LOS ANGELES — A funny thing happened when George Kliavkoff opened the floor up to questions Friday. 

The Pac-12 commissioner was asked if, in the months ahead, he’d need to fight for the Pac-12 to have continued access to the College Football Playoff. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey were mentioned directly. As the sport of college football veers toward two super-conferences, the fear those two leagues would monopolize the CFP and leave everyone else out in the rain is a real concern for some. 

“No one has ever argued that the remaining 10 members of the Pac-12 don’t deserve to be in the CFP,” he said. “I’m not going to distinguish that question.” 

OK, then.

And so we all moved on. 

Kliavkoff finished up and, fittingly, the first coach to take the stage behind him represented perhaps his best immediate chance at proving the Pac-12 doesn’t just deserve to be considered, but deserves to be included in the invitational. 

“We’ve got some stuff going for us this year,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said during his opening statement. 

I’ll say. 

The Pac-12 hasn’t been to a College Football Playoff since Washington crashed the party in 2017. Stanford’s David Shaw joked Friday that two years in the college football world is about 14 years in the normal person world. And it sure does feel like 40 years have passed since the Pac-12 mattered to the CFP. 

With Lincoln Riley’s arrival at USC, the Trojans were viewed first as the Pac-12’s solution to that problem—until, of course, it became the cause of a hundred million other ones. Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison and Travis Dye and Shane Lee and Mike Bohn and Riley and a unified athletic department willing to make the necessary investments in Los Angeles gives a dormant college football blue blood new life. It’s like the table slowly rising and revealing Vader. They’re coming. 

“You don’t come to USC and you don’t come to Los Angeles to do things small,” Riley told reporters on Friday. 

But he also said USC’s championship teams have been built on championship defenses, and it remains to be seen if this defense—106th in SP+ last season, 112th in yards per play, 112th in points per play—can become that soon enough. 

If the Trojans do coalesce quickly, the Pac-12 will champion them as a CFP contender. 

“Because it’s the right thing to do,” Kliavkoff said when asked why. 

Utah makes for an easier team to get behind for the commissioner, though. 

Utah is closer, too. 

“I hope so,” Whittingham said. “But you’ve got to play your way into that, you can’t talk your way into it. We’ve been knocking on the door of the playoffs for a couple years now. In our estimation, that’s the next step in the evolution of our program.”

Quarterback Cameron Rising said the goal, since he got to campus, was to win the Pac-12 and get to the Rose Bowl. That was the hump they couldn’t get over. Utah was in the league’s title game in 2018 and 2019 but lost both. Last fall, it left absolutely no doubt. 

The Utes had a pair of losses from earlier in the season before the quarterback change happened and a slip-up in conference play, so the Playoff was out of reach. The Rose Bowl was a fine “consolation.” 

Now, it seems like a Rose Bowl berth would come as a disappointment.

“I was pissed that we lost,” Rising said of the game against Ohio State. “It’s cool that we played in an instant classic and all that but we lost the game and that just kind of adds that fuel to the fire. We want to go back out there and start playing ball again so we can make that right.”

Added corner Clark Phillips III: “The instant thought is, ‘damn, we should have finished that.'”

But surely it gave the Utes confidence they could go toe-to-toe with the Ohio States of the world, right?

“I’ve never walked onto a football field fearing anybody and that’s not going to change,” Rising said.

Doesn’t exactly sound like a “we’re just happy to be here” group.

Utah has been clear about its intentions. This is a team with eyes for the CFP. Rising gives the Utes a quarterback who can get them there. Whittingham called him the best leader he’s ever been around. 

This is a program with a pedigree for running the ball and playing physical defense. That wins games and sets the floor pretty high. Rising’s ability gives Utah an opportunity to win games even when it shouldn’t. 

The Utes are picked to win the Pac-12 again in 2022. They received 26 of 33 first-place votes in the preseason media poll. Maybe a good season from USC and a win over the Trojans on Oct. 15 can help negate a single slip-up. Maybe Utah has to go unbeaten to get there.

They don’t worry about us, it seems like,” Rising said of national pundits. “It is what it is and we just have to keep putting our best foot forward and making sure we’re playing good ball.” 

When it comes to national respect, Utah is still climbing.

“I think we’re still fighting for that in a way,” Whittingham said. “We’re a program that is still working on our brand and trying to become more of a national presence. But you’ve got to earn that. No one’s going to give that to you. 

The way you do that, every time you have a chance to prove that—national television, bowl games, that type of situation—you have to play your way into that respect and that level. So I think we’ve made inroads. Are we where we want to be? Not yet. But we think we’re heading in the right direction.”

Next stop: CFP.