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College Football Playoff scenarios: The Pac-12 is very much in the race

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But they have work to do.

Jonathan Ferrey

Yes, the Pac-12 enjoyed a week of cannibalism quite unlike any other featured. Yes, if things ended today, the Pac-12 is not likely to feature in a Final Four of the best in the country come January 1st.

But it's not the end of the season. There's still plenty of time for one team to emerge and get themselves to Pasadena. Let's take a look at why the Pac-12 shouldn't really fret about their playoff chances yet.

The Pac-12 might eat itself; the SEC West WILL eat itself

First of all, the SEC currently has three undefeated teams: Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn. These teams are all in the same division and have yet to play each other (Auburn and Mississippi State play this weekend), so at most only one can go undefeated.

If one of them escapes that gauntlet undefeated, then both Mississippi State and Auburn still have to get through Alabama, Auburn has to beat Georgia, etc..  Ole Miss may have passed the sternest test, but they still have five SEC West teams left on their schedule. Alabama might still be the favorites to win this division when its all said and done.

Had the SEC been more evenly distributed, with good teams coming from both sides of the table, then you might consider the two-team SEC playoff case a lot better. But while the SEC West champion can likely pencil themselves into the Final Four (if they win the SEC championship, which would add another layer of disorder to the proceedings), it's not quite as likely that the runner-up can do the same.

It would probably require an LSU-Alabama 2012 situation for two SEC West teams to get in-one team being unbeaten or with one loss, the other team with a narrow loss to first team. And people still remember that LSU-Alabama game, which was an anti-climactic, unsatisfying affair that led to plenty of SEC jeers. It will take a whole lot of chaos and a CLEAR delineation that these are two of the top four teams in the country for anyone to really consider the possibility of a rematch.

The Pac-12 has clear contenders from the North and the South at the moment. That balance will come in handy down the road.

The Big 12 plays a round robin, and they lack a conference title game

The Big 12 has not accelerated into chaos yet, but don't expect that to last long. Everyone in the Big 12 plays each other, meaning only one team can be undefeated at the end of the year. Only Baylor and TCU are left among the unbeatens, and they play each other this weekend. And the winner is hardly guaranteed anything: Baylor still has to deal with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State  and Kansas State, with the Oklahoma game in Norman. TCU actually has a favorable schedule (road dates against Texas, West Virginia and Iowa State are nothing to fear), but they are big dogs in Waco this week.  That leaves the door open for Oklahoma or Oklahoma State too.

So is hard to imagine an undefeated Big 12 team in this round robin, and given that they don't play a conference title game, they won't get that extra win that the Pac-12 gets either. Given that the Pac-12 has the stronger conference perception, a two-loss Big 12 champion is going to be eliminated against a two-loss Pac-12 champion, and a one-loss Big 12 champion might be dead even. We shall see.

Florida State is probably in the best shape of anyone, but...


The Seminoles aren't quite the same as they were in previous seasons. Their defense was undoubtedly the best in the country last year-they are now a solid unit vulnerable to big plays. One loss opens them up to all sorts of scrutiny.

That being said, of all the one-loss non-SEC teams out there, Florida State would probably still make it (that national championship cache is too strong), and almost everything projects to them winning the ACC as either an undefeated or a one-loss squad. Notre Dame is the sternest test left (and an Irish victory wouldn't be the greatest thing for the Pac-12 either; see below), and only Louisville and Virginia figure to offer any sort of challenge before the conference title game. A lot would have to come undone for them to lose two, although who knows what Jameis Winston will come up for his next act.

Four conference champions for the Playoff is still the likeliest scenario.


Perhaps if computers were deciding who was to be in the College Football Playoff, this would very much end up with an SEC-heavy unit.  But this is a Selection Committee, and the Pac-12 is well represented and will definitely have its case heard out. Additionally, the four conference champion selection would be the least likely to ruffle feathers around the country (well, ESPN might be mad, but other than that...), and I doubt the Selection Committee wants t start off their tenure with controversy and become as maligned as the BCS out of the gate.

And as it's looking like things will be particularly close come December (as it appears to be a 2007-type season), the selection committee will not likely ruffle feathers with the rest of the country and put two SEC teams into the final race.

And if it comes down to four conference champions, the Pac-12 will be represented. At present, the Big 12, SEC, and ACC are their main competition, and the Pac-12 is arguably stronger than two of those conferences. The B1G is out of this race unless Ohio State and Michigan State run the table and one of these conference championships comes in with two losses, and even then it'll be pretty close-their non-conference performance was appalling.

Really, the biggest danger is Notre Dame. An undefeated (and maybe even a one-loss) Notre Dame will throw a wrench into all the proceedings and almost certainly deal a grievous blow to the Pac-12's Playoff hopes. It's imperative for either Arizona State or USC to step up to the plate and take care of business at home to knock them out.

The Pac-12's strength of schedule will be a critical factor in getting them in

The SEC currently has the edge in strength-of-schedule, but each of them still has a cupcake or two left on the schedule, so that will go down. The Pac-12 is pretty much all Pac-12 from here on out, which means they will take the lead or at least co-lead with many of the SEC West contenders.

In 2013, the Pac-12 finished with the seven toughest schedules in college football and 12 of the top 31 (Stanford (1), ASU (2), Utah (3), Cal (4),  WSU (5),Colorado (6), UCLA (7), Washington (17) Oregon St. (18), USC (21), Oregon (29), Arizona (31) via Sagarin. National champion Florida State was 62nd, B1G champion Michigan State 51st, Big 12 champion Baylor 48th).

One of the Playoff Committee's guiding criteria is strength of schedule, and if it comes between a one/two-loss Pac-12 or one/two-loss Big 12 or one/two-loss B1G team, you can bet the Pac-12 team will have the edge. If the rest of the non-SEC conferences want their spot, they'd better stay ahead of the game.

That being said, someone from the Pac-12 has to assert itself


So a one or even two-loss Pac-12 team is likely to get in. Who can that team be?

That team could be Arizona. At the moment they have the most wiggle room for losses. But it's hard to see the Wildcats running the table, considering all their close-calls this season (their last four games have been decided by a touchdown or less and they needed a Hail Mary to win one of those games). They get USC this week, then have to go to Washington State (who they lost to last year) and UCLA (a critical Pac-12 South race). If they escape that gauntlet, they'll have it in their sights.

Arizona State proved that they're pretty good even with Taylor Kelly out, although it's looking like USC might not be that great. Now they get Kelly back for Stanford, and if they can pull out the win there, they are through the tough part of the schedule. Could the Duel in the Desert decide who gets that playoff spot?

Utah is intriguing. They have looked really good in everyone of their games and might have found themselves a quarterback. But their schedule is brutal. (USC, ASU, Oregon, Stanford, Arizona in the span of five weeks).

USC is nearly done. Even though they avoid Oregon, they play four of their final six Pac-12 games on the road, and it's hard to see this Trojans team beating Arizona, Utah and UCLA with the way their team is limping through some of these games.

Flying under the radar is Washington. If they can go into Autzen and beat Oregon and upset UCLA at home, they vault themselves into the conversation, as the rest of their schedule is manageable.  But they have a lot to prove before we can realistically consider it, since we have no idea how this team will perform on the road.

Stanford is barely in it. They'd have to win out and beat ASU, Oregon and UCLA on the road. If they do that and beat the Pac-12 South champion, they might wiggle their way back in thanks to having the best strength of schedule in the country.   But to ask this defense to roll off seven wins in a row is asking a lot. Stanford winning the Pac-12 again with the way their offense is currently performing would be a huge strike against the conference. Additionally, their loss to USC is looking pretty bad, and depending on Notre Dame to do well will only backfire on them when they take a playoff spot reserved for a Power 5 conference. They'd have to start going 2010 Cardinal gangbusters on everyone to realistically get a shot back at the table.

You might have to look back at the traditional favorites for your answer. Oregon and UCLA aren't really eliminating each other this week (although it probably feels like it); their remaining schedule leaves them plenty of wiggle room. Oregon will end the season as massive favorites in all but one of their remaining games (Stanford). UCLA should feel pretty confident about their road slate of Cal, Colorado and Washington and should be favored against Arizona and USC, although ending with Stanford would be a particularly brutal present. Oregon and UCLA have had issues with Arizona and Utah in previous years, so this could be counted as just bad matchups and might be dismissed with an entertaining display in the Rose Bowl this year.

It's not over for the Pac-12. The chaos just came early for the Conference of Champions, and it's about to come for everyone else.