Gold: What first CFP rankings mean for Pac-12 path ahead
Could the Pac-12 have asked for — or even aspired to — a better result than they got on Tuesday when the first College Football Playoff poll of the season was released?
Sure, the conference’s third and fourth highest-ranked teams got slightly shafted, but No. 12 UCLA and No. 14 Utah don’t exactly have bones to pick when the Bruins boasted arguably the easiest non-conference schedule in the Power 5 and the Utes already have two losses.
That Oregon and USC rank 8th and 9th on the list, equal to their Associated Press Top 25 poll rankings, should be considered a coup.
After all, they could’ve been Georgia (ranked first in the AP poll and 3rd by the CFP committee) or Michigan (4th in the AP, 5th in the rankings) or Ole Miss (11th in the AP but leapfrogged for 10th in the CFP by 6-2 LSU).
All in all, the Pac-12 should be pretty happy about the way things panned out.
After all, as usual, the conference did itself no favors.
Given the Pac-12’s recent track record, the fact that it landed four teams in the top 14 this season should be considered an accomplishment on par with the Brooklyn Bridge or the Hoover Dam.
Lest we forget, last season the Pac-12 managed just two teams in the top 25, Utah at No. 12 and Oregon at No. 22. And 2020 was even worse for the conference, with just No. 17 USC and No. 25 Oregon in the mix.
The Pac-12 has really never had a bone to pick with the CFP committee because the conference has cannibalized itself to the point of being unrecognizable. If anything, CFP voters have been forgiving: The Pac-12 boasted the nation’s top two-loss team in 2014 (10-2 Arizona) and the nation’s top three-loss team in 2018 (10-3 Washington). This year, the conference features the second- and third-best one-loss teams (Oregon, two slots behind No. 6 Alabama, and USC, one slot behind Oregon) and the country’s No. 2 two-loss team in No. 14 Utah.
So any implication that the CFP committee has it out for the Pac-12 is misplaced.
The blame lies within.
We should have known the Pac-12 would be in this predicament one week into the season, when then-No. 7 Utah lost a winnable game at Florida and Oregon lost a very, very unwinnable game against then-No. 3 Georgia in Atlanta. That meant USC and UCLA would have to be flag-bearers, and even if they were both undefeated at this point, there’s no way they’d be in the top four.
There are two qualifications for the CFP playoffs, it seems: An early top-eight ranking or defeating one of the top five teams.
Of the current CFP top six — Tennessee, Ohio State, Georgia, Clemson, Michigan and Alabama — five were ranked in the preseason top eight and the sixth, top-ranked Tennessee, beat Alabama (along with four other ranked opponents).
So it’s a quaint notion to think that either the preseason unranked Bruins or the preseason No. 14 Trojans would have been ahead of any of those six teams, nor No. 7 TCU, even if they were undefeated.
“Both really good teams, dynamic offensively,” CFP chair Boo Corrigan said of UCLA and USC. “As we looked at it, the ability to put up points — I think the loss — UCLA, how they lost to Oregon really was a topic of conversation. They had a good win coming back over Stanford this past weekend; Southern Cal wins at Arizona. Again, two of the top offenses in the country as far as scoring points, both over 40 points a game. To the previous question on close losses, on that side of it what we’re really doing is using our football judgment as a collective group and coming up with what we believe is the right decision.”
The conference had exactly two hopes — Utah running the table and Oregon beating the Bulldogs in the opener — of making the playoffs at this point.
Could those hopes grow in the future? Not the way things look now.
The question is: What would have to happen for the Pac-12 to sneak into the playoffs for the first time since the Washington Huskies made it in 2016?
With Georgia and Tennessee squaring off this weekend in Athens, one of the top three teams is guaranteed a loss, but a great loss. While the winner will be the unquestioned No. 1, the loser will probably stay in the top six. Both have beaten too many good teams to fall too far. After that huge game, neither team has a difficult schedule going forward, so the Pac-12 should probably look elsewhere.
No. 2 Ohio State plays No. No. 5 Michigan in the final game of the regular season, but not before the Wolverines tangle with Illinois in Week 12. Say Michigan looks too far ahead at the Buckeyes and takes the Illini for granted, there’s one chance.
Any slip-up by Clemson knocks them down a peg, as the Tigers’ final month includes no ranked teams and three home games.
The same goes for TCU, which has defeated four teams ranked at the time (though only two teams, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, remain ranked). The Horned Frogs don’t have the ability to make up much ground, either, as 24th-ranked Texas is the only ranked opponent left on the schedule.
Unfortunately for the Pac-12’s big four, the same can be said about each of them. The Ducks have a couple big games against the Utes and in-state rival Oregon State, but those wouldn’t be signature wins, as each team already has two losses. Meanwhile, USC and UCLA tango in Week 12; while bragging rights are always fun in that matchup, neither would send the other soaring up the rankings (and wouldn’t want to if they could).
Odds are, it’ll be another disappointing playoff season for the Pac-12. And the league’s top teams can only blame themselves.