Soft schedules for Utah, Arizona State could hurt the Pac-12 in the CFP selection process

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) throws a pass against Oregon during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz.

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) throws a pass against Oregon during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (Matt York, Associated Press)



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 5:30 p.m. (Mountain) and should have Weber State in the shredder by 6:15.

The Sun Devils are on the field at 8:30 against Southern Utah and just might hit 40 by halftime.

It's a fitting start for both teams considering their soft nonconference 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 nonconference 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 nonconference 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 nonconference 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 nonconference 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 nonconference 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 nonconference schedules.

For the blue bloods, nonconference 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 nonconference 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 nonconference 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.


Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.


Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at jwilner@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Pac-12 Hotline: Subscribe to the Pac-12 Hotline Newsletter. Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

Jon Wilner

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