It’s been six years since a Pac-12 program has made the College Football Playoff.

This year, though, the Pac-12 figures to be a heavy part of the CFP equation — even before the playoff field expands to 12 teams in 2024 — with a handful of programs that are expected to be among the nation’s best.

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Pro Football Focus’ Mitch Kaiser made the case that four Pac-12 teams will be in CFP contention this season, among them two-time defending Pac-12 champion Utah, as well as USC, Washington and Oregon.

Kaiser listed 15 teams as playoff contenders, broken down by conference, and the Pac-12’s four inclusions was tied with the SEC for the most of any conference. The Big 12 had the fewest teams on the list, with one.

Why is Utah considered a College Football Playoff contender?

Kaiser pointed to Utah’s returning production — and the winning culture Kyle Whittingham has built in Salt Lake City — as reasons for optimism yet again for the Utes, even with some uncertainty surrounding when quarterback Cam Rising will return from injury.

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“It certainly didn’t help when quarterback Cam Rising tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl in early January. His status is up in the air for the season opener, which is not a great sign, considering the Utes play Florida and Baylor in their first two games. Enough with the negatives,” Kaiser wrote. “This is still a very good team, one that has won back-to-back Pac-12 titles. Utah returns two dynamic running backs in Micah Bernard and Ja’Quinden Jackson who will have to carry the load offensively while Rising gets back into the swing of things.

“Defensively, the Utes should be very strong in the secondary once again with an excellent safety duo of Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki. Not many coaches get more out of their players than Kyle Whittingham does at Utah, and he has built a culture of toughness and resiliency where all the team has done is win these past few years.” 

What Pac-12 teams are playoff contenders?

Like Utah with Rising, each of the other Pac-12 teams on Kaiser’s list share one important characteristic — each returns an experienced quarterback that’s expected to excel this season.

That’s among a litany of reasons why these programs dot every preseason top 25 projection out there this summer.

For USC, the Trojans’ hopes revolve around Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Caleb Williams.

“Of all the Pac-12 teams in contention, USC may have the best shot at making the College Football Playoff this year. Why, you may ask? Caleb Williams,” Kaiser wrote. “He is the best player in all of college football and is only getting better. Anytime you bring back the Heisman Trophy winner, your team is most likely going to be set up for success.”

At Oregon, Bo Nix’s return for his senior season was a welcome surprise after he captained an explosive Ducks offense last year after transferring from Auburn.

“It was a huge plus when starting quarterback Bo Nix decided to return to Eugene. He is among the Heisman Trophy favorites heading into the season and will be looking to build off his big year,” Kaiser wrote.

“The Ducks will also be counting on many transfers to hit the ground running if they want to be in playoff contention when it’s all said and done.”

The Huskies, meanwhile, return talented signal caller Michael Penix Jr., who led Washington to an 11-2 record last season after transferring from Indiana. 

“The Huskies might have the best passing offense in the nation, led by quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who decided to forgo the draft and return to school,” Kaiser wrote. “Penix will be thrilled to have back his two best receivers in Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, both of whom surpassed 1,000 yards last season.”

Will the Pac-12 end its playoff drought?

On Friday, ESPN’s Heather Dinich wrote about how likely it will be for each of college football’s Power Five conferences to get multiple CFP bids this season.

In assessing the Pac-12, Dinich identified the league’s best playoff options as USC and Washington, with less than a 1% chance of the conference getting multiple teams in the playoff — according to ESPN’s FPI.

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Thanks to the overall depth of the Pac-12 this season, Dinich laid out a potential scenario where both USC and Washington could both make the playoff, though, as the odds suggest, that’s unlikely.

“If they can finish with either one loss or undefeated, the selection committee would consider the Pac-12 champion and its runner-up,” Dinich wrote.

The reality for the Pac-12, at least for now though, is that the focus needs to be on how the league can end its playoff drought.

“Before the Pac-12 starts garnering serious consideration for two top-four teams, it needs to prove it can get one in,” Dinich wrote.

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