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Is There Any Chance the Pac-12 Sends a Team to the College Football Playoff?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 22, 2019

Oregon QB Justin Herbert
Oregon QB Justin HerbertTimothy J. Gonzalez/Associated Press

Preseason college football bowl projections have been flying in from around the internet, and there appear to be two points of unanimous agreement:

  1. Alabama and Clemson will both be in the College Football Playoff for the fifth consecutive year.
  2. The Pac-12 is going to miss out on the playoff for the third straight season.

After perusing the bowl projections from Athlon Sports, CBS Sports, Sporting News, College Football News and 247Sportsas well as factoring in our ownwe found that Georgia, Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio State and Texas have all been listed as potential national semifinal opponents for the Tigers and the Crimson Tide.

However, there's not a Washington, Oregon, Utah or Stanford in the bunch.

Going one step further, not a single projection has the Pac-12 earning multiple spots in the New Year's Six bowls. It's the conference champion in the Rose Bowl and that's it, meaning none of the prognosticators are expecting the Pac-12 to have multiple teams in the top 12 of the final CFP rankings.

Pollsters agree with this sentiment, as the Pac-12 didn't have a single team in the preseason AP Top 10though Oregon, Washington and Utah all cracked the Top 15, with Washington State and Stanford sneaking into the rankings at Nos. 23 and 25, respectively.

Bleacher Report CFB @BR_CFB

AP preseason top 25 👀 1. Clemson 2. Bama 3. UGA 4. Oklahoma 5. Ohio State Full list: https://t.co/8Dp6dzy4Ns https://t.co/ZJS5yCr8sO

But that doesn't mean the league is doomed to a repeat of the past two seasons in which no team was anywhere close to the playoff picture by the end.

Heck, based on recent history, one could argue the Pac-12 is stacking the deck in its favor by having three teams in the Nos. 11-15 range of the preseason poll.

Notre Dame was No. 12 in 2018's preseason rankings before putting together an undefeated regular season. Georgia was No. 15 in the 2017 prior to coming one Tua Tagovailoa-led comeback away from winning the national championship. When Washington last represented the Pac-12 in the 2016 CFP, it opened the season at No. 14. And the year before that, both Clemson (No. 12) and Oklahoma (No. 19) were in the preseason teens before waging war in a national semifinal.

While hardly anyone is expecting a specific team from outside the preseason AP Top 10 to reach the playoff, it's clear that it can be done.

That said, the Pac-12's path to this year's playoff is a steep uphill climb.

For starters, its usual best team lost a lot of their top players.

Washington RB Salvon Ahmed
Washington RB Salvon AhmedAbbie Parr/Getty Images

Excluding bowl games, Washington has won 32 of 38 contests over the past three seasons, joining Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma as the only Power Five teams to win at least 10 games in each of those three years. But the Huskies lost a four-year starter at quarterback, a four-year starter at running back and just about every key contributor on defense. They might still be the cream of the Pac-12 crop, but it also isn't difficult to imagine them having a bit of a down year.

And if Washington slides to the back of the pack, it will only exacerbate the league's biggest issue: a lethal combination of parity and poor public perception.

Aside from Oregon State, no team from the Pac-12 is expected to be downright bad. The Beavers were the only program outside the top 75 in Chris Vannini's preseason team rankings for The Athletic. Both the ACC and Big 12 have three teams outside the top 75. The Big Ten has four.

In theory, that ought to be a good thing for the Pac-12.

However, when 92 percent of the league is good enough to compete in any gameand when there are nine conference games instead of the eight that the ACC and SEC play—it's almost impossible to run the table. The last time the Pac-12 had a champion with no losses in conference play was the Oregon team that lost to Auburn in the BCS Championship at the end of the 2010 campaign.

Because of the poor public perception of the league, that parity hurts the Pac-12 in a manner inversely proportional to the way it helps the SEC.

If Alabama or Georgia lose a game in conference play, it gets spun as a self-fulfilling prophecy about how deep and great the league is. But when Washington State loses a back-and-forth barn-burner at USC and a snow-globe game against its rival, it somehow turns into proof that the Cougars aren't good and don't belong in a New Year's Six bowl.

Washington State head coach Mike Leach
Washington State head coach Mike LeachTed S. Warren/Associated Press

To overcome that stigma, the Pac-12 needs to be much more successful in nonconference play than it was last year. And that's going to be difficult, considering the league's projected four best teams (Oregon, Utah, Washington and Washington State) play a combined total of one nonconference game against a Power Five opponentOregon's season opener against Auburn in Texas.

Even if the Ducks win that one, the perceived strength of the Pac-12 is going to be determined by the likes of Stanford (vs. Northwestern, at UCF, vs. Notre Dame), USC (vs. Fresno State, at BYU, at Notre Dame) and UCLA (at Cincinnati, vs. San Diego State, vs. Oklahoma). If they go a combined 4-5 (or worse) in nonconference play, the "Pac-12 still stinks" narrative will be set.

If that happens, division favorites Washington and Utah would get little to no respect for 11 wins compiled against a pathetic nonconference schedule and what is perceived as a weak conference. Even if the Huskies or Utes go 13-0, they might only be No. 6 in the final rankings behind Alabama, Clemson, a one-loss Big Ten champion, a one-loss Big 12 champion and the SEC runner-up.

Thus, it's clear that the Pac-12's best hope for representation in this year's College Football Playoff lies with Oregon.

Not only are the Ducks arguably the best team in the conference, but away games against Auburn, Washington, Stanford and USC give them a better chance of rising above the fray and getting into the conversation about legitimate title contenders.

However, if they don't win that first neutral-site game against Auburn, they'll need to win their next 12 to have any argument for a spot in the final Top Four. Plus, an Oregon loss to Auburn would lower the ceiling for this entire conference, given the aforementioned lack of marquee opponents for the other Pac-12 contenders.

In other words, by the end of Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert's senior debut, we should have a clearer picture of the Pac-12's playoff potential.

It's an unlikely journey that could go up in flames before September begins.

                 

Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.