Arizona, Arizona State and Utah are tied atop the loss column in the Pac-12 South through October. Please raise your hand if you predicted this scenario, then say you’re sorry for being a rotten liar.
This is a division that has seen three successful Hail Mary plays–two of which were game-winners–so it really shouldn’t be that surprising that the teams picked to finish three, four and five in the preseason are now setting the pace.
Utah’s 24-21 defeat of USC on quarterback Travis Wilson’s last-second touchdown pass kept the Utes on pace for the divisional title and made the Trojans’ road to Levi’s Stadium quite a bit more complicated.
Never mind that Utah has to be kicking itself collectively–it’s a squandered three-score lead over Washington State away from being undefeated and alone in first place–head coach Kyle Whittingham has to be pretty fired up.
“A lot of good things in the game, but the best thing is that we are 6-1,” he said in his postgame press conference, via UtahUtes.com.
OK, so maybe the stoic Whittingham isn’t going to wear his emotions on his sleeve. But being bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 and just the second time since Utah joined the Pac-12 is a noteworthy accomplishment.
So, too, is beating the conference’s most iconic program for the first time. Add the implications that put Utah in control of its own destiny and leave USC needing multiple breaks, and Saturday’s victory is a considerable milestone.
Still, if neither Whittingham nor his players are celebrating just yet, it’s because another playoff-atmosphere game awaits in Week 10.
On the Day of the Dead, Nov. 1, Utah enters the house of the Devils–specifically, the No. 15-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils.
Another surprise in the Pac-12, Arizona State overcame brutal weather conditions to win at Washington Saturday night, 24-10.
The 2013 season was tailor-made for Arizona State to compete for both the Pac-12 South and the conference title. Todd Graham returned one of the most veteran defenses in college football, led by All-American tackle Will Sutton and do-everything linebacker Carl Bradford.
But when the Sun Devils fell short in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Stanford, then suffered a confounding blowout loss in the Holiday Bowl to Texas Tech, they appeared to be on a familiar trajectory.
From Bruce Snyder, to Dirk Koetter, to Dennis Erickson, Arizona State has gone through ebbs and flows. There were peak seasons, followed by immediate regressions back to the mean.
Arizona State appeared headed back to the mean in 2014 after winning the Pac-12 South in 2013, and never more so than in a 62-27 home loss to UCLA.
But the Sun Devils’ response since starting Pac-12 play 0-1 is proof-positive that the program is different under Graham. Arizona State is undefeated since then, the young defense seemingly finding its identity over the subsequent weeks.
Mike Bercovici’s Hail Mary heave to Jaelen Strong to beat USC on Oct. 4 is the kind of play that, with the benefit of hindsight, can be viewed as a turning point.
I was in the Coliseum covering that game, and Graham was absolutely giddy in his postgame press conference. He’s talked about the identity and resilience of his team ever since arriving at Arizona State in 2012, and perhaps some of that can be gleaned as monotonous coach-speak rhetoric.
But given how the Sun Devils have played in wins over Stanford and Washington since, it’s hard not to believe Graham’s assessment that this is a conference championship caliber team.
Should the Sun Devils beat the Utes for a fourth straight time next Saturday, they’ll be in the driver’s seat with only rival Arizona remaining among the Pac-12 South contenders.
The Duel in the Desert’s animus is underrated nationally, largely because the game’s lacked subplots relevant to those without interests in the Grand Canyon State. For top-notch insight into the meaning of the rivalry, I can’t recommend my friend Shane Dale’s book Territorial highly enough.
If a young Arizona team continues to surprise, this year’s encounter for the Territorial Cup could very well be for the Pac-12 South berth into the conference championship game.
As if that rivalry needed any more heat.
Rich Rodriguez is playing first-and-second-year players across the lineup, which gives the Wildcats a real one-year-away feel. Nevertheless, they’re a wayward field goal shy of being undefeated.
Arizona has undergone the proverbial baptism by fire, playing five of its seven games within a single possession. This week’s blowout of Washington State was an aberration, the first multiple-score win the Wildcats scored since routing UNLV in Week 1.
Tucked in among the close-game chaos was Arizona’s Hail Mary to beat Cal.
All that close-game experience will be put to the test next Saturday at the Rose Bowl against UCLA, the only Pac-12 team with as many last-possession decisions to its credit as Arizona.
The difference between Arizona and UCLA is that the latter was the one-year-away team last year. The return of quarterback Brett Hundley was the supposed to be the final piece of a puzzle that spelled out Pac-12 and national championship in 2014.
But Utah’s ascension came in part at UCLA’s expense, and the Bruins were exposed as not quite ready for prime time the next week against Oregon. With two losses, the preseason pick to win the Pac-12 South needs help to get to Santa Clara.
Some of that help comes from other Pac-12 team; the Bruins must run the table with Arizona State losing once more and Utah twice. But UCLA needs some help internally.
Things just aren’t clicking, which was glaringly evident in UCLA’s double-OT win at Colorado. The only Pac-12 South team without a conference win very nearly stole its first at the Bruins’ expense–and frankly, the Buffs completely outplayed their visitors.
But the Pac-12 South being what it is this season, UCLA is anything but done. Jim Mora is 2-0 head-to-head with Rodriguez, including a 66-10 beating upon the Wildcats’ last visit to the Rose Bowl.
Like this year, Arizona came to town ranked and in control of its divisional destiny. UCLA used its rout of the Wildcats as a springboard into the Pac-12 Championship Game.
If history can repeat itself, some may have to walk back their eulogies on the Bruins’ season–for a week, at least. UCLA still has USC and Stanford coming to town, as well as a road trip to Washington.
The Pac-12 South is heading into the season’s final month with as close a championship race as one could imagine. Four teams have strong shots at winning; a fifth, USC, maintains an outside albeit realistic hope.
If you think what’s going to happen in these next five weeks, go join the other liars.