The Pac-12 South is on the line Saturday night in Pasadena when Arizona State visits UCLA (7 PM ET, Fox). If the Sun Devils win they clinch the division and the chance to play presumably Oregon for the conference championship and Rose Bowl bid on December 7. If the Bruins defend their home field, they take the inside track and could wrap up first place a week later against USC.
TheSportsNotebook will take a look at this game, and then move on to update our Pac-12 bowl projections.
Arizona State is playing some very good football right now. They’ve won five in a row. Two of the wins have come against certain bowl teams in Washington and Oregon State. Two more have come against teams on the fringes of bowl eligibility in Washington State and Utah, and both of those were on the road.
The Sun Devil offense is churning on all cylinders, as demonstrated in last week’s 30-17 win over Oregon State. Marion Grice ran for 118 yards, leading team-wide dominance on the ground, and the defense intercepted Sean Mannion four times. ASU had no reason to rely too heavily on sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly, though if push comes to shove, Kelly can deliver.
Arizona State also has a couple noteworthy wins prior to this win streak, although both have asterisks. The 32-30 win over Wisconsin was marred by horrible officiating that cost the Badgers the chance to kick an easy field goal on the final play. And while the 62-41 win over USC showed what the offense could, it also came in the last game the Trojans played under Lane Kiffin.
Nonetheless, when you put those two games in conjunction with the current win streak, it creates a portrait of a team that is division-championship worthy.
UCLA is riding a three-game win streak themselves and have done it without running back Jordan James. Last week, they pieced it together by committee, with several backs accounting for 222 yards in a 41-31 win over Washington. The focal point was Myles Jack, because he’s a linebacker the Bruins shifted over for emergency purposes and he scored four touchdowns, but Jack was one of many who helped put together that yardage. It speaks volumes to the creativity of head coach Jim Mora Jr. and his offensive staff.
The win streak has been nice, with a road win over Arizona also mixed in, and the only losses are to Oregon and Stanford, but at no point this season has UCLA ever looked as good as Arizona State has over the past several weeks.
That’s why Arizona State is a narrow 2.5 point favorite on the road. I’m rooting for UCLA in this game. I respect what Mora Jr. is doing and I can’t stand Sun Devil coach Todd Graham, a man who first ditched Pitt after just one season and they got rather arrogant about how well he thought his team played in the Wisconsin fiasco. As one who roots for the Badgers and lived nine years in Pittsburgh, that adds up to a lot of reasons not to pull for Graham.
But I can’t ignore how well his football team is playing. I also picked Arizona State to win the Pac-12 South when the season started, and the question has to be asked–what has happened that would change my mind now that the money is on the table? The answer is nothing, and that’s why I’ll stick with the Sun Devils.
PAC-12 BOWL PROJECTIONS
BCS Automatic: Oregon (Rose, vs. Ohio State)
BCS At-Large: Stanford (Sugar, vs. Auburn)
Alamo: UCLA (vs. Oklahoma)
Holiday: Arizona State (vs. Kansas State)
Sun: Washington (vs. Virginia Tech)
Las Vegas: USC (vs. Fresno State)
Fight Hunger: Oregon State (vs. BYU)
New Mexico: Arizona (vs. Utah State)
A few notes on these projections. The first is that I have UCLA ahead of Arizona State in the pecking order, because teams tend to be hurt by conference championship game losses, which I expect ASU to have. I also think USC is better than Washington, but the Trojans went to the Sun Bowl last year, and I would imagine the El Paso-based game would prefer to avoid taking them two straight years. Really, who travels from Los Angeles to El Paso in December under any circumstances, much less two years in a row.
I think Washington State is going to win six games and be eligible, but under the current projections, the Cougars will be shopping for a slot from a conference that couldn’t produce enough eligible teams to meet their commitments–we already know for a fact the Big 12 will come up one team short, and might need to fill two slots, so Mike Price’s team will land somewhere, so long as they pick up one more win.
Also, should Stanford not receive a BCS at-large bid, they would drop into the Alamo spot and everyone else falls a rung, pushing one more team into the realm of bowl free agents. The Cardinal are currently ranked 9th, so as long as they beat Cal & Notre Dame, the latter at home, Stanford should punch its ticket to one of the major bowls.