Playoff push: Does the Pac-12 have any legitimate playoff contenders?

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While it’s easy to get swallowed up in Cal’s plummet back down to earth after being ranked No. 15 in the AP poll earlier this season, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott and his staff still have their eyes set atop the mountain. Tuesday saw the release of the first College Football Playoff rankings, and the Pac-12 is represented in top-heavy fashion. There are only two conference teams included in the rankings, but both firmly set in the top 10 — the No. 7 Oregon Ducks and the No. 8 Utah Utes. The rest of the Pac-12 has gutted itself out of the rankings — there have been so many conference upsets, none of them are really even considered upsets anymore.

So now the question becomes: Do either of these ranked teams actually have a shot at jumping into the top four by the time December rolls around?

The answer is simple: Yes.

But both need to win out, and will need plenty of help from the teams currently in the CFP’s top six (Ohio State, LSU, Alabama, Penn State, Clemson, Georgia, in that order.) If either Utah or Oregon lose another game, that team can say goodbye to its playoff hopes with two losses.

As of now, the No. 7 Ducks deserve to be ranked above the No. 8 Utes, as Oregon’s close loss to now-No. 11 Auburn in the opener looks much better than Utah dropping the ball against USC with a third-string quarterback. Neither team has a notable opponent left on its schedule, so both will be aiming to pound opponents into the ground in an attempt to earn respect from the playoff committee.

Both teams should be hoping that the other wins out, setting up a top-10 (potentially top-six) matchup at the Pac-12 Championship Game in Santa Clara, where the winner could potentially venture into the playoff.

So now that we have established how Oregon or Utah can make it (the chances both do are essentially zero), we must examine the extraneous aid the teams will need from others. Because we are still so far away from the conference championship games and the final playoff selection, there are thousands of scenarios that could take place between now and then — so it’s impossible to veer into the specific pathways to the top four, but assuming Utah and Oregon win out, there are a few things that must happen.

The team sitting directly ahead of the duo is No. 6 Georgia, which also already has one loss. Losing another game would drop the Bulldogs behind the Pac-12 teams. The five teams above Georgia, however, are all undefeated — which is where things start to get messy.

A one-loss Pac-12 Champion would likely get in over any given two-loss team, but the exact behavior of the committee will be better revealed over the coming weeks. Fans must now focus on how the committee will weigh the losses from some of the upcoming top-six matchups — specifically No. 2 LSU versus No. 3 Alabama on Saturday, and No. 1 Ohio State versus No. 4 Penn State in coming weeks. What the committee does to the loser of this weekend’s game could say a lot about how it values the Pac-12 teams. Will the loser stay above the Pac-12 teams? Drop below them? In between Oregon and Utah?

There are also many, many scenarios where the committee is going to have to choose between multiple one-loss teams. One can assume that if any of the current five undefeated teams win out, the team will automatically make it, which will surely be the case. But what if LSU beats Alabama to take control of the SEC West? What if Georgia wins out and beats LSU in the SEC championship game? That leaves the committee with three one-loss SEC teams who all have resumes probably better than that of Oregon’s or Utah’s.

Essentially, Oregon or Utah must win out and win the Pac-12 to make the playoff. Even then, the teams need a couple of top-six teams to finish with two losses, or for the committee to value a one-loss Pac-12 Champion over a one-loss team who did not win a conference championship.

The point is, the Pac-12 is going to need a lot of luck to have a shot at making it to the big stage. But anything can happen between now and Selection Sunday, so hope is not yet gone in the “Conference of Champions,” although national championship aspirations may be dead and buried in Berkeley.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].