By the end of September, it looked like there was no chance for a Pac-12 team to make the College Football Playoff.
Oregon suffered a second-half collapse in its opening game against Auburn, Utah could not stop USC’s talented receivers in a 30-23 loss on September 20, and Cal—the only Pac-12 team to start the season 4-0—lost its starting quarterback Chase Garbers and its unblemished record in a 24-17 loss to Arizona State a week later.
At that point, the conference’s playoff hopes were less real than the Dodo.
But the season does not end in September, and since then, the Pac-12 has dodged the minefield of college football. Oregon has taken care of business and survived its scares with the Washington schools, while Utah bounced back after its loss to USC by defeating its next five conference foes by an average score of 36-10.
As a result, both programs are sitting at 8-1 (Utah 5-1 in Pac-12) with three games to play, which has helped them climb in the Playoff rankings.
Here are the current rankings of the top ten:
1) Ohio State (8-0)
2) LSU (8-0)
3) Alabama (8-0)
4) Penn State (8-0)
5) Clemson (9-0)
6) Georgia (7-1)
7) Oregon (8-1)
8) Utah (8-1)
9) Oklahoma (7-1)
10) Florida (7-2)
While the Pac-12 constantly highlights the conference’s parity and close games (because they have to brag about SOMETHING), those rankings must have been a welcomed sight to Larry Scott and Co. on Tuesday evening.
Both squads have avoided conference cannibalization and are poised to win their next three games. The Utes have the best shot of a 3-0 finish down the stretch with a road game at Arizona on November 23 and home games against UCLA (Nov. 16) and Colorado (Nov. 30).
The Ducks also have a favorable remaining schedule with home games against Arizona and Oregon State. A trip to ASU on the 23rd is a little tougher than anything left on Utah’s schedule, but Oregon should still be able to top the Sun Devils.
It is also important that the eventual winner dominates the lesser opponents on its schedule. Let’s not kid ourselves—style points matter in college football, and if the Utes squeak past Colorado and go on to win the league, the committee could hold that performance against them.
Neither team has full control of its destiny when it comes to the Playoff, but a matchup of two 11-1 teams in the Pac-12 Championship Game would lead to a less-sleepy crowd at Levi’s Stadium and a signature win for the champion over another one-loss team.
A 12-1 Pac-12 Champion has earned a spot in the Playoff before and would have a good chance to do it again this year, but it would certainly need some help.
So what needs to happen?
With a month left to play, it appears the only certainties are that an unbeaten or one-loss champion from the Big Ten and SEC will make it along with an undefeated Clemson from the ACC.
That, in theory, leaves one spot open, which means Utah and Oregon fans need to root for blowouts and upsets in other conferences. Most of the country is hoping the Alabama-LSU game goes down to the wire, but Pac-12 fans need to root for a blowout and for the winner of that game to finish unbeaten and the loser to finish 10-2 or worse, effectively eliminating that team from an at-large bid.
The Tigers have three SEC games left, including a road game at Ole Miss and home games against Arkansas and Texas A&M, so LSU should go 3-0 in that stretch. Alabama plays Mississippi State and Western Carolina before the Iron Bowl on the road, which is probably the only chance for a loss.
Georgia’s loss to South Carolina limits its margin for error, and if the Bulldogs lose in the regular season or the SEC Championship Game, then they will not make it.
As for the Big Ten, Pac-12 fans should root for one undefeated team to emerge from the conference with the rest finishing with two losses or more. That probably means rooting for Ohio State to continue its run of dominance and for Penn State and No.17 Minnesota to stumble in November.
It would be shocking if Clemson loses this season, but if the Tigers stumble against Wake Forest or in the ACC Championship Game, then the committee might exclude the defending national champions because of the weakness of the ACC.
The Big 12 has shown the propensity to cannibalize itself this season and if that trend continues then the conference’s winner should stay behind Oregon or Utah in the rankings. No. 9 Oklahoma still has to play Iowa State, No. 12 Baylor and No. 23 Oklahoma State, while the Bears still have the Sooners and Texas left to play, so a one-loss Big 12 champ seems unlikely.
The Pac-12 is by no means guaranteed a playoff spot with a one-loss champ, but it sure is in a better position than it was a month ago.