Entering the 2013 college football season, fans of nearly every team in the PAC-12 had a legitimate reason to think that this might be the year for their team to make some noise in the conference. While there have been a number of surprises for each team, the current standings imply that the conference is shaking out exactly as most experts would have predicted. The twelve teams that comprise the PAC-12 can be broken into four clear groups, and while each team had high hopes entering the season it appears that these four groupings will hold true throughout the rest of the year.
With three games remaining in the conference’s regular season, let’s take a quick look at the hierarchy of the conference and see what each team can realistically hope for over the remainder of the season.
“The Land of Little Hope”: California, Colorado, Utah, and Washington State
California has arguably been the worst team in the conference all season. With two games yet to play, they have allowed more points scored against them than any other Golden Bears team in history. The lone win in their 1-9 record came against FCS Portland State, in which California only won by a single touchdown. They are being led by a coach in his first year with the program, and they also average 345 yards per game through the air, good for eighth in the country. That might be enough for a glimmer of hope, except for the atrocious defense being played. With two road games remaining, at Colorado and Stanford, a possible second win against the Buffaloes is the ceiling for this year’s team.
Colorado went 3-0 outside of conference play, but they have lost all six contests against PAC-12 competition, with the closest conference game being decided by 22 points. In nearly every category, the Buffaloes rank in the lower half of the country’s teams, fitting of a team with a 3-6 record. California travels to play Colorado this week. This might be the Buffaloes only realistic shot at another win before they finish the season with USC and Utah.
At one point this season, Utah was 4-2 with a win over #4 Stanford and their only blemishes being an overtime loss to Oregon State and a seven point loss to #13 UCLA. Since then, they have dropped three straight to fall to 4-5, and the team has been hit with injuries. The Utes go on the road to play #6 Oregon and Washington State before finishing their season with Colorado, meaning that the contest against the Cougars might be the determining factor for Utah’s bowl hopes (assuming the Utes lose to Oregon and beat Colorado).
Washington State entered the season hopeful to contend with the bulk of the conference. With Mike Leach and his “Air Raid” offense entering their second season, fans were waiting for fireworks in Pullman. The Cougars got off to a 3-1 start, including a surprising victory over USC in the Coliseum and a seven point loss to #7 Auburn. That would be the high point, however, as Washington State would go 1-4 over the next five games. They currently stand at 4-5 overall, and need two wins in their last three games to become bowl eligible. With road games against Arizona and Washington sandwiching a home contest against Utah, expect the Cougars to go another year without reaching a bowl game.
“Any Given Saturday”: Arizona, Oregon State, Washington
Arizona holds a respectable 6-3 record but still looks up at three teams in the PAC-12 South standings. They feature one of the best running backs in the country in Ka’Deem Carey, who leads the Wildcats rushing offense (ranked 12th nationally). Unfortunately for Arizona, their last three games include #6 Oregon and a road trip to #19 Arizona State. The Wildcats might get a seventh win against Washington State this week, but anything more than that would be overly optimistic.
Oregon State opened the season with a shocking loss to FCS Eastern Washington, but then won their next six games. At 6-1, the Beavers had positioned themselves nicely for their upcoming home games against #4 Stanford and USC. They narrowly lost to Stanford before being dominated by a surging USC team to reach their current record of 6-3. The trio of #19 Arizona State, Washington, and #6 Oregon close out Oregon State’s season, and while one win out of those three games is more realistic, Beaver fans will most likely be unhappy with anything less than two more victories.
Hopes were high for Washington and quarterback Keith Price going into this season, and everything appeared to be going smoothly until a three game losing streak knocked the Huskies from the national spotlight. With those three losses coming against #4 Stanford, #6 Oregon, and #19 Arizona State, it might be unfair to consider the season a disappointment despite the lofty goals the Huskies entered the season with. Even still, at 6-3, Washington might need to sweep their final three games to consider this season a success.
“Almost There”: Arizona State, UCLA, and USC
Arizona State is surging at the perfect time, as their 7-2 record has them atop the PAC-12 South standings. With the exception of last week’s near-loss against Utah, the Sun Devils have scored at least 32 points in every game this season. They finish out this year with Oregon State, #13 UCLA, and Arizona. Chances are very good that Arizona State’s road trip to play UCLA will decide which team represents the PAC-12 South in the conference championship game.
After many years of being the second-best team in Los Angeles, UCLA has become a mainstay in the national rankings. With their only losses coming to #4 Stanford and #6 Oregon, the Bruins and their 7-2 record are in a great position to possibly avenge one of those losses in the conference championship. However, to reach that game, they will need to beat Washington and then take care of the two teams challenging the Bruins for the division, #19 Arizona State and USC. While the path does not appear smooth, at least Bruins fans can take comfort in knowing their destiny is in their own hands.
When Lane Kiffin was fired after a 3-2 start, nearly every fan wrote USC off as a program going down in flames. Some thought that a high-profile coaching move might get the Trojans back on track in a few years, but none expected interim coach Ed Orgeron to guide USC to four wins over their next five games, and have the team contending for the South division. USC needs to beat #4 Stanford, Colorado, and #13 UCLA (as well as get some help with an Arizona State loss) to reach the conference championship, but to even be in this position would have been laughable only a month ago.
“The Rose Bowl is a consolation prize”: Oregon and Stanford
With Stanford’s upset of #6 Oregon last week, the Cardinal reminded the country that the PAC-12 is not all flash and glamour. The conference is now Stanford’s to win or lose, and while fans dreaming of a national title might be haunted by the loss to Utah a few weeks ago, a second consecutive Rose Bowl appearance would be an impressive achievement. While Stanford takes their 8-1 record on the road this week to play USC, they finish at home against California and Notre Dame. If the Cardinal can get past USC with the College Game Day media storm in full swing, it would appear that a Rose Bowl berth is imminent.
Going back to the start of the 2012 season, the Ducks are 20-0 against all teams not named Stanford. However, playing Stanford each season has been their undoing as they once again saw their title hopes dashed after losing to the most physical of the PAC-12 teams. Last season, Stanford went to the Rose Bowl as the conference champion and Oregon received an at-large bid to play in the Fiesta Bowl. With an 8-1 record and Utah, Arizona, and Oregon State remaining, the same should happen this year as well, with the Ducks possibly receiving an invite to the Orange Bowl to play #8 Clemson.
However these last three weeks play out, the fact that the PAC-12 could have as many as nine teams that are bowl eligible, including two teams that could play in BCS bowl games, puts the conference on par with any in the country—including the SEC.