When Clemson and LSU battled it out Monday night for the College Football Playoff championship, the Pac-12 was in a familiar position – sitting at home.
The “Conference of Champions” failed to make the CFP for the third straight year and instead settled for the New Year’s Six bowl games. The Pac-12 has been represented just twice in the six years of the CFP’s existence.
Meanwhile, the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference champions have made it each season, and the SEC has even had two participants in a single season. The Big 12 and Big Ten have each made it four times, but the Big 12’s lone representative has been Oklahoma.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has mentioned time and time again that missing out on the playoff hurts the league’s reputation among both the selection committee and recruits. He has also called for the Power Five conferences to compose their schedules so they can be more directly compared to one another during the final four selection process.
But instead of calling for the SEC and ACC to conform to the Pac-12’s nine-game conference slate, Scott and the Pac-12 should be the ones adapting to survive. It works for the LSUs and Clemsons of the world – why wouldn’t it work for the Pac-12 as well?
With a nine-game schedule, the conference guarantees nothing but six extra losses for its teams, when its teams could instead be facing off against inferior opponents for shoo-in wins.
The ACC and the SEC both have eight-game conference schedules and have never missed the playoffs. Those two conferences have also fielded the past 10 teams to compete in the national championship.
The perfect example for this is Alabama, one of just two teams to make it to five of the six playoffs. Every year, the Crimson Tide take advantage of their eight-game SEC slate and schedule a cupcake game before the Iron Bowl against Auburn. Yes, an upset is always on the table, but Alabama beat Western Carolina 66-3 in late November with a backup quarterback at the helm.
If the Pac-12 had switched up its scheduling rules and had its teams play an eight-game conference schedule, the entire landscape of college football could be reshaped.
Maybe Colorado wouldn’t have had to travel to Pullman and lose 41-10 against Washington State, and it could have qualified for a bowl game instead of finishing 5-7. The same could be said for Oregon State, which finished 5-7, losing to Utah 52-7.
The biggest difference could have come on Nov. 23.
Oregon – instead of playing an FCS team like Alabama did that day – faced Arizona State in Tempe after already facing Arizona the week before. The one-loss Ducks fell to the Sun Devils 31-28 and, two weeks later, Oregon would defeat then-No. 5 Utah in the Pac-12 championship.
The Ducks won the Rose Bowl a month after that and proved their worth on the national stage, but they were unable to earn a playoff spot thanks to that one loss against the Sun Devils.
In the current conference format, an eight-game schedule is almost impossible because of a rule that requires all California teams to face each other. This would lead to UCLA hosting the Washington and Oregon schools just once each every eight years, which is no fun for the fans and students who would like to see every team at least once every four years.
A quick fix to this is just to abandon this California-specific rule. It may be fun to have secondary rivalry games against California and Stanford every year, but imagine if the Bruins did not have to face the Cardinal every year during its 10-year losing streak. UCLA easily could have won the Pac-12 South in either 2014 or 2015.
The other solution would be to just switch Stanford and Cal to the Pac-12 South and send Utah and Colorado to the Pac-12 North. Salt Lake City and Boulder are both technically more northern than Palo Alto and Berkeley, and it would keep the California schools together. Besides that, neither the state of Utah nor Colorado embody “southern,” so the switch would not be too big of a deal.
The second change the conference needs to make is scheduling easier nonconference games. It’s great to see early season matchups such as Oregon versus Auburn this past year, but that one loss gave the Ducks almost no margin of error for the final 11 weeks of the season.
This goes for all the teams, too, especially when facing good Group of Five teams. UCLA facing San Diego State and Cincinnati, Stanford taking on UCF and USC going to BYU all hurt the Pac-12 because a win is expected and a loss almost automatically costs the teams any chance of making the CFP.
Utah is a prime example of this. While they also faced BYU – but with this being an annual rivalry game – the Utes’ other two nonconference tilts were against Northern Illinois and Idaho State at home. Those teams finished a combined 8-16 and the Utes were still in the playoff conversation heading into the final week of the season.
Some people would point to strength of schedule being a factor to keep out the Pac-12, but another counterargument goes back to the Tide. The best nonconference team Alabama faced this year was Duke, and the Tide were still in the playoff conversation before they lost their second game. Alabama also made it at the end of the 2017 season with one loss and its best out-of-conference win coming against a 7-6 Florida State team.
Scott seems loath to make changes, maybe because he hopes the conference is just in a mini-lull or that the eight-team playoff is coming soon. But if the Pac-12 expects to be in the playoff at any point in the next few years, Scott and the Pac-12 have to make changes.
Or else the conference can enjoy watching the SEC versus ACC in the title game again next year.