Story by Jon Wilner
We’re one week past the midway point of the 2021 season, and the Pac-12, having stumbled against non-conference competition and currently eating its own in league play, has one team in playoff contention.
If Oregon wins out, a College Football Playoff berth should follow. The Ducks would be a one-loss Power Five champion with a victory at Ohio State — by historical standards, that’s a worthy resume.
Sure, there’s a lengthy list of Pac-12 teams hoping to beat the Ducks to the podium in Las Vegas, including their rival up the road. But it’s a complicated dynamic because the entire conference would benefit immensely from Oregon earning a playoff berth:
— It would help restore the Pac-12’s competitive reputation after four consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance.
— It would generate an additional $6 million in revenue for the conference, split equally among the members.
— And it would change the 2021 bowl calculation for every eligible team.
Think of the Pac-12’s postseason lineup as a ladder, with the Rose Bowl as the top rung. If the Ducks jump into the playoff, an opening forms on the top rung that must be filled by the team on the second rung. When that team moves up, the third rung becomes vacant and must be filled.
If Oregon goes to the playoff, everyone goes to a better bowl: San Antonio becomes Pasadena; El Paso becomes San Diego. The collective benefits.
To our latest projections …
Team: Oregon (6-1/3-1)
Home games (three): Colorado, Washington State, Oregon State
Road games (two): Washington, Utah
Comment: The Ducks are plenty talented enough to win out but, until proven otherwise, they lack the consistency of effort necessary. They can lose once and still win the North, then do what they do and play well on the big stage of the Pac-12 championship game to secure another Rose Bowl trip.
Team: Utah (4-3/3-1)
Home games (three): UCLA, Oregon, Colorado
Road games (two): Stanford, Arizona
Comment: We didn’t expect the Utes to get overrun in Corvallis, but they remain our pick for the South because of the tiebreaker edge on Arizona State. At this point, a rematch of the 2019 conference championship seems likely, and so does a repeat of the result.
Las Vegas Bowl
Team: Arizona State (5-2/3-1)
Home games (three): Washington State, USC, Arizona
Road games (two): Washington, Oregon State
Comment: No team has a wider range of potential outcomes: Easy to envision ASU winning the South and engaging Oregon in a down-to-the-wire duel for the conference title; also easy to envision two or three more losses if the lack of discipline continues.
Team: Oregon State (5-2/3-1)
Home games (two): Stanford, Arizona State
Road games (three): Cal, Colorado, Oregon
Comment: How greedy will the Beavers get once they secure their first bowl berth in eight years? Clearly, they have designs on the division, but keep in mind: OSU has lost 11 in a row to Stanford, was run off the field by ASU last season and plays the Ducks in Eugene. The Holiday Bowl — and its hotel and restaurant partners — would love to have their fans.
Team: UCLA (5-3/3-2)
Home games (two): Colorado, Cal
Road games (two): Utah, USC
Comment: Massive game this weekend in Salt Lake City. Win, and the Bruins would emerge as the South frontrunner given all the remaining schedules: They would be favored to win out; Utah plays Oregon; and ASU makes back-to-back trips to Seattle and Corvallis. That said, a loss at Utah would doom the Bruins, knocking them three games back (including the tiebreaker).
Team: Washington (3-4/2-2)
Home games (three): Oregon, ASU, Washington State
Road games (two): Stanford, Colorado
Comment: Our Apple Cup calculus has changed with the gut punch to Washington State’s coaching staff (courtesy of Washington State’s coaching staff). With that victory added to their total, the Huskies would need two more. Let’s count Colorado as one and figure they find a way — somehow, somewhere — to collect the second. And if they can’t beat Colorado, well, they don’t deserve to go bowling.
ESPN Bowl (Gasparilla, First Responders, Armed Forces)
Team: USC (3-4/2-3)
Home games (three): Arizona, UCLA, Brigham Young
Road games (two): Arizona State, Cal
Comment: This is a one-man team (Drake London) until or unless the Trojans hand the offense to freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart. His potential to ignite a late-season surge is the only reason we believe six wins are possible. Well, that and the presence of three opponents the Trojans, for all their shortcomings, should beat (Arizona, Cal and BYU).
Team: Arizona (0-7/0-4)
Home games (two): Cal, Utah
Road games (three): USC, Washington State, ASU
Comment: The Wildcats were so close to their first victory but remain so far from being competitive on a weekly basis. Their one semi-realistic chance to break the losing streak (18 games and counting) is Nov. 6, when Cal rolls into town.
Team: Cal (2-5/1-3)
Home games (two): Oregon State, USC
Road games (three): Arizona, Stanford, UCLA
Comment: Although we haven’t completely dismissed the possibility of the Bears winning four more, the odds are stacked against that scenario. Too many things need to go right over too many weeks for a team that hasn’t played a complete game against quality competition.
Team: Colorado (2-5/1-3)
Home games (two): Oregon State, Washington
Road games (three): Oregon, UCLA, Utah
Comment: Better chance of the Buffaloes losing all five than winning one (much less winning two or three). The performance in Berkeley was an abomination, even for a team — for an offense — that has repeatedly left us flabbergasted by its ineptitude.
Team: Stanford (3-4/2-3)
Home games (four): Washington, Utah, Cal, Notre Dame
Road games (one): Oregon State
Comment: Our outlook turned negative for the Cardinal even though it was idle in Week Eight. Combine Cal showing life with Oregon State blitzing Utah, and it’s increasingly difficult to identify a path into the postseason. Top end for Stanford would be 7-5; low end would be 4-8; and we’re thinking 5-7.
Team: Washington State (4-4/3-2)
Home games (one): Arizona
Road games (three): ASU, Oregon, Washington
Comment: Unless the Cougars conjure a major upset in Tempe or Eugene, they will have five wins entering the Apple Cup. Washington could very well be in the same position. And that, folks, would be a ton of fun.
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