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Utes played spoiler to Pac-12's playoff hopes. Now what?



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The Pac-12 and spoiler go hand in hand.

For as much as the conference wants to praise its level of competition and being the "Conference of Champions," there hasn't been much to celebrate in the most high-profile sport at the highest level: the College Football Playoff.

Most years, a team from the conference will flirt with the playoff, but then realizes the playoff is reserved for an exclusive club that only a select few are invited to participate in each season. The narrative goes that the Pac-12 is the weakest in the Power Five, so it's no wonder they've missed out on the last five seasons.

In the rare event that a Pac-12 team even makes it to the four-team playoff, there's no real shot of them winning anyway, right? Not against the likes of Alabama and Ohio State — the perennial card-carrying members who are living a rich life.

Even Oregon, when they landed inside the initial playoff rankings this season, it was as if their addition was made by mistake — "Wait, they're choosing us to be included in their club?"

And with a facade of success, Oregon flashed its Ohio State win card — a win against one of the playoff's own — with pride as they walked past the velvet ropes into unfamiliar company, similar to an underage kid getting into a club with a fake ID and the bouncer thinking none the wiser to the fraudulent act. The club, after all, only invites winners.

But, like in nearly every year since the playoff was created, the Pac-12 found a way to tattle on itself while in the club. Nobody thought about checking its ID, but by flaunting its inclusion, others around them started to have questions. Utah just did the rest of the contenders a favor by blasting Oregon out the door without too much kicking and screaming.

Now the screams are just heard in a vacuum where only the Pac-12 can hear it — not much different than before, to be quite honest.

It's hard to be nationally relevant when the top team from the North and one with the best playoff chances, an Oregon team that had only one loss going into Saturday, is now in a fight to even make it to the conference championship game and could be in a three-way tie to determine the North representative in the title game.

In the sport that demands "what have you done for me lately?" The Pac-12 is absent.

Oregon played spoiler to Utah in 2019 when the Utes needed only one more win to secure its playoff bid, and Utah paid it back two years later when Oregon controlled its own destiny to break the conference's playoff drought.

What have you done for me lately, Pac-12? Beaten each other up on its way to oblivion under the current structure.

This is no surprise as the conference knows the situation its in. Even new Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff said during media day in July that the conference's goal is to raise the conference's ability to play in the playoff.

"I want to be 100% clear, going forward the Pac-12 conference will make all of our football-related decisions with the combined goals of optimizing CFP invitations and winning national championships," Kliavkoff said. "This is a decision fully supported by all 12 of our athletic directors."

But being in agreement from the athletic directors' standpoint means little when the results on the field continue to speak otherwise. There's no doubt the conference wants a playoff invitation every year, but the way the conference is positioned and with a limited number of teams available to the playoff each year, the chances grow ever smaller.

"I can confirm that every decision the conference makes related to football is on the table for discussion," Kliavkoff added. "We will look at our conference schedules, including the number of conference games that we play, and the start time of each game. We will look at our nonconference scheduling. We will evaluate whether having divisions does or does not make sense. We will work collectively to keep our very best recruits in our markets and to market our league to recruits everywhere."

And while those changes may help the on-field product, the Pac-12's best course of action is to expand the invitations. Until the conference can guarantee a spot each season with an auto bid from its conference champion, there will never be an easy path for the Pac-12, especially one where the coaching carousel continues to spin in earnest.

"The Pac-12, we've said it for a lot of years in a row now, it's very competitive, very balanced," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday. "Nobody has seemed to be able to have that — not seem to, nobody's had that — breakout year where you go through the league unblemished and through the season undefeated. And that's pretty much what it takes with the four team format.

"We have been beating each other up a little bit. I think when they do eventually make the move — I don't even know when that's scheduled to happen, I guess I should know but soon — they're going to expand and I think that will make things a better situation for everybody. Not just us, but for the entire country."

And while playoff expansion will benefit the entire country, it will benefit nobody more than the Pac-12. Will anything change with more access to the playoff? Not necessarily, but it gives the Pac-12 and other conferences a fighting chance — one far greater than it has now.

So until the playoff expands, expect the Pac-12 to be out of the discussion until a team finds a way to do the unthinkable and goes undefeated for a season. The odds are more in the Pac-12's favor to expand.

"Sixteen, I think, would be ideal," Whittingham said. "But 12 is a big step in the right direction, and I think 16 would be the ultimate. But it's not going there right away, from what I understand."

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