The Pac-12 will miss the College Football Playoff again this year.
This isn’t meant to sound negative. The statement is meant to capture the difficulty of the coming season for the conference.
It can easily be argued that the Pac-12 has the toughest road ahead of any Power Five league. The Pac will need a lot of help if it is to make the playoffs and not miss out for the second year in a row. This is a testament to the overall strength and depth of the conference, but it’s also an indication that the league lacks a clear-cut power who can rise to the playoff. While every other Power Five conference has a team or two peering down on its rivals, the Pac-12 is bereft of that.
Just take a look.
The SEC has Alabama. The SEC has not been very good the past two seasons, but Alabama has been strong enough to avoid a season-crushing second loss. Losing only one game, even in a comparatively weaker conference when measured against 2011 or 2012, has safely ushered the Tide to the playoff. Bama — perhaps more than any other team in the country — will get the benefit of the doubt in a playoff debate with other one-loss teams.
The ACC could send either Florida State or Clemson or — if the stars align in a most unlikely manner — even both. The Big Ten boasts Ohio State and Michigan State (and maybe Michigan). Oklahoma is the unanimous leader in Big 12 country — the conference might not be that great, especially with Baylor in trouble, but it has that “one team” which can soar above the rest.
Most point to Stanford, citing dynamo Christian McCaffrey as the reason, but beyond McCaffrey, you’d be hard-pressed to find many outside of Palo Alto who can name another potential playmaker on the Cardinal. Coach David Shaw is the second-best asset on the team, but he dons a headset, not a helmet. One player is not enough to carry a team to the playoff. Heck, Ohio State featured three future NFL players at the same position and still couldn’t make it last season.
UCLA is option two. “Josh Rosen!!!”, Bruin fans will scream. But then what?
The underperforming 8-5 team of 2015 has graduated eight players to the NFL, and now the Bruins must fill those holes with eight relatively unproven players. Enough to make a bowl game? Absolutely. Possibly even win the Pac-12 title. Enough to make the playoff? Unlikely.
The playoff has yet to feature a team with multiple losses. UCLA hasn’t lost fewer than two games in a season since 1982. Given the depth of the Pac-12 and the un-established talent on UCLA’s roster, expect it to stay that way.
The enigma, the potential sleeping giant, is USC. Loaded with more talent than arguably any team in the country – yes, even Alabama and Ohio State – the Trojans have all the pieces. Sure, their quarterback situation is still undecided, but are you really prepared to doubt a signal caller from Troy, whose family tree includes Cody Kessler, Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez, Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer?
There’s Adoree’ Jackson, one of the top defensive backs in the country, and Juju Smith-Schuster, one of the best receivers in the country. Ronald Jones had the best rushing year of any freshman running back in USC history – not bad for a school that produced Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Marcus Allen, O.J. Simpson and Joe McKnight, among others – and he hardly received any carries.
Then again… this is USC. The program doesn’t struggle to pull in talent, but since Pete Carroll left, that talent hasn’t translated into success. Perhaps newly-minted head coach Clay Helton can reverse that narrative, though he still has much to prove. Under Helton’s guidance, USC still managed to drop last year’s Holiday Bowl to an underwhelming Wisconsin team, 23-21. It’s fair to wonder if he can manage to finish a full season without a vexing loss or two… or three.
There are too many “very good teams” (read: not quite great) in the Pac-12 for one to navigate the gauntlet of an entire season without multiple losses. Aside from the three leaders, a bunch of teams –Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Arizona State, even Cal – are all contenders, but playoff-caliber?
Don’t bet on it.
The Pac-12’s overall strength is what makes it such a phenomenal conference – virtually any team can win on any given night.
It’s also what will keep it from the College Football Playoff. Again.