Imagining a CFB Playoff for Pac-12 and Big Ten in the Spring

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 2, 2020

Imagining a CFB Playoff for Pac-12 and Big Ten in the Spring

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Big Ten and Pac-12 have been seemingly conjoined since birth. They meet each year in the Rose Bowl, have storied histories and appear to make decisions with the other in mind.

    When the Big Ten decided not to play football this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Pac-12 was soon to follow.

    Though there have been rumors (most recently written about by Sporting News' Zac Al-Khateeb) the Big Ten could reverse course and play later in the fall, perhaps a spring season would be more realistic.

    SI.com's Pat Forde wrote that the idea of playing after the new year has been bounced around.

    With the College Football Playoff expected to go on as scheduled this winter, according to CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd, that may leave the Rose Bowl as the best bet for a spring championship—if it is safe to play at that time.

    But what if there were a playoff in the spring with only Big Ten-Pac-12 grudge matches? There is a lack of expected powerhouses in the conferences, so what would a four-team playoff look like beyond the two obvious entrants in Ohio State and Oregon?

    Would a playoff be anything more than a coronation for the Buckeyes?

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The obvious No. 1 seed and probable favorite to win a spring College Football Playoff would also be in the mix for the title if a usual season were played in 2020.

    The Ohio State Buckeyes were a controversial call away from upsetting Clemson and playing LSU for the national title a year ago. They were a loaded team that capped a fantastic season with a near miss.

    Though coach Ryan Day's team lost some incredible pieces to that Big Ten champion puzzle, such as defensive end Chase Young, running back J.K. Dobbins and others, the cupboard is still plenty full, led by Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields at quarterback.

    There's no better player in college football than OSU's dual-threat force, and if the league committed to some sort of season, it probably would quell rampant speculation, like what occurred after Fields visited home and took in his former Georgia teammates' practice, according to DawgNation's Michael Carvell.

    Ohio State has a wealth of receiving talent, led by Garrett Wilson, some capable runners, including Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon. They also boast the arguably the nation's top offensive line, loaded with All-America candidates Thayer Munford, Harry Miller, Josh Myers and Wyatt Davis. 

    The Buckeyes defense is full of elite playmakers at all three levels, led by cornerback Shaun Wade, disruptive pass-rusher Zach Harrison, defensive tackle Taron Vincent and linebacker Baron Browning.

    With the way Day has recruited after taking over for Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes continue to develop prospects who can help, and with players such as offensive lineman Paris Johnson Jr., receivers Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Gee Scott Jr. and defensive lineman Jacolbe Cowan, more help is on the way.

    This is one of the best programs in the nation, right at the top of the list along with Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Clemson and Oklahoma. So, to count OSU as anything but the favorite wouldn't make sense. The Buckeyes would be—by far—the odds-on pick to be the toast of the spring.  

2. Oregon Ducks

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    Timothy J. Gonzalez/Associated Press

    If there's a program in the Big Ten-Pac-12 mash-up that can compete with Ohio State, it would be coach Mario Cristobal's Oregon Ducks, who would return Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell, elite defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and others if they played some sort of season.

    That's just the tip of the talent iceberg in Eugene, too.

    Cristobal has built his own powerhouse in the Pacific Northwest, and it's loaded with elite defenders Jevon Holland, Mykael Wright, Deommodore Lenoir, Thomas Graham Jr. to join Thibodeaux.

    With so many offensive playmakers—running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye as well as leading receiver Johnny Johnson III—the only real barrier standing between Cristobal's team and a fictional CFP berth is the uncertainty at quarterback.

    Yes, that's a big obstacle, but there are plenty of quality options, too.

    Boston College transfer Anthony Brown made an intriguing decision to head to Oregon, and he has huge upside. The Ducks already had some quality throwers on the roster, led by Tyler Shough, who "without question" led the race in July, Cristobal told the Oregonian's James Crepea.

    Even with new coordinator Joe Moorhead, the Ducks wouldn't have to change much in terms of scheme to smoothly go from Justin Herbert to Shough, who is a traditional, strong-armed, dropback passer.

    Moorhead headed to Oregon after an unceremonious tenure as the head coach at Mississippi State, and if he make the impact as an offensive coordinator he did at Penn State, that will be a big deal.

    The Ducks will have four new starters on the offensive line, but when you factor in Sewell, all their defensive stars and the fact there aren't a lot of high-level competitors in the Pac-12, they seem to be a lock to win the league again—and head to our hypothetical playoff as the No. 2 seed.  

3. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    It gets dicey when picking the next two championship contenders. That's because these leagues have such exceptional teams at the top that it's difficult to sort out the rest.

    In the Big Ten, Michigan has all the resources to be great but has underachieved with Jim Harbaugh at the helm. An upstart team such as Minnesota could squeeze its way in, as could a top-of-the-middle-tier stalwart such as Wisconsin or Iowa.

    But James Franklin's Penn State Nittany Lions look like they're on the cusp of breaking out.

    Though they won't have linebacker Micah Parsons if a season is played after he elected to opt out, per ESPN's Alex Scarborough, PSU still has a lot of exciting pieces on both sides of the ball.

    Though Franklin would need to find dependable pass-catchers, Penn State has a quarterback who can get them the ball in Sean Clifford. Throw in running backs Journey Brown and Noah Cain, among others, and the Lions have plenty of capable options at the skill positions.

    Tight end Pat Freiermuth is arguably the best in the nation at his position, so Clifford already has a safety valve, and Franklin will find ways to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers.

    There are question marks on both sides of the ball, but Franklin has recruited a lot of talented players to fill those gaps, so Penn State has to be looked at as the best in the Big Ten behind Ohio State.

    Tackles Antonio Shelton and PJ Mustipher, end Jayson Oweh, linebacker Brandon Smith and experienced senior safeties Lamont Wade and Jaquan Brisker are just some of the promising pieces to a defense that could be one of the league's best.

    The Lions probably wouldn't get through a regular-season slate unscathed, but who in these leagues would besides the two teams already discussed?  

4. USC Trojans

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The tumultuous tenure of Clay Helton needs a pick-me-up in the worst way. The proud USC Trojans are not going to stand for being mediocre much longer, and you have to believe this was a make-or-break season for the coach before it got canceled.

    If there is a season, the pressure will be on despite the uncertainty in the sport.

    A season with a Pac-12-only schedule may be ideal for Helton as he tries to scoot off the hot seat.

    The Trojans have a star in sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis, who may be the least-heralded USC signal-caller in recent years but probably has the highest ceiling of them all after one season on the gridiron. He is the perfect maestro for offensive coordinator Graham Harrell's offense.

    All the playmakers around him are exciting, too.

    From Amon-Ra St. Brown to Tyler Vaughns to Drake London, the receivers are epic. Throw in former elite prospects Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford, and there is an abundance of riches.

    Though the Trojans need dependable runners, there are talented options at that position, too.

    The league's sixth-best defense would have to improve against the run in a spring season, but, despite a recruiting class that ranked 64th nationally, Helton has done a good job bringing talent to Los Angeles.

    USC has to find a formula that works, especially with star defensive lineman Jay Tufele focusing on the NFL draft. There just aren't a lot of players in the front seven who are elite. The secondary does have some standouts in Olaijah Griffin, Greg Johnson, Isaiah Pola-Mao and Talanoa Hufanga.

    But the Trojans are going to score enough points that they could make our playoff after an abbreviated campaign, even coming off a disappointing 8-5 season.

    This still looks like the best program in the Pac-12 South, especially with Kyle Whittingham's Utah Utes having to reload.  

Playoff Semifinal: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 4 USC

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Now that we've got our teams, let's get to the games.

    The worst thing about a two-league playoff would be the discrepancy between the top team and the No. 4 seed.

    In last year's Holiday Bowl, USC was embarrassed 49-24 by Iowa, which was bigger, stronger and much better. Despite winning five of its previous six games, the Trojans didn't force the Hawkeyes to punt until late in the third quarter.

    Now, consider how much better Ohio State is than Iowa.

    Yes, comparing a game from last year to one that would happen in a spring season is difficult, but the bottom line is the Trojans are not built to compete with these big, physical teams and won't be until the defense makes a leap. The Buckeyes are not only big and physical but have plenty of speed as well.

    They may be the most dynamic team in the nation.

    While Kedon Slovis and his bunch would post some points, it's hard to envision the Trojans defense finding a way to stop Justin Fields and the Buckeyes. Maybe USC can find a way to keep it close early, but talent will eventually win out, and that would favor Ohio State in a big way.

    According to Master Teague III's father, the running back is ready to go after an Achilles injury, per Buckeye Scoop's Tom Orr (via Buckeyes Wire's Phil Harrison), and Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon would bully the USC front seven.

    The Buckeyes would cruise in this game, and the final score may come close to resembling the 63-28 mismatch of LSU-Oklahoma from a season ago.

    Winner: Ohio State, 47-27  

Playoff Semifinal: No. 2. Oregon vs. No. 3 Penn State

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    Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

    The other side of the bracket looks a little more intriguing, and with Ohio State looming, Penn State and Oregon would like to get off to a good start and put things on cruise control.

    It won't happen.

    Though the Ducks are the better, deeper team, the Nittany Lions have a lot of things going for them. Their physical defense is good enough to keep them in almost every game, and they'll score some points with game-breaking options such as Journey Brown.

    Oregon's question marks at quarterback are too big to be ignored. But by this point of the season, Tyler Shough will have shown he is a steady game manager who may not make fans forget about Justin Herbert but who has enough players around him to do damage.

    He would make a big play in the fourth quarter to help the Ducks go ahead, and then the dynamic Oregon secondary would pick off Sean Clifford to set up another late score as the Pac-12's top program pulls away.

    Penn State's three returning offensive line starters (center Michal Menet and tackles Rasheed Walker and Will Fries) and two guards who started at times a year ago (Mike Miranda and C.J. Thorpe) will be good enough to at least slow the pass rush of Kayvon Thibodeaux and Mase Funa.

    Those two guys are too good to be kept at bay for long, though.

    All that pressure will get to Clifford and force a mistake, and the defense as a whole will make enough second-half plays.

    Cristobal's teams also have a knack for showing up in big moments.

    Winner: Oregon, 31-20  

Championship Game: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Oregon

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The dream spring showdown is all set with Ohio State and Oregon playing the game everybody wanted to see in September.

    The game between the Buckeyes and Ducks was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told reporters in July he was in discussions with Oregon to reschedule the game.

    "I've talked to all three of our non-conference opponents' athletic directors, including Oregon of course," Smith said, "and we've agreed to talk in the future to see if we could try and reschedule our contests."

    Assuming it's safe to play, a spring championship would give us this game sooner rather than later. It's going to be a terrific showdown.

    Yes, Ohio State would be the favorite, but do not sleep on Oregon just because the Pac-12 has not been strong lately. The Ducks came back to beat Wisconsin 28-27 in last year's Rose Bowl, and though the Buckeyes are expected to be a better team than last year's Badgers, Oregon could be salty, too.

    This game will feature phenomenal pass-rushers, skill-position players and two very strong offensive lines. While Justin Fields would give Ohio State a massive advantage at the quarterback position, Oregon has the kind of secondary that can keep him from having a monster game.

    Everybody would pick the Buckeyes, but the Ducks will be ready to play.

    It says here the Oregon defense again will make a massive fourth-quarter play, and that will lead the Ducks to a massive upset and a spring to remember. What Mario Cristobal is building at Oregon is strong, and this would prove it.

    Winner: Oregon, 24-23

       

    All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com and Sports Reference, and recruiting rankings per 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.