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Back to normal: Pac-12 returns, still faces long College Football Playoff odds

Pete Thamel
·6-min read

When the College Football Playoff began in 2014, the bad math that accompanied it was apparent to anyone with an abacus.

There are five major conferences in college football. There are four spots in the College Football Playoff. Inherently, someone is going to get left out.

The Pac-12 announced its return to the 2020 college football season on Thursday night, and now it finds itself in a familiar position – needing to play catch-up to the other four power conference leagues. The Pac-12 will start the season later than everyone (Nov. 6). And it’ll play just seven total games, which means it’ll need some serious 2020 magic to vault over the other conferences. A missed playoff spot for the fourth year in a row appears inevitable.

After months of analyzing antigen tests, debating myocarditis and calling county officials about cohort sizes, it’s oddly comforting to have football back and the world order restored with the Pac-12 lodged in the sport’s caboose.

The Pac-12 hasn’t won a national title in 15 seasons, hasn’t appeared in the past five College Football Playoff title games and has been excluded from the playoff entirely the past three seasons. Washington’s appearance following the 2016 season marks the last Pac-12 appearance. And that was a forgettable cameo, to be polite.

The Pac-12 has firmly established itself as the No. 5 league in the Power Five in the College Football Playoff era. And the joy that accompanies the league’s return in 2020 should also be tinged with this reality: No power conference faces bigger obstacles in earning a playoff bid.

The Pac-12 logo is shown during the second half of an Arizona State college football game in 2019. (AP file photo)
The Pac-12 logo is shown during the second half of an Arizona State college football game in 2019. (AP file photo)

The Pac-12 will be judged off a six-game regular season and a title game. With only two teams in the Associated Press preseason top 20 and no non-conference games, the opportunities to impress will be scarce.

Commissioner Larry Scott said on Thursday night there will be no minimum number of games for CFP contenders this season, the only logical conclusion by the committee considering that chaos is the standard operating procedure for college football in 2020. “Our schools will have every opportunity to be considered,” Scott said.

Predictions in 2020 are foolish, as games and schedules change direction faster than USC-era Reggie Bush. Declaring that the Pac-12 is out of the playoff before it starts would be far too pessimistic, especially considering that playoff-bound teams are all one house party away from having to cancel their trip. Anything can happen. But as long odds go, think of the league’s chances as a Republican running in Vermont.

The circumstances around the Pac-12’s start put the league in a position where it’s accustomed to being – scurrying to catch up. The Pac-12 lags in financial payouts, fan interest and exposure thanks to late kick times and a television network that has proven harder to find than Whitey Bulger.

Scott was asked Thursday night if he should be cheerleading for playoff expansion considering his league would benefit the most. It would likely guarantee the league a spot in the playoff. It would juice up a league title game that has been greeted with empty swaths of seats and pedestrian TV ratings. And it would mean more revenue for cash-strapped schools.

Scott’s answer was a study in executive speak – fancy multi-syllabic words that don’t actually mean anything. Anytime you hear the word “robust” from college sports executives, assume their message is similar to a lecture from Charlie Brown’s teacher.

“It doesn’t mean that there isn’t robust and healthy discussions behind the scenes about what we’re going to do short-term and long-term,” Scott said as part of his non-answer. “I can assure you that there is.”

There was a positive. At least he didn’t bring up the Rose Bowl as an obstacle.

Whoever wins the Pac-12 has to do so convincingly enough that they show more in seven games than the SEC champion will in 11, the Big Ten champion will in nine games, the ACC champion in 12 and the Big 12 champion in 11 games. Don’t count out the AAC this year, as Cincinnati and UCF are already in the top 15. (All of those totals, of course, contain asterisks that reflect the reality that more than 20 games have already been canceled or postponed. That trend isn’t slowing down.)

The Pac-12 started the Associated Press preseason rankings with no teams in the top five, only No. 9 Oregon in the top 10 and just one other team in the top 20 – No. 17 USC. (This is where we remind people that USC lost five games last year, including a trip to the woodshed against Iowa to end the season.)

Oregon lost star quarterback Justin Herbert and there are three key players – star tackle Penei Sewell and corners Deommodore Lenoir and Thomas Graham – who may not opt back in after they declared for the NFL draft. This is where the Pac-12’s role as also-ran potentially becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’ve learned from the Big Ten that the ability to compete for a national title is a key lure for keeping elite players. The Pac-12’s case with seven games and a sordid recent history is going to be, well, unconvincing.

Scott maintained the party line he needed to on Thursday night. He pointed out that the playoff committee will have the most subjective set of data in the playoff’s short history – varying numbers of games for teams and how to handle the vagaries of weighing losses with the reality of player availability that day.

There will be plenty of people who’ll rip the Pac-12 for not returning on a similar schedule as other leagues. That criticism doesn’t take into account the local restrictions that have prohibited them from doing some very basic things involved in playing football – gathering and, of course, practicing. (Scott intimated that there is still some work to get clearance with the Bay Area schools.)

The conference may have gotten stagnant after it trumpeted its daily rapid testing, but this ending feels about right.

And the Pac-12’s return brings the Power Five back whole again – well, whole for 2020. Criticizing the conference’s uninspired on-field performances and miniscule playoff chances is at least another sign that things are, mercifully, returning to normal.

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