The Pac-10 is a big mess, especially in the middle. After nine weeks of play, nine of the ten teams still have shot at reaching the magical six-win plateau and making a bowl game. While most will focus on the race for the Pac-10 title and the Rose Bowl berth that goes along with it, I thought it might be more interesting to look at all the other mediocre teams in the middle of the Pac. The stakes may not be as grand, but for coaches whose job security may swing one way or the other depending on if they can garner a bowl bid, the struggles in the middle are no less important.
To help with this analysis, I went through the remaining games and made a few simplifying assumptions. First, that WSU loses out. Not an unlikely scenario. Then, USC and Oregon both win out. I could certainly see either or both of those teams losing, especially on the road, but let’s make this simple (and more difficult on the remaining teams).
The other seven Pac-10 teams are more difficult to sort out. It seems as though Arizona, Cal, and Oregon State have begun separating themselves from the other four, and my guess is that those four finish 3-4-5 in the conference in some order. Cal has already reached bowl eligibility, while the other two already have five wins with Washington State still left on the schedule. The other four (Stanford, UCLA, Arizona State and Washington) all have bowl-eligibility odds that stretch from long to longer. I think one of them gets to six wins, but zero teams getting there seems more likely than two. Here’s what’s left (records listed assume a W vs. WSU, L vs. USC/Oregon), in order of likeliness of bowl eligibility:
• Cal – 6-2, with home games vs. Arizona and OSU, road games @ Stanford and UW. Cal is now just playing for bowl positioning, with an outside shot at 10 wins and a really nice season. Lots of games that should be close, with the toughest remaining opponents at home. They should do no worse than a split, and could win all four.
• Oregon State – 6-4, with home game vs. UW, road game @ Cal. The Beavs just need to beat Wazzu to get to six wins. Even if they can't do that, they should be favored to beat UW at home.
• Arizona – 6-4, with road games @ Cal and ASU. The Wildcats can get to 6 wins just by beating Wazzu. Fail to do so, however, and they then need either beat Oregon at home or Cal, ASU, or USC on the road. Not an easy closing slate.
• Stanford – 5-5, with home games vs. Cal and Notre Dame. Toss in a home game vs. Oregon and a visit to USC (their only remaining road game), and that’s a brutal closing slate. Lots of home cooking, but Stanford might not be favored in any of these games.
• UCLA – 4-6, with home games vs. UW and ASU. Unless they can upset USC, the Bruins' only shot at the postseason is to beat Washington and Arizona State at home, then WSU in Pullman. After an 0-5 start in Pac-10 play, the Bruins need a win in the worst way. Their next three games are probably the easiest conference games on the schedule, but there is no longer any room for error.
• Arizona State – 4-6, with home game vs. Arizona, road game @ UCLA. I could see the Sun Devils winning both remaining toss-ups, but I could also see them losing them both. If they want to get to a bowl, however, they need to either win both, or somehow upset either USC or Oregon.
• Washington – 4-5, with a home game vs. Cal, road games @ UCLA and OSU. Pulling the upset over USC was huge for the Huskies, but unless the Huskies can learn to win on the road, it won't be enough to extend their season past final exams. And hosting Cal at the end of the season won’t be easy, either.
If all these teams listed can just hold serve at home, the Pac-10 will get seven teams to six wins and bowl eligibility. However, both Stanford and UCLA are still on extremely iffy ground, even at home. I’ll split the difference and say six Pac-10 teams get to six wins.
Critical Game this week:
Washington @ UCLA. Both these teams badly need a win if they hope to reach a bowl, and the winner is far from assured of getting there. The loser, however, can pretty much start planning its winter break vacation. A UCLA loss would mean they would start the conference 0-6, 3-6 overall, and have to sweep @WSU, ASU, and @USC to get to six wins -- not going to happen. A Washington loss leaves the Huskies themselves at 3-6, with games @ Oregon State, vs. Washington State, and vs. California to close the season -- can you see the Huskies winning all three? This is pretty much a bowl contention elimination game.
Oregon @ Stanford. While the Ducks try to avoid a road letdown after a HUGE victory at home, Stanford takes the first of four cracks at the magical six win plateau. They sit at 5-3 right now, but face Oregon, @USC, Cal and Notre Dame to close the season. All four of those teams are currently ranked.
Washington State @ Arizona. The Wildcats should have no trouble securing their sixth win of the season, which is good, because the closing slate - @Cal, Oregon, @ASU, @USC - is about as tough as it comes. Still the Wildcats only have one conference loss, and as they have yet to play Oregon, they are the other team besides the Ducks who still controls their own Rose Bowl destiny.
Oregon State @ California. The Bears are already at six wins, while the Beavers are at five with a game vs. Wazzu left to play. Neither team looks like a Rose Bowl contender, so this game has mostly bowl placement implications. The winner might have a shot at the Holiday Bowl, while the loser looks like they're Las Vegas Bowl-bound, at best.
USC @ Arizona State. The Trojans will bounce back from their loss in Eugene, I'm almost certain of it. I can't recall the last time USC lost back-to-back games. Then again, I can't recall the last time USC lost by more than three touchdowns. ASU could really, really use this win, but I just don't see it happening.