Friday, November 1, 2013
Pac-12: November stretch run
By Ted Miller
It's a coaching cliche: The games you remember are played in November. Or call November college football games the proverbial "crunch time." The schedule has turned toward the final quarter of the 2013 season, so the screws are tightening. Preseason dreams shortly will be realized. Or quashed.
It's a pretty good bet -- darn near a certainty, in fact -- that the Pac-12 will produce enough eligible teams to fill out the spots in its seven contracted bowls.
Can Marcus Mariota lead Oregon to the national title?
Three teams, Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State, already are bowl eligible. Four other teams need just one more win: Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington. Three others need two: USC (because of its 13-game schedule, USC needs seven wins), Utah and Washington State. And just one, 1-7 California, has been eliminated, though Colorado faces a steep climb toward three more wins.
Further, that bowl schedule could include an extra spot if Oregon plays for the national title, meaning the Rose Bowl could pick another conference team, provided it's ranked in the top 14 of the final BCS standings. The Rose Bowl is not obligated, by the way, to pick the loser of the Pac-12 title game. It could, for example, pick the runner-up of the North or South Division.
As far as the division races go, Oregon and Stanford play Nov. 7 for the top spot in the North. The Ducks are 5-0 in conference play and Stanford is 4-1, having lost at Utah. Though the Cardinal won at Oregon State last weekend, the Beavers, at 4-1, also could get into the mix.
In the South, Arizona State, at 3-1, has a one-game lead over Arizona, UCLA and USC. The only head-to-head matchups so far among those teams is Arizona State's win over USC and USC's win over Arizona. So lots of football left before the South sorts itself out. Things could get chaotic with a multi-team tie, or one team might surge and leave no doubt.
The good news, players and coaches will tell you with an extreme degree of earnestness over the next few weeks, is they are going to play 'em one game at at time.
Team(s) with most to prove: You can't narrow the South Division down yet, with three second-year coaches trying to push past the other two in the conference pecking order -- and USC lingering as a potential spoiler with an interim head coach.
Arizona and Rich Rodriguez? Arizona State and Todd Graham? UCLA and Jim Mora? Each is looking to lead his previously meandering program to a higher level, toward Pac-12 and national legitimacy. The only way to do that is at the others' expense.
The Sun Devils and Bruins were the preseason favorites, so you can say they have the most pressure. But if Rodriguez loses a second consecutive time to Graham, you can bet he'll feel a bit of pressure from disgruntled Wildcats fans.
Team with the most to lose: Oregon probably needs to be perfect to play for the national title. That means five more wins and a 13-0 finish in a Pac-12 that is as deep as it's been in years. Perhaps ever. The Ducks have done everything else over the past four years. They played for a national title (2010), won a Rose Bowl (2011) and won a Fiesta Bowl (2012), finishing with a final No. 2 ranking. The only thing left is to finish atop the final polls after hoisting the crystal football.
Four players to keep an eye on:
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: He's a leading Heisman Trophy contender with his toughest games ahead. He not only can lead the Ducks to their first national title, he also can grab the bronze statue along the way.
Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona: Carey's been out of the headlines mostly because of the Wildcats’ lackluster schedule. But if he again leads the nation in rushing and the Wildcats make a push in the South, he might earn at least an invitation to the Heisman ceremony.
Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State: While Arizona is still in the hunt, it feels like the South game of the year will be Arizona State's visit to UCLA on Nov. 23. Here's a bet that the QB who plays better in that game will lead his team into the Pac-12 championship game.
Biggest trap game: We have two. Stanford's visit to USC on Nov. 16, the weekend after the Oregon game, and Oregon's trip to Arizona on Nov. 23. Oregon and Stanford have dominated those series of late and both are good on the road. But if you were looking for a not-so-obvious place either might faceplant, those games are as good a bet as any.
Fearless November prediction: Mariota, a few weeks after winning the Heisman Trophy, is going to lead his team to a victory over Alabama in the national title game.