Originally Published: October 17, 2017 11:10 p.m.
Big upsets in the Pac-12 Conference point to more parity across the league than perhaps ever before.
That’s good for the conference, right? Certainly it’s good for fans.
But for now only this is certain: This season the Pac-12 will have no undefeated teams. And that could mean a tougher path to the College Football Playoff for the league.
“We eat each other,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “And I don’t mean that rhetorically. We just gobble each other up. Every game’s just a complete battle for survival.”
This weekend was particularly brutal for the Pacific Northwest.
Previously undefeated Washington State — which knocked USC off in a memorable game on the way to a 5-0 start — stumbled dramatically last Friday in a 37-3 loss at California.
The Cougars had climbed to No. 8 in the rankings before the loss to the Golden Bears, who were 0-3 in conference play going into the game. The loss dropped Washington State (6-1, 3-1) to No. 15.
Washington won the Pac-12 championship game last season and went to the playoffs. This season the Huskies were undefeated until Saturday night, when they fell 13-7 to Arizona State.
The Huskies (6-1, 3-1) fell from No. 5 to No. 12 with the loss.
“There’s no gimmes in this league,” Mora said. “There’s no teams that you can look at and say, ‘Oh yeah, we should win this game even if we don’t play our best.’ Every week you have to play your best. This conference is just like the NFL, where every game is a complete battle.”
Stanford coach David Shaw weighed in: “There are no upsets in our conference. There’s no such thing.”
It’s not just the cliched notion that anyone can win on any given Saturday. Some say the Pac-12 schedule lends itself to cannibalism.
The No. 22 Cardinal (5-2, 4-1) were hurt by a non-conference loss to San Diego State but they’ve since won four straight.
“In our conference we play, most of us, five, six, or seven conference games in a row. Whereas in other conferences, they’ll play a couple of conference games and then they get a bye, or they have a I-AA opponent or a non-conference opponent,” he said. “In our conference, a lot of times it’s attrition. Back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back conference games, and those are tough.”
Asked if that hurts the league when it comes to a shot at the national championship, Shaw said it’s up to the CFP committee.
“I have talked to a couple of committee members in the past. They do recognize that what we do in our conference is difficult. It is different,” he said.
There are other schedule issues. The Trojans lost on the road to Washington State on a Friday night, a short week after playing another road game the Saturday before. Same thing happened to Washington State, a road game on a Saturday was followed by another road game (this time a loss) on Friday.
Washington faces a challenge in that three Pac-12 opponents this season are coming off byes.
Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre pointed out that the Pac-12 plays nine conference games, while other leagues play eight.
The nine-game schedule has been criticized because it’s obviously more difficult, and there’s less likelihood that a team will finish undefeated — which lowers the odds of getting coveted playoff berths. That challenges a conference where some key matchups are played late.
Both the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference play eight-game slates in league play.
“The conference games, no matter what you say, always seem tougher. Especially in November,” MacIntyre said. “Stanford’s playing, I’ll just say Arizona, and somebody else (in another conference) is playing a I-AA team. That’s like comparing apples to oranges, especially late in the year when everything’s on the line. It’s a big difference to me.”
Of course, Washington was able to get to the playoff last season with a loss. So it’s not impossible for a Pac-12 team to make it to the playoffs.
The top five teams in the AP Top 25 are currently undefeated: Alabama (7-0), Penn State (6-0), Georgia (7-0), TCU (6-0) and Wisconsin (6-0).
It appears the No. 11 Trojans — with that lone loss to Washington State this season — could get a playoff nod if they win out, claim the league championship and a few top teams lose. Washington and Washington State face off in the Apple Cup to end the season, and one of those teams could also emerge with one loss.
The Trojans (6-1, 4-1) visit No. 13 Notre Dame this weekend.
“The Pac-12 is top to bottom, inside and out, the most competitive conference,” Mora said. “I’m not saying it is the best conference, that’s to be determined. But it is so incredibly competitive and it’s been like that for a while, but it seems even more so this year than it has in the past.”