Pac-12 Football: Plenty Of Prizes For The Challengers

Oregon might look on a roll to the Pac-12 title, and if BCS experts are to be believed, on their way to the national championship game so long as they keep winning. But Pac-12 football has still got two other storylines of significant intrigue. The first is who gets the right to challenge the Ducks in the conference championship game. The second is who—presuming Oregon wins out—would be a candidate to replace the Ducks in the Rose Bowl.

There are five teams in contention for at least one of these honors. Oregon State and Stanford will both get their chances to upend Oregon in the regular season and take the league for themselves, but the Beavers and Cards would also be in line for runner-up bowl spots. And in the Pac-12 South, it’s still completely up in the air. UCLA is in first place, with a 4-2 league record, with USC at 4-3 and Arizona State at 3-3. But the Trojans and Sun Devils play each other on Saturday, and then USC plays UCLA the following week. So Lane Kiffin’s team could get another chance at Oregon and prove they can hold the Ducks below 60.

Let’s start with the landscape we know will be crucial and it’s who wins the Pac-12 South. UCLA has become a different team under the leadership of Jim Mora Jr. This is a physically tough football team, with Jonathan Franklin second in the league in rush yards.

UCLA has beaten likely Big Ten champ Nebraska, Conference USA contender Houston, lost a close one to Oregon State and then sent a message loud and clear last week when they pummeled Arizona 66-10—the same Arizona team who beat USC just a week prior. The Bruins’ weakness in a big game would be that they are led by a freshman quarterback, Brett Hundley, who hasn’t really shown he can win a game where he has to throw.

USC has never looked the part of a national contender, at least once we stepped out of preseason analysis (Yes, I picked them to win it all) and onto the field. You can’t argue with Matt Barkley’s numbers—65 percent completion, 30/10 TD-INT ratio, but you can compare them to last year, when he only had seven picks all year.

The Trojans can still score in bunches—as their 51 points against Oregon last week showed—and their receiver tandem of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods is as good as any in the country. But the running game, led by Penn State transfer Silas Redd has been hit-and-miss, and the defense’s question marks have come into full view, not just last week, but in the prior week’s 39-36 loss at Arizona.

Arizona State is the longshot in this race. They’ve got a head-to-head loss amongst the contenders, losing a tough 45-43 decision to UCLA. The points put up by the Bruins make you wonder about ASU’s defense. The numbers tell us the Sun Devils are third in the Pac-12 in points allowed. But with a game against USC up next, is that ranking going to plummet further.

Todd Graham is doing a nice job with this team and with sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly. They’re 5-4 overall after suffering significant personnel losses and making the coaching change. They’ve got a talented defensive tackle in Will Sutton, who leads the conference with 9.5 sacks. But they haven’t beaten anyone of note and have the look of a 6-6 bowl team. Still, that’s more than might have been expected in August.

I think it’s difficult to argue with the notion that UCLA has played the best of these three teams so far, but a mix of stubbornness and concern about Hundley in a big game still leads me to pick USC to win these next two games and get another chance to play Oregon.

Presuming Oregon goes 12-0, wins the league title and goes to the BCS National Championship Game, the Rose Bowl will have to pick a replacement team. It’s not required that they pick another Pac-12 team, but Pasadena officials have shown a consistent desire to maintain Big Ten-Pac-12 purity as much as possible. There’s going to be some huge temptations to break tradition—Notre Dame is likely to be available and as long as the Irish haven’t already played the Big Ten champ (i.e., if it’s Michigan)—it’s hard to see the Rose passing on ND.

But tradition matters in Pasadena, and passing on the Pac-12 leaves the bowl without a nearby team—it’s much easier to envision the Rose replacing a Big Ten team with Notre Dame, since they could at least keep a Midwest vs. West matchup. So though at this writing, I believe the Irish would replace Oregon, it’s far from a guarantee. And that brings runner-ups in the Pac-12 North into the equation.

Oregon State is the most logical candidate. The Beavers have to clear a tough hurdle on Saturday when they go to Stanford, but after that it’s just Cal and Nicholls State (a December 1 makeup game) to get 10 wins. Between those two games would be the showdown with Oregon, where the Beavers can take their shot at the conference title, but even a competitive loss would leave them 10-2 and an attractive candidate.

Mike Riley’s team has done it in spite of injury problems at quarterback. When sophomore QB Sean Mannion went down midway through, a lot of us figured the dream of a major bowl game was done. But Cody Vaz stepped in and played so well that when Mannion struggled in his first start back, Riley went right back to Vaz. He’s got two of the top receivers in the league to throw to, in Brandin Cook and Markus Wheaton. Defensively, end Scott Crichton is one of the Pac-12’s best pass rushers and corner Jordon Poyer is a ballhawk. This team’s only loss was a close one at Washington, a likely bowl team.

Then we come to Stanford, who is tied with Oregon State, at 5-1 in league play and also gets a crack at Oregon this month, meaning the Cardinal controls its own destiny. They run the ball very well, with Stephan Taylor nearing the 1,000 yard mark and they play good defense. What they haven’t gotten is consistency at the quarterback spot and Kevin Hogan has now replaced Josh Nunes behind center. And the team is entering the two key games where their quarterback will have to make at least a few plays to win.

Ultimately, Stanford’s biggest problem is math. If we talk about them as a replacement pick for the Rose Bowl, that means they lost to Oregon. Even if they beat Oregon State, the Cardinal would still be 9-3. Would that be good enough to merit a selection for a BCS game? They currently rank 14th in the BCS standings and so long as the Oregon loss was competitive (far from a sure thing), a 9-3 finish would likely nudge them up a bit, given the opportunity to beat Oregon State, currently #11. In a lot of years that might be enough. But would a three-loss Stanford team be chosen over a potentially undefeated—or even an 11-1 Notre Dame squad that beat the Cardinal? I have my doubts.

The guess here then, is that USC visits Oregon for the Pac-12 Championship Game (this league awards homefield advantage for its title game), and the league’s other contenders are edged out by Notre Dame for a Rose Bowl spot. The next bid down would be the Alamo (against the Big 12’s best non-BCS team) and unless USC can win its remaining regular season games—including Notre Dame—the winner of Saturday’s Oregon State-Stanford game ends up in San Antonio.