After Washington and Washington State both suffered disappointing losses last week, the race for the Pac-12 title opened considerably.
Coming into last week, the Pac-12 had two undefeated teams poised to make runs at 12-0 regular seasons and bids for both the conference title and a spot in the Playoff. Then both of those teams, Washington and Washington State, lost games they weren’t supposed to lose and blew the race for the Pac-12 title wide open.
Of the 12 teams in the conference, eight still have a viable shot to reach the Pac-12 title game: three in the North and five in the South. Aside from the Huskies, the Cougars, and the much-hyped USC Trojans, Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and UCLA are all in positions to make a run for the crown.
Any one of those eight teams could eventually claim the Pac-12 title, but some have better odds than others. Let’s break those teams down into tiers to piece together this race and predict which squad might reign supreme.
The Favorites: Washington, USC, Washington State, Stanford
The four teams with the best chance to win the conference are Washington, USC, Washington State, and Stanford. All four currently possess only one conference loss and have extremely talented rosters.
The reigning champion Huskies have one of the best defenses in the country – ranked third nationally in scoring defense, second in total defense, and second in rushing defense – and a capable and experienced signal caller in junior Jake Browning.
Browning has completed 68.5% of his passes for 1,605 yards, 14 touchdowns, and only three interceptions. Moreover, running back Myles Gaskin has taken some of the offensive weight off of Browning’s shoulders. Gaskin has rushed for eight touchdowns already this season and is averaging an impressive 6.0 yards per carry.
But that same offense, which was averaging 43.0 points per game, is coming off a dismal seven-point performance against a dreadful Arizona State defense that was conceding more than 30 points per game. Gaskin couldn’t move the ball past the line of scrimmage, and Browning was constantly harassed. Browning was sacked five times and ended up completing just 56.7% of his passes for 139 yards.
That game should be an enormous cause for concern for Huskies fans. If Washington could only manage seven points against an abysmal Sun Devils defense, how will it fare against Stanford, Washington State, and Utah later in the year?
USC didn’t directly benefit from either of the big Pac-12 upsets this weekend because it plays in the South division. But they did at least level the playing field for a potential Pac-12 title championship game.
After a semi-shaky start to the year, quarterback Sam Darnold has had two strong performances in a row. Combined, Darnold completed just 58.9% of his passes but accumulated 674 passing yards and six touchdowns against only one interception. Running back Ronald Jones II has been hot as well, totaling 190 yards on the ground along with two touchdowns.
The offense should figure itself out over time and become the consistent force it was expected to be. It’s the defense that will prove key to USC’s title hopes. The Trojans’ defense has been middling so far, ranking 52nd in scoring defense and 67th in total defense. To have any hope of claiming its first Pac-12 title since 2008, USC needs to improve defensively and pull out more performances like it did on the two-point conversion attempt at the end of the Utah game.
Since Luke Falk took over as the starting quarterback, Washington State has gotten progressively better each season, culminating in what looked like a potential Playoff contender this season. That dream took a big hit during the 37-3 rout at the hands of Cal. The Cougars are hoping that game was an aberration, a fluky product of a Friday night road game during which Falk threw five (!!) interceptions.
Outside of that game, Washington State has been one of the most impressive and well-balanced teams in the country. The Cougars rank 36th in scoring offense, 34th in total offense, 42nd in scoring defense, and 10th in total defense. Granted, those numbers don’t seem particularly impressive, but they are skewed lower because of the Cal game. Not accounting for that contest, the Cougars average 39.7 points per game and 18.5 points against, which would rank 15th and 20th, respectively.
If that Washington State team can reemerge from the ashes of Friday’s loss, it can certainly contend for the Pac-12 title.
The final favorite is Stanford. The Cardinal were a popular Playoff sleeper before the start of the season but promptly fell out of the conversation after two straight disappointing losses early in the year. Now winners of four straight including a dominating 49-7 win against Oregon last week, Stanford is atop the standings in the North division, back in the AP top 25, and resurgent in all relevant title conversations.
The Cardinal’s passing game leaves a lot to be desired, but it may not matter thanks to the constant heroics of running back Bryce Love.
Love leads all running backs in the FBS, by far, in rushing yards (1,387) and yards per carry (10.3) and is tied for fourth with 11 rushing touchdowns. A Heisman favorite, Love is absolutely astounding to watch. His burst, quickness, and vision are matched only by Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, but even Barkley hasn’t had to do all that Love has. Barkley at least has a halfway decent quarterback to open up a little space for him. Love has no such support and still manages to create big play after big play.
The defense perhaps hasn’t lived up to expectations, but it has been much improved the past three weeks, allowing just 17.0 points per game.
Stanford, Washington, and Washington State all have yet to play each other, so they all control their own destinies. USC is the clear favorite in the South talent-wise, but the Trojans are far from guaranteed a spot in the conference title game because of the following teams.
The Potential Sleeper: Arizona
With all of the hype surrounding USC during the preseason and all of the talented teams in the North, not many people envisioned a scenario where Arizona – who finished 1-8 in the Pac-12 and 3-9 overall last season – won the Pac-12 title.
But with the electrifying Khalil Tate now entrenched as the Wildcats quarterback, Arizona stealing the South from USC and winning the Pac-12 isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.
Tate set an FBS record for rushing yards for a quarterback with his 327-yard performance against Colorado, and he followed that up with a 230-yard, two-touchdown day against UCLA. Tate hasn’t had to do much by way of throwing the ball, but this hasn’t mattered much. Tate and running back Nick Wilson are shredding defenses left and right to the tune of 46.0 points and 435 rushing yards per game over the past two games.
The main concern for the Wildcats is their defense. Arizona ranks 74th in scoring defense. While the offense has exploded in the last two weeks, the defense has allowed 36.0 points per game. The Wildcats won’t be able to beat out USC and claim a spot in the Pac-12 title game if they continue to allow that many points.
However, if the defense can sure itself up just a little bit, and Tate continues to eviscerate teams on the ground, Arizona could pull it off and win the South. Then all bets are off in the title game.
The Fringe Contenders: Utah, UCLA, Arizona State
Arizona State, although it has only one conference loss and is coming off an upset over Washington, is extremely unlikely to win the conference for one simple reason: its defense is abysmal. Even after allowing just seven points to the Huskies, the Sun Devils’ rank 100th in scoring defense (31.5 points allowed per game) out of 130 FBS teams.
Now, if the first five game of its season were a mirage, and the defense plays to the level it did against Washington, Arizona State could pull off some more upsets and ride into the Pac-12 title game. It is more likely, though, that the Sun Devils return to their defensively porous ways against the potent offenses of USC, UCLA, and Arizona. A bowl berth is still on the table, though, after missing out last season.
UCLA is in a similarly troubling situation. The Bruins defense is actually worse than Arizona State’s. UCLA is allowing a cataclysmic 40.5 points per game, the sixth-worst mark in the country.
The Bruins do have Josh Rosen at quarterback, which certainly helps. Rosen is third in passing yards, tied for 10th in passing touchdowns, and is the main reason UCLA ranks 17th in scoring offense. But with a defense that porous, and Utah, USC, and Oregon still on the docket, it’s unlikely UCLA can run the table the rest of the way and reach the Pac-12 title game. It’s not impossible thanks solely to Rosen’s talent, but it’s highly unlikely.
Then there’s Utah. The Utes don’t excel in anything, but they don’t have any major weaknesses either. They’re simply a solid, balanced team, which makes them the most dangerous of this group.
Utah ranks 54th in scoring offense, 49th in total offense, 30th in scoring defense, and 37th in total defense. The defense isn’t indomitable, but it’s strong. The offense utilizes the ground game well to control the pace of play and dictate the tempo.
Unfortunately, starting quarterback Tyler Huntley is injured and it is unclear if or when he’ll return. If he were healthy, Utah may not have lost to either Stanford or USC and could be in the favorites category. Even with the back-up in, the Utes came within a two-point conversion attempt of upsetting the Trojans, so they’re certainly not out.
The Utes have suffered two conference losses already, including the one to USC, so they will need some help in addition to running the table to even reach the title game (that loss means USC holds the head-to-head tiebreaker). But it’s not inconceivable for USC to stumble two more times, and for Utah to consistently wear down opponents en route to Santa Clara.
More than likely one of the teams from the favorites category will claim its rightful spot as Pac-12 champion. Whether that team puts itself in a position to reach the Playoff is another story, but somebody does have to win the conference.
USC has the easiest remaining conference schedule of the four teams and benefits from being in the ostensibly easier division, so they would be one of my picks to reach the Pac-12 title game.
As for which teams emerge from the wreckage of the North, it’s anybody’s guess. Each team has significant strengths, but also a weakness or two waiting to be exploited.
At the moment, I would give the slight edge to Washington State because the Cougars have already shown they can go out and beat a top-tier opponent (they beat USC 30-27 at the end of September). They also have the most experienced and talented quarterback, who will be able to shake off Friday’s putrid performance in Berkeley and rebound.
Washington and Stanford, though, could just as easily supplant Washington State and reach the title game. They all play each other in the coming months, which makes the race for that division even more interesting.
The Pac-12 is still up for grabs. As the final weeks of the season play out, I urge you to pour yourself a cup of coffee, stay up late, and enjoy the rest of this wild race.
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