USC, not Oregon, is the best bet for CFP contention

Instant reaction to Pac-12 developments in the field…

1. The path to the playoffs is narrowing

It’s October 23 and there are no perfect records left in the Pac-12.

Alone among the Power Five conferences, it has no undefeated teams after UCLA’s defensive no-show in a 45-30 loss to Oregon that was easy to see coming.

But the Pac-12 isn’t out of the college football playoff race, not with three teams one loss away.

The following evaluation of contenders assumes each team wins and wins the conference championship.

Utah
Best record: 11-2
CFP Perspectives: just on the other side of zero
Review: The Utes were effectively eliminated in early October when they stumbled at UCLA. No two-game losing team has made the cut in eight years of CFP, and the Pac-12 won’t be the conference to shift the paradigm.

Oregon
Best record: 12-1
CFP prospects: weak but detectable
Rating: We’re hesitant to rule out the Ducks entirely because any one-time losing Power Five champion will be considered. But the magnitude of the season opener against Georgia will not be easily overcome. There’s no way to turn 49-3 no matter how impressively the Ducks perform on the stretch. And if Georgia claims the No. 1 seed, they don’t stand a chance. Because that No. 1 vs. No. 4 matchup would be completely untenable.

UCLA
Best record: 12-1
CFP outlook: north of thin, south of solid.
Conclusion: The Bruins would have three obstacles to overcome with the selection committee: 1) The loss of 15 points against a team (Oregon) which lost to Georgia by 46 points; 2) The flexible schedule outside the conference; and 3) The impact of this non-conference schedule on their overall resume. The Bruins would likely only have three wins over teams in the final CFP standings (Utah, USC and their opponent in the conference title game). We are not sure that is enough.

2. Best bet for PCP

We separated USC from the other contenders because Trojans are, in fact, on a different level – a higher level.

They have a much better chance of qualifying for the CFP than Utah, Oregon or UCLA.

Why? Because USC is the only team that can finish 12-1 and avoid Georgia spot.

Think of it like this in the best-case scenarios described above:

Utah would have two losses; Oregon would have lost to the Bulldogs by 46 points; and UCLA would have lost to the team that lost to Georgia by 46 points.

But as a 12-1 conference champion, the Trojans would have either beaten Oregon in the Pac-12 title game or avoided playing the Ducks.

Their resume would have immunity, so to speak.

Many observers were quick to dismiss the Trojans after the one-point loss at Utah, and that was a big mistake.

If they beat UCLA on Nov. 19, beat Notre Dame on Nov. 26, and then beat either Oregon or Utah in the conference title game, the Trojans will be given serious consideration by the selection committee.

Also working in their favour, and never to ignore: brand bias.

It exists, even in a space as objective as the selection committee’s conference room. And you can bet your bottom dollar that USC at a loss, with Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams, would have plenty of support.

Whether USC made the cut in this situation would depend on the competition — how many teams are zero and one loss from other Power Five leagues.

It’s October 23 and there are no perfect records left in the Pac-12.

But the conference stays alive in the playoff race as long as USC doesn’t lose again.

3. Bowl math, post-season paths

Oregon, Oregon State and Washington became playoff eligible on Saturday, joining Los Angeles schools to give the conference five qualifying teams.

At this point in the 2021 season, after the games on Saturday October 23, there was one team eligible for the bowl.

(That’s right. After eight weeks of play, only Oregon had reached the six-win mark.)

Teams currently eligible for bowling, by conference:

VAC: four
Big 12: two
Big Ten: five
Pac-12: five
DRY: five

But it’s a zero-sum game in the conference game. As the top half of the Pac-12 continues to thrive — that’s USC, UCLA, Oregon, OSU, Utah and Washington — the bottom six face ever-narrower paths to eligibility for the Pac-12. bowl.

Of teams with more than two losses, only Washington State (4-3) has a reasonable road to six wins.

For Cal, Stanford, ASU, Arizona and, of course, Colorado, the challenge is daunting.

4. Impressive Barrage

Of the five teams that have clinched berths in the bowl, Oregon State‘s success is the most impressive given each program’s resources, tradition and recruiting base.

Everything is harder in Corvallis – the margin of error with recruiting and injuries is a fraction of what’s in Seattle, Eugene and Los Angeles.

Still, coach Jonathan Smith continues to make sound personnel assessments and maximize the talent available.

In that regard, we see clear parallels to Utah State’s program in the 2015-17 window under Kyle Whittingham, another head coach who is making expert use of his talent.

At the time, the Utes had upgraded their roster to Pac-12 standards and were playing as close to their potential as anyone in the conference, but they were a step below top-tier teams.

A final recruiting push injected enough talent into the roster to win the Southern title in 2018, followed by a repeat in 2019 and the conference crown in 2021.

Will Oregon State make a similar leap under Smith?

5. Life on the farm

Two weeks ago, Stanford gave up an unlikely touchdown in the final seconds, lost heartbreakingly to Oregon State and fell to 1-4 with a timid, injury-riddled talent roster that seemed destined in 11th place.

But thanks to improved defense and a softening of the schedule, the Cardinal has corrected his course and owns a two-game winning streak after beating Notre Dame 16-14 and Arizona State 15-14.

Two games, 31 combined points and two wins.

Now Stanford is 3-4 overall with outside shooting in the playoffs. The remaining schedule features two steep challenges (Utah and UCLA) but three winnable games (WSU, Cal and BYU).

If the Cardinal had simply managed to keep Oregon State out of the end zone in the final 30 seconds on Oct. 8, he would have a three-game winning streak and be living on the .500 high side.


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