Wilner Hotline: Optics and Arizona State, Showdown with Utes

Arizona Sports News online

By Jon Wilner 

Reaction to Pac-12 developments on and off the field …

1. CFP check-in

The lightest Saturday of the season in the Pac-12 (three games) nonetheless featured plenty of results, internally and externally, that provide context on what we’ve witnessed thus far and what might await at the finish line.

Oregon State’s eighth consecutive loss to Washington State leaves two teams with fewer than two losses: Oregon and Arizona State.

The situation compares poorly to peer leagues in a sport that increasingly punishes parity and rewards strength at the top.

Number of teams with fewer than two losses across the Power Five:

Big Ten: five (out of 14 teams)
ACC: four (14 teams)
SEC: four (14 teams)
Big 12: three (10 teams)
Pac-12: two (12 teams)

The College Football Playoff has featured two teams from the same conference and a team that finished second in its division, but never a team with two losses.

So the Pac-12 needs the Ducks (4-1) or Sun Devils (5-1) to run the table. And because they wouldn’t play each other until the conference title game, the potential exists for an 11-1 vs. 11-1 showdown in Las Vegas that could produce a playoff contender.

Meanwhile, results elsewhere in Week Six were not entirely favorable to the Pac-12’s playoff push:

— LSU lost badly to Kentucky and is 3-3, undermining the impact of UCLA’s head-to-head win over the Tigers.

— Brigham Young, which has beaten three Pac-12 teams, including Arizona State, lost at home to Boise State.

— Oklahoma survived an epic Red River duel with Texas to remain undefeated.

— Cincinnati avoided a post-Notre Dame letdown and is a serious threat to crash the playoff — and possibly block the Pac-12 out of the semifinals.

— Michigan stayed undefeated with a late win at Nebraska, adding to the number of Big Ten teams in the CFP race.

Bottom line: Oregon remains a smart bet to make the CFP as a 12-1 conference champion with a victory at Ohio State. But ASU’s case isn’t nearly as strong because of the loss to BYU and lack of a marquee non-conference win.

The Pac-12’s path is extremely narrow.

2. Squirmy situation

The same day USA Today broke the news that Washington State coach Nick Rolovich likely is seeking a religious exemption from Washington’s vaccine mandate, his team delivered a 31-24 victory over Oregon State that carries multi-dimensional impact.

It slapped the Beavers with their second loss and prevented OSU from extending its lead in the North.

It gave WSU two consecutive victories and a position just off the pace in the division race.

What’s more, the Cougars’ mid-season upturn could complicate any decision on Rolovich’s future as an unvaccinated leader of the university’s highest-profile entity.

The state of the football program might impact the outcome — or at least the timing of the outcome — if Rolovich’s exemption request is approved and any subsequent separation becomes messy.

It’s easier to terminate a losing coach in the middle of the season, for whatever reason, than a coach with a winning streak.

3. Squirmy situation II

Arizona State provided another impressive performance, dominating Stanford on Friday night to secure its first 3-0 start in conference play since 2012.

At this point, the Sun Devils are the team to beat in the South and perhaps in the conference, and that might not sit well with the conference.

Imagine a team playing for the championship while under NCAA investigation for recruiting violations during COVID. If that’s not a worst-case scenario for the Pac-12, it’s close.

And yet, ASU’s depth chart is plenty good enough: The lines are stout, the playmakers are formidable, the secondary is first rate and quarterback Jayden Daniels is playing at a high level.

Perhaps the NCAA will resolve the case before the season concludes. Maybe it will absolve the Sun Devils of serious wrongdoing.

We’re skeptical of a clear picture emerging by the first weekend in December, leaving the potential for uncomfortable optics in Las Vegas.

Until proven otherwise, ASU is the favorite in the South.

4. Utah’s course correction

We would describe Utah’s first-ever victory in the L.A. Coliseum as a get-right win, partly because the Utes were recovering from the depths of despair following Aaron Lowe’s death and partly because they simply hadn’t played well in the previous four games.

The defense was less than dominant, the offense was out of sync, and the quarterback play was wobbly.

That all changed over three stellar hours Saturday evening.

Actually, it changed in less than three minutes.

The Utes scored with 10 seconds remaining in the first half to claim a 21-10 lead, then struck for a touchdown two minutes into the second half for a 28-10 advantage.

At that point, it was over.

Cameron Rising’s efficient performance (306 yards, three touchdowns) was exactly what we expected out of him two weeks ago, in his first start, after that sizzling off-the-bench showing against San Diego State.

The Utes also found a rhythm in the running game with 220-pound sophomore Tavion Thomas, a junior college transfer who might be their next great tailback.

The victory sets up a major showdown next weekend in Salt Lake City, where the Utes look to derail ASU’s title drive.

5. Speaking of showdowns …

The Hotline tossed current performances and upcoming schedules into our supercomputer in an attempt to identify the five biggest games of the second half of the season.

Oct. 16: Arizona State at Utah. The only teams undefeated in conference play. Winner assumes the favorite’s role in the South.

Oct. 23: Oregon at UCLA. The next decent chance for Oregon to get slapped with its second loss, which would effectively eliminate the Ducks from the playoff hunt.

Oct. 30: UCLA at Utah. There are three contenders in the South. These are two of them, at least for the moment.

Nov. 6: Oregon at Washington. One of the best rivalries in the conference will have division race implications if the Huskies locate their offense. If they don’t, the spoiler role will have to suffice.

Nov. 20: Oregon at Utah. Good chance this matters deeply to at least one participant and probably both.

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