If every season is solely judged on which programs reach the College Football Playoff, the Pac-12 has consistently fallen on the wrong side of that pass-or-fail exercise.
After two months of optimism in 2022, the conference is merely a USC loss removed from another failing grade.
Heading into Week 11, the Pac-12 had three legitimate contenders. Oregon, UCLA and USC each entered its contest with a single loss against a team currently in the Top 15. Relative to the CFP chase, any of those setbacks could be easily forgiven in a few weeks.
USC wrecked Colorado last Friday, improving to 9-1 and taking the first step toward what could have been a glorious Pac-12 weekend. The looming showdowns in Week 12—USC at UCLA and Utah at Oregon—had an immense potential impact on both the Pac-12 and CFP.
The latter, not so much anymore.
In order to maximize the College Football Playoff stakes, USC needed Oregon and UCLA to hold up their ends of the bargain at home. The full expectation was a couple of wins, considering they arrived as double-digit favorites over Washington and Arizona, respectively.
Instead, the night turned into two demoralizing losses that rapidly diminished the conference's shot at a national title.
Washington rode a late touchdown and last-minute field goal to edge Oregon, and Arizona also put together a fourth-quarter rally to stun UCLA in Pasadena. The results moved Oregon and UCLA into the dreaded two-loss territory, from where no team in eight previous editions of the CFP has emerged to finish in the all-important Top Four on Selection Day.
Suddenly, barring a string of improbable—even while not impossible—chaos, seventh-ranked USC has become the Pac-12's lone candidate to make the College Football Playoff in 2022.
The silver lining is that the Pac-12 is enjoying a resurgent year as a whole. That positive news can be lost within a CFP-or-bust mentality but deserves praise.
Yes, there is value in discussing the Pac-12's absence from the tournament since Alabama beat Washington in 2016. It's fair to criticize the former leadership, this extended drought and that the conference hasn't won a national championship since USC's (technically vacated) title in 2004.
Simultaneously, the Pac-12 has USC at 9-1 and a quartet—Oregon, Utah, UCLA and Washington—of 8-2 squads. All of them remain in contention for the Pac-12 Championship Game, which will include two teams with the best conference winning percentages. This depth of above-average teams is exactly why eliminating divisions is a wise choice.
Throw in 7-3 Oregon State and 6-4 Washington State, and the conference already has seven bowl-eligible schools. Last year, the league mustered six such teams.
This progression must be a massive sigh of relief for a conference with an uncertain future.
During the summer, USC and UCLA revealed their plans to join the Big Ten in 2024. That announcement sent the Pac-12 scrambling to retain its 10 other members—particularly Oregon and Washington, seemingly the most appealing options for further B1G expansion.
However, the praise due to a decent-sized group of competitive teams has a ceiling when there's no CFP representative.
The inconvenient irony is the Pac-12's hopes of refurbishing its status as an elite conference rests in the hands of a school that is leaving the league after next season.
This particular brand of USC schadenfreude is complicated, huh?
If you're rooting against Lincoln Riley and Co., do your thing. If you support USC or are Team #SaveThePac12, the best-case hypothetical is still a promising one.
After traveling to No. 16 UCLA, the Trojans host No. 18 Notre Dame. If they survive both teams, the Trojans will take on a strong opponent—perhaps the winner of Utah's trip to Oregon—in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Win there, and a 12-1 USC team is certainly playoff-bound.
But those Oregon and UCLA losses have narrowed the national focus of a potentially huge night for the conference to a single team.
On the CFP grading scale, on Saturday through the rest of the season, the Pac-12 is USC-or-fail.