The Pac-12 came into this season with two expected Playoff contenders (Washington and USC), along with high hopes for the conference as a whole to be competitive with the rest of the Power 5 leagues. The conference now has two Playoff contenders, though one of them (Washington State) has come out of nowhere to many.
The conference is a few upsets away from missing the Playoff, but that’s true of every conference at this point in the season. The Pac-12 has performed well in non-conference play and — late games that too many people can’t watch aside — has not done anything to move itself from its spot as a solid Power 5 league. There is a ton of football left to play, both in the conference and around the country, and anything can happen on any given Saturday.
What has gone as expected
Washington looks like one of the best teams in the country. The Huskies have dominated weaker competition so far, though they have a penchant to start slowly in road games. They have not yet faced the meat of their schedule, but that will change. Washington gets one more relatively easy game against Arizona State, and then the real fun begins. The Huskies’ final five opponents have a combined record of 21-7, and three of those seven losses have come against each other.
On the other hand, the other expected story this season is Oregon State. The Beavers were predicted by many to be one of (if not the very) worst Power 5 teams, and they have not disappointed. They also became the first to part ways with their coach this season, as Gary Andersen said he could not live up to what he promised when he took over the job.
It is not the biggest shock college football has seen, but Washington State’s ascendancy has to rank as one of the more unexpected stories of the college football season. We knew that Mike Leach had a potent offense, and that Luke Falk is possibly the most-suited “air raid” quarterback he’s ever had, at least since Graham Harrell.
What has really allowed Washington State to become nationally relevant is the defense, which shined in its dominant win over Oregon this past week. Almost a decade after his best year at Texas Tech, Mike Leach suddenly has a national contender at Washington State. It is no surprise that Washington State is good, but the Cougars definitely were not expected to be this good.
It is not particularly surprising, but Oregon has already matched last year’s win total. New coach Willie Taggart looks like the right choice, and he certainly has the Ducks moving in the right direction again. As another surprise that shouldn’t be a surprise, Utah is winning again. It’s never particularly pretty or dominant, but Kyle Whittingham just wins games. There’s a reason that Utah has both never been a Playoff contender, but also has been ranked in every single iteration of the CFP selection committee’s rankings. Utah’s success is always so ordinary that it is surprising.
There is really only one team that deserves this moniker, and that is USC. The season started with such high expectations that were called into question immediately, as the Trojans struggled against Western Michigan. Things didn’t get better, as a Week 3 match with Texas went to two overtimes. The loss finally came against Washington State in Week 5, but USC has been far from its expectations all year. This was a team that should have been a Playoff contender. It should win games against decent teams with ease. Instead, USC has struggled against decent teams all season (except for the good win over Stanford in Week 4). If this keeps up, USC won’t escape October with only two losses, let alone November.
The other disappointment, for the same reason, is Sam Darnold. Darnold came into the season as the Heisman front-runner and six games in, he has yet to go a full game without throwing an interception. Darnold hasn’t been awful, but he has certainly been nowhere near achieving the lofty expectations set for him.
Can this be anyone other than Stanford’s Bryce Love? The junior, who was hidden behind Christian McCaffrey the past two years, has broken out with a vengeance. It’s hard for a Stanford player — who has already played four games at 10 PM Eastern or later — to get serious Heisman consideration, but Love is clearly a top two candidate at the moment. He leads the nation in rushing by a wide margin. Love is third in all-purpose yardage — trailing only fellow late-night competitor Rashaad Penny, along with Penn State star Saquon Barkley. Penny and Barkley both return kickoffs on occasion, though.
Love, meanwhile, gets nearly his entire production on the ground. He is on pace — including a bowl game — to break Barry Sanders’ single-season rushing yardage record. That’s rarefied air. Without a Marcus Mariota-like quarterback in college football this year, there is no reason that Love should not win the Heisman if he keeps this up.
It’s Love, and there’s no one else in the same ballpark. Luke Falk has some gaudy stats, but he struggled mightily against Boise State. It’s not unreasonable to claim that Washington State would have lost that game if Falk had not gotten hurt. It’s Love, and only Love, as the best — and most valuable — player in this conference.
Three questions for the second half
** Who can disrupt an Apple Cup undefeated battle? Stanford? Anyone else?
** USC is loaded with talent. Can the Trojans right the ship in the second half, like last season?
** Can Oregon State find a coach to make them relevant again? Do they go back to Mike Riley?
Games to watch
In this conference, it’s basically every single one. The Apple Cup looks to have huge potential at the moment, but so much can disrupt that. Both Washington schools have to play Stanford. Washington has to face the Cardinal on the road. Oregon also gets a shot at Washington in November.
The South is also wide open. Utah’s trip to USC this week will determine the front-runner, but both of those teams must still host UCLA. Arizona is also seemingly competitive, though the Wildcats haven’t played anywhere near their toughest competition yet. Arizona State also only has one conference loss, including an impressive win over Oregon.
Seriously, though, every Pac-12 game is potentially exciting, and just about anything can happen in this conference. Every single game — except those involving Oregon State (sorry, Beavers) — is one that can matter in the conference and national races.