“Run it Back” is a column by Lauren Merola about college football.

The second the Pac-12 conference announced it would begin a football season on Nov. 6, every game’s stakes were raised twofold. Pac-12 or not.

Every game played before and after the Pac-12 ruling now impacts the Pac-12′s standings, even though the season hasn’t kicked off yet. The Pac-12′s College Football Playoff hopes haven’t been shattered because of COVID-19 — they’ve been strengthened.

And when I say “Pac-12,” I mean No. 12 Oregon or No. 25 USC.

Both have to win out this season and prevail in the Pac-12 title game. The Pac-12 champion has to be undefeated to be considered for a playoff spot.

The CFP selection committee would smirk at a one-loss Pac-12 champ because the ACC and SEC teams have a schedule that’s almost twice as long and twice as hard. A one-loss ACC or SEC team has much greater odds of a postseason run than a one-loss Pac-12 team.

Luckily, the Trojans have an easy schedule. Their biggest test will probably be against Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship.

The ACC sports three top-10 teams in Week 7 with No. 1 Clemson, No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 5 UNC. The SEC boasts No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia. And they all have to play each other by the end of the season. Most will have one or two losses, opening up Pac-12 playoff possibilities.

The implosion of the Big 12 so far this season leaves only No. 7 Oklahoma State to worry about (I’m not worried about it, though) and the Big Ten has No. 6 Ohio State and No. 9 Penn State. The Buckeyes are certainly a source of stress and can likely snipe the spot from the Trojans.

So, here’s how the Pac-12 champ is going to make the playoffs.

In the ACC, Clemson wins out. There’s little doubt in my mind about that. The Tigers hand the Fighting Irish their first loss in the regular season. Notre Dame and UNC battle it out on Nov. 27 for the chance to play Clemson in the ACC championship. Clemson wins the conference and secures its No. 1 seed.

The two remaining undefeated SEC teams Georgia and Alabama meet Saturday — assuming no other players test positive for COVID-19 after Alabama head coach Nick Saban tested positive Wednesday — and, likely, in the SEC championship. A two-loss Georgia is ideal for a Pac-12 fan and would kick the Dawgs out of playoff talk. A one-loss Georgia and one-loss Alabama would both make the playoffs and take the spot away from the Pac-12 champ, leaving the Big Ten champ as the three or four seed.

Fingers crossed for a Bulldog beatdown.

This may be a work of blind optimism, or maybe this is me willing my team to the playoffs. But it’s 2020, the year of the unthinkable. USC can make the playoffs.

It’ll take no wrong turns in a maze to get there, but it’s possible.

So hold on to hope, Trojans. Playoff hopes aren’t over 'til it’s over.

“Run it Back” runs every other Wednesday.