Once the Pac-12 announced last week that it would push forward with a fall football season, it didn’t take very long for one key big-picture topic to come to the forefront.
What will it take for a Pac-12 team to get selected for the College Football Playoff?
That is a tricky question without an easy, obvious answer, but here is what’s clear. The Pac-12 did not have a good re-entry into the Associated Press Top 25 on Sunday. With Pac-12 teams again eligible for the poll, only Oregon hit the board at No. 14, while USC, Utah and Washington received votes.
Unless there is absolute chaos across the country and games start getting postponed at a higher clip, voters are apparently not going to start seriously considering Pac-12 teams until they begin playing games the weekend of Nov. 6. Even then, a breakthrough might be tough. The ACC and Big 12 will have been playing for almost two months, the SEC will have been playing for six weeks, and the Big Ten will have kicked off two weeks prior.
The Big Ten also became eligible to re-enter the AP Poll Sunday, with No. 6 Ohio State and No. 10 entering the top 10, while No. 19 Wisconsin and No. 23 Michigan also hit the board, sight unseen.
So, the question remains: How is a Pac-12 team supposed to crack the CFP with only seven regular-season games, and none being played until Nov. 6?
“Our schools are going to have the opportunity to be in the conversation,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said last Thursday, during a Zoom call with reporters. “There’s no minimum number of games, and I think we’re all very humbly going into the season realizing there could be disruptions along the way.”
Reasonable thinking concludes that if the Pac-12 wants to play in the College Football Playoff for only the third time since it began in 2014, it would be helpful if the conference played all seven games. That is no certainty given 22 FBS games have already been postponed, rescheduled or canceled through four weeks of play.
Furthermore, COVID-19 cases recently spiked in and around Boulder, Colo., while Cal and Stanford are still awaiting clearance from local health authorities to be able to practice fully. All of that leaves at least some doubt that all 12 programs will play the full seven games.
“We may have scheduled fewer as we begin this, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll have fewer,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said Friday afternoon on a Zoom call. “Watching the landscape, teams are trying to play and they can’t. I think the University of Houston has tried to start their season four or five weeks in a row, and they haven’t been able to do it.”
Despite key NFL draft defections on defense, Oregon is still viewed as the prohibitive favorite to win the Pac-12 this fall. Under that thinking, the Ducks stand as the league’s best hope for the College Football Playoff.
The Pac-12 is expected to release its seven-game football schedule later this week, but we know each team will play their five divisional colleagues, plus one crossover against a team from the other division. For the seventh game, two teams will play in the Pac-12 championship game, while everyone else will play another crossover during championship weekend, Dec. 18-19.
In terms of CFP hopes, Oregon’s best-case scenario is to start 6-0, then draw an unbeaten South team in the Pac-12 title game, regardless of whether it’s USC, Utah or someone else. Winning that game to go 7-0 makes Oregon’s case, but the CFP committee taking the Ducks over an unbeaten school from another Power Five conference, one with more wins against better inter-conference competition, would likely be a tough sell.
“We go into this eyes wide open, knowing that we hope to get all these games in just like any other conference hopes to get all their games in,” Harlan said. “If it stays as is, I do believe, particularly if we have a really strong team, whether that’s an undefeated team or maybe a one-loss team that wins our conference, I think that team should absolutely be considered.”