It isn’t even week one yet and the Pac-12 is already off the an embarrassing start to the 2019 season. Let’s not overreact to one game, but it is not a good look for the Pac-12 to lose to non-Power Five teams. The Arizona Wildcats were the lone Pac-12 team to play in week 0, playing at the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, falling 45-38, when quarterback Khalil Tate came up a yard short of tying the game on the final play and sending it to overtime. This loss marks Arizona’s sixth to a Group of Five team in the College Football Playoff era, which ranks as the second-most behind only the Kansas Jayhawks seven such losses.
Arizona is a team with many issues. They looked undisciplined throughout the game, especially illustrated by multiple receivers standing around in the end zone rather than trying to throw a block to help Tate gain one extra yard to extend the game. On the defensive side of the ball, Arizona could not make adjustments to stop Hawaii’s five wide receiver look and left multiple receivers open deep. If it was not for Cole McDonald’s terrible decision making at times and inconsistent accuracy, this game could have been ugly (Hawaii had six turnovers to Arizona’s two). The Wildcats have given up over 40 points in their last three games (all losses). The Arizona coaching staff again looks questionable after a first game loss to a non-Power Five team, and one has to wonder if Kevin Sumlin and his staff are the right fit to lead Arizona.
Again, one loss by a bad Pac-12 team in week 0 will not sink the Pac-12, but the conference already is dealing with a perception issue, and Arizona’s loss certainly did not help. The Pac-12 needs to turn around the perception that it is one of the weaker, if not the weakest, Power Five conferences. The Pac-12 has missed the College Football Playoff in three of the first five years and has only won one Playoff game, and that was the Oregon Ducks win in the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014. The Pac-12’s one Playoff win is better than the Big XII, which has yet to win a single Playoff game, but Oklahoma has made the Playoff in back-to-back seasons and has had back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners, which helps conference perception. The ACC is terrible outside of the Clemson Tigers right now, but no one cares because Clemson is the defending National Champions.
If the Oregon Ducks can defeat the Auburn Tigers in week one, that will go a long way to help Pac-12 perception. ESPN’s College Gameday will be at the AdvoCare Classic being played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The nation’s eyes will be watching the only matchup of ranked teams in week one. The Washington Huskies lost to Auburn in week one last year, which severely hurt the Pac-12’s Playoff hopes in week one last year. While the Ducks winning would be huge for the conference, there are a few other important week one Pac-12 games. The Utah Utes are ranked in the preseason top 15 for the first time in school history. If they can dominate the rival BYU Cougars on the road, that would be a nice win for the conference (Arizona lost at BYU to start the year last year). The Stanford Cardinal host the Big Ten West reigning champions, the Northwestern Wildcats. Getting a win over another Power Five team in nonconference play would again help the Pac-12’s perception, especially if Northwestern can repeat as the Big Ten West champions. The Oregon State Beavers host the Oklahoma State Cowboys, but I do not think many expect OSU to even be competitive against OSU (funnily enough, this is the second year in a row that Oregon State has played a team with the same OSU initials, they played the Ohio State Buckeyes last year), so a loss there really would not hurt the conference perception.
If a Pac-12 team can run the table in 2019, they will make the Playoff. However, if the Pac-12 Champion is 12-1 or especially 11-2 or worse, the conference will likely be left out of the Playoff. This might not be of huge concern to Utah fans right now (unless it is Utah at 12-1), but the weak perception of the conference is causing much of the best high school talent in the west to leave the region. A change in perception is needed for the top teams in the Pac-12 to help them keep talent around (which has been a problem for Utah). Utah has a chance for a special season, and it would be good for the Utes if the rest of the Pac-12 performs well in non-conference play to help the perception of the league come the end of the season. It could mean a better bowl destination for the Utes.