Better late than never, the Pac-12 joins the race for the College Football Playoff

With kickoff set for 9 a.m. PT, No. 20 Southern California will prepare for Saturday's season opener against Arizona State with a round of COVID-19 testing and an early bedtime.

From Friday evening through the following morning, the program's itinerary more closely resembles boot camp than your typical college football weekend:

The Trojans will be in their rooms Friday night by 7:15, followed by lights out at 9:30.

Reveille comes at 6 a.m., with a staff meeting beginning 15 minutes later. Arrival at the Coliseum is scheduled for 7.

Arizona State will begin Saturday even earlier, with breakfast service starting at 4:45.

"No one will be there at 4:45 except probably for me," said Arizona State coach Herm Edwards. "I get up really early."

Southern California cornerback Chris Steele (8) and  safety Isaiah Pola-Mao (21) tackle Arizona State wide receiver Frank Darby during their 2019 game at Sun Devil Stadium.

Considered before last season but tabled over concerns how the early starts would impact the fan experience — not an issue this season with only families allowed in attendance — the decision to schedule games into the noon ET window will draw more eyeballs to the Pac-12 during a frantic race to the end of the regular season.

"This will be a great coming-out for the Pac-12. A lot of exposure, a lot of opportunity for our schools to show where they are," commissioner Larry Scott told USA TODAY Sports. "We realize we’re coming from behind in terms of the national conversation around football. It was important strategically for our league to kick off our first week with big, important games as well as big exposure opportunities."

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As the Bowl Subdivision trudges forward amid an increasing number of cancellations and postponements, the Pac-12 will attempt to squeeze in seven games in seven weeks, counting the conference championship on Dec. 18, in an effort to make up ground with the remaining Power Five leagues.

If all goes according to plan, an unbeaten Pac-12 champion would be in strong contention for the fourth seed in the College Football Playoff, should three spots be occupied by Alabama, Ohio State and the winner of the ACC, whether Clemson or Notre Dame. While unable to predict the course and potential impact of COVID-19, the Pac-12 has influenced two changes that could benefit the league's postseason goals:

Rebuffed in his efforts to institute a one-year expansion of the playoff field, Scott was successful in his push to delay the debut rankings one week to Nov. 24, giving Pac-12 teams another week of results before the first meeting of the selection committee.

And the Pac-12 consulted with playoff executive director Bill Hancock and the playoff management committee to push conference championships across the FBS back one week, a person with knowledge of the deliberations told USA TODAY Sports, again giving the conference an additional data point to show the committee.

"We’ve got seven opportunities. We’ve got to make the most of each one of them," said USC coach Clay Helton. "The College Football Playoff committee has the hard job. Especially this year because you’re going to have teams that have different number of games, a different situation, and it’ll be a tough job. I don’t envy their job."

Among other subplots, the push for a place in the postseason is the dominant story line of the league's abbreviated regular season.

The only two Pac-12 teams in the Amway Coaches Poll, USC and No. 14 Oregon represent the league's strongest contenders for the top four and the safest bet to meet in the conference championship game.

The Trojans return quarterback Kedon Slovis, who was a revelation as a true freshman in 2019, add in a new defensive coordinator in Todd Orlando and benefit from pulling Washington State as the crossover opponent from the North division.

With Arizona on a downswing, Colorado in the first year of a rebuild under a new coaching staff, Utah facing an exodus of talent from last season's division champions and UCLA still an unpredictable commodity under coach Chip Kelly, the Trojans' biggest test should come Saturday against Arizona State — a win could vault USC toward an unbeaten regular season and ensure Helton's job security. 

Oregon has lost several key starters, including quarterback Justin Herbert and would-be junior offensive lineman Penei Sewell, who opted out of the season. The Ducks' edge in talent should still be enough to fend off California, Stanford and Washington in the North.

"I don’t think it helps you to talk playoffs now," said Oregon coach Mario Cristobal.

The Ducks' losses are indicative of a broader trend: Only two of the 22 players who earned first-team all-conference honors last season are set to compete in 2020, both on the defensive side. Many of the league's top prospects — Sewell, Stanford offensive lineman Walker Little and Washington defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike, to name three — have opted out to prepare for next spring's NFL draft.

Not that there's a complete shortage of stardom, mostly among underclassmen. Slovis would've been a Heisman Trophy challenger in a full season, while Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, also a sophomore, is one of the promising young talents in college football. Overall, however, the league enters the season with a noticeable dearth of proven products.

And already behind the curve, the Pac-12 as a conference lacks the built-in credibility to automatically draw attention away from the rest of the Power Five.

"We have to play our way back into the situation," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said in October. "We've just had a few years where we didn't have an elite team that was able to run the table and get to the national forefront of where you need to get to be selected for the playoff."

Yet a pathway to the playoff is open. Should the ACC and SEC fail to put forth a second-place finisher with fewer than two losses, the Pac-12 could exploit the collapse of the Big 12 and fend off a credible challenge from Cincinnati to grab the final spot in the national semifinals.

The most pressing concern is whether the Pac-12 will be able to complete a season adequately long enough to factor into the debate. COVID-19 has already impacted the first three weeks of the Big Ten season, forcing Wisconsin to cancel games against Nebraska and Purdue. A preseason contender for a New Year's Six bowl, the Badgers are now on the verge of being unable to play enough games to be eligible for the conference championship.

Like the Big Ten, the Pac-12 schedule leaves no room for error in an uninterrupted march to the close of the regular season. 

The conference is heading into the opening weekend "with cautious optimism," Scott said. "In order to successfully get through and not have cancellations, it’s going to require much vigilance from our coaches, student-athletes and their staff."

The current environment might force a redefinition of what constitutes a successful season. 

"Making the playoff is obviously very important in the overall context of college football. But this is a year where there have been big, big challenges we’ve had to work through," Scott said. "That would certainly be a cherry on top for our conference, if we had a school make the playoff. But we also realize we have less margin for error than anyone else, given that we’re starting late and have fewer potential games than others."