Saturday Night Five: CFP path narrows as UCLA tumbles, why USC is the best bet, OSU’s success and Stanford’s upturn

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)

Instant reaction to Pac-12 developments on the field …

1. Playoff path narrows

It’s Oct. 23, and there are no perfect records remaining in the Pac-12.

Alone among the Power Five conferences, it has no unbeaten teams after UCLA’s defensive no-show in a 45-30 loss at Oregon that was easy to see coming.

But the Pac-12 isn’t out of the College Football Playoff race, not with three one-loss teams.

The following assessment of the contenders assumes each team wins out and captures the conference championship.

Best-case record: 11-2
CFP prospects: Just this side of zero
Assessment: The Utes were effectively eliminated in early October when they stumbled at UCLA. No two-loss team has made the cut in the eight years of the CFP, and the Pac-12 won’t be the conference to change the paradigm.

Best-case record: 12-1
CFP prospects: Weak but detectable
Assessment: We’re hesitant to discount the Ducks entirely because any one-loss Power Five champion will receive consideration. But the magnitude of the season-opening face plant to Georgia won’t be easily overcome. There is no way to spin 49-3, no matter how impressive the Ducks are down the stretch. And if Georgia claims the No. 1 seed, they have zero chance. Because that No. 1 vs. No. 4 matchup would be completely untenable.

Best-case record: 12-1
CFP prospects: North of slim, south of solid.
Assessment: The Bruins would have three hurdles to overcome with the selection committee: 1) The 15-point loss to a team (Oregon) that lost to Georgia by 46 points; 2) The soft non-conference schedule; and 3) The impact of that non-conference schedule on their overall resume. The Bruins likely would have just three wins over teams in the final CFP rankings (Utah, USC and their opponent in the conference title game). We aren’t sure that’s enough.

2. Best bet for the CFP

We split USC off from the other contenders because the Trojans are, in fact, on a different level — a higher level.

They possess a vastly better chance of qualifying for the CFP than Utah, Oregon or UCLA.

Why? Because USC is the only team that can finish 12-1 and avoid the Georgia stain.

Think about it like this under the best-case scenarios laid out above:

Utah would have two losses; Oregon would have lost to the Bulldogs by 46 points; and UCLA would have lost to the team that lost to Georgia by 46 points.

But as a 12-1 conference champion, the Trojans would have either beaten Oregon in the Pac-12 title game or avoided playing the Ducks altogether.

Their resume would have immunity, so to speak.

Many observers were quick to dismiss the Trojans after the one-point loss at Utah, and that was a serious mistake.

If they beat UCLA on Nov. 19, thump Notre Dame on Nov. 26 and then beat either Oregon or Utah in the conference title game, the Trojans will receive serious consideration from the selection committee.

Also working in their favor, and never to be ignored: Brand bias.

It exists, even in a space as objective as the selection committee’s boardroom. And you can bet your last dollar that one-loss USC, with Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams, would have oodles of support.

Whether USC made the cut in that situation would depend on the competition — on the number of zero- and one-loss teams from other Power Five leagues.

It’s Oct. 23, and there are no perfect records left in the Pac-12.

But the conference remains alive in the playoff race as long as USC doesn’t lose again.

3. Bowl math, postseason paths

Oregon, Oregon State and Washington became eligible for the postseason on Saturday, joining the L.A. schools to give the conference five qualified teams.

At this point in the 2021 season, following the games of Saturday, Oct. 23, it had one bowl-eligible team.

(That’s right. After eight weeks of play, only Oregon had reached the six-win mark.)

Current bowl-eligible teams, by conference:

ACC: 4
Big 12: 2
Big Ten: 5
Pac-12: 5
SEC: 5

But it’s a zero-sum game within conference play. As the top half of the Pac-12 continues to thrive — that’s USC, UCLA, Oregon, OSU, Utah and Washington — the bottom six face increasingly narrow paths to bowl eligibility.

Of the teams with more than two losses, only Washington State (4-3) possesses a reasonable road to six wins.

For Cal, Stanford, ASU, Arizona and, of course, Colorado, the challenge is daunting.

4. Dam impressive

Of the five teams that have clinched bowl berths, Oregon State’s success is the most impressive given each program’s resources, tradition and recruiting base.

Everything is more difficult in Corvallis — the margin for error with recruiting and injuries is a fraction of what exists in Seattle, Eugene and Los Angeles.

Yet coach Jonathan Smith continues to make shrewd personnel evaluations and maximize the talent on hand.

In that regard, we see clear parallels to the state of Utah’s program in the 2015-17 window under Kyle Whittingham, another head coach who makes expert use of his talent.

Back then, the Utes had upgraded their roster to reach Pac-12 standards and played as close to their potential as anyone in the conference, but they were a notch below the top-tier teams.

One final recruiting push injected the roster with enough talent to win the South title in 2018, followed by a repeat in 2019 and the conference crown in 2021.

Will Oregon State make a similar jump under Smith?

5. Life on the Farm

Two weeks ago, Stanford surrendered an improbable touchdown in the final seconds, lost in a gut-wrenching fashion to Oregon State and dropped to 1-4 with a talent-shy, injury-riddled roster that appeared destined for 11th place.

But thanks to improved defense and a softening of the schedule, the Cardinal has course-corrected and owns a two-game winning streak after defeating Notre Dame 16-14 and Arizona State 15-14.

Two games, 31 combined points, and two victories.

Now, Stanford is 3-4 overall with an outside shot at the postseason. The remaining schedule includes two steep challenges (Utah and UCLA) but three winnable games (WSU, Cal and BYU).

If the Cardinal had simply managed to keep Oregon State out of the end zone in the final 30 seconds on Oct. 8, it would have a three-game winning streak and be living on the high side of .500.

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