Going the Rounds: Pac 12’s overall strength makes it tough for a UW playoff berth

If Shirley MacLaine is right about reincarnation, I’ve got another-life career choice already scoped out.

I’d like to come back as public relations director for the Southeastern Conference In football. The pay presumably would be good and the work would be exceptionally easy.

Most commentators don’t need to be sold on the quality of SEC football. Almost by rote, they’ll insist that the conference is the finest in the land, top to bottom.

In my view, they’re only half right.

Alabama’s record as a national power speaks for itself. Auburn, Georgia and Lousiana State traditionally also belong with the game’s elite.

The SEC’s depth, however, is much more suspect.

The Pac-12 Conference, conversely, is frequently derided in the national media. But if the Pac-12 and SEC faced off in a 12-game challenge series with the home sites evenly divided (don’t get excited, it will never happen), the Pac-12 would likely fare no worse than a 5-7 record.

Pac-12 representatives would beat up on such SEC bottom-feeders as Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Tennessee and hold their own against mid-level opponents like Missouri and Texas A&M.

The SEC boasts more great teams. With rare exceptions (last season, when the conference washed out in bowl games, might have been one of them), the Pac-12 has more good ones.

One reason the SEC has been able to maintain its mystique is that its top teams rarely venture outside its home territory for intersectional contests.

Auburn, for example, deigned to play Washington in a season opener last Saturday, but only on a “neutral” field in Atlanta. That’s the equivalent of the Seattle Seahawks facing the Denver Broncos in neutral Tacoma.

To the surprise of some (although UW had the higher preseason ranking), the Huskies played the Tigers essentially even before dropping a 21-16 decision.

The ESPN studio crew gave the Dawgs their due in the post-game wrap-up. One commentator even predicted that the Huskies would “run the table” in their remaining games.

Had longtime ESPN guru Lee Corso been on hand, he could have legitimately said, “Not so fast, my friend.”

The Pac-12’s balance and depth makes it extremely difficult for Washington — or anyone else — to go unbeaten in conference play. As painful as it might be for UW graduates such as myself to acknowledge, Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams of a few years ago deserved more credit than they received for surviving the conference’s week-to-week challenges largely unscathed.

A highly regarded Washington team discovered the pitfalls of Pac-12 scheduling last year. Jolted by an early season upset loss at Arizona State, the Huskies wound up playing UCLA, Oregon, Stanford and Utah on consecutive weeks in October.

Common sense dictated that they would be unable to run the gauntlet of those foes without being nicked at least once. They didn’t, falling on the road to Stanford on a Friday night six days after an emotional win over Oregon.

Since they avoid USC and Arizona during the regular season, the Huskies don’t face quite as daunting a conference schedule this year. But they still have road tests at Utah, Oregon and Washington State and a home showdown with Stanford. Don’t expect the Dawgs to win them all.

What rankles Pac-12 proponents (and undoubtedly those of the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences as well) is that the SEC isn’t playing by the same rules as other conferences when it comes to national perception.

The Huskies, for example, were justly ridiculed for their lightweight non-conference schedule last year. Few complaints are lodged, however, when Alabama opposes the likes of Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and the Citadel in non-conference affairs. Georgia’s non-conference slate consists of games against Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee and Massachusetts.

The 2013-14 season provided a prime example of a double standard.

Auburn opened the campaign by barely turning back Washington State, 31-24, in a game in which the Cougars enjoyed significant advantages in first downs and total offense.

That close call against what proved to be a 6-7 Cougar team wasn’t held against the Tigers. Nor was a schedule that included non-league matchups against Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina, or even an SEC loss to LSU.

Once they captured the SEC title, the Tigers were ushered directly into the BCS championship game (the playoffs only included two teams in those days), where they lost to Florida State.

Despite Saturday’s loss, Washington still has a theoretical shot of being selected for this season’s postseason Final Four. It doesn’t seem likely.

The Huskies are a good team on both sides of the ball. But Jake Browning, despite being among the top 15 percent of college quarterbacks, still often seems unduly rattled by a strong pass rush. Washington’s top offensive lineman (preseason All-American Trey Adams) may miss the entire season with a back injury and its kicking game can be generously described as a work in progress.

Instead of worrying about the playoffs, the Huskies should set their sights on beating a quality opponent from another conference in a major bowl. It’s a more realistic goal and one that would still represent an upgrade for the program.

If they hope to run the table, they may need to take up pool.