To begin the 2019 college football season, three Pac-12 teams received top-15 billing. Within four weeks, Oregon, Washington and Utah all lost.
After the Utes fell to USC on a freaky Friday night at the Coliseum, the easy thing to do was write off the conference as a threat to produce a national championship contender. Heck, I sure did.
But, since then, Oregon and Utah found their footing, each benefiting from a key road win at Washington. And the chaos and unpredictability that makes this the greatest regular season in sports finally kicked in. Georgia lost at home to South Carolina. Wisconsin lost at Illinois. Oklahoma couldn’t climb out of a deep hole at Kansas State.
So here we are in the first week of November, and passionate observers of West Coast football have tangible hope.
The first College Football Playoff rankings, released Tuesday night, validated that feeling. Oregon is No. 7. Utah is No. 8. That might not sound like a guarantee of anything, and it isn’t.
Still, from where the league sat in late September, with the Ducks 13th and the Utes 19th, their current slotting is cause for celebration.
This really could happen. One confirmation of that came Tuesday with Oklahoma’s ranking at No. 9. The Sooners, who have been picked for the playoff in back-to-back seasons, have only one loss, at No. 16 Kansas State by a touchdown. Yet, Oklahoma, with Heisman Trophy candidate and feel-good story Jalen Hurts, sits behind the Ducks and Utes.
Ahead of them, undefeated teams No. 1 Ohio State and No. 4 Penn State play each other Nov. 23 in Columbus. Saturday, unbeaten No. 2 Louisiana State and No. 3 Alabama play in Tuscaloosa. These certainly won’t be elimination games for the playoff, but there’s no doubt these head-to-head clashes help the Pac-12. Similarly, No. 6 Georgia, with its one bad loss, still has to play at No. 11 Auburn and against the LSU-Alabama winner in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
In comparison, neither Oregon nor Utah has to play a team currently ranked in the CFP’s top 25 other than against the other in a Pac-12 title game that could have the feel of a national quarterfinal by Dec. 6.
As we’ve seen with the CFP selection committee in its five years, these debut rankings are only part of a developing story. Here are developments that would go a long way toward putting the Pac-12 back in the playoff for the first time since 2016:
- Oregon and Utah need to win out until their meeting in Santa Clara, creating an elimination game and giving the winner a top-10 win two days before the bracket is set. Until the first Friday in December, the Ducks and Utes are each other’s best friends.
- Ohio State needs to beat Penn State. With the Buckeyes clearly the committee’s eye-test favorite, it’s way more likely a one-loss Ohio State would get in above a one-loss Pac-12 champion than a one-loss Penn State.
- LSU needs to beat Alabama. It’s less essential than Ohio State winning its top-four showdown, but if the Tigers knock off the Crimson Tide on Saturday, it will leave Alabama with no chance for a marquee win until the Iron Bowl. Without the chance to play Georgia in Atlanta, Alabama would have trouble getting in over a one-loss Pac-12 champ. LSU, on the other hand, has top-11 wins over Auburn and Florida and could add a top-25 win over Texas A&M — a better resume than either Utah or Oregon will have.
- Oklahoma does not need to lose again for Pac-12 dreams to come true, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. The Sooners still have top-25 games at No. 12 Baylor and No. 23 Oklahoma State plus another competitive game in the Big 12 championship. That said, the Sooners won’t have a game that holds as much weight as Oregon and Utah will have with each other.
- This is unlikely, but it might be necessary, particularly if Alabama beats LSU: Clemson needs to lose for the first time since Jan. 1, 2018, a string of 24 wins. The committee sent the Tigers a message with a No. 5 ranking Tuesday — they better not stumble. Clemson nearly lost at North Carolina Sept. 28, escaping 21-20 when the Tar Heels couldn’t convert a two-point conversion for a late lead. The Tigers have No. 19 Wake Forest at home and a finale at South Carolina, which proved it can compete in its upset of Georgia, plus the ACC championship game against an overmatched Coastal Division opponent.
Let’s assume Clemson wins out. The committee probably will be left with this decision for the fourth and final playoff spot: one-loss Pac-12 champion or one-loss and non-conference-champion Alabama or LSU.
Had that scenario been floated six weeks ago, it would have been met with the kind of skepticism the Pac-12 has grown accustomed to. Credit goes to Oregon and Utah for forcing the country — and the committee members locked in a room in Grapevine, Texas — to look westward.