Saturday was a pretty good day for the Pac-12 Conference. Anyone who closely followed the beleaguered entity over the last few years had to be delighted to see it all dressed up, glowing under the spotlight with the national sports scene talking about it.
It was a nice moment for the Pac-12.
The conference released its 2020 revised football schedule on national television. I took one look at it and knew instantly who it views as the conference-title contenders. Washington State athletic director Pat Chun told me Saturday morning that he took his first look and had a simpler thought.
“Now we can book our airplanes and hotels!”
Chun also said he was pleased the conference seized the big stage on Saturday. But I’m left wondering just how close to the College Football Playoff stage the Pac-12 might actually get while gerrymandering the schedule the way it did.
The North/South division crossover games (with possible conference title contenders in BOLD):
Arizona at Washington
Cal at Arizona State
Colorado at Stanford
Oregon State at Utah
UCLA at Oregon
Washington State at USC
See what the conference schedule makers did there? A key objective, the Pac-12 said, was not to alter future home/road schedules for the inter-division games. That left Washington, ASU, Utah, Oregon and USC needing home games, which made the matchups easy on the conference.
The conference could have toggled things around, but nobody had the appetite for it. As a result, the Pac-12 mostly avoided pitting its better teams against each other in those crossover games. I wrote a column a week ago about scheduling strategy. I wondered if the Pac-12 might line up the regular season matchups, gaming for 6-0 vs. 6-0 in the conference title game. The news release the Pac-12 put out underscored that point.
Said commissioner Larry Scott: “The schedule announced today is highlighted by exciting and tough matchups that will showcase the depth of our conference and position our teams well for CFP consideration and postseason bowl opportunities.”
That last part is where my brain wants to ruminate for a few minutes today — the “position our teams well,” stuff. Because on one hand, I think the Pac-12 tried to avoid unnecessarily cannibalizing itself before the conference title game weekend (Dec. 18-19). On the other, I wonder if it blew an opportunity by not reworking the schedule to focus more on getting the two most promising teams (Oregon and USC) one additional opportunity for a quality win in the crossover game.
The conference must value an unbeaten champion over having one that was a little more battle tested. I’m convinced that it likely leaned on Oregon AD Rob Mullens in settling on that strategy. He’s coming off a stint as the chair of the College Football Playoff selection committee. He knows what the playoff discussions are like because he recently led some of them.
Mullens told me this week that he thinks it’s going to be an especially challenging year for the playoff committee. Games will be postponed or canceled. The prospective participants aren’t likely going to have the same number of games played. And there’s no opportunities for the Pac-12 to prove itself during the regular season non-conference games against the Big Ten or SEC.
“The committee’s charge when you boil it all down is to pick the best four teams,” Mullens said. “Yes, that might be a little more difficult in that there aren’t going to be as many non-conference games where you can determine strength. But at the end of the day, they’re going to have all the data, they’re going to watch all the games and if you only have seven games you’d better be putting your best foot forward every single time to get into that conversation.”
Look impressive in doing so.
Then, hope the playoff committee looks at the rest of college football and sees a glowing mess.
That’s the formula the Pac-12 Conference appears to be working from. I’ll go with it. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Ducks really are going to win the conference title. To get there Mario Cristobal’s team would still have to beat Washington (home), Cal (away) and then presumably meet and beat a ranked USC team in the title game.
Is that good enough?
Maybe. But not certainly.
The Pac-12 must believe that kind of 7-0 resume would be strong enough to get into the discussion. Or maybe it believes that USC beating ASU (home), Utah (away) and possibly validating itself against Oregon in the title-game weekend would keep it alive for CFP discussion.
Let me stop there.
I don’t blame anyone who is skeptical the conference is even in the discussion. But I’m telling you, that’s exactly what happened here. The Pac-12 lined this thing up so that it might have an undefeated team to show for its football season. It didn’t necessarily get itself into the playoff, but I think what the Pac-12 really aimed to do with the schedule is keep itself in the discussion.
The conference ADs got a look at the schedule late in the week. Not all of them were pleased. Some wanted more time and input. More than one AD told me that the process felt rushed. But that’s 2020 and as my Italian grandmother used to say as she threw her hands up, “Whaddyagonnado?”
I’ll watch. That’s what I’ll do. You will, too.
Colorado athletic director Rick George is a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. It’s his first year being charged with helping pick the four national semifinalists. So he’ll watch, too.
“I just know that I’m going to be watching a lot of film. I have been watching a lot of film,” George told me this week. “I’ll play the role on the committee that I’m asked to do — and that is pick the four best teams.”
Does the Pac-12 really have one of them?
Between us: Likely not.
The national narrative about the conference won’t easily be changed. That’s the biggest obstacle. Oregon — No. 14 — is the conference’s highest-ranked team. That’s the starting point for the conference. It has to jump 10 or so teams in the eyes of most of the college football world. So maybe a victory this season for the Pac-12 isn’t really getting into the playoff but just sniffing around it some and looking somewhat legitimate.
Nobody in charge would ever say that, but this is a conference headquarters that wakes up with a defeatist attitude. The football programs, players, coaches and their respective athletic departments are going to have to overcome that.
I’m not 100-percent sold that Oregon can get to the end of the season undefeated and looking like a playoff contender. USC, either. It’s a strange football season. The Ducks have lost their best offensive lineman, the secondary is decimated by opt-outs, and Oregon is replacing the No. 6 pick in the NFL Draft at quarterback. It feels dicey and a little uncertain. But UO had to smile when it saw the schedule released.
Oregon drew Chip Kelly — at home — in the division crossover game.
UCLA must have groaned.
It will be good theater. But the Bruins probably end up double-digit underdogs sent to Eugene in the third week of the season to help usher the Ducks’ season along.
Saturday was a nice moment for the Pac-12 Conference. It got all dressed up and took the stage. The conference acted like it belonged in the national discussion. I’d like to see more of that.