SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The stage was set for what could have been a breakthrough moment. Utah, sitting at No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings, was a win away from a possible, if not likely, place in the four-team field.
The Utes had been such a dominant force for two months that the playoff selection committee had looked past their inferior schedule and ranked them one spot ahead of Oklahoma. With a strong showing against then-No. 13 Oregon -- the toughest opponent Utah had played all year -- in the Pac-12 championship game, the conference's two-year absence from the playoff probably would have ended.
Before the game, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was asked about what Utah's inclusion would mean for perception of the conference.
"It's very important. Since the advent of the playoff, the first five years, it's become clear that's become a litmus test for a lot of folks that follow the sport as to which teams make the playoff, which teams don't," Scott said. "Beyond that, we want to win a national championship sometime soon."
The next few hours played out in typical Pac-12 fashion. A sparse Friday night crowd in arguably the least rabid college sports media market in the country watched as Oregon, just a few weeks removed from seeing its own playoff hopes dashed, ran Utah off the field, eliminating the Pac-12 from the playoff for the third straight year -- and the fourth time since the CFP was introduced six years prior.
For the Conference of Cannibals, this was its peak.
A national championship sometime soon? As it began to rain heavily at the end of Utah's blown opportunity, those aspirations Scott laid out for the Pac-12 never felt further away.
The College Football Playoff has generally been regarded as a success nationally. That depends on one's perspective, of course, but the format has been an effective way to crown a national champion. It certainly is an improvement over the Bowl Championship Series era, illustrated perfectly by this year's field, which features three 13-0 teams. In the old system, Clemson, the reigning national champion, likely would not have been given the opportunity to defend its title despite not having lost a game. Disaster averted.
For the Pac-12, though, the arrival of the playoff has had the opposite effect. Exclusion breeds apathy, and it has pushed the self-proclaimed Conference of Champions down the road of irrelevance.
Scott is obviously aware of this.
"[Not being in the playoff] absolutely helped shape a perception that the conference was down," he said.
But at the same time, Scott has, at least publicly, remained a proponent of the current model, despite overseeing the conference most negatively impacted by it.
For months, he has acknowledged the benefits that an expanded field would have for the Pac-12 -- including on Thursday, when he told a group of reporters in New York he was "supportive of the conversation" regarding expansion -- but he always has stopped short of public advocacy. The reality, Scott has long maintained, is that even if the playoff is expanded, those changes are unlikely to occur until the current contract expires after the 2025-26 season.
The message, more or less, is to strap in for more of the same. Because there is no magic bullet for the Pac-12's playoff issue.
Perhaps an eight-game conference schedule would make it easier for a Pac-12 team to reach selection time with one or no losses, but the overall impact to the strength of schedule would be minimal. The reality is that over the past five years, the conference hasn't fielded a national championship-caliber team, and that falls more on the individual schools than it does on anything that can be done at the conference office.
The margins between getting in and being left out are slim. Had Oregon beaten Arizona State -- something a team deserving of a playoff bid should have had no trouble with --- or scheduled its way to three nonconference wins instead of opening the season against Auburn, the Ducks likely would have been in.
"Our schools do not approach it from the perspective of how do we game the system or simply have it about the College Football Playoff," Scott said in July. "But that's a decision our schools make. Our schools come together as a conference and decide what the conference schedule is going to be."
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal echoed those thoughts in the wake of his team's win last week that punched its ticket to the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual.
"There is no way that we're going to go away from that mentality to try to schedule down to appease whatever," he said. "I guess I should stop there before I get myself in trouble, right?"
The Ducks' willingness to schedule high-profile nonconference games should be applauded, but that the loss to Auburn possibly cost them a trip to the playoff shows an imperfection in the system. It would be reasonable for athletic directors to "schedule down" in order to best position their schools for the postseason, but that also comes with drawbacks.
Because Utah didn't have any wins against ranked teams and played a soft nonconference schedule, it went from the brink of the playoff to outside the New Year's Six all together -- now matched up with unranked, seven-win Texas in the Alamo Bowl. Had the Utes, who fell to No. 11 after losing to Oregon, added a Power 5 nonconference win, maybe that would have been enough to keep them ahead of No. 10 Penn State and send them to the Cotton Bowl. There's no way to say for sure.
After beating Utah, Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, the conference's defensive freshman of the year, was asked about the opportunity of playing in the Rose Bowl.
"For me, it just sounds like another Tuesday," he said, pulling a random day of the week out of the air.
And for the Pac-12, New Year's Day, a Wednesday, will serve as a reminder it's on the outside looking in.