Posted on September 28, 2020
For six years the College Football Playoff has revitalized the postseason landscape in the NCAA after the demise of the outdated and antiquated BCS Championship game.
The weird crystal football has been replaced by the new two-foot long golden trophy—a trophy that has yet to be hoisted by a team from the Pac-12.
With the Pac-12 now returning to play football this fall, the discussion has shifted from “Will they play?” to “Will they play for a National Championship?”
The Pac-12 does not have a favorable history with the four-team playoff system, having been represented in the two-round postseason just twice, by Oregon in 2014-15 and by Washington in 2016-17. Just one Conference team, Oregon, has competed in the actual championship game.
If there was ever a year for the Pac-12 to break its three-year playoff drought, it is 2020. This year has already demonstrated that anything, literally anything, can happen. If murder hornets can make it to the U.S., and a double hurricane can hit the Gulf Coast, why can’t a Pac-12 team win the National Championship?
The first step for a Pac-12 representative in the CFP is to win the Conference, convincingly.
When Oregon and Washington made the playoff, they were both one-loss conference champions. In the other four years, the Pac-12 champ had at least two losses and was consequently left out of the Playoff.
That means in a normal year, one of the teams in the Pac-12 would have to win at least 12 games to even be considered for the title game. Since this season will look different, it almost guarantees that a Pac-12 representative would have to be undefeated to reach the CFP.
There is little to no margin for error for any of the 12 teams in the conference given the brevity of the season. And with the Pac-12’s history of cannibalizing itself, thereby ruining any shot of an undefeated champion (see the 2018 season’s circle of suck for reference), it seems unlikely that any team emerges from the season unscathed.
If a team were to run the Pac-12 gamut, it would likely be Oregon, currently ranked No. 14 in the Week 4 AP Poll, or USC which was ranked in the Top 20 in the preseason AP Poll. In reality though, any team that runs the table in conference play would have a chance of making it to the Playoff.
The most frequent knock on top tier Pac-12 teams is that they play a weak nonconference schedule (Alabama does as well, but nobody seems to care about that). Most conferences will play conference-only schedules this season, meaning nonconference strength of schedule won’t be used against anyone.
For a Pac-12 team to legitimately have a shot at the playoff, however, they will need some help from the other conferences.
Three teams can probably already be penciled in for the 2020-21 CFP: Clemson, Ohio State, and the SEC champion.
Sure, there is a chance that the Tigers or the Buckeyes lose their conferences to Notre Dame or Penn State, respectively. The best bet, though, is that the talent of those two top programs will prevail, and they will win their conferences, making the Playoff, even if they drop a game along the way.
The third spot will go to whichever team wins the highly competitive SEC. There are a handful of championship-caliber teams in that conference, so there is no doubt that at least one of them will earn a berth in the Playoff.
The final spot in the College Football Playoff is the only one that is actually up for debate. It really comes down to three teams: Oklahoma, the Pac-12 champion, and a one-loss SEC team.
Here is how the season will have to play out for an undefeated Pac-12 champion to emerge from that group and claim the final playoff spot.
The first thing that must happen is that Ohio State and Clemson must win out and do so convincingly.
As mentioned earlier, those teams are nearly a lock for the postseason, so they must win their conference and knock the second-place team out of contention at the same time. If either of those teams were to go undefeated and lose the conference championship game, it would put a lot of pressure on the selection committee to include them as a one-loss conference runner-up.
The second thing that must happen already has, and that is for Oklahoma to get upset somewhere along the way, as it did in it’s 38-35 loss to Kansas State last Saturday.
The Sooners are probably the Big-12’s only shot at getting into the Playoff. They are the only team from that conference to have ever made the CFP, doing so in four of the six years, including the past three in a row.
But for the Pac-12 champion to make the playoff, Oklahoma likely must suffer two losses during the season.
It is important that at least one of those losses is a bad loss—and based on what we know about the Wildcats—that loss fits the bill. But if the Sooners beat Texas in the regular season and then defeat the Longhorns again in the Big-12 championship game, they would still have a decent shot at a Playoff berth.
The final thing that needs to happen is for the SEC to produce only one Playoff-caliber team.
This means that one team from that conference, let’s say Georgia because everybody is tired of Alabama, goes undefeated and wins the SEC championship. That would make them a lock.
The rest of the conference then has to play out in a way that Georgia meets a team in the championship game that already has a loss.
The key to this scenario might be Auburn, the third-best team in the SEC West, which does not include Georgia. Alabama and LSU figured to be the top two teams in that division until the Tigers lost to Mississippi State 44-34 last week. So if Alabama beats LSU, then it is imperative that Auburn beat Bama. If LSU beats the Crimson Tide, then Alabama or LSU must beat Auburn.
If Auburn, Alabama, and LSU form a rock-paper-scissors type chain where they all trade wins, it would give each team at least one loss. Throw in an upset for two of the other teams, and it would leave a singular one-loss team to play Georgia for the conference championship.
As long as Georgia wins that game, then there would be no one-loss SEC team to stake claim to the final playoff spot.
If each of those steps happen in this unusual college football season, the path will be clear for the Pac-12 champion to enter the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2016.
All that would be left would be to win the thing, which is easier said than done. The undefeated 2020 Pac-12 champion will gladly cross that bridge when it gets to it, if they do.
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