The Pac-12 hasn’t produced a Heisman Trophy finalist since Stanford tailback Bryce Love in 2017. The next few weeks will frame the campaigns for the season’s final month.
The conference has four players in various states of contention. All four are quarterbacks, which tracks with the Heisman electorate’s preferences: 18 of the last 21 winners have been QBs.
— USC’s Caleb Williams entered the season as a frontrunner and has held his ground with 12 touchdowns, one interception and zero losses, but his most difficult games are ahead.
The Trojans face one of the top defenses in the conference Saturday when they host Washington State, followed by the showdown at Utah.
If Williams plays well and emerges with two victories — it’s difficult to envision the Trojans surviving if he doesn’t look sharp — then his status as a likely finalist will gain traction.
He leads the nation in passing yards per game (346.6) and surely impressed voters in the Midwest with his four-touchdown performance against Michigan State.
But Penix lost momentum when Washington struggled last week at UCLA, and he will assuredly fade from public view for a few weeks with back-to-back games on the Pac-12 Networks (against Arizona State and Arizona).
To bolster his chances, Penix needs two wins and big numbers. Statistics matter to voters and can keep Penix’s campaign afloat until UW returns to the ESPN and Fox airwaves during the crucial final month.
— UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson gained Heisman support last week with his sterling showing against Washington.
The run-heavy offense limits Thompson-Robinson’s ability to generate gaudy statistics — he has thrown 50 fewer passes than Penix, for example — but if the undefeated Bruins keep winning, the spotlight will follow.
UCLA faces 11th-ranked Utah this weekend in what is arguably the biggest game of Thompson-Robinson’s career (and coach Chip Kelly’s tenure). After a bye week, the Bruins head to Eugene for a showdown with the No. 12 Ducks.
Win both, and Thompson-Robinson could emerge as Williams’ crosstown foil in the Heisman race, just as UCLA’s Troy Aikman was to USC’s Rodney Peete in 1988.
— Meanwhile, Utah quarterback Cam Rising is a dark-horse contender whose prospects hit an early pothole with the last-minute interception at Florida in the season opener.
Rising has a major opportunity to change the narrative and enter the race with back-to-back Saturday showdowns against the Los Angeles schools.
Both games are on Fox, both against quarterbacks who also have Heisman aspirations.
If Rising outplays Thompson-Robinson this week and Williams next week — and if the Utes win both — then he will have palpable momentum for the stretch run.
2. Fox squared
The Pac-12 will occupy seven consecutive hours of airtime on the Fox broadcast network Saturday, with back-to-back games at 12:30 (Utah-UCLA) and 4:30 (Washington State-USC).
It’s the first time consecutive conference games have been shown on Fox since 2019, when Utah-Washington and Oregon-USC were aired at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., respectively.
The greatest amount of Pac-12 single-day airtime on Fox in recent memory took place on Sept. 11, 2021, with three games.
The day began with Oregon-Ohio State (9 a.m.), which was in Columbus and therefore part of the Big Ten’s broadcast inventory. Then came Texas A&M-Colorado (12:30 p.m.) and Stanford-USC under the Coliseum lights.
3. Yet another interim
Colorado offensive coordinator Mike Sanford will serve as the interim head coach following the termination of Karl Dorrell.
However, Sanford isn’t new to the role. He spent two years as Western Kentucky’s head coach, compiling records of 6-7 and then 3-9 before an unexpected dismissal.
Sanford joins Arizona State’s Shaun Aguano to form a pair of Pac-12 interim head coaches.
Last year, there were three: USC’s Donte Williams, who replaced Clay Helton in September; WSU’s Jake Dickert, who took over for Nick Rolovich in October; and Washington’s Bob Gregory, who replaced Jimmy Lake in November.
4. Ranking the ranked
Number of entries in the current Associated Press top-25 poll, by Power Five conference …
SEC (six): No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Georgia, No. 8 Tennessee, No. 9 Mississippi, No. 13 Kentucky, No. 23 Mississippi State and No. 25 LSU
Pac-12 (five): No. 6 USC, No. 11 Utah, No. 12 Oregon, No. 18 UCLA and No. 21 Washington
ACC (four): No. 5 Clemson, No. 14 N.C. State, No. 15 Wake Forest and No. 22 Syracuse
Big 12 (four): No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 17 TCU, No. 19 Kansas, No. 20 Kansas State
Big Ten (three): No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan, No. 10 Penn State
5. Points pace
Five Pac-12 teams rank in the top 20 nationally in scoring, adding to the pile of evidence that both coaching and quarterback play have improved.
If USC, Utah, UCLA, Washington and Oregon hold their spots through the end of the season, it would mark the first time in the expansion era (since 2011) that the conference will house five of the nation’s top-20 offenses.
(Last year, it only had two of the top 20.)
On the other side of scrimmage, however, only Utah ranks in the top 20 in scoring defense.
6. Notes and nuggets …
— UCLA has won eight consecutive games, tied for the second-longest streak in the nation behind Clemson (11).
— Oregon has allowed one sack this season, fewest in the FBS. (Oregon State has allowed two.)
— Arizona State is facing a ranked opponent (No. 21 Washington) for the third consecutive week following losses to Utah and USC — a triple whammy the likes of which ASU hasn’t experienced since 2014.
— Washington has not beaten the Sun Devils in Tempe since 2001.
— Three Pac-12 teams are in the top 10 nationally in third-down conversion percentage: USC (55.6), UCLA (54.7) and Washington (52.1).
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