As the last Power Five conference to jump into the college football season, the chances that a Pac-12 team can reach the national championship, even the playoffs, seem slim.
But never say never. Especially in a season as odd as this one.
“Nobody knows,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “Nobody knows.”
The Pac-12’s coaches believe there’s a possibility a conference team could play for the national title, even though the league has an abbreviated schedule with just seven games per team. But a whole bunch of things would have to fall into place.
“If we have a conference champion that’s played well — I don’t think you have to be undefeated but I think you got to play really well and show that you’re one of the better teams in America,” Shaw said. “And then, however it happens in the other places, not every one is going to play every game as we’ve seen, some teams are going to falter. So we’ll have to see how it all shakes out.”
Currently, there are two Pac-12 teams ranked in the AP Top 25: Oregon at No. 12 and USC at No. 25. They are not the only teams who haven’t played a down that are in the rankings. The Big Ten’s Ohio State (6), Penn State (9), Wisconsin (16), Michigan (19) and Minnesota (24) are also there. The Big Ten start two weeks earlier than the Pac-12 and teams play an eight-game schedule.
Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said he doesn’t envy the selection committee this season.
“I know I wouldn’t want to be in that seat, trying to figure out who those teams are. It’s very difficult,” Edwards said. “And it becomes even more difficult now with COVID hovering over football and athletics as well.”
Then there’s Jimmy Lake’s idea.
Washington’s new coach believes every Power Five champion should make the College Football Playoff. A sixth “wild card” team could be an independent like Notre Dame, a Group of Five champion or a good second-place Power Five team.
The top two teams would have a bye, Lake said, while No. 3 would play No. 6, and No. 4 would play No. 5 to determine the semifinal matchups.
“I think that way you take all the subjectivity out of it, all the politics, the East Coast (bias), all of that,” Lake said on the preseason Pac-12 coaches’ teleconference. “Let the champions move on and let’s see. Let the teams play, and we’ll see who the best team is at the end of the year.”
Of course, any Pac-12 representation in the playoffs hinges on whether the league’s teams can get all their games in, with COVID-19 cases rising nationwide and college games routinely getting postponed because of outbreaks.
“With the time configuration that we’re working with, there’s really no opportunity to make up games. And so if we miss a game, that game is just going to be out the window,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “And so we’re hoping that we get them all in. Nobody can predict the future, we don’t have a crystal ball, but we’d all be elated if we get the seven games in.”
The lack of nonconference games will likely make it harder to determine where the Pac-12 ranks as an overall league, too.
“It’s very difficult, I think, without non-league, out-of-conference games to judge other leagues. So it’ll be even a more difficult year this year. But we will have a conference champion and (that) will give us an opportunity later on and maybe some crossover games to see where we are,” Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin said.
But Sumlin emphatically answered “yes” when asked if a 7-0 Pac-12 team could be in play for a championship.
It’s not just the CFP, the overall postseason picture is somewhat murky, too. The NCAA clarified one issue Wednesday when it waived bowl eligibility criteria for this season. Normally, teams are required to have a .500 record to be eligible, or, in a normal season, have at least six wins.
The league’s coaches really aren’t looking for postseason normalcy in a year where little is normal.
“I know it’s coach speak, but it’s truth: We focus on what we can control, preparing ourselves to be ready to play games. Then you get into these games, you take them one at a time because that’s the only way you get to play them. So we haven’t approached that topic (of a postseason) with the guys,” Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith said. “I know, the goals of wanting to play in the postseason are real, and that’s an aspiration all of us have. The only way we’re going to achieve that is focus on the day to day.”