Pac-12’s one job was to crown a legit champion. Here’s how the league could blow it
The second the Pac-12 announced a regular-season schedule starting Nov. 7 it became a long shot that one of its schools would make the College Football Playoff.
The assumption was that the league would at least crown a legitimate conference champion. But with one weekend left in its original six-game slate, the Pac-12 finds itself in danger of failing to accomplish what should be the No. 1 purpose of schools banding together to play sports — guaranteeing a fair process to produce an undisputed winner at season’s end.
Let’s go back to Thanksgiving Day. USC, which was 3-0, had to cancel its game with Colorado, which was 2-0 and had a game canceled with Arizona State the previous week. In each scenario, the Buffaloes’ opponent had COVID-19 issues.
Colorado quickly replaced USC with San Diego State of the Mountain West Conference and beat the Aztecs. Entering this weekend, the Buffaloes are 4-0 (3-0 Pac-12) and the Trojans are 4-0. If the teams both win or both lose this weekend, USC would advance to the Pac-12 championship game because it had one more league win.
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At Pac-12 headquarters, they should be lighting a candle and wishing for one team to win and one team to lose this weekend. Otherwise, the Buffaloes would be penalized for USC having a COVID issue within its program, while the Trojans would benefit.
Commissioner Larry Scott simply cannot let that happen. The league’s football brand has been tarnished plenty over the last decade, but it can at least claim there has been integrity in naming a champion each year.
There’s an easy fix for this problem, but as of now, the Pac-12 doesn’t sound open to it.
“Prior to the start of the football season, the Pac-12 Conference established a 2020 schedule and related tie-breaking protocol,” the league said in a statement. “The schedule and tie-breaking protocol were developed in consultation with, and approved by, Pac-12 athletic directors. We are following this agreed upon schedule and tie-breaking protocol.”
Instead of pointing the finger toward the ADs, how about saving them for once? Any plans for this season should have been written in pencil, not ink. The Pac-12 showed it understood that in releasing a schedule that started Sept. 26, postponing the season until spring and then restarting Nov. 7. If the league was able to schedule a Sunday morning kickoff between California and UCLA on two days’ notice, then it can certainly do the following:
Push back the Pac-12 championship game from Dec. 18 to Christmas weekend. Slide No. 15 USC-No. 21 Colorado into the Dec. 18 Friday night slot for a massive ratings game and gain another potential big viewership window the next week with the Trojans-Buffaloes winner against this weekend’s Washington-Oregon winner.
The timing of the College Football Playoff selections Dec. 20 should not matter because the Pac-12 won’t have a participant. Yes, the Fiesta Bowl, which will take the Pac-12 champion with the Rose Bowl hosting a semifinal playoff game, would have to wait an extra week to know who’s playing Jan. 2.
This year, such a thing should not matter. Didn’t we just see Brigham Young and Coastal Carolina agree on a Thursday to play two days later and the Cougars find their way across the country in time for one of the most thrilling games of the year?
Colorado deserves its shot, but it has to beat Utah on Friday to apply pressure.
“I have to go by what we have done with the opportunities we have had. … All of that would be for naught if we don’t play well this week,” Colorado coach Karl Dorrell said. “We have to live with whatever happens, whether we get a chance to get in or not.”
A season that could have led to Clay Helton’s undoing instead might give him a stronger hold on his job as USC coach.
The Big Ten, even with two more weeks built into its season than the Pac-12, has its own championship issue. The Big Ten put in a rule that teams had to play at least six of eight games to qualify for its title game. After Michigan canceled the Ohio State game Tuesday, the Buckeyes will have played only five. If the Big Ten does not alter its rules, Indiana would win the Big Ten East division even though the Hoosiers lost to Ohio State.
It will be interesting to see if the Big Ten moves matchups around to get the Buckeyes a sixth game this weekend — or if it scraps its original rules to get Ohio State, No. 4 in the playoff rankings, into the title game against Northwestern.
No matter what, the selection committee is likely to include the Buckeyes in the playoff.
The Pac-12, meanwhile, entered this season late without an obvious playoff favorite to prioritize. Even if the best-case scenario of 6-0 Oregon and 6-0 USC happened, it was always going to be a tough sell to the committee.
What Larry Scott can still do is look all 12 of his university presidents in the eye and say he did whatever he could to help the 2020 season achieve its most basic competitive goal. Luckily, there is still time to get it right.
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