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Oregon is rising, but Pac-12 remains outside CFP discussion

11:00 AM ET

  • Kyle BonaguraESPN Staff Writer
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    • Covers the Pac-12.
    • Joined ESPN in 2014.
    • Attended Washington State University.

Oregon‘s path to the top of the Pac-12 hierarchy went right through Washington‘s defensive line.

Running back CJ Verdell didn’t have to do much. He took a handoff from quarterback Justin Herbert at about the 10-yard line and found little resistance on his way to the end zone to give Oregon its biggest win in years. Within moments, the turf at Autzen Stadium was standing-room only as fans poured out of the stands.

“I’d like to relive it for a second, but I won’t and I can’t. But certainly the moment itself, it doesn’t get any better,” first-year Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “That’s as good or better than any moment than I’ve been able and fortunate enough and privileged enough to be a part of.”

The win vaulted Oregon to No. 12 in the AP poll — tops from the Pac-12 and the Ducks’ highest ranking since 2015 — and created a logjam in the Pac-12 North standings. Oregon, Stanford, Washington and Washington State all have just one conference loss, but the clear sense in Eugene on Saturday was that the Ducks — just a couple weeks removed from a painful collapse against Stanford — deserve to be viewed as the team to beat.

That’s where it becomes hard not to let thoughts of the loss to Stanford creep back in, because had the Ducks won that game — one they led 24-7 late in the third quarter — not only would this week’s trip to Washington State carry incredible significance in the Pac-12 race, it would resonate nationally as a game with College Football Playoff ramifications.

To be clear, it still could. Should Oregon win out, the Ducks would absolutely be part of the playoff discussion. However, because they played one of the easiest nonconference schedules among Power 5 teams, any potential scenario that includes Oregon in the playoff seems unlikely, at best. And that’s before factoring in that ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Ducks, a two-point underdog in Las Vegas this week, just a 2.2 percent chance of finishing the regular season without another loss.

“We all know that this next month there is going to be all kinds of results that people didn’t anticipate. We know the history of the College Football Playoff is one-loss champions of conferences like ours have gotten in or have a good chance to get in. I feel it’s still early on; there’s a lot of football left to play.”Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott

Washington State and Colorado are the Pac-12’s other two one-loss teams, and neither figures to have any better shot than Oregon, as far as the playoff is concerned.

It adds up to a harsh reality for the Pac-12: At the halfway point of the season, there are no good reasons to believe the conference will be relevant in the greater national discussion. It’s a big problem for the conference, but embattled Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott isn’t quite ready to admit as much.

“We all know that this next month there is going to be all kinds of results that people didn’t anticipate,” Scott said last week. “We know the history of the College Football Playoff is one-loss champions of conferences like ours have gotten in or have a good chance to get in.

“I feel it’s still early on; there’s a lot of football left to play.”

Scott’s assessment came before Washington lost to Oregon and on the same day he was forced to deal with a report that the conference’s general counsel and vice president of business affairs, Woodie Dixon, was directly influencing decisions made in the replay review process. Scott immediately made the necessary step to remove Dixon from the process moving forward, but he had no reason for why he — or any member of the conference’s highly-paid leadership team — didn’t recognize the conflict of interest that having someone with a business affairs title involved in replay reviews would present in the first place.

“I can acknowledge that, in hindsight, I would do it differently,” Scott said. “But [Dixon] is held in very high regard by our coaches and our campuses, a person of great integrity, and they hold him accountable.

“I prioritized having the best minds and the best eyes around these calls because I thought we’d get more consistent, more right. And I didn’t fully appreciate the perception issue. But there’s never been a question about his integrity.”

Speaking to the integrity issue, Stanford coach David Shaw — often one of the stronger voices of reason in college football — said he had no concerns.

“I know all the people involved,” Shaw said. “There is no intent on influencing the decisions in a football game. So, things happen; people make mistakes. As football coaches and football teams, hey, when something goes against you it’s not the reason why you win. It’s what you do the rest of the game that matters.”

For a conference already fighting the perception of poor officiating and the notion that it’s falling behind the other Power 5 conferences, the controversy came at a particularly bad time for the Pac-12. If there was a marquee team — or, even better, teams — to quickly draw the spotlight back to what’s happening on the field, the off-the-field issues would have an easier time fading into the background. But there isn’t. The Pac-12, for the second half of the season, will slot somewhere ahead of the Group of 5 and behind the rest of the Power 5 teams in terms of its national importance.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be entertaining football to watch. Of course there will be. For all the issues the Pac-12 has, providing entertaining football isn’t one of them. In theory, parity should be something a sports league strives to have — and it definitely exists on the West Coast. But in the context of college football, parity hurts the Pac-12’s national brand.

The cyclical nature of college sports makes it impossible to say if the way the Pac-12 seems to be trending — away from national relevance — will continue, but Scott doesn’t seem concerned.

“When I talked to our coaches about this, I think they feel good about where the conference is,” Scott said. “Do we want a team in the playoffs every year? Of course. Do we want a national champion, you know, regularly? Yes.”

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