Don’t completely rule out the Pac-12 from the 2020 College Football Playoff race.
Despite just a seven-game schedule including the conference championship game — on top of a three-year playoff-less streak — the Pac-12 has a 34% chance to put a team in the playoff, per the Allstate Playoff Predictor. Oregon (19%) and USC (13%) are the conference’s two real shots at getting in.
While it’s far from ideal for any conference to have that low of a shot at the playoff before playing a single game, this is actually a slightly better chance than the same model gave the conference back in May (then 28%), working at the time under the assumption of a normal schedule.
Given the circumstances of the Pac-12’s season it’s reasonable to ask: How?
Let’s start with the bad: The Pac-12’s schedules are easy due to their abbreviated nature.
An average top-25 team would have a 37% chance to go 6-0 against Oregon’s regular-season schedule. That’s high! In fact, that’s the same chance that the average top-25 team would have to go 8-2 against Alabama’s regular-season schedule. And a decent bit harder than the chance to go 7-1 against Penn State’s.
But here’s a secret about the selection committee, at least historically: It over-emphasizes the number of losses a team has. I say “over” because theoretically, the number of losses shouldn’t matter beyond strength of record, which is the top predictor of a team’s playoff chances. To the committee, however, that number is important beyond strength of record, which is why we include it in our model.
And that works to the Pac-12’s advantage. Because there’s a very real chance the Pac-12 champion is undefeated. In fact, it’s a 44% chance.
When it comes to selection day, an undefeated champion will surely at least garner discussion, even against a shortened schedule. And especially if there are only two or fewer undefeated champions from Power 5 schools — which FPI says has a 70% chance to be the case.
The second factor here is the Big 12. Texas picking up a loss and Oklahoma racking up two opened the door for the Pac-12 to take a playoff spot one of those Big 12 powerhouses would have taken in some simulations. Some of the time, those spots go to a second SEC or Big Ten school, sure, but the Big 12’s demise — the conference has less than a 10% chance to put a team in the playoff — can only help the Pac-12.
So how about the contending schools — Oregon and USC — themselves?
The Ducks have been hurt by the loss of not only Justin Herbert to the NFL draft, but several critical opt outs. Losses in the secondary of Jevon Holland, Thomas Graham Jr. and Brady Breeze were worth nearly a field goal per game, per FPI. And that’s not even counting the team’s most high-profile opt out: OT Penei Sewell, a potential top-5 selection in next year’s NFL draft.
At quarterback, the transfer in of Anthony Brown from Boston College should help, at least somewhat, offset Herbert’s departure — Brown ranked 35th out of 165 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts last season — though Tyler Shough will get first-team reps initially. The Ducks have solid returning experience at running back, wide receiver and along the defensive line. While they’d be higher without the opt outs, FPI is still relatively high on Oregon and makes them the 9th-best team in college football, though 12 points per game worse than the No. 1 team, Ohio State.
USC is a little more straightforward: Any true freshman quarterback who was as efficient as Kedon Slovis was last season is deservedly going to garner optimism the following season. Though the Trojans lost Michael Pittman Jr., FPI does expect them to have the best offense in the Pac-12, though overall the model likes Oregon best by about a point. No other Pac-12 team is within six points per game of USC or seven of Oregon.
That the Ducks and Trojans are in opposite divisions and don’t play each other works to the conference’s advantage. There’s a better than a 10% chance that the ideal scenario plays out for the conference: USC and Oregon meet in the Pac-12 championship game and are both undefeated.
Ultimately, the conference just needs one of the two to be undefeated, and for that team to win. And even then, a 7-0 record as a conference champ is not guaranteed to get in. But because of the zero in that record, the Allstate Playoff Predictor thinks that team would have a good shot.
Mitchell Wesson contributed to this article.