The Pac-12 has already seen some of its top College Football Playoff contenders — outside of Utah — lose a game: Oregon in Week 1, Washington last week and USC this weekend.
Is the conference in danger of missing the College Football Playoff for a third straight season?
It’s fair to say the league is playing from behind because the top contenders in the other Power 5 conferences have also been more impressive. When it comes down to Selection Day, what we’ve already seen will factor in, as the committee will evaluate the Pac-12 champion against the others and compare nonconference wins.
That’s why even undefeated Utah could be in trouble, as good as the Utes have looked.
It’s why Michigan State’s loss against Arizona State could impact the strength of schedule for Ohio State and Michigan. It’s why Clemson has almost no margin for error, and Florida’s victory over Kentucky actually helps the SEC East.
So how do they all stack up through Week 3?
Top contenders: Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Auburn
Work to do: Texas A&M
As much as Clemson appears to be a lock, the SEC claims the top spot here because it has far more depth — enough that the possibility of two SEC teams finishing within the top four is legitimate. Alabama isn’t flawless, but it won easily at South Carolina and will probably continue to cruise because quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and his group of talented receivers are so difficult to defend.
Week 4 showcases two games with major playoff implications, as Georgia hosts Notre Dame and Auburn travels to Texas A&M. After cruising to a 3-0 start, Georgia will face its first ranked opponent, and possibly its only one until November. Though a loss against the Irish won’t eliminate the Bulldogs, it puts far more pressure on them to beat SEC West opponents Auburn and Texas A&M later in the season.
The selection committee isn’t going to penalize the Aggies for a road loss against Clemson if it’s their only loss, but Texas A&M has yet to actually play like a top-four team. Barring chaos in the West, Texas A&M probably would fall out of the playoff race with a loss on Saturday. Auburn, meanwhile, gained some credibility with its Week 1 win against Oregon. Though the Tigers still have some margin for error, the schedule is again unforgiving. Both the Aggies and Tigers still have to play LSU, which entered the playoff conversation after its Week 2 win at Texas.
Top contender: Clemson
It is, undoubtedly, Clemson and everybody else. While this puts the Tigers squarely in position to lock up a top-four spot, the rest of the league’s glaring weaknesses also puts pressure on Clemson to avoid an upset at all costs.
It would all depend on how the other Power 5 conference champions fared; but at this rate, a one-loss Clemson might not beat a one-loss Pac-12 champ for a semifinal spot. Consider this: While Clemson crushed Syracuse 41-6 on Saturday, six of the Tigers’ other Power 5 opponents also lost, including Georgia Tech to The Citadel and Boston College to Kansas. There’s also the issue of the ACC championship game, where it’s possible Clemson could face an unranked opponent.
None of this would matter, though, if the Tigers stay undefeated. Again.
3. Big Ten
Top contender: Ohio State
Work to do: Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin
This conference is tricky. Though the league looks deep right now, it could be in trouble because Wisconsin has to play Michigan and Ohio State in crossover games. Can the Badgers emerge as a contender, or will they just play spoiler?
It’s a delicate balance staying ranked by the selection committee when they all play one another, but the cross-division games make it even more difficult. We’ll learn a lot more Saturday when the Badgers host Michigan. Both teams have had a week off to prepare, but the Wolverines needed it more after a double-overtime win against Army on Sept. 7. Michigan has struggled to find its offensive identity under first-year coordinator Josh Gattis, but it’s still early. A win in Madison could quickly change that perception.
Overall, no one in the Big Ten has looked as talented and consistently dominant as Ohio State. The Buckeyes have made a seamless transition from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day, and transfer quarterback Justin Fields is already in the Heisman conversation. With Michigan State in danger of falling out of the Top 25, though, the Buckeyes might not face a ranked opponent until Oct. 26 against … that’s right, Wisconsin.
4. Big 12
Top contender: Oklahoma
Work to do: Texas
The Big 12 could have one of the more entertaining conference races this season, as six teams are off to a perfect start with league play yet to begin. Oklahoma again looks like the Big 12’s best playoff hope, but its best victories have been against Houston and UCLA. There’s still a lot to prove against better competition, but Texas might be the only ranked opponent the Sooners face all season. Don’t eliminate Texas just because it lost against LSU, especially since the Tigers look like a serious challenger to Alabama in the SEC West. All it takes is one upset of Oklahoma and a Big 12 title, and the Longhorns are, well, back.
Top contender: Utah
Work to do: Oregon, Washington, Washington State
On Saturday, No. 24 USC lost on the road in overtime against a BYU team that looked tougher and more determined. Unranked Stanford went all the way to Florida to get trounced by UCF. USC is now likely to join Stanford in the unranked category. Utah and Washington State are still ranked and undefeated, but it appears the Pac-12 is again missing a truly great team despite having some very good ones.
This does not mean the Pac-12 is out of the playoff hunt, but strength of schedule could be a problem. Michigan still has Notre Dame. Clemson beat Texas A&M. LSU had Texas. The Pac-12 missed that rsum stunner when Oregon lost to Auburn.
Utah has BYU, Northern Illinois and Idaho State. Oregon now has Nevada and Montana. Neither Washington State nor Washington play a Power 5 nonconference opponent. The league, collectively, has to be good enough to overcome that.