Through the first five years of the College Football Playoff, the Pac-12 has the lowest number of playoff berths among the Power 5 Conferences with only two. The Oregon Ducks made it into the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2015 and finished runner-up to Ohio State while the Washington Huskies earned a berth in 2016 and lost in the semifinals to the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Washington and Oregon are hoping that this is the year that the Pac-12 ends its College Football Playoff drought and that they are the team to do it. The Huskies, Ducks, and Utah Utes figure to be the three best shots that the Pac-12 has of being involved in the 2020 College Football Playoff.
1. Washington Huskies, 2018 Record: 10-4
The bulk of Washington’s playoff hopes will be on the shoulders of former Georgia Bulldogs starter Jacob Eason. Eason is a former five-star recruit and a Washington native that has all of the potential to be a superstar at quarterback for the Huskies if he can acclimate well to the system. He’ll have one of the nation’s best offensive lines protecting him.
The Huskies lost some key talent on defense this offseason, but this is a program that has recruited well and has had a top-eight scoring defense for three straight seasons. The schedule shapes up nicely with Oregon, Utah, and Washington State all coming at home this season; if Eason and the defense perform to their potential, the sky is the limit for this group.
2. Oregon Ducks, 2018 Record: 9-4
Like the Huskies, the Ducks should have an excellent offensive line in 2019. No team in the nation is more experienced than this group. And they will be protecting a legitimate Heisman contender in Justin Herbert, who finished last season with 3,151 passing yards and 29 passing touchdowns. Last year’s offense struggled with consistency in its first year under Mario Cristobal, but a year’s worth of familiarity should pay dividends this season.
Oregon’s schedule is not as forgiving as Washington’s; the Ducks get a trial-by-fire in Week One against the Auburn Tigers in Arlington, and their first true road game comes in Stanford against the pesky Cardinal. If the Ducks can survive both of these tests, it could set the stage for an intense showdown against the Huskies in Seattle.
3. Utah Utes, 2018 Record: 9-5
The Utes also have some tricky road tests on their schedule this season, opening the year at BYU before facing USC, Arizona, and Washington away from home. But this is a team that could be tailor-made for the road; the Utes return seven players (including the entire defensive line) from the conference’s second-best defense in 2018 and are loaded with returning talent on offense as well.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss return after losing last year to season-ending injuries, as does the team’s top receiver, Britain Covey. With Oregon not on the schedule during the regular season, the Utes could be favored in every game besides their road trip to Washington this season, which could be a season-defining one.
Honorary Mention, Washington State Cougars, 2018 Record: 11-2
The Washington State Cougars had an excellent year in 2018 and were right on the cusp of being a playoff team at 11-2. They lost quarterback Gardner Minshew this offseason, but graduate transfer Gage Gubrud out of Eastern Washington looks like he could be a perfect fit for Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense.
But this schedule is just too much to overcome. The Cougars have a tough early test in a neutral-site game against Houston, but the real problem is a brutal road schedule that features trips to Arizona State, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. Even if the Cougars can build on last year’s success, marching through this schedule without a couple of losses would be an incredible feat.