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Pac-12 doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the College Football Playoff

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 20, 2020

Washington head coach Jimmy Lake stands near a play clock during NCAA college football practice, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Seattle.  (Ted S. Warren)
Washington head coach Jimmy Lake stands near a play clock during NCAA college football practice, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Earlier this month, Washington coach Jimmy Lake was asked about the prospect of getting into the College Football Playoff. Wisely, he refused the bait.

Lake gave the diplomatic answer, saying the Huskies were focused on getting better each day and that gradual improvement was the team’s only concern. But that particular query raised a bigger question: Does an unbeaten team from the Pac-12 deserve a shot at the national title?

My thoughts: Possibly – but the conference hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt.

This might not be fair to the current crop of teams, but history matters in this case. And recent history has delivered 12 rounds of body blows to the Pac-12’s reputation.

Where to start? How about success on the biggest stage? Not since the 2004 season has a Pac-12 team won the national championship. USC had a shot in ’05 but lost to Texas. Oregon had a shot in ’10 but fell to Auburn. Oregon had another shot against Ohio State four years later but failed to get it done.

The only team from the conference to make the College Football Playoff since the Ducks was the Huskies in 2016. Their 24-7 loss to Alabama shed light on a definitive difference in ability between them and the SEC champs. A couple of years back, former Huskies coach Rick Neuheisel commented on the size disparity between the Pac-12 and other Power Five conferences.

“We, as a conference, have to get bigger. We play in this league that is small, skilled and makes all kinds of plays, but we don’t look the part physically.”

But it isn’t just the look – it’s the results, too. Just what exactly did the Pac-12 accomplish last regular season against nonconference foes? Arizona State beat 7-6 Michigan State, which lost by a combined 119 points against Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan. Arizona beat 4-8 Texas Tech, Cal beat 4-8 Ole Miss, Stanford beat 3-9 Northwestern and Colorado beat 5-7 Nebraska. Oregon, meanwhile, coughed up a chance to beat Auburn in Week 1, while UCLA lost to Cincinnati, and Arizona lost to Hawaii.

For the past few years, that “we’ve arrived” moment has eluded the Pac-12, and you can’t blame the CFP committee for taking notice. Yes, Oregon won the Rose Bowl by a point last January, but it did so against a Wisconsin team that Ohio State beat handily in the Big Ten championship game. A year earlier, as conference champions, the Buckeyes outclassed Washington in Pasadena. Over the past three years, the Pac-12 is 8-15 in bowl games.

Off-the-field issues shouldn’t affect how voters think, but you have to wonder if it slips into their subconsciouses. The Pac-12 has certainly had its share of faux pas.

A piece that ran in The Oregonian last week noted the Pac-12 Network wasn’t scheduled to show any of the conference’s football games this season. Is that going to have any impact on how the conference’s best teams play? No. But it could add to the perception that compared to conferences such as the Big Ten or the Big 12, the Pac-12 is the Big Top.

Perhaps I’m overstating this, which would be fine by me. I’d love to have the rest of the country view the Pac-12 with the same prestige it does other conferences. Washington’s trip to the CFP a few years back was exhilarating, and another such run would provide similar thrills.

But with just seven games on the schedule, I’m just not sure the conference has the cachet to launch a team into the final four.

Just over a year ago, when he was a defensive coordinator and probably felt he could be more candid, Lake answered a question about the Pac-12’s national perception. He said his time on the East Coast made him realize there was a bias against West Coast teams, as tens of millions of Americans fell asleep before the Pac-12 came on.

In defending the conference, Lake said, “I think you’ll see as we move forward here that it’s more media-contrived than actual facts.”

Hey, it was a confident answer that set Twitter ablaze for the day. Unfortunately, for now, facts aren’t the Pac-12’s friends.

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