PHOENIX – The Pac-12 has had a rough time throughout the College Football Playoff era, but the first rankings of the 2023 season have given the conference hope in its last chance to achieve playoff glory.
Since 2014, only two teams have represented the conference in the playoffs: the Oregon Ducks in the CFP’s inaugural season in 2014, and the Washington Huskies in 2016.
Now, seven years after the last appearance in the playoff from the “Conference of Champions,” Washington (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12) and Oregon (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) have a legitimate chance to return to the playoffs in the swan song season of the Pac-12 as we know it.
The Huskies were ranked No. 5 and the Ducks ranked No. 6 in Tuesday’s initial rankings, with both teams just on the outside looking in for the playoffs that begin on New Year’s Day.
Both teams have had great success this season behind their star quarterbacks.
Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has led the team to the No. 1 passing offense in Division I behind 24 touchdowns, with the team averaging 399 yards per game. Penix Jr. is the current odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, according to FanDuel Sportsbook at +270, with Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy (+300) and former ASU and current LSU QB Jayden Daniels (+450) on his heels.
Oregon’s Bo Nix has also had an excellent start to his senior year with the fourth-best QBR (85.0) so far this season. The Auburn transfer has thrown 21 touchdowns this season and only one interception, which has assisted in the Ducks’ top-five ranking in the country for total first downs (208) and the second-best total offense (532.6 yds/g), only behind LSU.
The key difference between the two teams so far this season is the head-to-head matchup on Oct. 14, when Washington defeated Oregon at Husky Stadium, 36-33.
Since their resume-building win, however, the Huskies have looked shaky with close wins over Arizona State (15-7) and Stanford (42-33), which sit 10th and 12th respectively in the conference standings.
Washington was unable to score an offensive touchdown in its game against the Sun Devils, and its defense played shaky against a Stanford team that has only defeated Hawaii and Colorado this season.
CFP selection committee chairman Boo Corrigan discussed the impact of these games on the Huskies’ ranking in a teleconference shortly after Tuesday’s release.
“With regards to Washington, huge win over Oregon, who we have at No. 6, but in looking at that, the game most recently, two most recent games at home against Arizona State and on the road at Stanford from a committee standpoint, (they) gave us some pause and put them in at No. 5,” Corrigan said.
Strength of schedule was a large conversation Tuesday night, and it may determine where both teams end up in the final rankings on Dec. 3.
Washington will have a chance to bolster its resume Saturday against reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and No. 20 USC (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12).
Washington coach Kalen DeBoer discussed the game and the strength of the rest of his team’s schedule in an interview with ESPN shortly after the rankings were announced.
“It’s certainly going to be a great challenge,” DeBoer said. “The Pac-12 right now, from top to bottom, there’s no gimmes.”
This weekend marks the beginning of a grueling four-game stretch to end the regular season for the Huskies, with three of four opponents currently in the CFP rankings. Washington plays No. 20 USC on Nov. 4, No. 18 Utah on Nov. 11, and No. 16 Oregon State on Nov. 18.
The Huskies are on a 15-game winning streak dating back to last season, which is second in the Pac-12 record book behind Stanford’s 17-game run from 2010-11, and seeking a second playoff berth in program history, Their first appearance dates back to 2016 when they lost 24-7 to Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Washington’s ranking also ties the program record for its highest ranking in an initial CFP ranking from the 2016 season.
Oregon has a slightly less stressful, yet challenging schedule during the final third of its regular season, facing off against USC and Oregon State on Nov. 11 and Nov. 24, respectively.
The Ducks have been in the rankings frequently over the last decade, with 2016-18 being the only stretch that they did not appear in the rankings at any point.
Oregon will celebrate a homecoming of sorts with a playoff bid come December after earning a spot in the first College Football Playoff in 2014. The Ducks entered as the No. 2 team in those playoffs and took down No. 3 Florida State, 59-20, in the Rose Bowl, before losing to No. 4 Ohio State, 42-20, in the national championship.
In the final football season of the Pac-12 conference, there are a staggering number of teams represented in the first ranking.
The Pac-12 was tied for the most teams in the CFP Top 25 with six teams, with the SEC the only other conference with six representatives in the rankings.
There are still four more weeks of the regular season remaining, with a potential Washington-Oregon rematch looming ahead of the Pac-12 Championship, before a complete picture of this year’s College Football Playoff is revealed.
But if there is one thing that fans can count on, the Pac-12 will not go out quietly.