The race for the PAC 12 championship is beginning to take shape. With Week 7 now in the books, we have a very clear idea of who the favorites are (Oregon and Utah), who the contenders are (USC, Washington, Arizona State) and who the teams in danger of missing bowl eligibility are (UCLA, Oregon State, Colorado ... and WSU?).
We also know that some programs are beginning to enter into that weird zone where a culmination of coaching situations (e.g. Tracy Claeys leaving WSU), off the field player drama (e.g. Theo Howard taking a mid-season transfer out of UCLA) and on-the field injuries (e.g. Washington’s MJ Tafisi) begin to both signal attrition but also opportunity for new players to shine. It’s the stew of college football that makes predicting the outcome of the season in August so damn difficult.
Here are the storylines I’m tracking as I look at the overreactions to a big weekend in the PAC.
Overreactions of the Week
1. The PAC is back in the Playoff Race
This overreaction surfaced almost instantly once news spread that South Carolina, behind a backup QB, upset Georgia in overtime.
I do not think it is completely out of the question that one of the pair of Oregon or Utah ultimately is able to make a case. However, I think those odds still are very, very long. The first argument I would make is one based on math. When the first CFP ranking comes out after next week, there is a decent chance that as many as ten teams will be undefeated (yes, that includes Group of Five). In most seasons, there are five or six teams who open the CFP rankings undefeated. The only season we’ve had to date where that many teams have entered the CFP undefeated was 2015. Those are a lot of bodies that have to be climbed for a one-loss team to have to overcome, especially since the precedent of non-conference winners has been set.
Of course, the nature of that challenge rests with being able to build a resume. Again, this is where the PAC 12 teams will fall short. One-loss teams like Auburn, Florida and Notre Dame will have “quality losses” on their resumes. Even a team like Georgia, I would argue, would remain ahead of any of the PAC 12 teams with one loss because they have at least one win (vs Notre Dame) that will trump any win left on either Utah’s or Oregon’s schedule.
So, no, I’m not seeing it.
2. ASU is a Contender for the South
Technically, this is true. Realistically? Not so much.
Herm Edwards clearly has a magic touch. I think we can all agree that the ridicule thrown Tempe’s way upon his hiring was way overblown and now looks ridiculous in its own right. But, that said, I’m not sure how ASU keeps this magical little run going. In the four wins that ASU has over FBS opponents, the average margin of victory has been just 4.5 points. Among those FBS opponents, the average F/+ ranking for those teams is 37th. ASU themselves entered last weekend ranked 30th in F/+. In short, they are an average team barely beating slightly less average teams.
The road ahead gets more difficult. Utah, USC and Oregon are all out there ahead of them not to mention a Territorial Cup that pits two equal teams. It’s just a matter of time before the Sun Devils fade away.
3. The Huskies Have a Great Shot to Still Make a Run
I was as encouraged as anyone after the second half explosion I saw out of the Huskies on Saturday night. Washington hasn’t put 50+ points up on any Power 5 team since they had those crazy mid-season outbursts against Oregon and Cal in 2016. 35+ points in a half is something that you generally only see UW do against the Oregon State’s of the world (as they did last season), but something you almost never see in a second half. That’s some good stuff.
The only problem is that we still have a first half to explain. No offensive touchdowns, 3 points off of three turnovers, absurd red zone problems and no passing game to speak of. Was the first half the anomaly? Or the second half?
Defensively, we are still left to wonder how it was that the rushing defense remains so sieve-like. Take away the Khalil Tate sacks from last night and the Huskies still surrendered 5.5 yards per carry. With offensive lines like Oregon’s and running backs like Utah’s still ahead, this situation is one that is sure to plague the Dawgs as, at this point, they are what they are.
The odds don’t look good. Mostly because even if they get past Oregon, they still sit behind the Ducks in the standings AND they have Utah in front of them (Oregon does not play Utah in the regular season). If the Huskies were to make a run, they are already at the point where the young players will really have to step up and a ton of help is required.
The Cool Chart
PAC 12 Power Rankings, after Week 7
12. UCLA (1-5, 1-2)
Oregon State did their best to get back into this spot with the thumping they took from Utah. But the news about Theo Howard’s transfer made a bleak season much darker for Chip Kelly and co.
Next Up: at Stanford (Thursday)
11. Oregon State (2-4, 1-2) ▼
#15 Utah 52, Oregon State 7
It’s basically two steps forward and 1.99 steps back for Oregon State. Fresh off of an inspiring win over UCLA and a Player of the Week honor for QB Jake Luton, reality set in like a Minnesota frost in January. Hard and cold.
The Beavers were routed in every single way imaginable. Defensively, they scarred the record book by surrendering a 91-yarder to RB Zack Moss - the longest run given up in Beaver history. Offensively, they failed to even put a point on the board until Tristan Gebbia’s garbage time TD at the end.
But Utah is good and the Beavers will learn.
POG: P Daniel Rodriguez (7 punts, 289 total yards)
Not that field position gains really mattered much ... but Rodriguez did his part.
Next Up: at California
10. Washington State (3-3, 0-3) ▲
Washington State 34, #18 Arizona State 38
There are no moral victories, but there also is no shame in dropping a slugfest against a good team in the desert. That’s what happened to the Cougs on Saturday against ASU. They played a good all around game, but just couldn’t stop a gritty team playing a true freshman QB who just seems to have the magic “it” factor. Such was the case when WSU’s defense saw Jayden Daniels crossing the goal line on a scramble for the game-winning TD with 34 seconds to play. Sometimes things like that happen even when your team is playing well (WSU had no turnovers, created half a dozen negative plays on D and generated 498 yards in offense...not horrible).
Nevertheless, the Cougs do have some very practical problems. They are the only winless team (in conference play) in the PAC. And now I’m starting to wonder if there are three more wins out there for them. I can see two of them with home games on tap against both Colorado and Oregon State. However, to get a third they are going to have to beat one of the remaining four North rivals with two of those (Cal and UW) on the road.
It’s white-knuckle time in the Palouse.
POG: QB Anthony Gordon (44 of 64, 466 yds, 3 TDs, 0 INTs)
I’m becoming more of an AG fan every week. I like his accuracy. I like that he doesn’t take all of the checkdowns (ala Luke Falk). I also like that he doesn’t take many sacks. He is a legit POY candidate.
Next Up: vs Colorado
9. Colorado (3-3, 1-2) ▼
Colorado 3, #13 Oregon 45
We knew that the road would be bumpy for Mel Tucker, but I’m guessing that he didn’t expect to see this kind of butt-kicking. Especially in a game where Laviska Shenault was available.
To that point, I continue to be amazed at how little the Buffs are really getting out of their star WR. I understand that nagging injuries continue to be a factor. But Shenault was targeted six times. Compare and contrast that to RB Alex Fontenot getting 15 carries ... in a blowout loss. Something is wrong with this picture.
POG: LB Nate Landman (15 tckls, 2 TFLs)
Landman is a stud. Even when the Colorado D gives up 45 points, he’s still grinding away. He’s the South’s Evan Weaver.
Next Up: at Washington State
8. USC (3-3, 2-1) ▼
USC 27, #9 Notre Dame 30
They could have folded. It certainly looked like it was going to be a blood bath. But somehow, someway QB Kedon Slovis, RB Markese Stepp and that USC defense found a way to get their big game against Notre Dame back on the right track. But despite outscoring the Irish 24 to 13 in the second half, it just was not enough.
The Trojans are in a weird spot. If you look at your eyeballs, they actually look pretty good on both sides of the ball. They’ve just suffered through a brutal schedule and stand here with just three wins on the ledger. But they are 2-1 in the conference with a win over Utah already in the books. There is still a ton in front of this team just as they seem to be finding their groove with young players like Stepp, Slovis, DE Drake Jackson, S Talanoa Hufanga and LB Palaei Gaoteote all starting to really contribute.
POG: DE Drake Jackson (5 tckles, 2.5 TFLs)
For a true freshman, Jackson looked like he belonged on that hallowed field playing alongside the elite of college football. He showed the power to back down the OTs he faced. But what amazes me is how sudden he is for a big man. That suddenness paired with his mean streak makes him must-see TV.
Next Up: vs Arizona
7. Arizona (4-2, 2-1) ▼
Washington 51, Arizona 27
Undefeated no more.
The last undefeated in the South Division falls in a home blowout loss to Washington. In doing so, the Wildcats raised several questions about how viable a contender they really are. Chief among those questions is whether or not the ‘Cats have a quarterback controversy. While Khalil Tate had a few exquisite moments, they were more than offset by the series of gifts that he served up to the Washington Defense including that very odd, left-handed backwards lateral that he flung towards the side judge that resulted in Brandon Wellington’s scoop and score.
I think we also need to be concerned about how gassed the Arizona D was in the second half. Already undersized, the unit also lacks depth. That’s a killer combination for a PAC 12 team going into the second half of the season.
I’m dropping Arizona.
POG: RB JJ Taylor (18 carries, 3 catches, 127 total yards, 4.9 ypc, 1 TD)
Taylor is a known Husky killer. He came back from injury and had his best game of the season against a UW defense giving up a lot of big nights to running backs.
Next Up: at USC
6. Stanford (3-3, 2-2) ▼
It’s probably not fair to bump UW over Stanford after a Cardinal bye week. However, the Dawgs are just one win away from bowl eligibility while Stanford is three away with just one game (UCLA) looking like a “sure thing”. I’d say UW is positioned better overall right now.
Next Up: vs UCLA (Thursday)
5. #25 Washington (5-2, 2-2) ▲
Washington 51, Arizona 27
The whole “tale of two halves” thing with Washington is getting old. But do credit Chris Petersen and his staff for waking up the sideline a bit and rotating in some fresh blood. Whether by benching or by injury, UW worked in several younger players against Arizona including Asa Turner, Puka Nacua, Matteo Mele and Henry Bainivalu. The results were encouraging.
Whether or not UW can build on the steps forward they took with both their pass rush and their passing game are the big questions that remain to be seen. To the former, the ongoing contributions of guys like Ryan Bowman and Levi Onwuzirke seem to be accelerating and providing reason for hope. To the latter, we might just have reached the point where Jacob Eason has started to find his voice.
POG: Special Teams
The Huskies special teams - all of them - deserve a call out in this game. K Peyton Henry (where was this guy in 2018?) remained flawless on the season. P Joel Whitford changed the field with a number of his punts. Jacob Eason got in on that action by dropping a pooch inside the Arizona ten. Levi (blocked punt) and Kyler Gordon (recovered muffed punt) both forced turnovers. In all, UW started six drives at their 37 yard line or better in what was a lopsided field position advantage for Washington all night.
Next Up: vs #12 Oregon
4. California (4-2, 1-2) ▲
Cal gets a bump up due to Arizona falling back. Commence with the “Cal is ranked too high” chants now.
Next Up: vs Oregon State
3. (17) Arizona State (5-1, 2-1)
Washington State 34, #18 Arizona State 38
The magic continues, for sure. Such was the case for ASU with their remarkable come from behind win over WSU at home. I say “remarkable” because I have to keep reminding myself that they are doing this with a true freshman QB who basically has just two throws in his repertoire (screen and vert) but who executes those with nerves of steel. Is there any doubt that the player takes on the personality of his coach?
That said, the road definitely stiffens for ASU as they turn the corner on this season. Road trips to Salt Lake are never fun, especially for true freshman QBs.
POG: WR Brandon Aiyuk (7 catches, 196 yards, 3 TDs)
I didn’t think anybody could replace N’Keal Harry this season. I stand corrected.
Next Up: at #13 Utah
2. (13) Utah (5-1, 2-1) ▲
#15 Utah 52, Oregon State 7
Remember last year after UW played Utah that certain media pundits were calling out Kyle Whittingham for even putting Tyler Huntley on the field? Those guys aren’t calling him out anymore. There are exactly 6 players across all of the FBS that are averaging more than 10 yards per attempt on a minimum number of passes this year. Some names you already can guess: Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovaiola, Joe Burrow. And, yes, Tyler Huntley at 10.6 ypa is on that list.
Against OSU, he actually averaged 14.7 ypa to go along with 14 of 17 accuracy, two TDs and zero picks. In short, he was perfect.
It probably didn’t hurt that RB Zack Moss made his return from a shoulder injury to add 121 yards and two TDs ... on just five carries ... to the the offensive explosion.
Utah is hot.
POG: Utah’s Offensive Line
Give the whole unit the award. Utah surrendered no sacks, just two QB hurries and just two plays for loss. Huntley stayed as clean as he has all season. It was pure domination.
Next Up: vs #17 Arizona State
1. (12) Oregon (5-1, 3-0)
Colorado 3, #13 Oregon 45
I’m still wrapping my brain around the fact that the Ducks gave up 16 points ... to everybody on their conference schedule combined. I’m not sure I’m ready to call the Oregon Defense “elite” given the fact that the average scoring offense ranking for their four FBS teams that they’ve played is 61st. But, that said, 16 points is sick. And sickening.
It is really the defense that is the story of this team so far. Offensively, the Ducks have been ok but not as dominant as people might have expected with a prospective #1 NFL draft pick at QB and an offensive line that has played together dating back to the Old Testament. I’m sure it has been nice for Oregon to get some of their receivers back. Penn State transfer Juwan Johnson made his debut last week for Oregon and immediately went back to doing what he does best: dropping balls. That said, he is a big time athlete and a threat on the field where ever he is at. It kind of feels like Oregon is starting to ascend just as they make their trip to Montlake.
POG: RB CJ Verdell (14 rushes, 171 yds)
I probably should give credit to the Oregon offensive line this week as just about every Oregon back had big time success. But I wanted to call out Verdell in particular because he really put up the “feature back” kind of day that Duck fans have been waiting for, despite the fact that Cyrus Habibi-Likio hawked all of his TDs (3 TDs).
Next Up: at #25 Washington