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Pickin’ the PAC: elimination weekend?

Reality is setting in for fringe PAC 12 teams.

Texas v USC
Clay Helton is facing a virtual elimination from the South title as USC travels to ASU.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Remember how well things were looking for the PAC in September? A few slip ups and a dastardly San Diego State power outage aside, the conference was looking pretty strong.

In particular, the middle of the PAC - teams like WSU, Cal, Colorado, Utah and Oregon were all looking pretty good. Each went through their out of conference schedules undefeated while racking up some impressive wins over teams like Boise St, Ole Miss, North Carolina, Colorado State and Nebraska.

At the time, we thought that looked pretty good. Our power rankings reflected as much.

Look at us now.

Only WSU has maintained that “middle to the top” trajectory. The other four teams have all suffered either 1-4 or 1-3 starts to their conference play and find themselves toeing the line of bowl eligibility.

In fact, week 9 is increasingly looking to me like “elimination weekend” for the PAC. It is true that only Oregon State faces an actual elimination game. But the fact remains that the odds of any of Cal, Colorado, Utah, Oregon or UCLA losing and still getting bowl eligible are slim. My back of the envelope calculations on the odds of each actually making a bowl game should they lose this weekend as follows:

Oregon 44%

UCLA 21%

Utah 21%

Cal 20%

Colorado 13%

In this case, Oregon benefits from two of their best matchups - Arizona and Oregon State - making up their last two games. Otherwise, the situation looks bleak for whichever of the remaining PAC 12 four win teams fail to get that fifth win this weekend.

Game of the Week

#21 USC at Arizona State

(Sat 7:45pt, ESPN, ASU +3, o59)

Home dog. Prime time. One team rising. One team faltering. A head coach moving towards a cooler room while another finds a spot on a toasty bench.

If that isn’t enough drama, allow me to crank it up one more notch. The loser is out.

Washington v Arizona State
Look for Manny Wilkins to break out against a depleted USC defense.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Well, not quite. Strange things can happen in the PAC 12 South. Let’s just say that the loser of this game will have a very difficult time catching back up and passing the other team in the race for the South Division.

Vegas likes the Trojans in this one based, I suppose, on reputation. If you look at the product that each of these teams has put on the field over the course of the last month, ASU looks hands down like the better team. With a defense that has transformed itself by cutting out the unmeasured risks of their old nutty blitz schemes and an offense featuring what I consider the “most improved” player in the conference at QB (that would be Manny Wilkins), the Sun Devils are making a case for a South Division championship.

That road (figuratively) goes through USC. And while the Trojans may not be playing great football right now - thanks in large part to injuries and ball protection issues - they still have some playmakers. QB Sam Darnold is still a dangerous weapon who has a stable of receivers around him who can put points on the board.

But the offense is sputtering. The offensive line is a train wreck of injured bodies and the running game has all but been forgotten the last several weeks. While I expect USC to make a concerted effort to get that rushing attack rolling, I’m not sure that they have the bodies available to move that slippery ASU front seven around.

I like the Sun Devils at home. The defense ought to be able to keep the scoreboard under control. I also expect that the Devils’ offense will get back on track after running a mini-gauntlet against the two best defenses in the conference.

Gekko’s Pick: USC 27, ASU 30

Rest of the PAC

#20 Stanford at OSU

(Thu 6pm PT, ESPN, OSU +20.5, o59)

I think the line just about says it all on this one. The Cardinal are starting to get healthy on defense and are starting to see Keller Chryst resemble something like a competent QB. And you may have heard of this guy named Bryce Love.

He’s awright.

OSU will be officially eliminated from bowl contention on Saturday. Of that I’ve no doubt. The only question I have about this one is if Stanford can get this game to the over while holding OSU at around 10 points. It is a distinct possibility.

Gekko’s Pick: Stanford 49, OSU 10

#15 Washington State vs Arizona

(Sat, 6:30pm PT, PACN, Ariz +3, o64.5)

If the phrase “upset alert” just parted your lips like some kind of guttural reflex, rest assured that you are not alone. Just about everybody who has watched the Khalil Tate show play out over the past three weeks knows that Wildcats have this offense tuned up and scoring points.

Arizona v California
Big Zach Green will be a load for WSU defenders to take down in this new and improved Arizona offense.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Cougs, for their part, have been playing some pretty good defense themselves. Pitching a shutout last week against Colorado is a pretty impressive feat even after allowing for the weather conditions in Pullman. S&P is starting to really appreciate the Cougs D. They rank them #12 overall.

The only problem is that the pass D (9th) has been much stronger than the rush D (34th). This could be problematic for a team that features a rushing attack with guys like Tate, RB Nick Wilson, RB Zach Green and RB JJ Taylor all coming at you like waves pounding on the shore. Relentless.

I have a feeling the Cougs D is going to get rocked a little bit in this one. That leaves the question as to whether or not WSU’s offense can carry the game. While I’ve been pretty critical of QB Luke Falk and this offense for most of the year, I do think they can score on Arizona’s thin and beat up defense. The loss of Tony Fields is a killer for the Wildcats and leads me to believe that the middle of the field will be easy pickings for Luke Falk.

Get ready for a wild one. WSU is going to pull out all of the stops as they cling to the hope of not being eliminated as a very darkhorse playoff contender. I think this one is could go down to the wire.

Gekko’s Pick: WSU 42, Arizona 48

Cal at Colorado

(Sat 1pm PT, PACN, Colorado -3.5, o52.5)

Bowl stakes are on the line in this matchup of 4-4 teams. The winner gets within one game of bowl eligibility with three to go while the loser will be forced to win two of their final three to get to the post season game.

Let’s call this what it is. A virtual elimination game.

If you go by the averages, Cal has the advantage. In fact, here is an interesting stat that just about sums up Cal’s season. They are averaging exactly 28.4 points for AND points against for the season.

That’s consistency.

Colorado being at home is a bit of an equalizer. But the Buffs have a major issue at quarterback. Presumed starter Steven Montez has just about zero confidence left in the tank while freshman Sam Noyer doesn’t look even close to ready.

I like Cal to win this one in what would be a near death blow for Coach Mac and his Colorado team.

Gekko’s Pick: Cal 30, Colorado 24

Utah at Oregon

(Sat 2:45pm PT, PACN, Oregon +3, o50.0)

You may have heard that Justin Herbert is back and ready to roll for the Ducks. If it were true, that could be a huge boost for an Oregon team that, at 4-4, is holding on for dear life in their pursuit or a postseason bowl bid.

Utah v USC
Darren Carrington expects boo-birds on his return to Eugene.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Unfortunately, Justin Herbert throwing 30 yard TD passes against air is hardly evidence that his broken collarbone is ready to absorb contact. It would seem unlikely that Herbert will be available against Utah.

That’s bad news for the Ducks.

Utah marches into Eugene with their own questions about bowl eligibility looming. While they still have five games to win two, the Utes are really struggling offensively. Those fortunes could change now that Tyler Huntley has a game under his belt following his own return from injury.

The key for Utah will be the passing attack and, ironically, the impact that WR Darren Carrington can have going against the same defense that he practiced against for most of his college career. Its basically a race to 24 given how solid the Utes D is (even if they are missing Chase Hansen). It might be less if that Utah D-line gets off against Oregon’s offensive line.

The smart money is on Utah putting Oregon’s post-season hopes on life support.

Gekko’s Pick: Utah 27, Oregon 14