The Pac-12 is a strong conference. This is probably news to folks on the East Coast who are routinely getting some serious REM sleep when our games are going on, but it’s true. Ten teams made bowl games last year, five teams were ranked in the 2016 preseason Top 25, and every team plays nine conference games a year in a conference that is usually pretty solid. The Pac-12 is at least as good at football as the Big Ten and Big 12, and waaay better at counting, given that the Pac-12 actually has 12 teams.

The thing about playing in the Pac-12 is that it’s not just about your wins/quality losses, or your strength of schedule, or how badly you blow out teams. It’s all of those things, plus your national perception. In the Pac-12 (and other conferences outside of the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12), you have to prove yourself before people think you’re relevant.

For example, Ole Miss has a 3-3 record and is currently ranked No. 23 in the AP Top 25. There are currently five unranked Pac-12 teams with better records. Yes, Ole Miss has quality losses. But so does Colorado and at 5-2, they are nowhere near being ranked. I’m not saying that Ole Miss shouldn’t be ranked or that Colorado should be, but I am saying that national perception matters.

There are teams that have done wonders for the Pac-12’s reputation: Stanford, USC, UCLA, and especially Oregon legitimized the Pac-12 as a power conference. But even when a team is very, very good, two losses is enough to preclude it from College Football Playoff (CFP) contention, as we saw with Stanford last year.

EUGENE, OR - OCTOBER 08:  Quarterback Jake Browning #3 (R) of the Washington Huskies is congratulated by wide receiver Aaron Fuller #12 after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against the Oregon Ducks on October 8, 2016 at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
EUGENE, OR – OCTOBER 08: Quarterback Jake Browning #3 (R) of the Washington Huskies is congratulated by wide receiver Aaron Fuller #12 after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against the Oregon Ducks on October 8, 2016 at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Despite a decade of improved play by the Pac-12, the reality is that this is a down year with only two teams, Washington and Utah, currently ranked in the Top 25. However, Washington is the conference’s only realistic shot at a playoff spot.

Being left out of the CFP for the second year in a row would really hurt the conference’s national perception. To add to that concern, the issues plaguing Pac-12 teams this year don’t seem to be going away any time soon. If the Pac-12 enters into a multi-year stretch during which the conference does not have a representative in the College Football Playoff, all of the gains made by the conference from a national prestige level (which is arguably still not fully appreciated at a national level) will begin to fade — especially when considering recent surges in the quality of play of the Big Ten and Big 12.

With that in mind, it’s imperative that Pac-12 fans #BackThePAC and root for the Huskies to not only make the playoff, but hopefully turn some heads when they get in. Washington carries the torch for the entire Pac-12 with the rest of the conference not exactly being in good positions to contend nationally in the short term, as evidenced below.

Oregon

The Ducks began their ascent to national prominence in 2009 when Chip Kelly was hired. Until 2015, Oregon terrorized the conference with their dizzying fast-paced offense and seizure-inducing uniforms. In seven years, Oregon went 79-15 and the road to the PAC-12 north ran squarely through Eugene. The Ducks played in the 2011 and 2015 National Championship games (2009 and 2014 seasons), three Rose Bowls, and the Fiesta Bowl. Oregon made people pay attention to the PAC-12.

But this year, Oregon is 2-4 and hasn’t won a conference game in three tries. Oregon might not even make a bowl game this year, which is very un-Oregon. Oregon not being Oregon hurts the PAC-12 and as long as Mark Helfrich is at the helm, not much is likely to change.

California

Cal is an incubator for extraordinary NFL talent, like Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, and DeSean Jackson. But let’s face it, Cal hasn’t been lighting the world on fire as of late. Even with eventual No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff under center, the Golden Bears could do no better than 8-5. The national perception is that Cal has a one-dimensional offense, no defense, and players who drop balls short of the end zone on the reg. The fact that Sonny Dykes is still employed as head coach makes my right eye twitch. Until Cal figures out their coaching situation, they aren’t doing themselves, or the Pac-12, any favors.

Utah

The Utes are a great football team and are currently ranked No. 19. But they don’t blow out teams, which Pac-12 teams need to do in order to garner national attention. As long as there are Alabamas, Michigans, Oklahomas, Ohio States, Clemsons and Florida States, a team like Utah won’t be in contention for the CFP.

Colorado

The Buffaloes have been the laughing stock of the Pac-12 for years, but wait. What’s that? They are currently second in the Pac-12 South with a better record than Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, and USC? It’s good to see improvement in the bottom of the PAC, however Colorado doesn’t have the reputation to make any sort of waves in the Top-25, let alone the CFP.

Washington State

Last year was Washington State’s first winning season since 2003, which means that the Cougars have just gotten to the point where they are no longer playing in everyone’s homecoming game. While Wazzu went 9-4 last year and currently sits in second place in the Pac-12 North, the rest of the football world really doesn’t care.

Washington State’s national perception is hindered by losses to FCS schools in consecutive years. Plus, their head coach looks like he recently retired from professional wrestling, but yearns to throw a man through a table one last time. The Cougars are 4-2 and off to a promising start, but let’s face it: Mike Leach will find a way to screw this up.

USC

I hate to keep harping on coaches, but the fact that USC hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl in years has nothing to do with their roster. I’ll say it: USC should’ve hired Ed Orgeron when they had the chance. The players liked him and he actually won games, but he wasn’t a sexy hire. I surmise that Coach O cast some sort of voodoo curse on the USC football program, hexing them to 50 years of terrible coaching hires.

The annoying part of this is that USC is good almost every year and has the national reputation. But being whipped by Alabama this year did not help the PAC’s cause. Hire a real coach, USC.

Arizona State and Arizona

The Arizona schools are kind of like green beans at Thanksgiving. They taste fine and generally aren’t offensive, but no one comes to Thanksgiving for the green beans. They come for the turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. Green beans are just sort of there. Arizona and Arizona State both made it to the Pac-12 championship game in recent years, and are generally solid teams, but they don’t do much for the conference’s reputation and aren’t cracking the Top 10 anytime soon.

Stanford

In any other year, Oregon’s downswing would mean a sure Pac-12 North win for Stanford, a team that has just enough reputation to maybe make it to the CFP. But as luck would have it, Stanford is having an “off” year too. With two losses on the season, they are essentially eliminated from contention.

Stanford has been a force since 2010, so it’s easy to imagine them rebounding next year. However, senior quarterback Ryan Burns is struggling, it’s unclear who will be under center next year, and star running back Christian McCaffrey is injured, which could send him to the NFL. I originally thought an injury would make McCaffrey stay another year, but:

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Nothing is certain for Stanford next year.

UCLA

All I heard this offseason was how incredible Josh Rosen is and how he’s the next Andrew Luck. I don’t know if Josh Rosen is the next Andrew Luck or not, but I do know that UCLA is currently 3-4 and Andrew Luck never had a losing record in his three years as starting quarterback at Stanford. Similar to what I said about Cal, if UCLA can’t win with Rosen, who can they win with? UCLA is a very talented team, but they won’t sniff a CFP anytime soon.

Oregon State

The Beavers are not good. They weren’t good last year. They aren’t good this year. They won’t be good next year. The college football world doesn’t give a dam about this team. What? That was my best beaver pun.

Washington

Which brings me to the Huskies, the only undefeated Pac-12 team (6-0 overall, 3-0 in conference) and the only hope for the conference to make the College Football Playoff. They earned their No. 5 ranking by crushing their non-conference opponents (Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State) and obliterating (usually) perennial contenders Stanford and Oregon. Their closest game was against Arizona, which they won by a touchdown.

Looking ahead, I see potential trouble at Utah, given how difficult it is to play in Salt Lake. But the rest of the season (Oregon State, Cal, USC, Arizona State, and Washington State) should be a cakewalk. If Washington goes undefeated and wins the Pac-12, which is a very real possibility, the committee will have no choice but to put them in the CFP.

Which is why we have to root for Washington to Make the Pac-12 Great Again. I know — I don’t like it any more than you do, but Chris Petersen is a great coach and he deserves this after being passed over time and time again when he was at Boise State. It sucks to root for another team, but we have no choice. We must #BackThePAC. Just think, it could be worse: We could have to root for USC.