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Power Rankings: the Pac-12 Final Four

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Four teams vie for two spots as the rest of the PAC tries to sort out bowl slottings and offseason plans.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

From twelve hopeful teams to a final four of legitimate candidates. This is what we mean by “every game is a playoff game.”

Last Saturday was a bit of a reckoning for the Pac-12 conference. I’m reminded of the old line from Mad Max: “two men enter, one man leaves.”

Giphy.com

Eight teams entered Saturday with hopes of continuing their quest for bowl eligibility or keeping playoff hopes alive. Two of those teams—Cal and UCLA—had those hopes smashed. A third, Utah, barfed up their chance at the Pac-12 championship.

The Final Four for the Pac-12 is now set. Only USC, Colorado, WSU, and Washington are still alive in the conference championship race. For the South, the outcome of the Utah at Colorado game will decide whether the Buffaloes or the Trojans are the South division representative. The same is true between for the North with the Apple Cup.

Beyond that, only ASU still has a chance to join Utah and Stanford as bowl-eligible Pac-12 teams. It will require a win over Arizona in the Territorial Cup.

Every season concludes like this. There are some winners, some losers, and some that are bitterly disappointed. The team that might be most so today is the Utah Utes. Interestingly, nobody has won more conference games over the past three years than the Utes—yet here they are once again showing us how to flub a shot at a championship game appearance.

Nevertheless, there is much football left to be played with bowl season just around the corner. As of right now, here is how I’m projecting the Pac-12 bowl lineup.

Fiesta Bowl, 31 Dec: Washington
*I’m very suspicious of Clemson in an ACC championship game against either VT or UNC.

Rose Bowl, 2 Jan: Colorado
* I like Colorado to beat Utah next week.

Alamo Bowl, 29 Dec: USC

Holiday Bowl, 27 Dec: Washington State

Foster Farms Bowl, 28 Dec: Utah

Sun Bowl, 30 Dec: Stanford

Las Vegas Bowl, 17 Dec: Arizona State

Cactus Bowl, 27 Dec: at large

The Cool Chart

pac 12 power rankings week 12
The Huskies are back on top of the PAC 12 Power Rankings
Chris Landon

The Power Rankings

12. Arizona 2-9 / 0-8

Last Result: Arizona 17, OSU 42

It’s almost over for an Arizona team that is winless in Pac-12 play. A blowout defeat at the hands of the Beavers just one week after they went toe-to-toe with Colorado provides ample evidence that this team has finally reached its limit.

People will look back on this season and will forget just how many things outside of their control went wrong for RichRod and the Wildcats. Unfortunately, the dominoes that might fall—especially if RichRod bails—could doom the Wildcats to years of futility. A win over Arizona State next week shapes up as a critical milestone should Arizona want to avoid such an outcome.

11. California 4-7 / 2-6

Last Result: Stanford 45, Cal 31

The Bears have now lost every Big Game under Sonny Dykes’s coaching. In fact, if you look at Dykes and his 9-26 record against Pac-12 competition, you see a coach who actually makes Tom Holmoe’s 9-23 record look good.

Yup, it’s that bad for the Cal Bears. This is a team that is now officially out of bowl contention and whose coach is squarely on the hot seat. To make matters worse, it is quite possible that said coach might leave on his own accord (the Dykes-to-Baylor rumors continue). A win in the finale against UCLA would be a salve, but this could become a disastrous offseason for the Bears. Thus their big drop this week.

10. Oregon State 3-8 / 2-6

Last Result: Arizona 17, OSU 42

Here is an odd stat: only five OSU receivers caught passes from QB Marcus McMaryion on Saturday...and each one of them recorded a TD reception. Most notable was the return of WR Jordan Villamin to relevance. The beleaguered junior grabbed 6 recs for 124 yds and a TD in a breakout game of sorts. In addition, the return of RB Ryan Nall bolstered an OSU offense that saw McMaryion throw for five TDs against no INTs.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Oregon State Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

But the real story was the Beaver defense. The competition wasn’t the best, but we are now seeing a trend of OSU defense playing stout. This is the third game in a row (and fifth out of their last seven) in which they surrendered less than 6 yards per play to an opposing offense. That’s a starting point and ample evidence by which the coaching staff can compel the players to stick with the development plan. OSU is trending up.

9. UCLA 4-7 / 2-6

Last Result: USC 36, UCLA 14

The Bruins are now officially out of the postseason race, and I think may well be facing a coaching change this offseason. I was really tempted to drop UCLA to #10 today, but I stopped short for a couple of reasons. First, the loss of Josh Rosen is a mitigating factor. Second, UCLA actually had a 14-7 lead over USC in the first half, and at one point looked like they were playing at a higher level.

Of course, UCLA allowed USC to run off 29 unanswered points from that point forward while a lot of the issues that have plagued the Bruins all season—awful rushing attack, poor passing accuracy and poor offensive line play—showed up again.

The talent is there, but this Bruins team is a complete and utter mess. They will have a chance to end the season on a high note next weekend against Cal.

8. Oregon 4-7 / 2-6

Last Result: Oregon 30, Utah 28

The Ducks get the nod for the performance of the weekend. Not only did they pull off one of the most unlikely upsets in the PAC, they scored what was really the only significant upset in the nation. In doing so, they brought some much-needed positive attention to the program.

There is no doubt that QB Justin Herbert is heading to “star” status. He was stellar going 30-43 for 334 yards and three TDs including that amazing game-winning strike to Darren Carrington with two seconds to play. Herbert’s play is a beacon for Ducks to rally around in the offseason. Their defense had their best game since Week 3 against Nebraska. If they can put together a similar solid effort against OSU in the Civil War, Oregon coaches will have a lot of reasons to point to optimism this offseason.

I’m bumping the Ducks this week.

7. Arizona State 5-6 / 2-6

Last Result: ASU 18, Washington 44

Yes, the Sun Devils got crushed by Washington. Lots of teams have had that same experience. So why the big jump for ASU this week?

The simple explanation is “opportunity.” ASU sits at five wins and still has an excellent shot at qualifying for a bowl game. As noted above, the Las Vegas Bowl is all ASU’s if they just take care of business against a shattered Arizona team. Along with the emergence of N’Keal Harry—who I believe is the brightest freshman receiver in the PAC—that opportunity is enough to justify a #7 slotting.

6. Stanford 8-3 / 6-3

Last Result: Stanford 45, Cal 31

A disappointing season is on the rebound in Palo Alto. The Cardinal are getting healthy and starting to see progress from young QB Keller Chryst. For the second week in a row, Chryst had an efficient effort throwing for two TDs and nearly a 9-yard-per-attempt average. That is exactly the kind of football David Shaw wants to see.

NCAA Football: Stanford at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

But the passing game isn’t the story from last weekend. The Cardinal rushing attack is the secret sauce. RB Christian McCaffrey went wild with 284 yards and 3 TDs on 31 carries to effectively carry the Big Game for Stanford. It was a dominating effort for the junior RB in what might well be his final conference game.

I’m still concerned about the Stanford defense, which Cal pretty well shredded all game. But with Rice the only competition left on the schedule before a bowl game, there isn’t too much to worry about with Stanford.

5. Utah 8-3 / 5-3

Last Result: Oregon 30, Utah 28

Kyle, Kyle, Kyle. Wtf?

Losing games at key junctures seems to be a thing with the Utah Utes. In 2011, a loss to Colorado knocked them out of the Pac-12 championship. In 2012, a loss to Arizona took them out of bowl contention. In 2013, a loss to WSU did the same. November losses in each of the last two seasons have twice banished Utah to the Las Vegas Bowl. In fact, Utah is just 10-11 in November games since joining the PAC.

That’s not going to get it done.

That Utah couldn’t get the offense going against an Oregon defense having a historically awful season is a concerning development. In fact, Utah made exactly one trip into the Oregon red zone all game. One trip? It almost seems impossible when you consider that Joe Williams ran for 124 yards and that Utah only committed one turnover all night.

Whatever it was, Utah’s lack of offense finally caught them and eliminated them from the Pac-12 championship.

4. Washington State 8-3 / 7-1

Last Result: WSU 24, Colorado 38

Want to hear some irony? The Cougs were effectively beaten for the first time in their conference schedule because they couldn’t deal with Colorado QB Sefo Liufau.

Do you know who coached Liufau this past offseason as he recovered from his Lisfranc injury? That would be former Coug great QB Alex Brink.

Thanks a lot, Alex. Go Cougs.

This game, only WSU’s second against a ranked Pac-12 team, exposed the physical difference between WSU and the better teams in the conference. It wasn’t that WSU was weak. Being objective, you’d be hard pressed to say that the Cougs didn’t play Colorado straight up for much of the game. They most certainly did. But Colorado simply wore down the Cougs on both sides of the ball to the point that CU was getting almost everything that they wanted by the fourth quarter.

While Luke Falk is still standing, the Cougs go into the Apple Cup as a physically spent team. However, they also go as a team that now has a better sense of the challenge that UW will present.

3. USC 8-3 / 7-2

Last Result: USC 36, UCLA 14

I gifted USC the #1 spot in the power poll last week based on their win over UW. That plus the dominating showing that they put up over UCLA is enough to convince me that there isn’t a team in the PAC peaking more gloriously than the Trojans.

The only problem for USC, and why they are #3 this week, is that they do not control their own destiny. Utah’s loss made sure that USC could still contend for the title. However, whether or not they make an appearance in Santa Clara completely depends on what Colorado does against Utah in Boulder.

If Utah is somehow able to find a win on the road, then the Trojans will represent the South. Should that happen, USC might have a puncher’s chance at a college football playoff spot. They’d need more help, but it is in the realm of possibility.

2. Colorado 9-2 / 7-1

Last Result: WSU 24, Colorado 38

The Buffaloes endured what I would consider a bit of a “spell” for a few weeks as they worked to get QB Sefo Liufau reintegrated into their offense. But that investment appears to now be paying off. The senior quarterback was outstanding in the Buffs’ dismantling of WSU. 345 yards passing, 108 yards rushing, 3 rushing TDs—it was a remarkable gut check of a game.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Even more impressive, and this is no longer news, was the Colorado defense. With two very aggressive and physical corners, that secondary was everything that they’ve been cracked up to be. They flustered Luke Falk into arguably his worst performance of the season (along with their UCLA game).

It was an impressive overall performance for a team that firmly controls its own destiny and who should rise in the playoff rankings.

1. Washington 10-1 / 7-1

Last Result: ASU 18, Washington 44

We’ve spent a lot of time debating the trajectory and the ceiling for the Huskies. There was much to sweat coming out of the sluggish but easy (does that make sense?) win over ASU. Neverthelss, the Huskies are a ten-win team for the first time since 2000 and still represent the PAC’s best opportunity to get a team in the playoffs since Oregon went to the National Championship game a couple of seasons ago.

The defense had another amazing showing, made even more remarkable when you consider the implications of not having Azeem Victor, Joe Mathis, or JoJo McIntosh available. The linebacking corps played very well, especially in executing DC Pete Kwiatkowski’s blitzing and pressure packages. Of particular note is the expanded role of Budda Baker, who quite literally played all over the field against ASU.

The offense still has some work to do to get QB Jake Browning settled and back to his comfortable self. The good news is that there was enough good in his performance—consider the drive to score the last TD in the 2nd quarter—to sustain optimism. If this team keeps playing at this level, there is no reason to think that they’ll be anything other than favorites to win the next two games on their schedule.