Wilner Hotline: Pressure on Oregon, Pac-12 This Saturday

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)

Story by Jon Wilner

In a critical week for the Pac-12, one matchup looms largest.

Oregon’s showdown with Ohio State is the most important game of the season and, quite possibly, the most important game in many seasons.

It’s a chance for the conference to avenge past losses on big stages and to widen its path to the elusive playoff.

It’s one game for one team that will resonate across 11 campuses for the entirety of the regular season.

“When there are only 12 or 13 of them, every game is important,’’ said Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, former chair of the College Football Playoff selection committee.

“But when you have significant inter-conference games, those are important data points for the committee.”

The Pac-12 has three other important data points Saturday, with Washington’s trip to Michigan, Cal visiting TCU, and Colorado facing Texas A&M (in Denver).

By the close of Week Two, the public narrative could be set — for better or worse.

With a strong collective showing, the eventual Pac-12 champion will be deemed worthy of playoff consideration.

But a weak performance Saturday would be damaging, perhaps to the point that it counteracts UCLA’s victory over LSU.

“This weekend is important for the conference, without question, and I think we all acknowledge that,’’ said Colorado athletic director Rick George, a current member of the CFP selection committee.

(George spoke from the perspective of his position at CU, not as a member of the selection committee.)

“We play tough games, and that’s a credit to the entire conference,” he added. Look at last week and what UCLA did.

“It’s about the body of work, not one particular weekend. But this will be a good weekend to see where we are.”

The public reaction to Week Two is only one piece — the lesser piece — to the broader equation.

Far more significant is the influence the results could have in the selection committee’s assessment of the eventual Pac-12 champion.

While conference affiliation is rarely discussed, Mullens said, there is a collateral component to the evaluations of playoff candidates.

If Oregon beats No. 3 Ohio State, the result elevates whichever team wins the Pac-12 title — especially if that team happens to beat the Ducks along the way.

The same would hold if Washington, Cal, or Colorado is victorious Saturday and the vanquished opponent goes on to produce a first-class season.

If Cal beats TCU, it helps the Pac-12 champion’s position relative to Oklahoma.

If Colorado topples No. 5 Texas A&M, that could affect the committee’s assessment of the Pac-12 winner against playoff candidates from the SEC.

Although the collateral component isn’t spelled out in the selection protocol, the committee takes into account metrics like strength of opponent and strength of record.

If the No. 12 Ducks win, they are more likely to remain ranked through the season, and Pac-12 teams that beat Oregon are more likely to become ranked.

And the rankings — the CFP rankings — matter.

“Wins or games against ranked teams gets quite a bit of discussion,” Mullens said.

“Strength of schedule does matter. The outcome of the inter-conference matchups plays into it.”

George believes the season might not be typical because of lingering effects of the pandemic and the potential for financial pursuits (via Name, Image and Likeness opportunities) to impact player performance and team culture.

“There’s a lot going on,” he said. “It may be a year where there’s a lot of uncertainty over top 25 or 30.”

For the Pac-12, which hasn’t produced a playoff team in five years, only the top four matter.

There’s plenty of depth — five teams are ranked in the current AP poll. But depth matters little in the CFP era.

“It’s Week Two, and there’s a lot of season left,’’ Mullens said when asked what he would tell Pac-12 fans anxious about this weekend.

“One game does not make a season. I’m confident the Pac-12 champion will be worthy of discussion.”

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