The maneuvering to be the #2 team in Pac-12 football has significant consequences—not like at the top, where second-ranked Oregon is leading the way in a league that appears highly likely to puts champion in the College Football Playoff—but consequential nonetheless.
The runner-up is even more certain to get a spot one of the New Year’s Six major bowl games—likely the Fiesta. And if you, for the moment, cede the championship to Oregon, the race for the runner-up spot is intriguing.
First, let’s point out that runner-up does not mean the team that loses the conference championship game, in which case we would just be asking who’s going to win the Pac-12 South. The runner-up from the North would be eligible, as would the runner-up from the South if there were extenuating circumstances (let’s say, for example, that USC beats a highly ranked Notre Dame team in November, after having lost the division).
Six teams are worth looking at right now. Stanford, USC, UCLA and Arizona State would have to be the frontrunners, with Washington and Arizona still on the radar.
I’ve seen three of these teams in action, having watched the USC-Stanford game from Palo Alto, and the UCLA-Texas game from Dallas all start to finish. The on-field results don’t leave us a whole lot closer to a resolution.
*UCLA is the highest-ranked runner-up right now, sitting at #12. But the Bruins have been unimpressive. They needed three defensive touchdowns to survive Virginia. They barely got by Memphis. Even allowing both teams are better than their public reputations, a major bowl hopeful shouldn’t struggle with both.
And while I was impressed with the Bruins’ heart on Saturday night in Dallas, their play was less than inspiring. I know they lost quarterback Brett Hundley early in the game, but Texas was also playing without its starting quarterback. UCLA needed to go to the wire to pull out a 20-17 win. I picked this team to win the entire Pac-12 and reach the College Football Playoff, but they look a long way from that right now.
*USC played tremendous red-zone defense in Stanford, they’re getting good play from quarterback Cody Kessler and they seem to be playing smart football. But the Trojans needed a slew of breaks to escape Stanford with a win, and then USC showed their lack of consistency when they lost at Boston College on Saturday.
*Stanford is my favorite team to watch out of this group because how physical they are and how fundamentally sound they are. But as I much as I like the mental toughness and discipline of David Shaw’s teams, it seems like Shaw often gets a little conservative in scoring situations. I’ve seen it the last couple years in the Rose Bowl, back in 2011 in the Fiesta Bowl, and again versus USC.
That’s my concern with Stanford—will they lose another game they shouldn’t? Although the flip side is that critiquing Shaw requires dropping “all his major bowl” appearances, it tells you the man knows what he’s doing.
*Out of respect for Chris Peterson, I’m keeping Washington on the short list as long as they stay undefeated early. But they’ve had some narrow escapes against shaky teams. The Huskies need to be able to beat Stanford at home in two weeks.
*Arizona hasn’t had a significant test, but surviving a feisty UT-San Antonio team on the road spoke well of the Wildcats. I can’t quite see U of A playing in a New Year’s Six game, but Rich Rodriguez has got them rolling in the right direction. Give them a loss on October 2, a Thursday night in Oregon. But circle the following Saturday, when the ‘Cats get a long week to prep for a home date with USC.
*Arizona State is the defending Pac-12 South champ. The Sun Devils haven’t played anybody yet, but they’ve already suffered a big loss—not on the field, but quarterback Taylor Kelly, a three-year starter and a senior, will miss at least the next couple games.
Next weekend will begin the next round of sorting out. Arizona State will host UCLA in a Thursday night game on September 25, and then there’s Stanford-Washington up in Seattle the following Saturday.
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