In the seven seasons since the College Football Playoff era began, the PAC-12 has been poorly represented, earning a top-four ranking only twice. Oregon represented the conference in the inaugural year, then again with Washington during the 2016/17 season. Much has been said about the conference’s perceived weakness when stacked up against its counterparts in the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, and ACC during these seven seasons. Still, the potential expanded playoff selection would give the west’s best an opportunity to buck that perception.
Under the proposed model, the six highest-ranked conference champions would receive an automatic bid, with an additional six at-large bids being awarded to the highest-ranked non-champions. The top four teams will receive a first-round bye, with 5-12 battling to move on. The biggest winner here is the “Group of Five” conferences, who would be guaranteed at least one team after the Power Five clinch their spots, but the PAC-12 benefits greatly as well. Here’s how each season would have looked if this format was initially adopted:
2014 - Bye: Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State
First Round: Baylor vs Boise State, TCU vs Kansas State, Mississippi State vs Arizona, Michigan State vs Ole Miss
2015 - Bye: Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State, Oklahoma
First Round: Iowa vs Houston, Stanford vs TCU, Ohio State vs North Carolina, Notre Dame vs Florida State
2016 - Bye: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Washington
First Round: Penn State vs Western Michigan, Michigan vs Florida State, Oklahoma vs Colorado, Wisconsin vs USC
2017 - Bye: Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama
First Round: Ohio State vs UCF, Wisconsin vs Washington, Auburn vs Miami, USC vs Penn St
2018 - Bye: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma
First Round: Georgia vs Penn State, Ohio State vs LSU, Michigan vs Florida, UCF vs Washington
2019 - Bye: LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma
First Round: Georgia vs Memphis, Oregon vs Utah, Baylor vs Penn State, Wisconsin vs Florida
2020 - Bye: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame
First Round: Texas A&M vs Coastal Carolina, Oklahoma vs Indiana, Florida vs Iowa State, Cincinnati vs Georgia
Notably, the PAC-12 would have likely been the first P5 conference to miss the playoffs in the 2020 season with Cincinnati out of the American and Coastal Carolina out of the Sun Belt both finishing higher in the rankings than PAC-12 champion Oregon; however, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overlooked, especially considering the conference’s initial approach, including a delayed and incredibly abbreviated season. Furthermore, it is possible the committee would have nixed Coastal Carolina, whose conference championship game was canceled, allowing Oregon to slide into the 12 spot. Regardless, a 12-team format would take the PAC-12 from two appearances in the playoffs to being well-represented nearly every season and evening the playing field within the P5. In fact, when compared against the rest of the P5, the narrative of the PAC-12 falling behind becomes harder to justify. While the Big 10 sees the most benefit of the 12 team playoff, averaging 2.8 teams per season, the SEC is (unsurprisingly) not far behind with 2.7 teams on average. From there however, the rest of the field is fairly even with the Big 12 placing 1.7 teams, the PAC-12 with 1.5 and the ACC with 1.4. Thus, if the committee decided to give Oregon the nod over Coastal Carolina in 2020, that number rises to 1.7 teams on average, matching the Big 12.
Within the PAC-12, Washington would have benefited the most from a 12 team playoff, having three appearances, with Oregon and USC with two each. Overall, the north and south divisions would have been represented five times each over the last seven years, with Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington State and Cal being the only teams in the conference to miss the playoffs, meaning that the conference is not only well-represented most seasons, but the depth of the conference is showcased by rotating new teams in year after year.
Where things get sticky for the PAC-12 is expansion in the age of a 12-team playoff. With a 14 team roster, the Big 10 is clearly benefiting from a larger conference, having more representation than any other conference under a hypothetical 12-team playoff. Other conferences will surely take note of that, especially since incoming commissioner George Kliavkoff has already expressed interest in pursuing the idea of expansion. With six conference champions being guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, the Group of Five will finally be guaranteed representation in each season’s playoffs. No one knows what a possible expanded conference would look like, but joining the PAC-12 becomes a harder sell for many candidates like Boise State or San Diego State. Geographically speaking, both schools would fit in well and would add a slight uptick in athletic competition, though neither bring the conference to any bigger media markets. The problem becomes, why would a Boise State-caliber program jump ship to a stronger conference when they now have a much easier path to the playoffs within the Mountain West? Even a BYU program, who would undoubtedly seek conference affiliation in an expanded playoff landscape, would be better off joining the ranks of the Mountain West or American than a PAC-12 or Big 12, unless keeping up with Utah’s rising star is a bigger priority than building their own legacy as a dominant G5 program.
This would leave the PAC-12 poaching prospective schools from the plains region instead. Kansas doesn’t add much football-wise, but a basketball conference that features Kansas, UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon is an interesting prospect. Adding the Kansas City market is beneficial in regards to the media footprint and recruiting. Nebraska would then become another potential target, alongside Oklahoma State. UNLV, a current member of the Mountain West, might be the only viable G5 candidate as their football program is far behind the likes of Boise State and BYU, so a playoff push isn’t even on their radar, however getting into the Las Vegas market, which is only growing larger each year, would be a logical move for a conference that is clearly looking to make that region home in the very near future.
The CFP-era hasn’t been kind to the PAC-12, but playoff expansion is the perfect lifeline to bolster an otherwise sinking brand and a move that benefits a Utah program that has quietly become a consistent top 25 team over the last seven seasons, even as a conference championship eludes them. The 2019 loss to Oregon sure would have stung less knowing a repeat matchup in the playoffs with hopes of redemption was on the horizon.