The Pac-12's College Football Playoff drought is a result of the conference's defining trait
Sports leagues of all sorts strive for parity, yet few achieve it. In college football, it's fair to assume 130 fan bases long for a national championship featuring someone, anyone other than Alabama or Clemson. And yet, the college football conference that has most embodied parity suffers for it.
The Pac-12 stakes its reputation to unpredictability, upsets and wild finishes. #Pac12AfterDark has become the conference's most positive bit of branding at a time when the conference sustains heaps of criticism — some of it deserved, some not. And yet, ironically, that celebrated trait fuels one of the most oft-cited knocks on the league, its lack of College Football Playoff participation.
A four-team postseason is guaranteed to exclude one of the Power 5 conferences; anyone who played musical chairs growing up gets the concept. And the Pac-12's exclusion might be a bit overstated in context. With Oregon and Washington appearing in 2014 and '16, the conference has just one fewer season of representation than the Big Ten and Big 12. The Pac-12 and Big Ten both opened 2019 on similar quote-unquote droughts as well, missing each of the last two, and the Big Ten hasn't sent its champion since '15.
Now, it's no coincidence those three conferences all three play nine-game conference schedules. League play lends itself to upsets more frequently than non-conference — just look at Ohio State's playoff-denying defeats to Iowa and Purdue over the last two years. Even for Playoff era juggernauts Alabama and Clemson with the eight-game schedule, the upset bug has bitten: Clemson lost on Friday the 13th 2017 at Syracuse, and Alabama dropped games to Ole Miss in 2014 and 2015. The latter may well have costed the Crimson Tide a Playoff berth, were it not for Arkansas pulling off a miracle fourth-down conversion against Ole Miss later that year. That denied the Rebels a shot at an SEC title Alabama instead won.
In the Pac-12's context, conference play providing inherently more opportunity for upset narrows the nine-game leagues' margin for error. Might the Pac-12 have a better shot at the playoff with a collectively weaker schedule, including fewer conference games?
"Every time we've discussed that question," said commissioner Larry Scott at Pac-12 media day in July, "The important principles of having a tough schedule, playing as many teams as possible in the league, challenging yourself have been the overriding principles that have defined what our campuses want to do."
Of course, the nine games vs. eight discussion isn't exclusive to the Pac-12. The Pac-12's playoff concern as it pertains to conference play is: Pac-12 After Dark.
Pac-12 After Dark unofficially began in September 2014 when Arizona completed an 18-point comeback in 3:30 against Cal on Anu Solomon's Hail Mary heave to Austin Hill. Twelve days later, the Wildcats stunned Oregon at Autzen Stadium to kick off a weekend including Arizona State's Jael Mary defeat of USC and Utah shocking a UCLA team with national championship aspirations at the Rose Bowl.
Five years later, #Pac12AfterDark continues as strongly as it when began — perhaps stronger. UCLA came back from an even larger margin this past Saturday night compared to Arizona's rally vs. Cal in 2014. The Bruins fell behind at No. 19-ranked Washington State 49-17 in the third quarter before a four-touchdown deluge set up a fourth-quarter, back-and-forth, thrilling finish.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson's five touchdown pass were four fewer than Anthony Gordon's Washington State-record nine — add two rushing scores, and DTR still had fewer scores than Gordon — but he accounted for the last and most important one. Demetric Felton's touchdown reception and Keisean Lucier-South's ensuing forced fumble sack put the finishing touches on another classic installment of the Pac-12's defining recipe for league parity.
Just about every mystery in football should have a mathematic or scientific explanation. Perhaps until the professors at one of the 12 universities allocate the resources to cracking the code of #Pac12AfterDark, however, we have to assume something cosmic goes into effect when the sun goes down out West.
Examining the last five seasons-and-change, all in the playoff era and each since the concept entered the college football lexicon, far more wins for lower-ranked teams in conference play occur at games ending during the nighttime window. Of course, the Pac-12 plays more of these games for the sake of television exposure. But even at that, even the most casual of observers can detail just how weird these night games tend to get.
Here's the overview; times are Eastern, with italics indicating games that ended before night, and bold indicating outcomes that effectively denied a Pac-12 team a playoff opportunity.
Arizona 31, No. 2 Oregon 24 — 10:30 p.m.
Arizona State 38, No. 16 USC 34 — 7:30 p.m.
Utah 30, No. 8 UCLA 28 — 10:30 p.m.
USC 28, No. 10 Arizona 26 — 10:30 p.m.
Oregon State 35, No. 7 Arizona State 27 — 10:45 p.m.
Stanford 31, No. 9 UCLA 10 — 12:30 p.m.
No. 18 Utah 62, No. 13 Oregon 20 — 10:30 p.m.
Arizona State 38, No. 7 UCLA 23 — 7:30 p.m.
Washington 17, No. 17 USC 12 — 9 p.m.
UCLA 40, No. 20 Cal 24 — 9 p.m.
USC 42, No. 3 Utah 24 — 7:30 p.m.
Oregon 38, No. 7 Stanford 36 — 7:30 p.m.
Arizona 37, No. 10 Utah 30 (OT) — 10 p.m.
Washington State 31, No. 18 UCLA 27 — 10:45 p.m.
No. 10 Washington 44, No. 7 Stanford 6 — 9 p.m.
Cal 28, No. 18 Utah 23 — 3 p.m.
USC 21, No. 21 Colorado 17 — 1 p.m.
Washington State 42, No. 15 Stanford 16 — 10:30 p.m.
USC 26, No. 4 Washington 13 — 7:30 p.m.
Oregon 30, No. 11 Utah 28 — 2 p.m.
Arizona State 37, No. 24 Oregon 35 — 10 p.m.
No. 16 Washington State 30, No. 5 USC 27 — 10:30 p.m.
Stanford 23, No. 20 Utah 20 — 10:15 p.m.
Cal 37, No. 8 Washington 3 — 10:30 p.m.
Arizona State 13, No. 5 Washington 7 — 10:45 p.m.
Arizona 58, No. 15 Washington State 37 — 9:30 p.m.
Washington State 24, No. 18 Stanford 21 — 3:30 p.m.
Stanford 30, No. 9 Washington 22 — 10:30 p.m.
No. 15 Washington 41, No. 14 Washington State 14 — 8 p.m.
Utah 40, No. 14 Stanford 21 — 10:30 p.m.
No. 17 Oregon 30, No. 7 Washington 27 (OT) — 3:30 p.m.
USC 31, No. 19 Colorado 20 — 10:30 p.m.
No. 25 Washington State 34, No. 12 Oregon 20 — 7:30 p.m.
Cal 12, No. 15 Washington 10 — 6:30 p.m.
Arizona 44, No. 19 Oregon 15 — 10:30 p.m.
Arizona State 38, No. 16 Utah 20 — 4 p.m.
No. 16 Washington 28, No. 7 Washington State 15 — 8:30 p.m.
USC 45, No. 23 Stanford 20 — 7:30 p.m.
Cal 20, No. 14 Washington 19 — 7:30 p.m.; due to a lightning delay, ended at approximately 4 a.m.
USC 30, No. 10 Utah 23 — 9 p.m.
UCLA 67, No. 19 Washington State 63 — 10:30 p.m.
And if there isn't something cosmic behind Pac-12 After Dark, it sure feels like it. Last season, Washington State was a win over rival Washington away from reaching its first Pac-12 Championship Game, having already survived a late-night loss at USC. The Huskies came to Pullman, and so did a snowstorm that dumped powder all over Martin Stadium — not the conditions best for running a pass-heavy offense.
Washington's loss earlier this season to Cal, the Pac-12's shocking last undefeated team standing, ended at about 4 a.m. Eastern due to a lightning delay.
But then there's an angle that isn't anything cosmic: Friday night scheduling. College football's collective shift from Thursday as its primary non-traditional day of competition to Friday has also deviated in scheduling philosophy. Teams typically play Thursday contests coming off a bye week; these Friday games are played on six days' rest.
Highly ranked Pac-12 teams have struggled in these Friday games, and most of them have been the road team. A Friday in Pullman doomed USC's playoff hopes in 2017, but the Trojans reciprocated last season against Washington State in Los Angeles. Utah began Week 4 the most highly ranked Pac-12 team, and the one generating the conference's most early playoff buzz. It lost at USC last Friday.
Worth noting that sole Pac-12 unbeaten Cal plays this Friday at home against Arizona State.
If there's anything predictable about all this unpredictability, it's that a Pac-12 team suffering an early loss can rely on parity to give it a chance to win its division.
"I told them in the locker room, 'I'll bet you no one in the South goes undefeated,'" Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said following the 30-23 loss at USC. Whittingham cited the Utes starting their 2018 run to the Pac-12 Championship Game with an 0-2 mark after losing to Washington and Washington State. The latter visits Rice-Eccles Stadium in Week 5, in what could have been a top-15 showdown of 4-0 teams before Pac-12 After Dark intervened.
And Whittingham's assertion proved immediately prophetic.
The last unbeaten South team, Arizona State, lost on a late-game field goal to Colorado not long before the conclusion of UCLA's rally. Colorado lost the week prior to Air Force, one week removed from knocking off a nationally ranked Nebraska team.
As for any teams possibly running the table in the South division, don't bank on it. In fact, no Pac-12 team has gone through conference play perfect since the national runner-up Oregon Ducks in 2010. That was the final season before the Pac-10 expanded to 12.
All this parity and the abundance of unbelievable games make for an entertaining season, and it's why the conference's signature hashtag gained such prominence in short order. But it's a poor recipe for making the College Football Playoff. Which is more important depends on where one's priorities lie.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.