PAC-12 football is back! USC-San José State was a nice if surprisingly close (at least for two quarters) appetizer, but it just isn’t the same as a full slate of PAC-12 teams bursting with unique storylines. How will Deion Sanders and Colorado perform against last year’s runners-up, TCU? Can Utah avenge last year’s loss to Florida despite not having Cam Rising? How many touchdowns can Bo Nix score when Oregon takes on Portland State? We’ll soon know the answers.
But the real storylines in the PAC-12 will likely have their answers revealed only around Week 4 when conference play starts. Most prominent among them, of course, is the question that has beset the PAC-12 for most of the past decade: Can the PAC-12 send a team to the Playoff for the first time since 2016?
On paper, it seems likely. The PAC-12 placed five teams in the preseason AP Poll, headlined by No. 6 USC and No. 10 Washington (the other teams are reigning conference champion Utah at No. 14, Oregon at No. 15, and Oregon State at No. 18). USC in particular has received plenty of preseason Playoff love; after all, they return Heisman winner Caleb Williams and are coached by Lincoln Riley, who reached the semifinals three times at Oklahoma. Concerns about a defense that gave up 423.9 yards per game last year (according to SportsReference) were not assuaged after conceding 28 points against San José State. Still, the offense should be turbo-charged once again, even with leading wide receiver Jordan Addison off to the NFL.
PAC-12 history, however, suggests it won’t be easy for USC—or any other team—to make the Playoff.
The high-water mark for the conference in the Playoff era was 2014, the first year of the Playoff, in which the Oregon Ducks finished as the runners-up after going 11-1 in the regular season and winning the conference championship. Stanford won the conference championship the following year, but two losses—an opening-game defeat at Northwestern and a 38-36 home upset at the hands of the Ducks—had them place #6 in the final CFP poll. In 2016, the Washington Huskies compiled an 11-1 record en route to a PAC-12 championship and a spot in the Playoff. But for the next six years, the PAC-12 failed to have a single team crack the Playoff.
It was close over several years. Utah was 11-1 and ranked No. 5 heading into the 2019 PAC-12 championship game, only to suffer a crushing 15-37 loss to No. 13 Oregon. Utah would return the favor in 2021; Oregon was ranked as high as No. 3, buoyed by a Week 2 road victory at Ohio State, but two losses to Utah in three weeks with a combined score of 17-76 spelled an end to that. And, of course, USC was ranked No. 4 heading into the 2022 conference championship but lost to Utah, 47-24.
Yet in the six seasons since Washington advanced to the Playoff, there have also been years where the PAC-12 champion had no shot. 2017 champions USC already had two losses, including a 35-point defeat to Notre Dame, and the 2018 championship was played between two teams who already had three losses. The 2020 season only had six regular-season games due to COVID-19, and even if an undefeated USC had prevailed over a two-loss Oregon team in the conference championship, they were only ranked No. 13 headed into that game.
Blame the lack of success on wild and upset-prone PAC-12 After Dark games, challenging early-season nonconference games, or other factors. But since 2016, PAC-12 teams have struggled to separate themselves from each other in a way that no other Power 5 conference has in that time frame.
Sure, five ranked teams are expected to contend for the conference championship this year. But the idea that having more good teams increases the PAC-12’s playoff chances is fraught for the simple reason that having more good teams means more potential for losses. Oregon, Washington, and Utah will play four ranked PAC-12 teams this season, while Oregon State and USC will play three. The chaos factor could be extra large this year, even if a team like USC has the best player in college football and should normally cruise to the Playoff.
The best-case scenario for the PAC-12 is that a couple of teams separate from the rest, even if that entails some of the current ranked teams having disappointing seasons. It’s unlikely that any team will go undefeated in the regular season (after all, winning 12 games is never easy!), but having two 11-1 teams meet in the PAC-12 championship with each just needing to win to make the Playoff would be a dream scenario for the conference. A high-stakes USC-Washington or USC-Oregon championship game with a spot in the Playoff on the line would be a win for football fans and the PAC-12.
Whatever happens in the next four months, one thing’s for sure: the PAC-12 will not gently into that good night. If this is the last of PAC-12 football, it will end with incredible games with the sheer amount of talent across the conference.
Buckle up. It’s going to be a wild ride.