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  • The Pac-12 hasn't given itself many marquee opportunities to bolster its playoff-worthiness and has bungled most of its precious few chances. Will that change in 2019? Plus, an examination of SEC recruiting rankings and the rest of this week's #DearAndy mailbag.
By Andy Staples
March 06, 2019

The league that calls itself the Conference of Champions has been excluded from playing for the national championship in college athletics’ most important sport the past two seasons, and you have questions…

From @unbeatabletweet: Can the Pac-12 get back in the playoff discussion?

It’s popular at the moment to bash the Pac-12 for its inability to stay in the national title conversation, but it isn’t impossible for a Pac-12 team to make the playoff. Unfortunately, thanks to the relative quality of play in the league and the way teams have scheduled outside of league play, the margin for error is very thin. The Pac-12 may need to produce an undefeated champion if it wants to make the playoff for the first time since the 2016 season. A one-loss champ is going to get compared to one-loss teams from other leagues, and that won’t go well for the Pac-12 unless the perception of the league improves. Unfortunately, the conference’s teams haven’t given themselves many opportunities to bolster that perception.

Because it doesn’t meet until October, the College Football Playoff selection committee isn’t going to be influenced as much by the preseason expectations of a conference as it is how that conference’s teams performed against other good Power 5/Notre Dame opponents. The problem for the Pac-12 is that some teams didn’t bother to schedule anyone good in the non-conference. Here are the games that will determine what we think of the league.

Aug: 30: Oklahoma State at Oregon State
Aug. 31: Oregon vs. Auburn (in Arlington, Texas)
Aug. 31: Northwestern at Stanford
Sept. 7: Nebraska at Colorado
Sept. 14: Oklahoma at UCLA, Texas Tech at Arizona, Arizona State at Michigan State
Sept. 21: Cal at Ole Miss
Oct. 12: USC at Notre Dame
Nov. 30: Notre Dame at Stanford

Stanford should get extra credit here because its other non-conference game is at UCF. But notice who isn’t on this list? No Utah, no Washington and no Washington State. None of the three scheduled a Power 5 opponent out of conference. Utah and Washington play BYU (and so does USC), but unless BYU is good, the Utes and the Huskies beating them won’t help the league. The problem? BYU, which also plays Tennessee, probably won’t be perceived as good unless it beats some Pac-12 teams. So those games are worthless from a conference perception standpoint.

Utah, Washington State and Washington are good enough to do some damage on behalf of the conference against other Power 5 schools, but they’ve elected not to help this year.

And the league probably needs help. Look at that list of games. In how many of those will the Pac-12 team be favored? Three? Maybe? The best-case scenario is that Oregon beats Auburn—which then wins the SEC—and USC and Stanford beat Notre Dame—which goes 10–0 the rest of the way. If UCLA could knock off Oklahoma, that would be huge for all 12 teams. But that’s highly unlikely.

The good news is that the league has given itself one more chance to shine than it did last season. Last year, Pac-12 teams went 3–6 in the non-conference against Power 5/Notre Dame opponents. Washington’s loss to Auburn in Week 1 in Atlanta set the tone. By the end of the season, the lackluster non-conference record plus the fact that the league champ had lost to the fifth best team in the SEC West left the conference with a decidedly negative perception.

The Pac-12 went 3–4 in bowls after the 2018 season, and while that’s better than the 1–8 the league posted in 2017, it isn’t going to change anyone’s mind going into this season. Besides, the only way to change the minds that matter is to win non-conference games against good opponents during the season. But the Pac-12’s teams have given themselves few opportunities to win such games and given us little reason to believe they can win most of the decent games they did schedule.

From Mark: Can a team win an SEC title without having a national top-five recruiting class? Say Alabama didn’t exist for this theoretical question. Can a team do it without being one of the best recruiting teams in the country?

Let’s take a look at the past 10 recruiting classes as ranked by the 247Sports composite and see how many SEC teams ranked in the top five in the nation. Mark has asked us to imagine Alabama out of existence, and Alabama was in the top five every year. So subtract one from each year if you’d like to participate in his hypothetical.

2019: Four of five
2018: Two of five
2017: Two of five
2016: Three of five
2015: Three of five
2014: Three of five
2013: Two of five
2012: Two of five
2011: Two of five
2010: Two of five

Even without Alabama, the chances of winning an SEC title don’t look good for a program that doesn’t bring in highly ranked recruiting classes. Because whether it's Georgia, LSU, Auburn or someone else, there is always someone bringing in top five talent. They don’t all do it on an annual basis like Alabama does now, but Georgia may be headed that way. And the others that do it occasionally are going to have the talent to compete for titles regularly in an Alabama-less world and possibly in the real world.

You can say what you want about recruiting rankings, but they have proven to be fairly good predictors of success in the aggregate. You can also say what you want about those rankings being tilted toward the SEC, but that’s irrelevant here because we’re only talking about SEC teams trying to win the SEC. Mark is a Tennessee fan, so he’s wondering if Jeremy Pruitt can build a winner even if the Volunteers lag behind Alabama, Georgia and [insert one or more of Auburn/LSU/Florida] on the recruiting trail. In fairness to the Volunteers, this is also a question I get from Florida fans worried about the same thing. And the answer is simple: If they want to win the SEC, they need to recruit at a high level most of the time and at the highest level at least some of the time.

Because even if we pretend Alabama doesn’t exist, someone else in the SEC is always recruiting that way. And since Alabama does very much exist, the only way to have a chance is to bring in highly ranked classes as often as possible.

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