Who stands a chance at the CFP?

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It’s been three years since the Pac-12 has sent a team to the College Football Playoff. It feels like it’s been even longer since the “Conference of Champions” put forth an actual championship challenger.

The Pac-12 has been much maligned, or, alternatively, heavily praised, for its chaotic nature. Its inability to produce a clearly elite team has impeded the conference’s status as a contender — no other Power Five conference has made fewer appearances at the playoff. Even on the cusp of brilliance, Pac-12 teams seem to be unable to seal the deal. Oregon was in prime position to contend for a semifinal spot last season before losing to Arizona State. The Ducks upset Utah’s chances at the playoff just a few weeks after.

There are two sides to that coin, though. The Pac-12’s inability to produce one really great team instead creates many good teams. The sense of randomness makes for an exciting season. Every Saturday on a team’s schedule could be a pitfall, a trap game or an upset.

Such competition has set the west coast’s premier football conference apart from its Power Five rivals for years. The SEC and ACC have sent an undefeated or one-loss conference champion to every playoff. Oklahoma, of the Big 12, has gotten in on the act for the last three years. In each of those three seasons, no Pac-12 team has had fewer than two losses. This season, however, might just be different.

After roughly four games had been played in 2019, there were nine undefeated ranked teams from the SEC, ACC and Big 12. This season there are just four. Granted, teams dove right into conference play. Schedules have changed because of the pandemic, but that’s an unchangeable fact of this strange season. Underdogs have pulled off upsets, the titans have stumbled and chaos is running rampant.

In short, college football around the country is starting to look a lot like the Pac-12. Welcome to the party, America.

This nationwide imitation act might, however, be the very thing that gets a West Coast team back in the playoff. After three years of the Pac-12 chasing college football’s elite, the competition’s upper echelon may instead be coming to meet the Pac-12.

There are just four undefeated teams remaining from Power Five conferences that have started play. Two of those, Notre Dame and Clemson, will play each other at least once this season, twice if they meet again in the ACC championship game. There are no ties in football; that matchup will produce losses and hurt a potential playoff contender. Oklahoma State, the Big 12’s lone undefeated team, has yet to play a ranked opponent, not to mention Texas and Oklahoma, who have both fallen flat on their respective faces out of the gate.

The SEC, finally playing a season in which its best teams must play each other in the regular season, has only one undefeated team in Alabama. The Crimson Tide must still play LSU, Auburn and potentially an SEC East champ, all of whom are still dangerous despite their early season stumbles.

Shortened camps and extenuating circumstances have resulted in mistakes, upsets and a sense of unbridled randomness that college football has rarely seen. Enter the Pac-12, which will have the benefit of watching everyone else trip for two more weeks before its season begins.

In a season of only seven games, the Pac-12 could well produce an undefeated champion. The conference has a penchant for chaos and a lack of undefeated teams — there has been no official undefeated Pac-12 champ since 2004. But neither Oregon nor USC, the conference’s top two contenders, lost games against its respective division opponents last season, and in an abbreviated season almost entirely against division opponents, there is a clear opportunity for success. A seven-game season means that any loss is an almost sure elimination from playoff contention, but it also decreases the opportunities for the Pac-12’s blue bloods to fall victim to an upset.

In the short history of the playoff, no undefeated Power Five champion has ever missed the semifinals, and only two nonchampion teams from those conferences have punched their ticket to the playoff. An undefeated Pac-12 champ would be difficult to turn away.

This is by no means a guarantee. The Big Ten starts its season this weekend — it will most assuredly complicate the picture. A one-loss team in the SEC, ACC or Big 12 could get hot and run the table. No Group of Five team has ever qualified for the playoff, but No. 9 Cincinnati leads a batch of four ranked, undefeated Group of Five schools. Also, No. 12 BYU, at 5-0, could upset the apple cart.

Finally, a Pac-12 team would have to actually finish undefeated, which is likely the conference’s highest hurdle. A Pac-12 team refraining from pure, unpolluted chaos? Gasp.

Until kickoff, however, this is all purely conjecture. College football is rapidly departing all preconceived notions and expectations. In just longer than two weeks, the Pac-12 will step onto the express. Just how far will that train go?

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football and is the deputy special issues editor. Contact him at [email protected].