With the Pac-12’s hopes of getting a bid for the College Football Playoff dwindling on Oregon’s shoulders, the conference of champions may be suffering from an image crisis on the national landscape.
Washington, Washington State, and Utah have all suffered derailing losses eliminating them from playoff contention. And while the Natty is out of the picture, the Pac-12 is a more complete conference than it’s been in years.
This column is going to examine four emerging teams in the conference.
1. California Golden Bears
Cal opened up the season with an impressive 4-0 mark rising to the 15th team in the country. Since then, they have taken a step back, but the improvements are still noticeable.
Head Coach Justin Wilcox’s defense is quickly becoming one of the most dominant groups in the Pac-12. They have not allowed more than 24 points in a game this season. This includes playing talented opponents such as Oregon, Washington, Arizona State, and Ole Miss.
The defense is led by linebacker Evan Weaver, who has an astounding 83 tackles in six games. If he continues on this pace, he may be in the running for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
The turning point of Cal’s season was the injury of starting quarterback Chase Garbers. They have lost the two games since his departure, but they have competed in both matchups. The Golden Bears have the opportunity to improve to 5-2 overall next week against Oregon State following this weekend’s bye.
Regardless of how the rest of this season plays out, Cal is a team on the rise and its defense could lead to a conference title in the upcoming years.
2. Oregon State
Let’s not get overzealous here; OSU is still a mediocre team, but they are no longer a cupcake. Their complete performance against UCLA is an example of how far they’ve come.
The Oregon State offense is a solid group that has scored no less than 27 points in a game this year. This includes playing talented opponents such as Oklahoma State and Stanford. Head Coach Jonathan Smith has put in a scheme that is allowing his players to thrive.
Senior signal caller Jake Luton is quietly putting together an amazing season. His stats read 1,297 yards, 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He may be one of the most talented unknown players in the country.
The win against UCLA may prove as a springboard for the Beavers season. They jumped out to an early 21-0 lead against the Bruins and controlled the game from there. If they can beat Utah next week, they will have a program-defining win for Smith.
The Beavs remind me of the early Mike Leach WSU teams that couldn’t quite find their footing, and that turned out alright for the Cougs. OSU’s now a program that should be respected.
3. Arizona State
The Sun Devils are quickly becoming one of the most complete teams in the conference. Their rise under Head Coach Herm Edwards has been quick. In only two years, his team is now a realistic South contender.
Only Colorado has scored more than 20 points against ASU’s defense, the other team’s final tallies read seven, seven, seven, and 17. This group is complete and plays above their individual talent level.
True-freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels has the potential to be a future Heisman candidate. His ability to read the game is far beyond his years. He also possesses a dual-threat ability that makes him a nightmare to defend.
ASU has a huge game against WSU this Saturday which will prove how good they really are. Their defense will face an air-raid system, which can be difficult to stop. If they win this matchup, they set themselves up for a huge contest against Utah the following week.
The Sun Devils already have a defining win against Michigan State, but the thick of their conference schedule lies ahead. They have yet to face all three South teams north of them in the standings.
The Wildcats are a mystery to me, but they currently stand atop the South division with a 2-0 record in conference. After a tough opening loss to Hawaii, they’ve rebounded to win four straight games including an impressive victory against Texas Tech.
There is not a specific group that defines UA’s success they’ve just found a way to win games. They beat Colorado by five and UCLA by three. These are the type of wins that build confidence in an upstart program.
Arizona is led by Senior quarterback Khalil Tate, who is one of the most explosive players in the country. His ability to run is comparable to Michael Vick in Madden 2004, but his passing game is starting to show. Against Colorado, he threw for 404 yards and three touchdowns. If he can be consistent through the air, he’ll be the best player in the conference.
The Wildcats face UW tomorrow in a game that may prove difficult. However, they still face USC, Utah, and rival ASU in matchups that could determine the Division.
Head Coach Kevin Sumlin built a winner at Texas A&M. He may be on the same path at UA.