When the first edition of the College Football Playoff kicked off without a Big 12 team, the league found itself suddenly in the middle of an existential crisis.
Expansion was discussed time again and time again. Tie-breaking procedures were finagled and clarified. Money was dumped by the truckload into consultants and marketing campaigns. Eventually, a conference title game — in a round-robin league, no less — was agreed upon just to give the Big 12 an extra boost when it came to making college football’s final four.
While getting left out of the College Football Playoff in 2016 was disappointing for the Pac-12, the league isn’t gearing up to question everything about itself in the wake of conference champion Stanford missing out on a semifinal game.
“Standing here today, looking at the incredible depth from top to bottom in our conference, I am confident no other conference has as many good teams as the Pac-12 this season,” commissioner Larry Scott said on Thursday to open up Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood, Calif. “I expect this is going to be as exciting and deep a season as the Pac- 12 has had.”
What remains to be seen is if that tune holds true among the national conversation in December. No school made it into the top 10 of Athlon Sports’ Top 25 and the number of tough non-conference games the Pac-12 has during Week 1 could put the league out of the Playoff race by the first Sunday of the season.
That doesn’t mean Pac-12 football won’t be worth watching, just that there’s quite the uphill battle to not be on the outside looking in (again) when the Selection Committee makes their picks.
“With only a four-team Playoff, of course you worry about teams beating each other up,” added Scott. “But the philosophy in our conference and amongst our schools has always been to schedule tough, take on all comers, and if a team deserves to be in the playoff, they will be.
“With the advent of the College Football Playoff, we know that in any given year, there will be teams with similar records, and a determining factor that the College Football Playoff Selection Committee will make is based on strength of schedule. So our conference very much prides itself for a variety of reasons on playing the toughest schedule.”
If it seems like Scott is already laying the groundwork to campaign the Selection Committee based on the depth of the Pac-12 later this year, that’s because he is.
Stanford was picked by the media to win the league for the first time in 56 years and is headlined by Heisman Trophy favorite Christian McCaffrey. Washington has become a trendy pick out West under Chris Petersen and the Huskies’ Pacific Northwest rival Oregon is re-tooling on defense with the addition of former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke.
Both USC and UCLA are, as always, stocked with four- and five-star talent. Washington State returns perhaps the most complete team during Mike Leach’s tenure on the Palouse as well. The conference is so deep that it seems entirely possible that the entire Pac-12 South will make an appearance in the Top 25 polls at some point.
But is there a great team among all the ones we think will be good in 2016? Somebody who can truly make a run at the national title?
It’s possible and there is no shortage of candidates as summer winds down and fall camps begin. Things out West are, however, complicated by the fact that the Pac-12 has a history of underachieving teams pulling off an upset that ruins national championship aspirations.
“The Pac-12 is more talented now than it ever has been in its history,” Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “That’s what makes it so difficult to defend.”
There were plenty of similar upbeat statements dished out on Thursday as the league officially kicked off the season. The Pac-12 appears confident of its place in the sport at the moment and there’s even an inkling outside the Hollywood Walk of Fame that that the conference could be the first one to sneak in a two-loss team into a semifinal at the end of the year.
The sky isn’t falling in the Pac-12 after getting left out of the Playoff last year but it will be interesting to see if such rosy, forward-thinking talk continues if Scott’s league finds itself on the outside looking in again in 2016.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.