Wilner Hotline – Sunday Judgements Around Pac-12

Arizona Sports News online

Story by Jon Wilner 

1. Rendering judgment

Week Three brought five non-conference losses — all of them by the South division, with four coming in stunning, rapid-fire succession after sunset:

8:02 p.m.: Utah sputtered on offense for most of the game, changed quarterbacks, rallied late, then lost in triple overtime to San Diego State 33-31.

10:17 p.m.: Arizona blew a two-touchdown lead, couldn’t convert a late two-point attempt, lost to Northern Arizona for the first time since 1932 and, with the 21-19 defeat, extended its losing streak to 15 games, the longest in the nation.

10:49 p.m.: Arizona State committed four turnovers and 16 penalties in a terrible, mostly self-inflicted 27-17 loss to Brigham Young. The Sun Devils paid dearly for playing cupcake opponents in the first two weeks.

11:39 p.m.: UCLA was helpless to stop Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener when it counted. The former Washington reserve carved up the Bruins for 455 yards and led two 75-yard touchdown drives in the final three minutes to secure a 40-37 upset in the Rose Bowl.

And don’t forget where this forgettable day began: In Boulder, with Colorado’s unfathomably bad offensive performance in a 30-0 loss to Minnesota in which the Buffaloes gained 63 total yards.

Sure, the North was 5-0 in non-conference matchups, but three of the wins (Cal, Oregon and Oregon State) were against FCS competition, a fourth (Washington) was against the Sun Belt and the fifth (Stanford) was against a Vanderbilt team that lost to East Tennessee State two weeks ago.

At this point, the Pac-12 has played 23 of its 27 non-conference games, and the numbers are fairly bleak:

— six losses to Power Five opponents
— five losses to the Mountain West
— four losses tonight
— three losses to Brigham Young
— two losses to FCS teams
— one undefeated team remaining

One of the few bright spots within the Week Three darkness was that three losses (Arizona, Colorado and UCLA) were on the Pac-12 Networks and thus not visible to most of humanity.

(The four non-conference games remaining are: BYU at Washington State, BYU at USC, USC at Notre Dame and Notre Dame at Stanford.)

2. The playoff path

This section will be brief, for there isn’t much to say after all the bad losses over the past three weeks.

The Pac-12 has two options for placing a team in the CFP for the first time since 2016:

— Oregon cannot lose more than one game.

— One of the five one-loss teams cannot lose again.

Anybody believe UCLA, ASU, Stanford, Oregon State or USC is good enough to run the table? Didn’t think so.

It’s the Ducks or bust, really — the victory at Ohio State still serves as a capable counterweight to the defeat and despair everywhere else.

Remember, no team has gone undefeated in Pac-12 play since the divisions were formed in 2011, and no team has reached the playoff with two losses since the event made its debut in 2014.

Number of undefeated teams, through Saturday night:

Big 12: six
Big Ten: six
SEC: six
ACC: two
Pac-12: one

3. Panic time

Fans of these teams should be deeply concerned:

Arizona: We figured it would be a long season in Tucson but were dead wrong about that. It turned out to be a very short season — because it’s already over. The Wildcats are 0-3 and don’t look capable of winning more than one or two games. (They play Colorado, after all). Jedd Fisch might have found his quarterback late in the fourth quarter when he gave third-stringer Jordan McCloud a shot. But the defense couldn’t stop NAU’s running game when everyone knew NAU would be running. Next week: at Oregon.

Utah: Cameron Rising’s performance off the bench provides a morsel of hope, but the Utes are a mess on the lines of scrimmage — the units expected to power a run at the South title. (San Diego State controlled the trenches for most of the game in the same manner BYU handled the Utes last week.) Also, we have no idea what Utah wants to be on offense — when it isn’t in desperation mode, that is.

Colorado: It stretches the imagination to think a major college team in the 21st century could gain 63 yards in a 60-minute game. But the Buffaloes were infinitely inept — to the point that Karl Dorrell should evaluate everything about the offense and his staff in the next 24-36 hours. Don’t forget, the shutout against Minnesota came one week after CU scored just seven points on Texas A&M.

Washington State: Multiple reasons to worry on the Palouse. The first is the state of the quarterback position after Jayden de Laura was hurt in the loss to USC. The Cougars also blew a lead for the second time in three games. (Ahead 14-0, they yielded 45 consecutive points to a backup quarterback making his first appearance.) And finally, the deadline for vaccines in Washington is Oct. 18; Nick Rolovich’s situation could become more problematic in coming weeks.

4. Blessed relief

Fans of these teams should enjoy the success while they have it:

USC: Interim coach Donte Williams was coy when asked about the quarterback situation, but the answer is obvious: Jaxson Dart needs to start next week and every week thereafter. His mobility gives the offense a threat on the ground, and his arm creates the potential for big plays down the field. Dart could very well do to Kedon Slovis what Slovis did to JT Daniels. And he just might provide the spark that keeps USC in the South race.

Cal: The Bears thumped Sacramento State 42-30 for their first victory and have now scored 74 points in their last two games, which is good. That said, the defense has given up 64, which is bad. (Cal isn’t built to win shootouts, and even when it was built to win shootouts under Sonny Dykes, it couldn’t win shootouts.) Most of the defenses in the North are substantially better than the units the Bears have faced recently. We don’t believe a corner has been turned, yet.

Washington: After two awful weeks, the Huskies scored 52 points against Arkansas State. The worst thing they can do now is to think their problems are solved. Arkansas State’s defense is terrible, and UW’s shortcomings haven’t vanished — they were simply hidden for an afternoon. It’s fitting that UW and Cal will square off next weekend in Seattle, because they’re in the same spot: Desperate to believe the Week Three results signal a new reality when, in fact, they could be an outlier.

5. QB woes

The Hotline always strives for candor, so here we go:

The state of quarterback play in the conference is as bad as we can remember, ever.

Yes, there have been a few bright spots. (To name four: Anthony Brown played very well at Ohio State; Dart was stupendous this weekend for USC; Chance Nolan looks sharp for Oregon State; Stanford’s Tanner McKee can sling it.)

But broadly speaking, the consistency and efficiency have been far below standard for the conference.

It was so bad over the weekend that three teams seem likely to change starters: Utah will assuredly go with Rising over Charlie Brewer; Arizona could very well give McCloud a shot; and Dart looks like the start for USC.

(Colorado would assuredly be the fourth if transfer JT Strout was healthy; we’re not sure if rookie Drew Carter can unseat the struggling Brendon Lewis.)

The quarterbacks aren’t solely responsible for the mounting losses and awful offenses, but they’re playing an integral role in the Pac-12’s season of woe.


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Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP top-25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree.