Gold: With one month to go, Pac-12 is on the outside looking in
In some ways, the Pac-12 is wishing it were already 2024.
In some ways, the league is thankful it’s not.
That fateful college football season will see the College Football Playoff field expanded to 12 teams, something that would’ve served the conference greatly this season, particularly after a Week 9 that saw three of the Pac-12’s adversaries suffer tough losses while its 4 ranked teams emerged unscathed. That season, 2024, will also mark USC and UCLA’s first year in the Big Ten, but that’s a conversation for another time.
What matters now is that heading into the final month of the season, the Pac-12 once again is on the outside looking in, even if it does have some of the best seats for the action.
Wins by No. 8 Oregon, No. 10(T) USC, No. 12 UCLA and No. 14 Utah — combined with losses by No. 9 Oklahoma State, No. 10(T) Wake Forest and No. 13 Penn State — mean the Pac-12 is set up to boast the 8th-, 9th-, 10th- and 11th-ranked teams in the country come the next Associated Press top 25 poll.
With three teams sitting at 1 loss and the Utes serving as the highest-ranked 2-loss team in the country, the Pac-12 should be proud.
But not too proud.
Why does it feel like we’re barreling straight toward what-could-have-been a month from now?
Four games for ranked Pac-12 teams this weekend and four wins.
Once again, the conference’s elite did their job, shooing away pesky intruders to remain steadfast at the top. A league that has so often cannibalized itself held true in Week 9.
Utah started the fun on Thursday night, even if it wasn’t a barrel of laughs heading to the Palouse without the services of its top quarterback and top running back. Tavion Thomas’ absence was expected, as there has been some internal strife between the Utes and their mercurial veteran running back. Cameron Rising calling out sick for the game? Not so expected. But the Utes weathered the storm in a 21-17 victory over Washington State behind backup quarterback Bryson Barnes, who completed 17-of-27 passes for 175 yards and a score in the win.
No. 8 Oregon had a much easier time behind its star quarterback on Saturday afternoon in the Pac-12’s early game, knocking off Cal, 42-24, behind a massive day from Bo Nix. Nix, who is squarely in the thick of the Heisman race, accounted for nearly 500 yards of total offense (412 passing, 59 rushing) and 6 total touchdowns (3 passing, 3 rushing). The Ducks scored 3 2nd-quarter touchdowns for the 4th straight week as their offense continues to march toward a Pac-12 title game berth.
There, the Ducks could await either No. 10 USC, which figures to move to No. 9 after a 45-37 win over Arizona, or No. 12 UCLA, which will likely bump up to No. 10 after beating Stanford, 38-13, at the Rose Bowl.
The Trojans held the much-improved Wildcats at bay behind a season-best 411-yard, 5-touchdown from Caleb Williams. USC weathered a late charge by Arizona as well as the absence of several key contributors, including wide receiver Jordan Addison, linebacker Eric Gentry and offensive guard Andrew Vorhees.
With Zach Charbonnet running roughshod over the beleaguered Stanford defense to the tune of 198 yards and 3 scores, the Bruins stomped on Stanford in a statement rebound game after last Saturday’s loss to Oregon. UCLA’s defense bounced back from a torching at the hands of the Ducks to stifle the Stanford offense, holding the Cardinal to just 95 yards in the first half and 7 first downs and 270 yards for the game. The Bruins had already piled up 335 yards at the midway point, en route to a 523-yard performance.
So all four ranked Pac-12 teams did their job in Week 9. But there’s so much more work to be done.
With only 4 weeks left in the regular season, the window is closing in quickly on the Pac-12. As great as it is that three teams placed in the 2nd tier of the top-25 rankings lost on Saturday, that doesn’t do much good for the conference’s potential playoff bid.
No. 1 Georgia cruised past Florida and No. 2 Ohio State crushed the 13th-ranked Nittany Lions. Third-tanked Tennessee continued its terrific campaign with a rout of No. 19 Kentucky and No. 4 Michigan handled Michigan State. With both No. 5 Clemson and No. 6 Alabama on bye weeks this weekend, that just left No. 7 TCU to fend off feisty West Virginia, which it did in a 41-31 win.
None of that helped lift the Pac-12 any closer to its first playoff berth since 2016.
Much will be decided in Week 12, when the four teams tangle with each other, Utah heading to Oregon to play in hostile Autzen Stadium, USC traveling across town to play at a less-hostile Rose Bowl.
But as usual, so much feels outside of the conference’s control.
Just imagine being Dan Lanning or Lincoln Riley, Chip Kelly or Kyle Whittingham right now. These are people who only know control. And yet their playoff chances rely entirely on a system that is set up to exclude each and every one of them.
While Georgia and Tennessee still have to play each other — with the winner likely facing Alabama in the SEC title game — and Ohio State and Michigan still have to tussle in the regular season and each other in the regular season.
If either Georgia or Tennessee stumble, Alabama will be there to pick up the pieces. If Ohio State or Michigan tumble, the other would be considered a lock. Then there’s Clemson. And TCU. The way I see it, unless some serious chaos ensues, two SEC teams are getting in and one Big Ten team, plus one more from among the Tigers, Horned Frogs and the Big Ten battle loser.
So what does that mean? It means we’re looking at a reality in which the Pac-12 finishes with three top-10 teams and no playoff teams.
Like so much of recent history, much has already been decided for the Pac-12.