LOS ANGELES — It’s hype season in college football, with Power 5 media days across the country lighting fires under expectant fan bases who suspect — no, are certain — that, by golly, this surely will be their year.
Yet the buzz at Pac-12 media days is different. Oh, there are celebrations of star players — look, there’s Christian McCaffrey! — and a lauding of the conference’s undeniable depth. But a persistent hum keeps rising up and rasping that the conference is destined to be left out of the College Football Playoff for a second consecutive season.
Considering that in just two years, the CFP has become, well, the Everything in college football, that’s not a good thing for the conference. It’s decidedly not fun if your college football leanings go west.
The Pac-12, already worried about a growing revenue gap between it and the SEC and Big Ten, doesn’t want to miss out on the CFP payout. It doesn’t want to miss out on the CFP prestige. It doesn’t want to miss out on the relevance as the selection committee’s rankings foment anxiety and debate throughout the second half of the season. A lack of national relevance isn’t exactly going to be a boon in recruiting either.
Stanford was picked by 20 of 33 media members here to win the conference, but the Cardinal appear headed toward a spot in the bottom half of the top 10 of the preseason polls. Stanford has many questions, including being one of eight Pac-12 teams that will be replacing a starting quarterback, but it seems like a safe bet after winning three of the last four Pac-12 titles while never being picked to prevail by the media in the preseason.
After the Cardinal? It’s mostly crickets. The Pac-12 (née -10) has had at least two teams in the preseason top 10 every year since 2011, but that run is almost certain to end in August.
The most obvious absences are Oregon and USC. The Ducks started four of the past five seasons ranked in the top 5, while the Trojans are the needle-moving program on the West Coast. Yet the Ducks were tapped third in the North Division in the media poll, well behind resurgent Washington, a hated rival they’ve beaten 12 consecutive years.
The “Oregon Way” is to not acknowledge any outside chatter, and coach Mark Helfrich said that hasn’t changed. Well, mostly.
“I think, inevitably, with technology and questions and all that stuff, that it’s going to seep into them, and if they use that as motivation, great,” he said. “But since my first day at Oregon, the first game at Oregon against Boise State, everybody wrote us off for dead back then and have done it every single year, every single recruiting cycle, every single spring since then. That’s great. We can’t focus on that. We can’t live that way.”
Hmm. Oregon’s lowest preseason ranking from 2010 to 2015, when they were being written off every year? It was 11th, in 2010.
USC, picked second in the South behind rival UCLA, is breaking in a new coach in Clay Helton and a new starting quarterback by facing what many feel is the nation’s most difficult schedule, one that opens with a neutral-site game against defending national champion Alabama.
Speaking of challenging, it was just that Thursday to get the relentlessly upbeat Helton to see the Trojans’ schedule as anything but a positive. He insisted that if you don’t enjoy high expectations and rugged schedules, you probably shouldn’t be the USC coach.
“It’s what dreams are made of,” he said after paying a glowing tribute to Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban as “maybe the best in our generation.”
It’s difficult to confidently view any Pac-12 team as likely to emerge from the season with fewer than two losses, and two losses hasn’t gotten any team into the CFP. If an 11-2 Pac-12 champion gets left out, there will be more than a bit of grumbling, too.
Pac-12 gripes about other conferences — the ACC and SEC — not playing nine conference games will crescendo.
“Whether it’s eight or nine doesn’t matter, as long as it’s uniform throughout the country, as well as the championship game,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I think with as much at stake as there is, I think there needs to be a little more uniformity in the regular season.”
There also will be talk that the playoff needs to expand. But from a preseason perspective, the problem isn’t the process ahead. It’s the Pac-12’s lack of an elite team or teams. Not that anyone is counting, but the conference hasn’t won a national title since 2004, with USC losing once and Oregon twice in championship games since then.
Of course, the last time the Pac-12 was shut out of the top 10 in the preseason, Oregon went unbeaten in the 2010 regular season and fell just short of winning the national title. So perhaps a lack of preseason buzz only will presage surprises to come?