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What the Pac-12 must do to enhance its College Football Playoff opportunities

In recent years, the league has cannibalized itself in terms of CFP opportunities. Since the College Football Playoff began in 2014, only two Pac-12 teams, Oregon and Washington, have qualified.

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff speaks during Pac-12 Conference media day Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, in San Francisco.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff speaks during Pac-12 Conference media day Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, in San Francisco. Kliavkoff reiterated at the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas that the league is very much in favor of expanding the College Football Playoff.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

As monumental and historic as it has been for No. 11 Utah to capture its first Pac-12 championship and earn its first berth to the Rose Bowl, some have wondered if the Utes, with how they’re playing, should be part of the College Football Playoff and competing for a national championship.

Utah, which faces Ohio State on Jan. 1, has won nine of its last 10 games, including two dominating victories over Oregon.

“If we had an eight-team or 12-team playoff,” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said Sunday, “Utah is the team you would not want to play.”

But the current playoff format features just four teams. Since the CFP began in 2014, only two Pac-12 teams, Oregon and Washington, have qualified.

In recent years, the Pac-12 has cannibalized itself in terms of CFP opportunities.

Two years ago, for example, Utah entered the Pac-12 championship game as the No. 5 team in the CFP rankings. A win over Oregon probably would have propelled the Utes to one of the four playoff spots. But the Ducks dominated 37-15 and the Pac-12 was shut out of the CFP.

This season, Oregon was No. 3 in the CFP rankings before getting drilled 38-7 at Utah on Nov. 20 and seeing its playoff hopes dashed.

Since new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff stepped into his role last summer, one of his main objectives has been to enhance the Pac-12’s ability to place its teams in the playoff.

“As I think about the state of Pac-12 football overall, there are certainly some positives we can take from the season while recognizing that we still have work to do to achieve our goals,” Kliavkoff said before the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas. “Since before my first day on the job, I made clear that the Pac-12’s football goal is to optimize CFP invitations and ultimately win national championships.”

One of the ways to improve the league’s position is by expanding the playoff model, from four to eight or 12. The Pac-12’s position on expansion has remained constant for months. The league is “for expansion and early expansion sooner rather than later,” Kliavkoff said.

However, he explained, the fact the contract for the current four-team playoff model runs through the 2025 season complicates the situation.

“It’s important to understand the dynamics — we are in a contractual relationship with 10 other entities,” Kliavkoff said. “In that time period, if we want to expand, all 11 have to say ‘yes.’ It has to be unanimous.”

CFP negotiations have been going on for months and Kliavkoff said he’s been frustrated at times with the process. A proposal for a 12-team format was announced in June by a subcommittee made up of SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson.

“I think one of the mistakes that was made in the expansion discussions was in June. Before everybody needed to agree to something, we announced a proposal. I think there’s been a lot of speculation and kind of bartering through the media about who’s voting yes or no for which expansion model and I think that does a disservice,” he said. “I think the right thing to do is get the right people in the room, settle on a model and then announce it as opposed to announce it and then try and get people to agree to it.”

There were meetings regarding the playoff format in Dallas last week. Kliavkoff stressed that the current model needs to change.

“I think one of the great things that we started doing in the meeting in Dallas is to start focusing what we want the playoffs to look like beyond the current term and I think we don’t need 11 people to say ‘yes’ to get to a solution that would be good for college football,” Kliavkoff said. “And if we find that solution, then we can focus on whether or not we can also get to that solution for ’24 and ’25, which I think would be great for college athletics but also great for our student-athletes.

“Our current playoff system in football allows only 3% of our student-athletes to compete for a championship. That’s compared with 18-25% on average for the rest of college sports. It’s a broken system. We need to fix it.”

For now, the committee deciding the future of the CFP can’t agree on whether to expand to eight or 12 teams. Twelve would increase the number of playoff games that are estimated to increase CFP revenue by $450 million in 2024-25, according to Sports Illustrated.

The Pac-12 could also make adjustments in terms of divisional alignment and choosing the teams to meet in the championship game, according to Kliavkoff.

“I separate the idea of whether or not you need to have divisions from who should play in our championship game,” he said. “You could still have divisions for scheduling purposes and take the best two teams as opposed to the best team from the North and the best team from the South.”

Meanwhile, Kliavkoff also outlined a number of highlights from the Pac-12 football season. The Utah-Oregon game at Rice-Eccles Stadium was the most-watched Pac-12 regular-season game in seven years, he said. And he called Oregon’s road win over Ohio State in September as the best nonconference victory in all of college football in 2021.

The commissioner also acknowledged that there were shortcomings.

“We had some disappointing nonconference losses this year and, in my opinion, not enough great high school players from our footprint currently play in the Pac-12,” he said. “As a conference, we need to continue to hire and retain the best coaches and we need to make the right decisions related to both the structure of our divisions and our championship game and with respect to conference and nonconference scheduling to best position the Pac-12 for CFP invitations.”

USC made a big splash recently with the hiring of Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. Since Kliavkoff’s comments, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal has taken the job at Miami.

“As you’ve seen this season, there’s been substantial change in the way our schools are embracing our football goals, investing in new football facilities and stepping up to not just retain our great coaches but to attract exceptional new coaches to the Pac-12,” Kliavkoff said. “Those moves are already paying dividends in recruiting.”

USC’s hiring of Riley helped not only the Trojans, who floundered this season, but the entire league, according to Kliavkoff.

“He’s a very high-profile coach. You’ve seen that in some of the recruiting news that has come out since he announced he was leaving Oklahoma and coming to USC,” Kliavkoff said of Riley. “That can do nothing but help the conference.

“The interesting thing is, I don’t think it just helps USC. I think it raises the profile for recruiting and the quality of football for all of our schools when one of our schools makes an investment like that. I’m very thankful to USC for doing that.”

The Pac-12 has all of the resources to compete at the highest level, Kliavkoff said. But becoming a contender for national championships again will take focus and work.

“I think (the Pac-12 schools) see the value of investing in coaches. That’s kind of obvious. If you get great coaches, great players want to come and play. We’re very fortunate to have 12 great coaches in the league. This is a constant carousel, unfortunately. That’s part of the nature of college football,” he said. “But I’m very proud of the coaches we have now. And I think we’re going to be able to attract and retain terrific football talent.

“While I’m not involved in recruiting at all, I’m very focused on helping our schools figure out how to retain some of the best talent in the country, which is in our footprint. We want them to stay home.”