It would be ironic if in this final season of the Pac-12 as we know it, before 10 schools bolt to either the ACC, Big Ten or Big 12, the conference is represented in the College Football Playoff.
It would be ironic because the Pac-12 has been a colossal disappointment in the CFP era. Since Oregon lost to Ohio State in the championship game to cap the 2014 season, the first year of the playoff format, the conference’s most recent playoff appearance was 2016 when Washington lost a semifinal matchup to Alabama.
Though only two full weeks of action have been played this season, it has been an impressive start for the conference as eight teams occupy the AP Top 25 with four in the top 13: No. 5 USC, No. 8 Washington, No. 12 Utah and No. 13 Oregon.
Again, it is early, though it is notable what has taken place to this point. There are some quality victories in the mix, including Colorado’s season-opening win at preseason-No. 17 TCU and Washington State defeating visiting Wisconsin last week. Utah, playing without quarterback Cam Rising, limited two Power Five non-conference opponents (Florida and Baylor) to a combined 24 points in winning both games.
Meanwhile, the quarterback play has been electric. Through three games USC’s Caleb Williams has done nothing to hurt his chances of becoming the first repeat Heisman winner since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975. Washington’s Michael Penix has followed up a fantastic 2022 with a strong showing so far and CU’s Shedeur Sanders has had an impressive start to his FBS career.
Sanders, Williams and Penix are second, third and fourth nationally in passing yards. Williams leads in touchdown passes and pass efficiency with Penix checking in at fourth and eighth, respectively.
It should be fun when Williams and USC visit Boulder on September 30. Likewise, when Williams and Penix meet at the Coliseum on November 4. (The Buffs and Huskies do not meet.)
The lead story early on, of course, is the attention Colorado’s 2-0 start has generated under Deion Sanders. The win over TCU vaulted the Buffaloes into the top 25 for the first time in a full season since 2018 when Mike McIntyre’s team started 5-0 and climbed to No. 19 before losing its final seven games. A second-half demolition of visiting Nebraska last week has Colorado perched at No. 18, the program’s highest ranking since concluding a 10-win 2016 season at No. 17.
They are feeling pretty good in Pullman as well thanks to Washington State’s win over the Badgers, which lifted the Cougars into the rankings at No. 23. Washington State, which along with Oregon State is facing an uncertain future, cracked the top 25 for the first time since midway through the 2019 season.
The Pac-12 had three teams in the top 12 of last year’s final CFP rankings. That would be great in 2024 when the playoff expands to 12 teams, but it was a mere footnote last season thanks to Utah being the highest ranked at No. 8 and on the outside looking in. USC was No. 10 and Washington was No. 12.
The Trojans were in position to become the third Pac-12 program to make the playoff. Lincoln Riley’s team was No. 4 heading into the conference title game against the Utes and promptly lost by 23. It was the type of defeat that has been a theme for a conference that often has had to rest its hat on one team, at most.
Another example was Oregon in 2021. The Ducks were No. 3 going into the next-to-last game of the regular season. A 38-7 embarrassment at the hands of Utah took care of any CFP chance the conference had and rendered a rematch two weeks later in the conference title game – a 38-10 Utes win – inconsequential as far as the playoff picture.
It was the Utes who were No. 5 in the CFP rankings heading into the 2019 conference championship tilt. A win over Oregon, which at No. 13 was out of playoff contention, might have lifted them into the playoff given that No. 4 Georgia lost to eventual national champ LSU in the SEC championship. Instead, Utah lost by 22 points. That allowed No. 6 Oklahoma, an overtime winner against No. 7 Baylor in the Big 12 championship, to claim the final playoff spot. (The Sooners may still have snagged the fourth spot if the Utes defeated the Ducks in unimpressive fashion. We will never know.)
What we know is that the Pac-12 is off to a very impressive start in 2023 and has been creating plenty of buzz in this final season for the conference as we know it.