Story by Jon Wilner
Reaction to Pac-12 developments on the field …
1. Rinse, repeat and … relish?
The pandemic changed the world, but not the Pac-12. The exact mix of chaos and parity that ruled the Conference before COVID is back in full frenetic force in this mostly regular season.
For the Pac-12’s playoff pursuit, it’s maddening parity.
For fans who want to be entertained each week, it’s glorious parity.
Either way, it’s the dominant theme of the early season across the Conference but particularly in the North.
Oregon State, which lost at Purdue, is alone atop the division after beating USC and Washington in back-to-back weeks.
Stanford, which looked utterly lost in its season opener against Kansas State, is alone in second place after toppling Oregon yet again.
Oregon, which won at Ohio State, is tied for third after a series of lackluster performances and now has zero margins for error in its quest for a playoff berth.
The South is a bit more orderly, if only because one front runner (Arizona State) and two cellar-dwellers (Colorado and Arizona) have emerged.
The Hotline will stand on its Week One declaration that the South is the more robust division. It has more good … err more decent teams — as many as four.
That said, the bottom of the South is worse than the bottom of the North.
2. Road to the CFP
Oregon’s loss at Stanford didn’t eliminate the Ducks from the playoff race, but it wiped out their margin for error with two long months remaining.
Since the Ducks beat Ohio State, the Hotline has argued that a 12-1 record that included the Pac-12 title would be enough to get Oregon into the playoff.
To that end, nothing has changed — the Ducks can still finish 12-1. Only now do they need to run the table.
Essentially, the Conference has two paths to serious playoff contention:
— Either Oregon or Oregon State must win out and beat the South representative in the conference title game
— Arizona State must win out and beat the North representative in the conference title game.
Those are the only two options for the Pac-12 to produce a one-loss champion, which history suggests is required for a CFP berth. (No two-loss team has cut, and we’re skeptical that the first will come from the Pac-12.)
The cannibalism that accompanies conference play illuminates the impact of all those early-season losses to Power Five and Group of Five opponents.
The number of teams with zero losses:
Big Ten: four
Big 12: two
The number of teams with fewer than two losses:
Big Ten: six
Big 12: five
Again, it makes for riveting theatre each weekend but does nothing for the Pac-12’s playoff prospects.
While many fans are more interested in the former, the teams and conference office care deeply about the latter because of its impact on reputation, ratings, and recruiting.
3. Clarity in the South
Arizona State became the second team to beat UCLA.
The Sun Devils combined big plays on offense with stout run defense to shut down UCLA in the second half and cruised to a 42-23 victory. (Bruins tailbacks Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown, who had overrun previous opponents, combined for just 122 yards.)
It was just ASU’s second game against an opponent capable of providing resistance. It resulted in a markedly different outcome from the implosion at BYU, when the Sun Devils have assessed 16 penalties and committed four turnovers.
They were the Conference’s biggest mystery entering Week Five, but no longer.
ASU looked the part of a division frontrunner, which speaks to both the roster’s considerable talent and the division’s many mediocrities.
(The South is 0-6 against the combination of BYU, San Diego State, and Fresno State.)
But cast an eye to the upcoming schedule, and it’s not difficult to envision the Sun Devils rolling to an 8-1 or 7-2 conference record and winning the division — all of it, of course, against the backdrop of an NCAA investigation.
Arizona State vs. Oregon State in Las Vegas: It would be the most Pac-12 title game ever.
4. Oregon: What gives?
Three weeks ago, the Ducks played like a playoff contender on the hallowed turf.
Since then, they have played like a playoff pretender on familiar ground.
The come-from-ahead 31-24 loss at Stanford was yet another memorable entry in the series history. It left Oregon fans fretting about a mounting injury list and stewing about the officiating on Stanford’s game-tying drive.
The officials got the targeting correct on Kayvon Thibodeaux, and they will call roughing the passer every time there is contact to the head of the quarterback.
If there’s the reason for frustration with the officials, it’s with the defensive holding on the fade pass as time expired. The contact between receiver and cornerback wasn’t any more significant on that play than in previous versions when no flags were thrown.
But that’s all secondary to the central problem, which is this: The Ducks have not shown a lick of urgency since the Ohio State game.
Play poorly for a half — and Oregon was wrong in the first half Saturday — and you become vulnerable to bad bounces, bad calls, and bad karma down the stretch.
This loss was entirely on the Ducks, not on the officials.
Mario Cristobal is an intense, fiery coach, and his team seems to follow that lead, for better or worse. The Ducks rise the occasion in big games (Ohio State, the Pac-12 championship) but struggle to muster the proper energy level against unranked or seemingly overmatched opponents.
They must be more even-keeled to have any hope of winning out and staying in the playoff chase.
5. Washington slides to the brink
The Hotline never envisioned needing to write the following sentence at this stage of the season, but it’s wholly appropriate:
The Huskies are in danger of missing the postseason.
They are 2-3 after the loss in Corvallis and must win four of their final seven games.
That’s not quite daunting until you consider they draw UCLA and Arizona State from the South.
As we see it, the most manageable path to the postseason would entail beating Arizona and Colorado, then winning two of the following five: vs. UCLA, at Stanford, vs. Arizona State, vs. Oregon, vs. Washington State.
And from what we’ve seen through five weeks, especially from the offense, the Apple Cup cannot be considered a lock despite the recent history.
No game is a lock for a team that lost at home to Montana.
Yes, we’re dumbfounded by Sean McGrew’s absence in the first two games.
No, we cannot figure out what the Huskies want to be.
Yes, we were surprised they tried a quarterback sneak on fourth down from that distance on their side of midfield, with a tie score and little time remaining.
No, we don’t think the point total in Corvallis (24) signals an end to the sputtering offense.
Yes, we fully believe UW could finish with a losing record, closer to last place than first, and looking up at not only Oregon and Stanford but also — gasp! — Oregon State.
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