Since the inception of the College Football Playoff in 2014, the Pac-12 has only featured two teams in the final four format. They were the Oregon Ducks in 2014, who lost in the National Championship, and the Washington Huskies in 2016, who lost to Alabama in the semifinal.
The Pac-12 was left out again in 2019, prompting Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott to publicly express his frustration with the four-team Playoff. He said that the Pac-12 has been on the “outside looking in” because their conference champion is not automatically included in the Playoff. Scott said the Pac-12’s relationship with the four-team playoff was “harmful to our positioning, our brand and everything we’ve got.”
No one knows what exactly the Playoff committee is looking for — their standards change seemingly every year — but it’s clear they want one-loss conference champions at worst. Scott’s argument about getting shut out of the Playoff is null because Utah very likely would have made it if they didn’t get walloped by Oregon in the conference championship. Moreover, Oregon may have made the Playoff over Oklahoma if not for their away loss to Arizona State. If the Pac-12 had a one-loss conference champion, they would have made the playoff.
Scott suggested an eight-team Playoff instead of the current four-team model. This would presumably include automatic bids for the five major conference champions. The additional three spots would likely be at-large. If this had been used in 2019, the automatic bids would be LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma and Oregon, and at-large bids, according to the final Playoff rankings, going to Georgia, Baylor and Wisconsin.
If there was any year to advocate for the eight-team Playoff, this is not it. Selecting the Playoff field this year was the easiest it’s ever been. LSU, Ohio State and Clemson were all undefeated conference champs who blew the doors off every opponent this season. Oklahoma isn’t quite in their same class, but they were an easy call because Utah and Oregon both had two losses, Alabama lost to Auburn, and there weren’t any dominant Group of 5 teams like UCF in 2017.
There are certainly arguments to be made about having an eight-team Playoff. There would be a significant increase in Playoff revenue, every Power 5 conference champion would have a spot, and maybe even Group of 5 teams would be included. But Scott’s argument in the context of this season doesn’t make any sense. The Pac-12 would have been included if their best teams didn’t screw up.
Considering Scott’s argument, it’s ironic that the Pac-12 has made the Playoff every year the conference champion had a decent case. Oregon was one-loss champ with a fluky loss at Arizona and they made it as a 2-seed. Washington was undefeated in 2016, beat the hell out of #8 Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship and made it as a 4-seed. Every other year, the Pac-12 champ has had two or three losses, and never has a two-loss team made the Playoff.
What’s really happening in the Pac-12 is that (1) there aren’t any elite teams in the conference, (2) everyone is at least competitive, so anyone can beat anyone, and (3) the Pac-12 is notorious for cannibalizing.
Part of the Pac-12 lacking elite teams is symbolic of their slight downturn from the mid-2000s and early-2010s. USC was the dominant team in the conference, but they have been derailed by all sorts of administrative blunders. Oregon was terrific in the Chip Kelly era, but Mark Helfrich didn’t maintain that fine-tuned machine. There’s also the issue that Stanford always slipped up in their heyday, Washington never had a consistent offense, and this version of Utah had one bad game.
The Pac-12 has fallen off slightly because they’re not beating other nationally prominent teams. The simplest reason is that no Pac-12 team has been able to compete at the line of scrimmage with anyone from the SEC, ACC and Big Ten. Aside from the small hotbeds in Nevada and Utah, there aren’t many blue chip linemen on the West Coast anymore. It’s hard to compete nationally if you aren’t winning in the trenches. Go back and watch the 2011 National Championship, when Nick Fairley destroyed Oregon’s line single-handedly. The 2016 Huskies dominated the Pac-12 because of their line play, but there thrown around by an Alabama defensive line that had six future NFL players.
The Pac-12’s history of cannibalizing starts with the lack of elite teams and that everyone in the conference is at least competitive. Every team in the Pac-12 South has won the division since 2011, and really only Colorado has had years of ineptitude. In the North, Oregon State is really the only basement dweller, but everyone else alternates between really good and plucky underdog (hey, Cal). Once you throw in the naturally chaotic nature of the Pac-12 on top of the 9-game conference schedule, it’s just hard to go through a season unscathed.
There are many problems going on in the Pac-12. The four-team Playoff isn’t nearly as much of a problem as the talent discrepancy between the best of the Pac-12 and the best of the rest. But Playoff expansion isn’t about inclusion for the Pac-12. It’s about money.
According to Forbes, the College Football Playoff pays each school who makes one of the final four spots a revenue share of $6 million. LSU is going to bring home over $2 million just for making the playoff. If they make the National Championship, they will pocket another $2 million, and the remaining 13 SEC teams will be rewarded $120K. Additionally, each Playoff-included conference will receive $4 million for each team that plays in a non-playoff bowl under the arrangement. The entire conference benefits not just financially, but in terms of reputation and audience exposure.
Talk of revenue and exposure is quite rich coming from a commission whose brainchild is the Pac-12 Networks. The Pac-12 having its own television channels was a major selling point for Colorado to join from the Big 12, and it was expected to be beneficial for everyone in the conference. But because Scott refuses to make a deal with satellite giant DirecTV, the Pac-12 Networks have limited exposure and a lot less revenue than expected.
As a whole, the Pac-12 is bringing in significantly less money than any of the other Power 5 conferences. That’s why Scott sees potential in an eight-team playoff. He wants the Pac-12 to be guaranteed a spot in the Playoff, partly for prestige and exposure, but mostly for the paychecks the conference is otherwise missing out on.
The only way to fix the injustice is winning. Utah is a Pac-12 Champion and stays ahead of Oklahoma in the final rankings — end of story. Larry Scott and the Pac-12 would be basking in the playoff spotlight if Utah would’ve taken care of Oregon, or if Oregon would have beaten Arizona State.
Scott’s concerns won’t be leading to changes anytime soon. The four-team playoff is locked in through 2026 and any changes are unlikely.