College Football Coverage: The Pac-12 South Race

The game of the regular season in the Pac-12–maybe the entire country–is coming up Thursday night when Oregon visits Stanford (9 PM ET, ESPN). But there’s a lot more going on in this conference, and it starts with a compelling race in the league’s South Division. TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage focuses in on the Pac-12 South…

There are four teams with a legitimate shot at playing Oregon/Stanford in the conference championship game, and a lot of head-to-head matchups are still ahead. Here’s a look at the division’s contending quartet…

*Arizona State (6-2): With just one league loss, the Sun Devils are in first place and coming on strong. September was marked by a disputed win over Wisconsin and subsequently being blown out at Stanford in a game not as close as the 42-28 final might lead one to believe.

Arizona State then dropped 62 points on USC in the game that got Lane Kiffin fired, and over their past three games have scored 162 points, which include thrashings of bowl contending teams in Washington and Washington State.

*UCLA (6-2): The Bruins lost their back-to-back games with Stanford and Oregon, but they’ve won all the rest, and have got running back Jordan James–absent for both defeats–back from an injury. UCLA’s other conference wins aren’t notable, but they did pound Nebraska on the road back in non-conference play. UCLA also won this division a year ago, and gave Stanford a tough battle in the league championship game.

*Arizona (6-2): Rich Rodriguez’s team got off to a slow start, and it’s still hard to get a read on how good they might be. They’ve won three straight, but two of the wins were against Colorado and Cal, the two teams in this league that have no shot at a bowl. This is not a stereotypical Rich-Rod team that throws the ball all over the place. Running back Ka’deem Carey is one of the nation’s best.

*USC (6-3): One of these three losses is to Notre Dame, so the Trojans join UCLA and Arizona in being just one game back of Arizona State in the Pac-12 South. It seems more than a little strange to be including USC on this list, given the poor play early and the Kiffin firing. But the team has responded since, beating Arizona, Utah and Oregon State, all competitive teams since, and now they’re back in the mix.

We know the Trojans can play championship-quality defense, and they have a playmaker extraordinaire in wide receiver Marquise Lee, but quarterback Max Wittek has had more than a few issues getting Lee the ball and helping support the defense.

When you evaluate the contenders they split in half–Arizona State and UCLA were the preseason favorites, they’ve played the most consistent football and the winner of their November 23 game in Pasadena remains the likely team to get a crack at Oregon or Stanford.

USC and Arizona are the teams not realistically expected to play for the conference title, but each have played their way into the race and have opportunities to play their way to the top. USC has its season-ending visit to UCLA, and needs to win out, while hoping the Bruins beat the Sun Devils. The problem with that scenario is that USC has no room for error and a home game with Stanford is also on the agenda.

Arizona controls its destiny–they host UCLA this week and visit Arizona State in the season finale, so they can simply win out. But not only is sweeping those two games going to be a challenge, but they do have a home date with Oregon in the mix.

Thus, we can likely point to November 23 and Arizona State-UCLA as when the Pac-12 South will be settled. But there are other contenders, and still a lot of different ways the dominoes can fall when it comes to deciding who can take a crack at winning a championship on the first Saturday of December.

Read TheSportsNotebook’s Pac-12 Bowl Projections