Pac Tracks: Charting a certain late-night conference's prickly playoff path

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The Pac 12’s climb to the playoff has become precarious, but not impossible. That’s right—NOT.

It’s going to require perfect climbing conditions, however, with tight-fitting crampons, a pick-ax and maybe two Sherpas.

It will necessitate a massive public relations campaign, a field office, volunteers and plenty of luck.

It’s going to require Washington not losing any more games in a conference that has become increasingly top-to-bottom feisty.

It would also help if ESPN, one of the Pac 12’s business partners, would cease putting out misinformation, or favoring one playoff candidate over another.

ESPN Productions did a hatchet job a few weeks ago on Washington’s “weak” non-conference schedule. With incomplete context, it fired salvos, on national television, against its own inventory.

You frankly almost never see ESPN talent, while on the air, take shots at a Big Ten national contender.

Writing off the Pac, though, is like shooting trout in a barrel. Or making fun of LaVar Ball. It’s easy to dismiss the conference on so many fronts—starting with its time-zone problems and all those goofy, late-night starts.

It didn’t help when Washington Coach Chris Petersen complained about the late-night starts and then lost one of them, 13-7, at Arizona State. He came off, to some, as a whiner.

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This past weekend was a dagger weekend for three Pac 12 schools that didn’t show up to play—USC, Washington and Stanford.

Washington and Stanford had excuses because they had byes. USC’s no-show came in the form of a 49-14 loss at Notre Dame.

Stanford’s ill-timed off week just about ended Bryce Love’s chances for winning the Heisman Trophy. He was idle, a week after an 8 p.m. Pacific start against Oregon, while Penn State’s man-crushing win over Michigan was cinching the trophy for Saquon Barkley.

Off-week Washington was hurt by USC’s second defeat. That knocked USC out of the playoff chase and means Washington, even if it wins out, is going to face a diminished champion from the Pac South in the conference title game.

USC is…done.

Washington State can finish 12-1 but can’t overcome a wipe-out loss at Cal.

So that leaves long-shot Washington and its misrepresented schedule.

The ESPN crew, during the Sept. 7 broadcast against California, did a bit where it brought out real cupcakes to represent the weak links on Washington’s non-conference schedule: Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State.

So here are some numbers to compare among playoff contenders Washington is up against.

Toughest non-conference schedules, according to the website teamrankings.com

--Texas Christian (36)

--Washington (38)

--Penn State (58)

--Wisconsin (66)

Where are the televised “cupcakes” for those schools?

Truth is, Washington’s “non-con” is getting better by the minute. Rutgers has won two straight Big Ten games for the first time since joining the conference. And Fresno State (5-2), after a 27-3 win at San Diego State, is looking like the best team in the Mountain West. The Bulldogs’ two losses have come against Alabama and Washington.

Montana is 5-2.

Washington's lone loss, by seven, at Arizona State, also looks better after ASU followed with a 30-10 win at Utah.

Washington’s overall SOS is also in line with some other contenders in the latest Jeff Sagarin Ratings, published by USA Today.

Despite its loss, Sagarin has Washington at No. 7, ranked ahead of undefeated Wisconsin (8) and TCU (12).

Washington’s narrow path to the playoff is probably going to require getting in a one-loss fight with those schools.

UDub also needs Notre Dame to lose again, preferably to Stanford in late November. Washington plays at Stanford on Nov. 10.

It might also need Georgia to stumble BEFORE losing to Alabama in the SEC title game. A two-loss ACC champion wouldn’t hurt, either.

You see what kind of tight window this is. All things point to a downer year. Remember, if the Pac 12 champion doesn't make the playoff, it doesn't even go to Pasadena because the Rose Bowl is hosting a CFP semifinal game. Last year, a team that didn't win its division, USC, went to the Rose Bowl. But this year's Pac champion will likely end up in the Fiesta.

Washington is No. 12 in this week’s AP poll, but the only index that matters is the first College Football Playoff ranking. That will be released on Halloween. Yeah, spooky.

It will be curious to see what the selection committee makes of Washington, and the Pac 12.

As someone who witnessed LSU, in 2007, jump from No. 7 to No. 2, on the final weekend, I know this:

In college football, nothing is impossible.

Pac Tracking

--Decisions, decisions. In the last two weeks, two Pac 12 coaches went for two at the end of games...and lost. The first was Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team came up short in a 28-27 loss at USC. "“I would not have changed the decision at the end,” Whittingham said after that game. “I thought it was the right decision. We played about 80 snaps of defense, had major problems stopping them in the second half. Darnold was on fire. I thought that was the percentage play. If I had it to do again, I’d do the same thing.”

Last Saturday, Cal Coach Justin Wilcox made the same decision at the end of a wild, double OT game against Arizona. His team lost, 45-44, and his post-game quote was eerily similar. "I felt like it was the best chance for us to win the game," Wilcox said.

--Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez after the Cal win: "We've had some crazy games against Cal. I had a feeling this was going to be another one." RichRod may have been referring to the 2014 game in Tucson, won by Arizona on a last-second Hail Mary. Oh, Arizona scored 36 fourth-quarter points in that one.

--UCLA defeated Oregon on Saturday for the first time since 2007. Both Bruin wins were scored after Oregon lost its starting quarterback In 2007, the Ducks played UCLA a week after Dennis Dixon was lost for the season after an ACL injury at Arizona. Still, UCLA Jim Mora got half-a-monkey off his back. He still hasn't defeated Stanford. This week, Mora returns to his alma mater, Washington, coming off its first loss AND a bye week. "We have to play one of the top teams in America in Seattle," Mora said after the Oregon win. It's their homecoming. They're honoring Don James with a new statue." Other than that it should be easy.

--Decisions, decisions II: Utah sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley, who won the starting job over Troy Williams this year before getting injured, was inserted back into the starting lineup in last Saturday's 30-10 home loss to Arizona State. Huntley threw four interceptions. Williams had helped lead Utah to a 4-0 start before two close, competitive, defeats to Stanford and USC. Did Huntley really give Utah the best chance to beat ASU? As writer Gordon Monson aptly put it in the Salt Lake Tribune: "Just like Huntley was not the answer Saturday, Williams was never the problem."

--Shout out to Phil Bennett, Arizona State's first-year coordinator, who has seemingly done the impossible. He's turned the Sun Devils' defense completely, and suddenly, around. The same ASU team that gushed points earlier this season--New Mexico State (31), San Diego State (34), Texas Tech (52), Oregon (35), Stanford (34)--held Washington and Utah to 10 total points the last two weeks.

--Post Notre Dame reality check: "You deal with the realism of where we're at," USC Coach Clay Helton said. "We're a 6-2 football team." [/membership]

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