Don't Look Now, But The Pac-12 Has A Playoff Pulse

The opening weekend of the college football season was, remarkably, 10 Saturdays ago. And if you can think back to that first Saturday of the season, back on Aug. 31, there was one narrative that emerged above everything else:

The Pac-12’s playoff chances are dead.

Now obviously they weren’t literally dead, but figuratively they took a hell of a hit, when the league’s top ranked team in the preseason, Oregon, lost to Auburn, which on paper was no better than the fourth or fifth best team in the SEC. 

If the Ducks couldn’t even topple a good-not-great Auburn squad, what chance did either Oregon, or one of the league’s other teams have to essentially run the table, finish with zero or one loss, and end up in the playoff picture come mid-December? And even if some team did finish with zero or one loss, would they have enough quality wins to have a resume that stacked up with those across the rest of college football? 

Again, that was the narrative, even if — as we’ve learned in five years of the College Football Playoff era – it’s idiotic to claim any team or conference’s playoff chances are eliminated because of one game (anyone remember Ohio State in 2014?). 

Still, to the credit of the top teams in the Pac-12, they have been quietly chipping away outside the national spotlight, picking up big wins and slowly making their way back up towards the top of the polls.

It all hit a crescendo on Saturday when we realized that not only were the Pac-12’s playoff chances not dead, but instead, very much alive. 

Following a Utah win at Washington and an Oregon triumph at USC, the Pac-12 now has two teams sitting at 8-1. Looking at the schedule, both teams have a very realistic chance to get to 11-1, win their divisions and meet in the Pac-12 title game. 

And if they both do that, the winner would have a heck of an argument as being one of the final four teams in the College Football Playoff picture.  

That’s right, following Saturday, the Pac-12’s playoff hopes are real. And they’re spectacular.  

Looking back on Saturday, you probably saw the games and don’t need a ton of recap here. Still, for those stuck with family (or even worse, at a dreaded mid-fall wedding) here is a quick rundown.

Starting in Los Angeles, Oregon took a semi-close matchup early against USC and blew the doors off the LA Coliseum, in a dominant, 56-24 win. In what was likely the final marquee game of the Clay Helton era, Trojan fans got an up-close and in person look at what a real playoff contender looks like, as Oregon scored all 56 points in the final three quarters, a run which included a defensive and special teams touchdown. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Oregon dominated in all three phases of the game in the victory. 

Meanwhile in Seattle, Utah wasn't as dominant, but left with a victory none the less. After falling behind 21-13, the Utes reeled off 20 straight points to seal the victory. A Jaylon Johnson pick-six helped start things rolling for the Utes, and quarterback Tyler Huntley sealed things late, with one big throw after another. Final score, Utah 33, Washington 28. 

So now, after Showdown Saturday in the Pac-12, both teams sit at 8-1 with three games left in the regular season. And what’s wild is that in a world where so many conferences have so many tough games remaining, this appeared to be the biggest challenge left for each team on its schedule. 

Oregon gets a bye next week, and then will face a struggling Arizona team, a good but not great Arizona State squad, and a rapidly improving but still ultimately overmatched Oregon State club to finish the year. Utah also has a bye, and then gets an improving UCLA team at home, and Arizona and Colorado to close things out. 

That certainly doesn’t mean that Oregon or Utah has made it into the clubhouse with an 11-1 regular season record. But the path is certainly there. 

More importantly, it also comes at a time during which the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 are still gearing up to play most of their biggest remaining games. Alabama still faces LSU and Auburn, Ohio State still has Penn State and Michigan, Penn State has two undefeated teams (Minnesota and Ohio State) left on the schedule and the Big 12 could be looking at two separate Oklahoma-Baylor matchups if they both meet in the Big 12 title game. 

Therefore, in a weird twist to recent seasons, as we enter mid-November, Pac-12 fans – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – should actually feel good about their positioning in the playoff picture. Not only does the conference have teams that can actually make it down the home stretch without losing a game. But so many of its competitors for playoff spots will be playing each other and suffering losses along the way. 

Also, let’s take it one step further and say this: If both Oregon and Utah can emerge at 11-1, the winner of that game would have pretty strong credentials relative to some of their competition for playoff spots.  

Now look, it’s obviously a tiny bit too early to start jumping into resume comparison season, but if that scenario were to play out – two 11-1 teams playing for the conference crown – the Pac-12 champion would be looking pretty good relative to everyone else. Either team would have a Top 10 win to close the season (against the other) and in a weird twist, the depth of the Pac-12 could help in terms of racking up quality wins. 

Just about everyone in the Pac-12 outside of Colorado is in position to conceivably get to a bowl game, which can only help the overall strength of the Pac-12 champion. 

Again, it’s too early to start comparing resumes now. But it’s quite conceivable that a 12-1 Pac-12 champion would have a better overall resume than a 12-1 Big 12 champion (whether it’s Oklahoma or Baylor) and there is no doubt they would have a better resume than Clemson, if the Tigers somehow suffer a loss along the way. SEC fans won’t want to hear this, but you could make an interesting argument for a one-loss Pac-12 champ over Alabama if they lose to LSU as well (although Alabama would have to ultimately beat Auburn to get to 11-1, a potential trump card over Oregon, which lost to the Tigers).  

Still, this is all two, three and four weeks down the road, and in the end all of it will play itself out.

But right now we can only focus on the present, and the present is this: Pac-12 football just had its best Saturday in ages. 

And after being left for dead, the “Conference of Champions” is very much alive in the playoff picture.

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