Why the Pac-12 Will Miss the College Football Playoff Again in 2018

Thursday, April 26, 2018 2:22 PM UTC

Thursday, Apr. 26, 2018 2:22 PM UTC

The Pac-12 is undergoing a host of changes, and Washington appears the most likely team to earn a CFP invite. This will require avoiding two losses, despite a very strong strength of schedule.

Strength of Schedule: Bonus or Curse?

The Pac-12, like the Big Ten and Big 12, is unique in the fact its representatives play a nine-game conference schedule. The SEC and ACC organize just eight, typically replacing the date with a lesser FBS or FCS opponent. Is this advantageous or disadvantageous in terms of earning a CFP invite? So far, it’s a curse.

Outside of potential financial or recruiting concerns switching to an eight-game model, strength of schedule matters. Fifteen of the 16 teams receiving playoff bids in the CFP’s short history have owned a top four strength-of-schedule record at the end of the regular season. An extra conference game is a boon in this regard.

Final win-loss records, however, matter more. No two-loss team has earned an invite to the CFP, and a program will likely have to sit within the top two or three in national polls at the end of the year to even be considered in the future. Honestly, are there any Pac-12 programs talented enough? Playing an extra contest against a familiar conference opponent increases the odds of picking up a defeat tremendously. This has proven problematic for three-fifths of the Power Five. The ACC and SEC avoid this potential pitfall. They are also the only conferences to send a representative to the CFP each season.

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A look back at today's @UCLAFootball Spring Game.

Next Up:
📅: September 1st
🏈: vs Cincinnati
📍: Rose Bowl#BeatCinci | #GoBruins pic.twitter.com/hrsHb4NFtq

— UCLA Athletics (@UCLAAthletics) April 22, 2018

Pac-12 in Transition, Washington the Only Contender?

The Pac-12 is in a major transition, particularly among the elite programs. The conference is set to introduce five new head coaches, including Chip Kelly at UCLA, Mario Cristobal at Oregon, and Herm Edwards at Arizona State. Last season’s top signal-callers Josh Rosen (UCLA), Sam Darnold (USC), and Luke Falk (Washington State) all moved to the NFL. Experience is wanting across the board.

The early betting favorite to win the Pac-12 title, and most likely to earn a CFP spot, is the program seeing the least change: Washington. Fourth-year starting quarterback Jake Browning, senior running back Myles Gaskin, and a scoring defense that topped the conference in 2017 allowing just 16.1 points per game lead the Huskies. The offense will have to adjust to new coordinator Bush Hamdan, but this is head coach Chris Petersen’s fifth season in charge, so all his pieces are in place. Washington fans are optimistic.

USC, second choice, is always a contender, owning the strongest perennial recruiting class among West Coast programs. The Trojans are forced to field an underclassman under center, limiting their chances. Incoming freshman J.T. Daniels, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and sophomore Matt Fink are each competing for the starting job. Stanford, an outsider, owns the best offensive line and a decent corps of playmakers, but the defense is still a concern. The Cardinal yielded 5.98 yards per play last season, its most since 2009. Oregon, meanwhile, is loaded on offense, but gave up 41.4 points per game in 2017. On paper, it’s Washington or bust.

The schedule is tough, and if the Huskies can escape with just one loss, the CFP is likely in their future. That is a big if. They open the season on “neutral soil” against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This is essentially a home game for the Tigers, the campus within a 2-hour drive. Auburn is 4-2 SU and ATS against Pac-12 opponents stretching back to the mid 1980s. Washington, meanwhile, is 1-5 SU and 2-4 ATS against SEC foes in this span. Petersen is 1-1 SU and ATS in his coaching career vs. the powerhouse football conference. This includes a 35-21 win leading then-No. 22 Boise State over No. 2 Georgia as 3-point chalk in the 2011 Chick-fil-A Kickoff opener. His latest matchup was a memorable 24-7 defeat to Alabama as 15.5-point underdogs in the 2016 Peach Bowl.

Washington’s Pac-12 schedule also presents the toughest matchups on the road. It hosts Stanford, Oregon State, BYU, Arizona State and Colorado, but has to face Utah, UCLA, and Oregon away from Husky Stadium. The latter are each expected to contend for North and South Division titles. This also doesn’t include an always-tricky Apple Cup clash at Washington State in the regular-season finale. Since Petersen took over, Washington has lost in each season against a conference program coming off a campaign with a 5.5 average scoring margin or better. Expect at least one loss to either the Ducks (7.0), Cardinal (9.6) or Utes (6.4). The Auburn opener will likely determine if a Pac-12 team makes the CFP. Crazy.

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