Story by Jon Wilner
1. Utah takes charge
It’s not quite November, but clarity has come to the South: It’s Utah’s title to lose.
The Utes hammered UCLA on Saturday to complete a sweep of their three closest pursuers and take full control of the division.
Their head-to-head wins in chronological order:
Utah 42, USC 26
Utah 35, ASU 21
Utah 44, UCLA 24
The results make the division easy to dissect. If we include the tiebreaker advantage, the Utes lead ASU by two games and UCLA and USC by three games.
They only have four remaining, and two of them are against Arizona and Colorado.
Put another way: If the Utes win at Stanford on Friday night, they need only beat the Buffaloes and Wildcats to clinch the division. The Oregon showdown isn’t necessarily a must-win game.
Utah alone isn’t responsible for the widening gap. ASU contributed with its no-show against Washington State.
The Sun Devils’ embarrassing performance in the 34-21 loss — it wasn’t nearly that close, by the way — was both good and bad for the conference.
Good, because it decreases the likelihood that a program under NCAA investigation will win the South and play for the conference championship, all while possibly having to vacate a title down the road.
Bad, because losses by teams that could potentially be ranked might undermine Oregon’s case for a College Football playoff berth.
The Ducks need to face as many top-25 opponents as possible in the regular season and the conference championship game to boost their strength-of-schedule.
At this point, they would meet three-loss (at best) Utah for the title in Las Vegas.
The first selection committee rankings will be released Tuesday afternoon. Will Utah make the cut?
2. Devilish downturn
We cannot remember a collapse as swift and severe as the one unfolding in Tempe.
Just six quarters ago, ASU led Utah 21-7 at halftime and was 30 minutes from laying claim to division domination.
But the Sun Devils were outscored 28-0 in the second half by the Utes, then 28-7 in the first half by Washington State — a mind-numbing 56-7 demolition that has left coach Herm Edwards and his undisciplined team reeling.
Not only are the Devils the most penalized team in the conference; they committed five turnovers against WSU and played with utter indifference.
The dreadful showing came after a bye. Two weeks to prepare, and a face plant was the result.
The Sun Devils aren’t poorly coached so much as they are un-coached.
Asked about options for reversing the slide, Edwards said: “It’s the players. There’s going to be no new offense. There’s going to be no new defense. We’re not revolutionizing anything. We got to execute.” (Per SunDevilSource.com.)
Next week is gigantic for the Sun Devils, who host USC.
Toss the lack of discipline, lack of effort and two-game losing streak into a cauldron with the NCAA investigation and all the internal distractions that brings, and there is no telling how the Sun Devils might react.
They appear on the verge of quitting on Edwards, whose own future with the school is very much in doubt.
3. Cougars bounce back
Washington State is, by far, the most compelling story in the conference at the moment.
Two weeks after coach Nick Rolovich and four assistants were fired for failing to comply with the state vaccine mandate — and one week after a narrow loss to Brigham Young — the Cougars blasted Arizona State 34-21 to give acting coach Jake Dickert his first victory.
Yes, a 16.5-point road underdog won by 13, and it wasn’t even that close: ASU scored two touchdowns in garbage time.
Washington State has won four consecutive conference games, with three of the wins coming against North rivals (Cal, Oregon State and Stanford).
If they keep this up, Dickert will receive serious consideration for the permanent job.
It’s a remarkable development given the emotions and chaos of the past few weeks, and we’ll take the rare step of quoting ourselves (from Twitter):
“The Hotline roots for no one and nothing (except sub-4 hour games). But impossible not to feel good for WSU, where the players are making the most of their season after five selfish coaches put their personal preferences ahead of what was best for the team.”
WSU (5-4) must win one of its final three to become bowl-eligible. The Cougars have a bye, visit Oregon, host Arizona and head to Seattle.
Beat Arizona at home, and they’re in the postseason.
What a story.
4. Bowl math
Three teams entered Saturday needing one victory to clinch a postseason berth: UCLA, Oregon State and Arizona State.
All three lost.
In a way, that’s good for the Pac-12, because three teams on shakier ground (Utah, Cal and WSU) collected victories that moved them closer to the postseason.
As of this moment, five teams need one victory for a bowl bid: Arizona State, Oregon State, UCLA, Utah and WSU.
Two others need two more victories: USC and Washington.
And two others need three wins: Stanford and Cal.
Don’t discount the Bears (3-5). For all the narrow losses in the first half of the season, they have produced back-to-back wins and could easily collect the necessary victories down the stretch to sneak into the postseason.
Cal’s remaining opponents (with record):
at Arizona (0-8)
vs. USC (4-4)
at Stanford (3-5)
at UCLA (5-4)
We give the Bears a 30% chance of winning three more.
5. London falling
The best offensive player in the Pac-12 seemingly has played his final game as a collegian.
USC receiver Drake London, as dominant a wideout as the conference has produced in many years, was injured in the victory over Arizona and carted off the field.
He appeared to be holding his lower leg and was placed in an air cast.
Until we receive official word otherwise, the Hotline will assume London is out for the remainder of the season, which is deeply problematic for a USC offense that had become overly reliant upon him for production.
You’ll be able to watch London next year in the NFL.
The conference has now lost its highest-profile skill-position players in London and Oregon tailback C.J. Verdell, who suffered a lower-leg injury against Stanford and is out for the season.
Serious injuries are always unfortunate. That goes double when a conference woefully short on star power loses its biggest stars.
Verdell’s profile skyrocketed after his three-touchdown performance at Ohio State, to the point that he appeared on lists of Heisman Trophy candidates. London was headed for an All-American season.
We wish them well in their recoveries.
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