it so, and Tennessee and the loser of the Michigan-Ohio State are left out peering in because the Big Ten winner, Georgia, and TCU are perfect, and Pac-12 champion USC’s only blemish is a one-point loss to a top 10 team, so be it.

If it feels like the committee has biases, it’s because they do. They’re human. Once a stance is agreed upon in that room, I imagine it’s hard to get them to waiver because no one likes to admit they’re wrong. And I think conference champions that look like conference champions in one of the best, albeit top-heavy, power five conferences in the country matter.

Despite Oregon’s credentials this century, USC is the biggest brand on the West Coast, with a history of their best being more than good enough against the sport’s blue bloods. It’s conceivable that they belong because we’ve seen it semi-recently.

The same goes for the coach. Lincoln Riley produces Heisman Trophy winners and CFP appearances. Add in a win over Chip Kelly this weekend, a W over a ranked Notre Dame team next week, and a victory in either a rematch with Utah or a showdown with Oregon in the conference title game, and the recency bias we want to say doesn’t exist in the committee will push USC over the top, if the quality of those wins does not.

Throwing your eggs in USC and Riley’s basket is safer than endorsing Josh Heupel because he’s never made them look stupid. I’m not saying Heupel will; it’s just the fear of the unknown, no conference title, and the Georgia game that makes the Vols a riskier proposition.

This pro-USC logic could apply to Clemson if the Tigers didn’t just get waxed by the Golden Domers, played in a better conference, and most importantly had a transcendent quarterback. Williams and Riley absolutely hold sway in a selection room that’s probably filled with the same shitty pastries and refreshments we’re all accustomed to.

Gary goes for the danishes and lemonade, Beth prefers a croissant and coffee, and Paul hovers over the beignets and tells you that they’re the best breakfast ever, and you’re stupid if you think otherwise. Yet, there are catered options that everyone can agree on, and it’s probably a fucking omelet station, but that’s beside the point.

The CFP panel loves Alabama because the Tide regularly checks the boxes they value and consistently makes them look smart. A 12-1 USC team wouldn’t be able to leave the interview room without at least three uncomfortable Bobs-in-Office Space advances.

Once the pool of teams extends to 12, fans will be able to poke holes in any line of reasoning the panel presents with so much ease it’ll lead to literal meltdowns on ESPN. Right now, the criteria are barely finite enough to justify a top four.

And with a win at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night, the Trojans’ résumé will be one step closer to the CFP stamp of approval.



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U.S. beats England, 0-0

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What psychopath called the long-awaited United States men’s national team’s Black Friday showdown against England a scoreless draw? I’ll have whatever you’re drinking. After gaining my bearings after that stiff cocktail, and realizing Matt Turner nor Jordan Pickford allowing a goal wasn’t just fallacy, it yielded a simple consequence for the American’s group-stage finale on Tuesday against Iran: win and the USMNT advances to the knockout stage. Lose? It’d be on the next flight out of Qatar. Tie? Who the fuck plays for a tie? It’ll come down to goal differential for you marks.

The American’s play in Qatar will draw plenty of comparisons to their efforts at the 2010 World Cup. Ties against England, yes that game with Robert Green’s all-time gaffe in net, and Slovenia to start group play. The exact same stakes were in the balance for the USMNT’s group finale against Algeria. A Landon Donovan extra-time goal was the difference as the USA went from eliminated to group winners with one kick of the ball. One goal against Iran could very well be the difference for the United States.

The goal for the USMNT coming into Friday’s game was proving it could hang with the Three Lions. In the four years Gregg Berhalter has led the Yanks, they’ve played an opponent of that quality exactly never. Zero minutes against a world-class team, especially in a competitive environment. The Americans not only hung with the country they gained their independence from, the USA would’ve won under Queensberry Rules. The first 20 minutes for the USMNT were tough, but it didn’t concede a goal. After that, the Stars and Stripes got the better of the Union Jack.

While the United Kingdom beats up on each other, all that stands between the knockout stage is Iran. What American fan wouldn’t have taken a victory over Iran to make the final 16 a week ago? You would’ve been crazy to want more. Iran hasn’t looked strong in either game so far in the tournament. The USA has had time in both games against the U.K. where it has looked organized and intimidating. It’s only yielded one goal.

Coming out of the game against Wales, the Americans felt lucky to get a point. After the draw against England, the Americans must feel like they can play with anyone. And their next game is against the team who gave up six goals to England. If the USA loses to Iran, Berhalter doesn’t come back stateside with a job. His overstated mindset of splitting the World Cup into two tournaments, the group stage and knockout stage, should be a great standard of how to evaluate the program going forward. Without seeing the USMNT in both of those phases, Berhalter shouldn’t be employed.

After two draws, Berhalter must make a few changes to his starting lineup. Do enough to not disrupt chemistry and facilitate the proper change to score more. Haji Wright didn’t get it done at striker and Josh Sargent at least looked comparable against Wales. We have yet to see Berhalter’s favorite coming into the tournament, Jesus Ferreira. I wouldn’t be shocked if he had a large shift against Iran. The USMNT has been looking for a consistent striker who can score in big games for about forever. It won’t be solved at this World Cup. Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Another change I’d make would be Tim Weah coming off the bench and starting Gio Reyna or Brenden Aaronson in his place. Even though Weah scored the USA’s only goal of the World Cup so far, he didn’t do much against England. The USMNT should give Iran a set of personnel it couldn’t have scouted together.

With that new-look USMNT, the must-win scenario looks much more attainable. Let’s not dismiss Iran completely here, it’s a solid soccer team. It did more than enough to make the World Cup. Let’s not also pretend like the Americans shouldn’t win this game with some ease at their best. We saw one of the best efforts from the USMNT in recent memory, albeit without a goal, against England. Now the Yanks must do it again with their World Cup lives at stake.



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Reality check for England as World Cup 2022 hopefuls second-best to USA in deflating draw

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E

ngland were second best in a deflating 0-0 draw with the USA, which will go down as a reality check on their World Cup ambitions to leave Qatar as champions.

Gareth Southgate’s side were booed off by their travelling fans after a pedestrian performance, which leaves the manager with a raft of questions to address ahead of Tuesday’s final group game against Wales and before the business end of the tournament gets under way in the knockouts.

The bigger picture is that England now have one foot in the last-16, and this result mirrored their second group game at Euro 2020, when they were held to a goalless draw by Scotland at Wembley but went on to reach the final.

That result sparked widespread criticism of Southgate and his players, which was vastly overblown in hindsight, so an element of calm is needed, particularly given the strange and warped conditions of this tournament.

Nonetheless, an impressive and hard-pressing USA side exposed flaws in England that were obviously not apparent in the 6-2 thrashing of Iran, and raises questions about Southgate’s setup and selections.

The US, who face a decisive final group game against Iran, were unfortunate not to win, with Christian Pulisic striking the bar and Weston McKennie firing a half-volley over from ten yards.

Jude Bellingham, who opened the scoring on Monday, was pressed out of the match by the USA’s excellent midfield three of Tyler Adams, McKennie and former England youth international Yunus Musah.

Bellingham was withdrawn with 20 minutes to go after what has to go down a lesson about the realities of this level for England’s prodigious teenager.

With the 19-year-old subdued by the US pressure, England struggled to establish a midfield foothold and the danger is that Gregg Berhalter’s team have now provided a blueprint which other teams can follow.

Southgate may need to introduce another midfielder for the knockouts or even against the Welsh, but then he would have to sacrifice a forward player. After such a promising start to the tournament, the England manager is back to having to make difficult compromises to balance his team.

Another question for Southgate was why he ignored Phil Foden, who remained an unused substitute as England struggled to find a spark.

When Southgate eventually turned to his bench, Jordan Henderson replaced Bellingham and Jack Grealish came on for Raheem Sterling, leading to an improvement, but Foden’s ingenuity and silk on the ball would surely have been beneficial as England toiled.

On the plus side, Southgate’s defence held firm and Harry Maguire was particularly impressive in another outing that will dampen doubts around the defender.

Southgate was alarmed by the lapses which allowed Mehdi Taremi to score two second-half consolation goals for Iran and demanded improved focus for the duration against the US.

PA

While England were pedestrian going forward, John Stones and Maguire, winning his 50th cap, held firm at the back.

Stones was England’s brightest player for the first hour, twice getting across to make important interventions against Pulisic, while Maguire continued his encouraging start to the tournament with a series of defensive headers in the second half when the US piled in corners and crosses.

England did not follow Germany in protesting inside the colossal Al Bayt Stadium but back in London the Wembley arch was illuminated in rainbow colours ahead of the game – as the FA made their point to FIFA over armband-gate, albeit from afar.

Southgate predicted the game would be played at “100 miles an hour” but for most of the first 70 minutes there was only only side at the races.

England were hesitant and ponderous in and out of possession, a stark contrast to their aggression from the off against Iran, but the US were full of purpose and a constant threat on the counter-attack.

McKennie should have opened the scoring when he half-volleyed over from ten yards before Pulisic spanked a brilliant left-foot shot off the crossbar, with Jordan Pickford beaten.

England went close at either end of the half through Harry Kane and Mason Mount, who extended US goalkeeper Matt Turner, but would have been the more relieved at the half-time whistle.

The US faded in the second half in their 1-1 draw with Wales, unable to maintain the intensity of their press, and the big question after the interval was whether they could keep it up, particularly given England’s arsenal from the bench.

By contrast, the US only continued in their ascendency after the interval, and were soon camped in England’s half, sending in a succession of crosses and corners, expertly repelled by Stones and Maguire.

It was not until Southgate finally turned to his bench with the introductions of Henderson and Grealish, and latterly Marcus Rashford, that England were roused from their slumber.

Grealish provided some verve down the left flank and began finally asking questions of a US back line who must have expected a far sterner examination.

With England back on the front foot, Kane nearly nicked the victory with a stoppage-time header which flashed wide but three points would have been far more than Southgate’s side deserved.



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'England were unrecognisable' | 'It shouldn't be all doom and gloom'

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Rob Dorsett and Kaveh Solhekol analyse England’s 0-0 draw against USA at the World Cup in Qatar.



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