As October arrives, the college football landscape typically starts coming into focus. Hierarchies are established. Conference races get clarified. The playoff race is winnowed.
The Pac-12 went the opposite direction Friday night. Washington State tripped Southern Cal, 30-27, making chaos of what had been the most clear-cut conference race in the country. Instead we’re left with more questions than answers. Is USC’s injury-racked season crumbling? Is Washington State finally legitimate? Has the Pac-12 lost its best shot at a College Football Playoff berth?
Taking a closer look at the conference’s top three teams, their schedules and the national field, we find some surprising answers.
USC was playing two freshman offensive linemen Friday night, and that contributed to one of the worst games of quarterback Sam Darnold’s career. The Trojans, who have lost five offensive starters to injuries this season, dropped four spots to No. 12 in our rankings.
Washington State’s Luke Falk looked the more likely NFL QB, completing 34 of 51 passes and accounting for the vast majority of the Cougars’ yards, but we’re still not sold on the Cougars, whom we rank 26th in the country, roughly in line with our preseason expectations. They’ve yet to play outside of Pullman, and USC has been by far their stiffest competition.
The Washington Huskies are clearly the class of the conference. Their 42-7 pounding of Oregon State was one of the top three performances of the weekend. Behind the nation’s fifth-best offense and ninth-best defense, the Huskies bump up a spot to No. 5 overall.
If the Huskies fail to make the College Football Playoff, they might blame their schedule. All three of the Pac-12’s elite teams, in fact, suffer from the same shortcoming. Among the 65 “Power 5” teams, Washington State and USC face slightly below-average competition, but Washington’s schedule is one of the three easiest. Most important: USC and Washington won’t face each other this year unless they meet in the conference championship game.
Can USC win the Pac-12 South and still get to that title game? Absolutely. Utah, No. 33 in our rankings, is USC’s closest competition, and barring more Trojans injuries, it shouldn’t be close. We give USC an 80 percent chance of making the Pac-12 championship game and a 25 percent chance of reeling off the seven straight wins to stay in the playoff conversation. The Trojans’ toughest remaining regular-season game, by far, is at No. 16 Notre Dame on Oct. 21, a matchup that looks like a toss-up.
Washington is almost as strong of a favorite (71 percent) in the North. If you’re unimpressed with whom the Huskies have played so far, you should see whom they have left, many of them at home. Their toughest assignment will be a Nov. 10 trip to Palo Alto to face No. 19 Stanford, where we have them five-point favorites. Of course, they close the regular season against Wazzu in the Apple Cup, and despite the Cougars’ performance so far, we expect Washington to be favored by more than two touchdowns.
The deck is stacked against Washington State, with five of its seven remaining games on the road. The sheer number of legitimate hurdles is apt to catch up with the Cougars; we think they’ll be fortunate to reach nine wins.
Looking more broadly at the national competition, the Pac-12 is weaker after the weekend. Generally speaking, a team’s first loss doesn’t knock it out of the playoff race, but it does remove its margin for error. A two-loss team has yet to make the playoff, and we’re seeing it this year in only 12 percent of our simulations. The simplest way to think about a Power-5 team’s playoff chances, then, is to ask whether it can win its conference while dropping no more than one game.
That test is trickier for USC now, putting the Pac-12 at risk of only one genuine playoff contender. We see the conference making the playoff in 59 percent of our scenarios, by far the lowest of the Power 5 conferences.
Beyond the Pac-12, Alabama continues to separate itself from the field. We’d expect the Crimson Tide to beat an average FBS team (e.g., Cal) on a neutral field by more than 35 points, the highest rating of any team since the 2012 season. Even with all Georgia has shown in the past two weeks, we’d expect Alabama to be favored by two touchdowns if the teams met in an SEC title game this week.
Our favorites to make the playoff are Alabama (74 percent), Oklahoma (56 percent), Clemson (55 percent) and Washington (44 percent). Thanks to weakening competition from USC, the Huskies jumped Ohio State (41 percent) for the first time. We still consider the Buckeyes the likeliest Big Ten team to reach the playoff, over Wisconsin (22 percent) and Penn State (14 percent).
Week 5 clarified more than many believe. USC is probably not what we thought; Washington State is still (only) what we thought; and Washington even better than we thought. We can’t expect the focus to remain this clear all season, but for now it’s all Huskies out west.
Bob Tedeschi contributed to this report.
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