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It would be tempting to call the divisional races after last week’s results and start booking travel arrangements for the Pac-12 Championship game on December 6. But as Gameday’s Lee Corso so often quips in response to a seemingly ill-advised prediction: Not so fast, my friend.
The Ducks certainly have a strangle-hold on the North. The three-loss teams that have lost to Oregon—Cal, Stanford, and Washington—would need the Ducks to lose four of their last five, in addition to winning out, to claim the title. The Cougars would need Oregon to lose three times, in addition to winning out.
But Oregon State, which has a welcome bye this week, is in a more tenable position. If the Beavers were to win their remaining games, defeating the Ducks, they would only need Oregon to lose once. With road trips to USC and ASU looming on the UO schedule, it’s not out of the question.
In the South, the roads to overtake front-runner USC—the only team that controls its own destiny—are a little less steep. Colorado needs Arizona and ASU to lose twice, and win out. Arizona needs USC to lose twice, and win out. ASU needs Utah to lose twice, and win out. Utah needs USC to lose once, and win out. And UCLA needs Arizona to lose once, in addition to winning out.
Granted, we aren’t likely to see an Oregon State vs. UCLA championship game. But the possibility can’t be ruled out just yet.
1. Oregon (4-0, 6-1) — Previous Ranking: 1 ⟺
After coming up short in pivotal contests over the past couple of seasons, the Ducks found a way to get it done last week against the Dawgs. They did it with discipline and poise, overcoming leads of 14 and 10 points respectively before staving off a last-minute Washington drive. Oregon has a virtual lock on the North, but must break a four-game losing streak against Washington State this week to keep its College Football Playoff hopes alive. The Duck defense bent but didn’t break in Seattle, and it will likely need to do the same against Wazzu’s explosive Air Raid attack. The unit passed another depth test when cornerback Deommodore Lenoir left the contest with an injury in the second quarter, leaving true freshman DJ James to hold down his side. The Ducks will be favored in the rest of their games, but can’t afford to take anything for granted with an undefeated Conference record and a high AP ranking forming targets on their backs.
2. Utah (3-1, 6-1) — Previous Ranking: 2 ⟺
ASU’s young offensive line may not have been the toughest test for Utah’s stout defensive front, but their repeated invasion of the Sun Devil backfield should strike fear into the hearts of future Ute opponents. Defensive end Bradlee Anae led the charge with three sacks, looking like a man among boys, if not a future NFL star. Utah’s much-improved secondary held ASU wideout Brandon Aiyuk to one catch for seven yards, and smothered Sun Devil quarterback Jayden Daniels. Offensively, the Utes controlled the clock, gradually beating down a tough ASU defense. Utah running back Zack Moss became the program’s all-time leading rusher with his 99 yards, underscoring his role as the offense’s most physical playmaker. One major concern: Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley left with an apparent calf injury. Fortunately, Jason Shelley is a proven backup, should Huntley not return against Cal. Utah needs the Trojans to stumble to win the division, but is well-positioned to sew up the South if they do.
3. Arizona State (2-2, 5-2) — Previous Ranking: 3 ⟺
The Sun Devils saw their young offensive line exposed by Utah’s stellar defense in Salt Lake City, but still managed to keep the game close through three-and-a-half quarters. Getting senior lineman Cade Cote back this week should help, but their fate against an improving UCLA team will likely depend on how the Devils respond to an emotional loss. True freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels threw for just 25 yards and no touchdowns with an interception against the best defense he’s seen this season. Running back Eno Benjamin gained 104 yards, thanks to a long run with the game out of hand, but was held in-check for most of the contest. ASU can find solace in knowing that most offenses struggle against Utah, but will still need to improve against the Bruins. The biggest takeaway from this matchup may be the strong performance of the Sun Devil defense, which returned to form after giving up 38 points to Washington State the previous week.
4. USC (3-1, 4-3) — Previous Ranking: 6 ⬆
The Trojans have been decimated by injuries, racked by criticism, and generally inconsistent en route to a 4-3 overall record. But things aren’t quite as bad as they seem. For starters, USC continues to lead the South as the only division team to control its own destiny. And when injuries strike the Trojans, their next man up is often still better than many teams’ starters. Arizona learned that the hard way, getting dominated despite USC’s rash of injuries at running back. Third-string freshman Kenan Christon lit up the Wildcats for 103 yards and two touchdowns in less than two quarters. Meanwhile, freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis added another 232 yards and two scores, while the Trojan defense held a potentially prolific Arizona offense to 14 fourth-quarter points. USC can cement its position as the South frontrunner with a win over Colorado in Boulder on Saturday, but must guard against looking ahead to what could be a season-changing contest against Oregon in two weeks.
— Nicholas Bartlett
5. Washington (2-3, 5-3) — Previous Ranking: 4 ⬇
The Huskies may have played their best game of the season against the Ducks, who aren’t likely to get a tougher challenge the rest of the way. As much as it hurts, a close loss to a loaded Oregon team is eminently understandable. It’s those losses to Stanford and Cal that now seem so inexplicable. At 2-3 in Conference, this might be the most underachieving Washington team in recent memory. For the first time in the last few years, the Dawgs are out of the title picture, and it isn’t for lack of talent. But Washington’s season is far from over. A quality bowl awaits if the Huskies win out, going 10-3. They host Utah on Nov. 2 in a matchup that will test the depth and mettle of both teams. To emerge victorious, quarterback Jacob Eason must realize his full potential, not only as a signal caller, but also as a leader. Prevailing against a stiff Utah defense would be a career-defining moment for him, and a dramatic turning point in Washington’s season.
6. Washington State (1-3, 4-3) — Previous Ranking: 9 ⬆
The Cougars returned to their winning ways with a commanding win over Colorado on the Palouse. Not only did WSU’s offense look like its explosive self, but the defense also played one of its best games of the season, giving up just 10 points while forcing three turnovers. The offense featured a steady dose of Max Borghi, who ran for 105 yards and caught nine balls for 57 yards, finishing with two touchdowns. Quarterback Antony Gordon regained his rhythm as well, throwing for 369 yards and four scores. This much was clear: The Cougs missed wideout Brandon Arconado the previous two-and-a-half games, when he was out with an injury. The junior re-emerged as Wazzu’s top wide receiver, catching five balls for 109 yards and a 47-yard touchdown. Washington State will be tested more severely this week against No. 11 Oregon in Eugene. The Cougars have won the last four matchups, but can’t rely on past history to carry them past one of the nation’s best defenses.
7. Arizona (2-2, 4-3) — Previous Ranking: 8 ⬆
The Wildcats remain alive in the South, but the road to the top became steeper with a second-straight blowout loss. Arizona’s offensive line struggled against a banged-up USC team, giving up seven sacks, while the defense remained inconsistent. The Trojans capitalized on both fronts, pressuring the Wildcat quarterbacks, and attacking the Arizona secondary. Starting quarterback Khalil Tate was pulled for true freshman backup Grant Gunnell, who tossed an interception before connecting on a pair of touchdown throws. Gunnell’s performance has prompted some debate about this week’s starter, though coach Kevin Sumlin says he’s sticking with Tate. The defense held its own in the first half, even after costly fumbles gave the Trojans short fields, but once again, fell off in the second half. The Cats need to re-energize, rediscovering the confidence they had during their four-game winning streak. Despite needing just two wins to get to a bowl game, Arizona faces a must-win situation against Stanford this weekend, the outcome of which may make or break the season.
8. Oregon State (2-2, 3-4) — Previous Ranking: 11 ⬆
Believe it or not, the Beavers are in second place in the North. And they may be the only team with a chance to catch the Ducks. After sputtering out of the gate with losses to Oklahoma State and Hawaii, OSU has fought its way back to a 2-2 Conference record, with a workable 3-4 record overall. The statement victory against Cal last week showed just how far they’ve come, and how much possibility might still lie ahead. The Beavs jumped out to an early 14-3 lead, but lost momentum, falling behind 14-17. Past OSU teams would have folded, but this team didn’t. Instead, they found a way to bounce back, forcing a crucial interception with under five minutes left to help secure the victory. OSU gets a bye this week before playing Arizona the next, and the Beavers are capable of beating the Wildcats. They just need to play smart. They’ll also need to score more points in Tucson than they did against Cal. The Wildcat defense should offer less resistance, and Beavs have become road warriors. Now that Jake Luton has confidence of a few career wins under his belt, we may see him play up to his full potential. Don’t count the Beavers out of making a bowl game—or, if the gods are on their side, even more.
9. Cal (1-3, 4-3) — Previous Ranking: 5 ⬇
The Golden Bears continued their mid-season slide with a lackluster loss to the Beavers. Cal’s offense, on its best day, is border-line adequate; this past Saturday showed that on its worst day, it can be among the nation’s most incompetent. Injuries, transfers, and positional coaching misalignment all may have contributed to the offensive woes. The Bear defense did not perform well either, despite giving up just 282 total yards. Attrition and a lack of depth has taken its toll on the unit this season, though Oregon State ranks as a quality offensive opponent. Cal quarterback Devon Modster is questionable this week after suffering an undisclosed injury against OSU. If Modster is unable to play, third-string freshman Spencer Brasch, who tossed a pick on his third throw, will be tasked with leading the Bears against one of the nation’s best defenses in Salt Lake City. Cal remains well-positioned for a bowl berth, but must limit mistakes and shore up execution on both sides of the ball to get back on track. That won’t be easy against a Utah team with the strength and momentum of a freight train.
10. Stanford (2-3, 3-4) — Previous Ranking: 7 ⬇
Injuries finally caught up with the Cardinal last week. After an impressive win against Washington without K.J. Costello, a calf injury to backup quarterback Davis Mills forced Stanford to go with freshman Jack West against UCLA. Despite some encouraging signs, the young signal caller wasn’t up to the challenge, especially with a depleted offensive line missing eight of its members. The result was an un-Stanford-like home blowout at the hands of the previously struggling Bruins. Defense may have been a bigger cause for concern, with UCLA running back Joshua Kelley cutting loose for 176 yards on 18 carries—a stunning 9.8 yards per attempt. This week, the Cardinal face equally unpredictable Arizona, which faces a potential quarterback controversy, and defensive problems of its own. If Mills is ready to go, Stanford’s chances improve considerably. Regardless, the Cardinal defense will have its hands full with either Khalil Tate or Grant Gunnell starting at quarterback for the Wildcats, and will need to be ready for an un-Stanford-like shootout.
11. UCLA (2-2, 2-5) — Previous Ranking: 12 ⬆
The Bruins finally got the monkey off their backs. For the first time in 11 games, UCLA defeated Stanford, breaking a losing streak dating back to 2008. Granted, the Cardinal was severely depleted on offense, playing without several of their linemen, and starting their third-string freshman quarterback. UCLA’s defense turned in one of its best performances of the season nonetheless. Bruin defenders held Stanford to under 200 yards of total offense, and kept them from running the ball effectively in support of their young quarterback. UCLA’s offense exceeded expectations as well, putting up 34 points in its second-highest output of 2019. Joshua Kelley rushed for a season-best 170 yards to go with a touchdown on 18 carries, including a 54-yard explosion play. Even with Stanford under-performing, the Bruins took a big step forward, and should have more spring in their steps against Arizona State this week. Inconsistency from week to week has been UCLA’s enemy; a second-straight win would go a long way toward remedying that shortcoming.
— Andrew Corbett
12. Colorado (1-3, 3-4) — Previous Ranking: 10 ⬇
The scope of the rebuilding project at Colorado has become abundantly apparent these past two weeks, with back-to-back blowout losses on the road. The Buffs had a particularly tough time of it in Pullman last week, giving up nearly 500 yards to the Cougars, while turning the ball over three times. Colorado quarterback Steven Montez threw two interceptions for a total of six in the last two games, while completing just over 50 percent of his passes with no touchdowns, and a QBR of 12.4. By contrast, Wazzu signal caller Anthony Gordon riddled the Buffalo defense with 389 yards in the air, and Cougar running back Max Borghi racked up 105 yards on the ground. The Buffs will need to overcome glaring deficiencies on both sides of the ball to have a chance against a talented and explosive USC team in Boulder this week. With another loss, Colorado would have just four more chances to get the three additional wins it needs to end the year with a bowl game.
This story was originally published at sportspac12.com. Syndicated with permission.