Why the Pac-12 Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2018

Jay Pryce

Thursday, May 3, 2018 2:09 PM UTC

Thursday, May. 3, 2018 2:09 PM UTC

Which team will lead the Pac-12 back to the college football playoffs? Washington is the clear favorite, but don't rule out Oregon, USC, and Stanford. Here's why:

The College Football Playoff Committee has not invited a Pac-12 program twice in its short four-year history. This includes 2017, when no team from the conference finished the regular season with fewer then two losses. Strength of schedule matters in the selection process, but it is evident win-loss records mean more.

This makes the Pac-12 road tougher. It is one of three in the Power Five (Big Ten, Big 12) playing a nine-game conference schedule, which increases the chances of compiling a loss against tougher competition. They do not have the luxury of scheduling a lesser FBS or FCS opponent throughout the year. The good news here is that three of the five easiest Power 5 schedules in 2018, if combining opponents’ records from the previous season as a metric, belong to the Pac-12 North: Oregon, Washington and Cal. The Bears are not serious contenders for a national title, but the Huskies and Ducks are. Here is a look at which Pac-12 teams have a chance to finish with a single loss and reach the coveted CFP.

Washington Huskies

National Title Odds (+3000)

The Huskies are clearly the team to beat in the Pac-12. They own the top scoring defense from last season, return fourth-year starter Jake Browning under center, and have Chris Petersen calling the shots. The key is navigating a tough out-of-conference schedule. We project Washington will likely drop one Pac-12 clash to Oregon, Stanford or Utah. This makes its opener in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff clash at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Auburn all the more important. The Tigers are 4.5-point favorites for the matchup. In 2011, Petersen led then-No. 22 Boise State to a 35-21 win over No. 2 Georgia in this same game. He knows how to take the “neutral” southern crowd out of the contest. If escaping Atlanta unscathed, tough matchups against North Dakota (FCS powerhouse) and BYU will help sway the committee if competing against other one-loss teams in the final voting process. Then again, at No. 4 in USA Today’s post-spring poll, going undefeated is not out of the question. It all hinges on the season opener.

Oregon Ducks

National Title Odds (+11000)

The Ducks own the easiest schedule among all Power Five programs with opponents going 65-87 (.428) in 2017. The non-conference slate is a breeze with Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State on tap. Expect plenty of points and plenty of confidence coming out of these cupcake matchups. Oregon’s toughest conference tilts are all at Autzen Stadium: Stanford (Sept. 22), Washington (Oct. 13), and UCLA (Nov. 13); Washington State (Oct. 20) and Utah (Nov. 10) present the hardest road tests.

The Ducks have little defense, but will should compete as the top scoring offense in the country. Quarterback Justin Herbert is likely the No. 1 prospect under center for the 2019 NFL Draft. Possessing superior arm strength and athleticism, his 77.5 adjusted completion percentage ranked fourth nationally in 2017. Improving efficiency through the air is the key too unlocking how far the Ducks can fly. They are 7-2 SU all-time when Herbert averages better than 8.0 yards per passing attempt, 1-6 SU when posting fewer.

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New season, same Justin Herbert throwing dimes pic.twitter.com/TtBpIR7JBG

— Karley Gauthier (@karleygauthier) March 7, 2018
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USC Trojans

National Title Odds (+5000)

USC is coming off its first Pac-12 title since 2008. Inexperience at quarterback and a 24-7 rout by Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl have many writing the Trojans off for a run at the national title. Head coach Clay Helton, however, has pulled together a top-5 recruiting class for the second year in a row, and the talent the program attracts tops the Pac-12 year in and year out. Four five-star and 13 four-star recruits fill the 2018 class. With Sam Darnold departed to the NFL, redshirt sophomore Matt Fink or freshman JT Daniels will take the starting role under center. Whoever wins the job will have to show maturity and poise beyond their years to propel a young but uber-talented squad to their max potential.

It is possible the Trojans can navigate a tricky schedule with just one loss, but they’ll have to catch some good teams at the right time. Since November 2015, when Helton took over for the second and final time due to Steve Sarkisian’s leave of absence, USC is just 6-8 SU and 3-11 ATS against AP top-25 programs. It is undefeated (15-0 SU) against unranked competition. Thus far, the Trojans square off against two ranked opponents all year: No. 13 Stanford and No. 9 Notre Dame. Texas, UCLA and Utah could slip into this category as the season progresses.

Stanford Cardinal

National Title Odds (+4600)

Stanford owns the best three-year overall and conference record out of all the Pac-12 programs, going 31-10 SU (.756) and 21-6 SU (.778) respectively. It played for the Pac-12 championship last season after beating Washington 30-22 as a 6-point underdog to win the North Division. Much of the top talent returns, led by Heisman runner-up tailback Bryce Love, and the offensive line is arguably the best in the country. The 2018 schedule, however, is brutal with nine of 12 opponents going to a bowl game last year. The Cardinal machine churns out consistency like few others in the Power Five, and for that a one-loss season or better is always a reality.

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