As Pac-12's playoff chances crumble, league must rethink 9-game schedule
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Larry Scott didn’t see this one in person, presumably because he was either still in China or traveling the 6,146 miles back from Shanghai. He was there to watch Washington play Texas in a men’s basketball game that matters to approximately 50 people on a continent where no Pac-12 universities currently reside. But even a DirecTV package in Scott’s hotel couldn’t spare him from watching. Oregon’s 38–36 upset of Stanford wasn’t on the Pac-12 Network, so there was no way to avoid seeing his conference’s playoff hopes go up in smoke.
The Ducks’ win was a classic case of #Pac12AfterDark, featuring eight lead changes, two fumbled snaps and one heartbreaking incompletion. It also put the semifinal dreams of the conference’s top playoff hopeful on life support. So before Scott expands the conference to China and adds another team to this mess, let’s fix one problem immediately: It’s time for the Pac-12 to switch to an eight-game conference schedule.
I know, I know. The Pac-12 takes tremendous pride in claiming no one plays a tougher conference schedule than it does, and it’s true: These guys beat each other up every week, and they’ve got the win-loss record to prove it. That’s the problem. Two weeks into November, the Pac-12 has played itself right out of the playoffs, courtesy of this nine-game conference schedule.
Since Scott took over as Pac-12 commissioner in February 2010, this conference has risen to unprecedented heights. For years, the Pac-12 was a conference of stepping stone football jobs and an afterthought in the national conversation, victim of late start times and undercovered athletes. In six seasons under Scott, the Pac-12 has proven it is more than just juggernaut USC. Oregon and Stanford have won conference titles and played for BCS and national title rings. But this is (allegedly) the conference of champions, and this season, it’s going to miss its chance to bring home a ring.
On TV this month, pundits have spouted about Stanford and Utah “controlling their own destiny.” That’s inaccurate for a few reasons, one of them being that destiny itself is a predetermined thing. But it’s also not about those teams individually; it’s about a conference that keeps shooting itself in the foot.
Don’t change to eight games because I say so; do it because the coaches, the guys responsible for building this into one of the best and toughest conferences top to bottom, think it should happen. Listen to Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich, who won the Pac-12 title last year, pushed the conference into the inaugural playoff and joked earlier this week, “I love the Pac-12, but we’re not gonna throw the game to get [Stanford] a playoff spot.”
Scott Frost, Oregon’s offensive coordinator, put it this way: “To get to the playoff, the Pac-12 is gonna have to have a dominant team because we play a nine-game schedule (plus a championship game), where someone like the SEC plays eight (games). This conference is so even top to bottom, every game is so close, to ask someone to run the table, it’s going to be rough.”
Need more proof? Arizona 37, Utah 30. Thanks for playing, guys, and now please find your own invitation to a non-playoff bowl.
If you’re Larry Scott, the good news is this: You will definitely be able to make it to that West Coast-based New Year’s Eve party.
Helfrich didn’t want to speak for every coach, but my hunch is they’d all be nodding if they’d heard him say: “The heavy lifting is the conference schedule,” adding that he thinks Pac-12 coaches unanimously want an eight-game schedule. “You play another game, it’s six more losses. That’s a fact. It’s not good, bad or indifferent, it’s a fact. This is a great conference, and it should be represented in the playoff picture.”
After Saturday, that’s pretty much guaranteed to not happen. Granted, Stanford dug itself an early hole with that ugly 16–6 loss to Northwestern in Week 1. But credit the Cardinal with scheduling a formidable foe, instead of stacking their nonconference slate with cupcakes. There should be a happy medium. Go to an eight-game conference schedule, demand at least one Power 5 nonconference opponent and wait for the playoff invites to roll in.
It’s easy to watch the Ducks now and wonder how the conference title race would have played out if Vernon Adams (10 of 12, 205 yards, two touchdowns Saturday) hadn’t gotten hurt. The Ducks probably still would have lost to Michigan State, but one loss doesn’t eliminate teams from the playoff, as we saw last year. A healthy Adams, coupled with arguably the best running back in the conference in Royce Freeman (16 carries for 105 yards and one touchdown against Stanford), plus one of the deepest receiving corps in the country (five receivers each finished with at 32 yards), all backed up by a young defense that improves each week, would have comprised an ideal playoff roster. Alas, the Ducks are toast after falling to the Spartans, Utah and Washington State. But there’s no real point in focusing on what could have been in Eugene. As Helfrich quipped in Saturday’s postgame, “If I was George Clooney, my wife would be a lot happier. You can’t dwell on what hasn’t happened.”
Stanford, first under Jim Harbaugh and now under David Shaw, has cemented itself as a West Coast power. But will the Cardinal ever get a chance to shine nationally with a nine-game conference schedule? Maybe not. Remember, it was this same weekend four years ago that Oregon smashed Andrew Luck’s national championship hopes, when the sixth-ranked Ducks came in and ran all over the No. 3 Cardinal in a 53-30 win. Luck’s Heisman Trophy chances went kaput that night, much like Christian McCaffrey’s did Saturday against Adams & Co. The sophomore still racked up 244 all-purpose yards, but now the most he can hope for is an award-less invite to New York.
When the Big 12 got left out of the playoff last year, everyone agreed a knee-jerk reaction was not the correct response; the Big 12 was right to take a wait-and-see approach on whether it needed a conference championship game. But the talk about the nine-game conference schedule problem has been bubbling for awhile, especially as the league has improved top to bottom. It’s easier for the Big 12 to play a nine-game conference schedule as it lacks a league title game to tack on another loss to one team’s playoff résumé. It’s easy for the Big Ten to move to a nine-game schedule, as it will do next year, because, well, who is really going to be scared year in and year out of teams like Indiana, Purdue and Rutgers? The Pac-12 isn’t the Big Ten. Scott touts his league as the best and deepest in the country. At the beginning of each season, we wonder aloud if the Pac-12 is finally ready to overtake the SEC.
The SEC, as you might have heard, has an eight-game conference schedule. It also owns eight of the last 10 national championships.
After Saturday’s game, Ducks cornerback Arrion Springs repeated “it’s not an upset, it’s not an upset” outside a jubilant Oregon locker room. When a reporter pointed out that Vegas had Stanford favored by 10 before kickoff, Springs shrugged it off. “Vegas be trippin’,” he said.
And you know, maybe he’s right: Because with a loaded conference playing a nine-game conference schedule, the Pac-12 being left out of the playoff race isn’t an upset. It’s hardly even surprising.