Pac-12 Looks to Reclaim Seat at CFP Table

From 2002-2014 the Pac-10 (expanded to 12 teams in 2011) conference boasted two perennial football national powers. The run began with the dynastic reign of Pete Carroll's USC Trojans, who went 82-9 from 2002-2008, appearing in seven straight New Year's Six bowls, including five Rose Bowls. The Men of Troy claimed a share of the 2003 national title, and lost one of college football's most legendary games in the 2004 title game versus Texas.

The changing of the guard on the West Coast began in earnest in 2008, when Mike Belloti's Oregon Ducks went 10-3 and rose as high as No. 10 in the AP poll, a season that tipped off a seven-year run of dominance for the Ducks. Oregon went 80-14 from 2008-2014, including three Rose Bowl appearances, a spot in a BCS title game, and an appearance in the College Football Playoff.

Since then, however, the Pac-12 conference has taken a back seat on the national stage, sending just one team (2016 Washington Huskies) to the CFP. The conference has seen two teams that finished in the top four in the final AP Poll (2015 Stanford, 2016 USC) passed up by playoff voters, and to date the conference has only recorded one victory in the CFP.

While the Pac-12 still boasts the most national championships across all sports by a wide margin, men's water polo doesn't get quite the same attention as football. And not only does football shine a bright light on schools and improves recruiting of non-athlete students, it's a massive revenue generator. If you don't believe that money matters to universities, watch week two of the college football season, when the Middle Tennessee's of the world will take 50-point losses to SEC powerhouses just to collect a big check.

The Pac-12 is now widely seen as the weakest Power Five football conference, and it's going to take a tremendous season from one of the conference's top contenders to crash a party that has been dominated by Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, and Oklahoma in recent years.

The initial 2019 AP top 25 poll, released August 19th, features five Pac-12 schools: Oregon (11), Washington (13), Utah (15), Washington State (23), and Stanford (25). Four of the five teams reside in the Pac-12 North, so it's likely the conference will see at least a few of its preseason ranked schools fall out of the top 25 as they play one another throughout the season. Utah is the sole South division member, and the Utes could see little competition on their way to the Pac-12 title game unless the perennially enigmatic USC Trojans are able to drastically improve upon their 5-7 season from a year ago.

Let's take a closer look at the five top contenders in the Pac-12, and whether any has a real shot at cracking the elusive playoff.

Oregon

The Ducks enter the year as the prevailing favorite to win the Pac-12 title, and will return numerous veteran starters on both sides of the ball, in addition to headlining quarterback Justin Herbert, who shunned the NFL to return to Eugene for his senior season. The spotlight will shine bright on Oregon from the opening kickoff of the season, as they will travel to Jerry World to open the year against preseason No. 16 Auburn. In last year's opener, Oregon's top conference rival Washington saw their playoff hopes immediately evaporate in a Week 1 loss to the Tigers.

It doesn't get much easier for Oregon after that, as they will face tough road tests against Stanford, Washington, and USC as the season progresses. Should they survive these pivotal games away from the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium, and of course capture the conference title, the Ducks could position themselves to at least be in the hunt at season's end. That said, they'll still need some help at the top.

Washington

The Huskies have found themselves on the losing end of a major bowl game in each of the past three seasons, but the fact they've even re-entered the conversation as a perennial contender is a testament to the job Chris Petersen has done since taking the helm in 2014. Washington saw the departure to the NFL of several key defensive pieces, including All-American linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, and will begin 2019 with a quarterback not named Jake Browning under center for the first time since 2014. Taking over for Browning will be Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, who played in 13 games as a freshman for the Bulldogs, but has thrown just seven passes over the last two seasons.

Washington has the advantage of facing three of their toughest opponents of the season at home, as they will host Oregon, Utah, and Washington State in Seattle. That said, they still must travel to Stanford on October 5th, and can't exactly look past BYU in Provo on September 21st. The fate of the Pac-12 North will likely be decided on October 19th when the Huskies go head-to-head with Oregon, but in a division that could be highly contested, anything could happen.

Washington State
A pivotal Apple Cup loss derailed any hope Wazzou had of cracking a major bowl in 2018, but that crushing loss and a narrow defeat at the hands of a mediocre USC team in week four couldn't prevent the Cougars first 11-win season in school history. Mike Leach's high-flying bunch recorded the school's first double-digit win season in 15 years, and completed the resurrection of a program that bottomed out to a 5-32 record from 2008-2010.

They lost star quarterback Gardner Minshew to old age, ahem, graduation, and his replacement has yet to be determined less than two weeks away from the season opener against New Mexico State. The early favorite was sixth-year Eastern Washington graduate transfer Gage Gubrud, but he has been outplayed in the preseason by Minshew understudy Anthony Gordon, a redshirt senior himself. While Gubrud was highly accomplished in FCS, Gordon has the slight advantage of three years in the Leach system, in spite of very little in-game experience.

Regardless, Washington State will likely score points by the dozen again in 2019, and give up nearly as many. They'll face an uphill battle in road games against Utah, Oregon, and Washington, and the best non-conference opponent scheduled is Houston. Could be a fun team to watch, but a playoff run is highly unlikely.

Stanford

It's never flashy, but somehow year in, year out David Shaw's Stanford Cardinal manage to push their way into the picture. They've won nine or more games in eight of the past nine seasons, and once again look to be contenders in the North. While Oregon's Justin Herbert receives most of the attention as the Pac-12's biggest star quarterback, the Cardinal's K.J. Costello actually outperformed Herbert across several categories in 2018, including completion percentage, passing yards, QB rating, and yards per attempt.

Stanford lost a couple of stars on offense, with former Pac-12 offensive player of the year Bryce Love and Biletnikoff Award semi-finalist JJ Arcega-Whiteside departing for the NFL. Still, the Cardinal will host Northwestern, Oregon, Washington, and Notre Dame at home, and while Stanford Stadium isn't known as a particularly intimidating environment, Stanford could make a serious statement with wins in at least three of those contests. They're most likely a long-shot to make serious noise on the national scene, but could potentially throw a major monkey-wrench into the conference title aspirations of the Ducks and Huskies.

Utah

And last but certainly not least, the team the survivor of the north division will likely face in the Pac-12 title game, the Utah Utes. Coach Kyle Whittingham enters his 15th season at the helm of Utah, and will look to capture the school's second straight south division title. The Utes have developed a habit of suffering all of their losses in conference since joining the Pac-12, and as a result had never advanced to the conference championship game prior to last season. While Arizona State can be pesky, and the nation is in eager anticipation of a return to glory for USC, it's Utah's division to lose.

They will be led by their stout defense, but an offense that lacks explosiveness could prevent a trip to a major bowl. They'll kick off the year with the Holy War against BYU, one of the most underrated rivalry games in all of college football. It will be an immediate test that could set the tone for the rest of Utah's season, and is also their biggest non-conference game on the schedule.

Other key matchups will be a September 23rd home game against Washington State, and a November 2nd trip to Seattle to face Washington in what could be a potential preview of the Pac-12 title game. Even if the Utes fall to both Washington schools, a 10-2 regular season could be in reach, and an 11-1 record heading in to the Pac-12 title could put the team into an interesting position come December.

There you have it. I'll admit, it's a lot of type to come to the conclusion that a Pac-12 school reaching the CFP is still a long-shot, but not impossible. Two losses, and any of the teams above won't stand a chance. One loss, some impressive seasons by a few key non-conference opponents (cough, Notre Dame, cough) and something wacky happening in the SEC and Big Ten and suddenly the door could open. A lot of moving pieces, and regular season matchups that could turn the whole thing upside down.

Ah, the beauty of college football is nearly upon us.

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