Story by Jon Wilner
The Pac-12 football season begins in full force later today with Utah and Arizona State in action against teams from the Football Championship Subdivision.
The Utes start at 4:30 p.m. (Pacific) and should have Weber State in the shredder by 5:15.
The Sun Devils are on the field at 7:30 against Southern Utah and just might hit 40 by halftime.
It’s a fitting start for both teams considering their soft non-conference schedules could become a serious problem for the conference by the first weekend in December.
Let’s plunge into the scheduling weeds and game out a scenario that’s not nearly as implausible as it might first appear.
Our premise: Utah and Arizona State have the talent and experience to win the South division. Either team could wind up in Las Vegas, one victory from the conference championship and potentially a berth in the College Football Playoff.
We’re skeptical of anyone navigating conference play without a loss — no team has gone undefeated since Oregon in 2010.
But an 8-1 mark in league play isn’t unrealistic, whether it’s Oregon, Washington, USC, Utah or ASU. The Utes and Ducks did it two years ago, in fact.
That’s where non-conference schedules enter the calculation.
The Utes face Weber State, Brigham Young and San Diego State.
The Sun Devils play Southern Utah, UNLV and Brigham Young.
There isn’t a top-25 team in the group — or perhaps even a top-40 team.
San Diego State was picked third in the Mountain West preseason poll, while BYU is likely to regress without star quarterback Zach Wilson.
Put another way: Utah and ASU will be favored to sweep their non-conference games.
(The opponents were arranged years ago, before either team had a sense for its roster or potential in 2021.)
Now, let’s do the math:
Combine those 3-0 marks outside of conference … with a single loss in conference … and a victory in the title game … and presto: That’s a 12-1 season.
Next, imagine the playoff selection committee’s final gathering of the season, on the first weekend of December.
Any one-loss championship from a Power Five conference is on the short list of contenders. But those non-conference schedules could be an obstacle for the Utes or Sun Devils.
The Hotline examined the schedules for each CFP participant since the Pac-12’s last appearance in the event, by Washington in 2016.
We ignored the 2020 season because of the disruption and the season’s limited non-conference matchups across the country, leaving us with three years (2017-19) and 12 semifinalists to analyze.
In 11 of the 12 cases, CFP participants played at least one non-conference game against a Power Five opponent.
The exception was Ohio State in 2019, and the Buckeyes — in addition to being the Buckeyes — were able to claim a victory over 11-win Cincinnati that year.
Now, consider a scenario in which Utah or Arizona State wins the Pac-12 and is smack in the middle of the playoff discussion with a 12-1 mark.
As the selection committee assesses the relative merits of each candidate, it will undoubtedly compare non-conference schedules.
For the blue bloods, non-conference lineups might not be a deal-breaker. But ASU and Utah are outsiders — sub-elite programs that probably won’t get the benefit of the doubt from the committee or a shred of respect from the narrative-driving national media.
Those soft schedules just might be the data point that blocks Utah or ASU from the playoff — that denies the Pac-12 the chance to end its CFP drought.
(Important point: The Pac-12’s other preseason favorites, Oregon, Washington and USC, all have marquee non-conference games.)
That said, college football tends to flow in unexpected directions, and we see three scenarios in which Utah and ASU could make the playoff as one-loss Pac-12 champions despite their schedules:
— Either BYU or San Diego State is markedly better than expected and produces a nine- or 10-win season that clears the bar for the committee.
— A maximum of three teams from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC finish the season with 13-0 or 12-1 records, giving the committee easy justification for including the 12-1 Utes or Sun Devils as the fourth semifinalist.
— The Pac-12 has an extraordinary season, replete with first-class non-conference wins and a bevy of teams in the CFP rankings — a combination that would naturally strengthen its champions’ resume.
In our view, the most realistic scenario is an obvious outcome: Either a one-loss Pac-12 champion makes the CFP without controversy; or the conference doesn’t produce a qualified candidate.
But in that hazy, muddled middle ground, there’s room for Utah or ASU to emerge, soft schedule in tow, as a contender on the final weekend.
In that situation, expect to hear howling and jeering from all across the land.
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