A confession: I am not much for the overweening arguments over conference strength in college football, partly because I grew up in an age when it didn’t mean nearly as much as it does now, and partly because most public debates about conference strength inevitably devolve into propagandist message-board fueled shouting matches.
For instance, the two highest-ranked teams in the Associated Press poll at the moment hail from the Big Ten. Does this mean the Big Ten is the best conference in the country? It does not, because the middle and the bottom of the Big Ten is largely a hollowed and rusted shell of itself.
But I will also acknowledge that these things matter in modern college football; there are currently five major conferences and four College Football Playoff spots, which means at least one conference is going to left out, and that decision is be made by a committee that is not insulated from public opinion. And in a season that seems as if it will be largely unpredictable, a season that seems increasingly jumbled among the teams at the top of the polls, the “eye-test” could ultimately prove the difference.
Which brings me to the Pac-12.
Heading into this season, the Pac-12 appeared poised to overtake the SEC as the best top-to-bottom conference in the country. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott went so far as to tell Sports Illustrated‘s Pete Thamel he thought the Pac-12 was the best conference last season. And perhaps this is true; perhaps this fact will bear out over the course of the year, but at least so far, the Pac-12 has yet to prove much of anything. Here’s what happened in the two marquee matchups of the non-conference campaign involving potentially nationally relevant Pac-12 teams: Arizona State lost badly to Texas A&M (from the SEC); and Oregon lost (an admittedly close road contest) to Michigan State.
Couple that with USC’s loss to in-conference rival Stanford last week, and the Pac-12 is faced with a fascinating problem. Unless Oregon or USC pulls it together for the remainder of the season, it may wind up, paradoxically, as both the deepest conference in the country and the one conference that finds itself excluded from the playoff altogether.
Here are the current Pac-12 standings, which include four 3-0 teams. Three of those teams are from the Pac-12 South; two of them, UCLA and Arizona, face each other in prime time on Saturday night. The third, Utah, plays at Oregon this weekend, which means by Sunday there may be only one undefeated team remaining in the Pac-12 South.
(The other undefeated Pac-12 team is Cal, which survived a road game against Texas when the Longhorns’ kicker blew an extra point in the final minute. I like Cal a lot; I think they’re much improved, and I think they’re a joy to watch mostly because Cal quarterback Jared Goff is future first-round draft pick and a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, especially if any East Coast Heisman voters can manage to stay awake past 10 p.m. But if Cal goes undefeated, I’ll volunteer to take the BART to Berkeley camp out in one of those trees overlooking the stadium, just to piss off Brent Musburger.)
In this way, the Pac-12 – which is already battling against the tyranny of its time zone – has kind of backed itself into a corner. The two programs most likely to compete nationally are already one loss away from likely becoming unworthy of the playoff. UCLA (the highest-ranked Pac-12 team at No. 9) just lost its star linebacker, Myles Jack, for the season to a knee injury; Arizona has already been playing without its own star linebacker, Scooby Wright. UCLA’s quarterback, Josh Rosen, is a first-tier talent, but he’s a freshman; whoever wins that UCLA-Arizona game this weekend is likely to lose at least one more game, if not more.
Oregon’s quarterback, Vernon Adams, is dealing with a nagging finger injury that could plague him all season. USC coach Steve Sarkisian has yet to prove that he can win a big game when it matters (and could very easily lose again, to Arizona State, this weekend). Unless the SEC cannibalizes itself in the same way, unless the committee is forced to consider two-loss teams for one of those four playoff spots, it’s not unfathomable to imagine the Pac-12 getting locked out. If UCLA loses on Saturday, it’s possible that zero Pac-12 teams will be ranked in the AP‘s top ten next week. In which case, the deepest conference in the country may also wind up being the emptiest.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb