Wilner Hotline: Pac-12 Rewind

Arizona Sports News online

By Jon Wilner 

Instant reaction to Pac-12 developments on the field …

1. Dynamic duo

The Pac-12’s best players were on big stages Saturday, and both delivered with tour de force performances.

Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux produced 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and a forced fumble in the Ducks’ 34-31 victory over UCLA, which was shown nationally on ABC from the Rose Bowl.

Then came USC receiver Drake London’s turn in primetime. All he did was catch 15 passes for 171 yards in the Trojans’ 31-16 loss at Notre Dame.

In our opinion, Thibodeaux and London are two of the top 10 players in the country and should, by all rights, be in the Heisman Trophy discussion.

Except the Heisman race isn’t always about the best players, and both Thibodeaux and London face significant headwinds to join the top tier of contenders.

Last year, Alabama’s DeVonta Smith became the first wide receiver to win the award since Desmond Howard in 1991.

The fact that London plays for a sub-.500 team — the Trojans are 3-4 — creates additional problems, even though his production is off the charts:

He leads all Power Five receivers in catches, with 79, and his average of 143 yards per game is more than a handful of FBS teams.

Meanwhile, defensive players have no chance to win the Heisman. None.

Michigan’s Charles Woodson was the last to do it, in 1997, but Woodson also was a devastating punt returner. And in the 24 years since his victory, Heisman voter sentiment has shifted, along with the game itself, to offense — and especially to quarterbacks: 12 of the last 15 winners have been QBs.

Thibodeaux also missed a chunk of September, including Oregon’s breakthrough victory at Ohio State, with an ankle injury.

Yes, he has 7.5 tackles for loss in five games.

No, he cannot be blocked one-on-one.

And quite likely, he will be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.

But as with London, his prospects for the Heisman are close to zero.

The Pac-12 hasn’t produced a top-10 finisher since Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew in 2018. If either London or Thibodeaux crack that threshold, it would constitute a minor victory for the conference.

Our advice for Pac-12 fans is to disregard the Heisman and enjoy Thibodeaux and London while you can.

They are special talents — as good as the conference has seen in years.

And they won’t be around much longer.

2. North update

The game without a name could very well decide the division.

Oregon and Oregon State haven’t renamed their rivalry since dropping the Civil War nickname back in the summer of 2020. This year’s edition is scheduled for Eugene on Nov. 27, and it could be a winner-take-all situation.

Current division standings:

Oregon: 3-1
OSU: 3-1
WSU: 3-2
UW: 2-2
Stanford: 2-3
Cal: 1-3

Our assessment, briefly:

The Ducks are the most talented team and the frontrunner, as they have been since the season began.

But Oregon State has already played both Washington schools and Utah, leaving the Beavers with a more manageable schedule than the Ducks.

Oregon must play Washington, WSU, Utah and the Beavers.

Considering how often the Ducks play down to the level of their competition — the Cal game last week was a perfect example — they are more susceptible to an upset than the Beavers.

3. South update

The biggest game in the division is just a week away:

UCLA’s trip to Salt Lake City carries momentous stakes — yes, even though Utah stumbled today at Oregon State.

Current division standings:

Utah: 3-1
Arizona State: 3-1
UCLA: 3-2
USC: 2-3
Colorado: 1-3
Arizona: 0-4

With a victory Saturday, the Utes would effectively own a three-game lead over the Bruins (two in the loss column plus the tiebreaker).

It would become a two-team race, except Utah has the tiebreaker edge on ASU by virtue of the head-to-head win last week.

Also, the Utes haven’t played Colorado or Arizona yet.

So let’s count: A win over UCLA would give them four conference victories; add Arizona and Colorado, and they would have at least six wins.

One more — against Stanford or Oregon — should be enough for the division.

4. Non-conference update

The Pac-12 has completed 93% of its non-conference schedule, and the damage is mounting.

If we add today’s losses to the tally (USC to Notre Dame and Washington State to Brigham Young), the non-conference count is as follows:

Record vs. FCS opponents: 7-2
Record vs. FBS opponents: 8-15
Total non-conference record: 15-17

It’s not an incomprehensible showing, but it’s close.

We never expected two losses to FCS teams. Or four losses to BYU (with the potential for a fifth). Or five losses to the Mountain West.

The implications extend beyond harm to the conference’s reputation.

The loss count itself matters as teams scrap and claw for the six victories needed for bowl eligibility. Lose one you shouldn’t outside of league play, and the margin for error within the conference shrinks.

And the non-conference metrics could matter a great deal if Oregon runs the table and contends for a playoff berth.

When comparing playoff candidates, the selection committee relies on metrics such as record vs. ranked teams and record vs. teams that are over .500 to help differentiate.

The more total losses for the Pac-12, the greater the potential for Oregon’s candidacy to suffer collateral damage.

Given the current state of affairs, the conference will be fortunate to have two teams ranked in the committee’s first top-25 rankings, which are scheduled for release on the first Tuesday of November.

5. Bowl math

We’re into the stretch run with five weeks remaining. Only one team, Oregon, has reached the six-win threshold required for bowl eligibility.

How does that compare to other Power Five leagues?

Glad you asked.

Number of bowl-eligible teams:

ACC: three
Big 12: three
Big Ten: four
Pac-12: one
SEC: five

Within the Pac-12, the math breaks down in this fashion:

Bowl berth locked up: Oregon
Must win one of four: UCLA
Must win two of four: Washington State
Must win one of five: Oregon State and Arizona State
Must win two of five: Utah
Must win three of five: Stanford, USC and Washington
Must win four of five: Cal and Colorado
Eliminated: Arizona

The Wildcats are one of two winless teams in all of major college football. The other is UNLV.

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