Will the conference send a team to the College Football Playoff for the first time in six years?
That’s not the correct question, in our opinion.
Does the conference have a team good enough to finish the regular season with a 13-0 or 12-1 record?
No two-loss team has been invited to the CFP in its eight years of existence, which strongly suggests the Pac-12 needs its champion to have no more than one loss when it hoists the trophy in Las Vegas on Dec. 2.
We don’t see anyone capable of finishing 13-0 or 12-1 — not when all the top contenders (Utah, Oregon and USC) face difficult non-conference matchups, play nine league opponents and must survive the title duel.
That’s 11 games against Power Five competition and only one loss allowed.
As a result, the most likely outcome of the Pac-12 season is familiar: No playoff participant.
Our bowl projections, listed below, are based on the order of finish published here last week.
But first, three notes on the process …
— The conference has six direct tie-ins but is able to place a seventh eligible team into an ESPN-operated game.
— The Rose, Alamo, Holiday and Las Vegas bowls will select participants based on desirability, but only to a point: They cannot pass on Team X in favor of Team Y if there is more than a one-game difference in conference record.
— Starting with the Sun Bowl, teams must be picked in order of conference record.
Selection order provided by the conference office.
1. Rose Bowl
Date: Jan. 2
Pac-12 team: Utah
Matchup: vs. Big Ten
Comment: The Utes take a very different regular-season journey to the same destination, with a Pac-12 championship followed by the trip to Pasadena. And this time, they go out on top.
2. Alamo Bowl
Date: Dec. 29
Pac-12 team: USC
Matchup: vs. Big 12
Comment: The paucity of at-large berths into the New Year’s Six bowls every third year, when the Peach and Fiesta bowls host semifinals, ends up squeezing three-loss USC. Instead, the Trojans make their first-ever appearance in the Alamo. Oklahoma would make an interesting opponent, don’t you think?
3. Las Vegas Bowl
Date: Dec. 17
Pac-12 team: Oregon
Matchup: vs. SEC
Comment: The Ducks close the season as they open it: facing an SEC foe on a (technically) neutral field. The lessons learned against Georgia in September will pay dividends against the likes of LSU or Florida in December.
4. Holiday Bowl
Date: Dec. 28
Pac-12 team: Washington
Matchup: vs. ACC
Comment: Our hunch is the conference race plays out in a fashion that would, under other circumstances, send UCLA to San Diego. But after the Bruins canceled last year, Holiday officials want nothing to do with them.
5. Sun Bowl
Date: Dec. 30
Pac-12 team: UCLA
Matchup: vs. ACC
Comment: The Sun would be required to select the Bruins if they finish in the top four and are still available. (Last appearance in El Paso: 2013.) Of note: Bowls loath repeat participants, and Washington State was here last year.
6. LA Bowl
Date: Dec. 17
Pac-12 team: Washington State
Matchup: Mountain West
Comment: The Cougars face one MW opponent during the season, Colorado State, so the chance of a rematch is remote. Most likely, WSU draws Boise State, Fresno State or San Diego State.
7. ESPN Bowl (Gasparilla, First Responders, Armed Forces)
Pac-12 team: Oregon State
Matchup: Power Five or American
Comment: Armed Forces and First Responders are in Texas and thus better fits for the Pac-12 than the Florida-based Gasparilla.
8. At-large bowl
Pac-12 team: Cal
Comment: The road to the postseason got significantly more difficult over the weekend, when Cal announced defensive lineman Brett Johnson, one of the best in the conference, would miss the season with a lower-body injury. Huge blow to the Bears.
Non-qualifiers: Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Stanford.
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