November 16, 2011 in Sports

North Division rules first year of Pac-12 split

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Game of the Week

Trojans at Ducks

Teams: USC (8-2, 5-2), Oregon (9-1, 7-0)

Time: 5 p.m. Saturday  TV: ABC

Although the Trojans can’t appear in the Pac-12’s first championship game because of NCAA sanctions, they certainly can influence who does. First up are the Ducks, who can clinch the North Division’s berth with a win at home. But UO is coming off a mentally draining showdown with Stanford and coach Chip Kelly’s “win the day” mentality will be tested by Matt Barkley and USC. The Trojans couldn’t have played the Cardinal any better in defeat, so they are capable of disappointing the Ducks’ fans.

PULLMAN – There are divisions in the Pac-12 this year, and it’s not a bad thing.

Or maybe it is.

When the Pac-10 Conference brought in Colorado and Utah this season, it split into two, with six in each of the South and North divisions. And that means there will be a conference title game Dec. 2.

But that doesn’t mean the conference’s two best will play in the championship game. More than likely, they played last week, with Oregon traveling to Stanford and coming home with a 53-30 win.

Now the Ducks have the inside track to the North title and the host’s role in the final game. They would have to lose to USC and Oregon State at home to open the door for the Cardinal.

But one thing is clear: The North is better.

“The North is really strong,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said on the conference’s weekly media call.

The South representative is still up for grabs, since division leader USC is ineligible because of NCAA sanctions.

UCLA (5-5, 4-3) holds the inside track, knowing if it wins out it is in. But after hosting Colorado this week, the Bruins travel to face the Trojans in their rivalry game. Arizona State (6-4, 4-3) needs help, but it plays at home, first against last-place Arizona, then versus a suddenly hot California team. Utah (6-4, 3-4), which started 0-4 in conference, still has an outside shot if it defeats Washington State and Colorado.

It may not be pretty, but it’s better than playing out the string – if you are in the South.

“There’s no question that’s exciting for teams that are still involved in a race,” UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. “It makes the games that much more fun. But you’ve got to be careful in not getting caught up in scoreboard watching. You’ve got to get caught up in playing great football.”

What about Stanford, which just might be one of the nation’s best teams but now has no chance to be Pac-12 champion?

“Sometimes its going to happen from year to year, maybe the two perceived best teams are in the same division,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “I think it’s happening in the Southeast Conference right now.”

Riley was referring to LSU and Alabama, which faced off a couple of weeks ago and are in the same SEC division. But that’s something the SEC has faced for a while. It’s new to the Pac-12.

“It’s something we all just have to get used to,” Cardinal coach David Shaw said. “It’s a different feeling losing that game because a year ago, without a conference championship game, you lose that game and you know you’re not conference champions. Now you lose that game and you say, ‘We’re not in the championship game.’

“Whereas Oregon wins that game and says, ‘Most likely we’re in the conference championship game, but we haven’t won the conference yet.’ It’s just that extra game and I think we’ll all get used to it.”

And there’s still a chance for an upset.

“It’s too early to say the best (aren’t playing),” said Colorado coach Jon Embree, who played for the Buffs when the Big 12 went to two divisions. “College football is cyclical, so I don’t think you can rush to judgment whether this is the best scenario or not. The teams in the South will improve. … And shoot, anything can happen in a one-game deal. That’s the great thing about a championship game.”

Four from the Pac-12

1. It is possible for the South Division champions to go into the title game with a 6-6 record, lose and not be bowl eligible. For that to happen, Arizona State and Utah will have to lose twice and UCLA would have to split at best. All of that happening is probably a long shot, but if it does, the conference would probably end up with a black eye nationally.

2. California and Stanford face off in the Big Game this week, one of two rivalry games taking place a week before the regular season ends (ASU and Arizona meet in Tempe in the other). The Bears are a big underdog against the eighth-ranked – and host – Cardinal. “We have to do what we do, but if you can put a little bit of pressure on (quarterback Andrew) Luck, which doesn’t happen very often, you can keep him off balance,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said.

3. The Huskies may be without quarterback Keith Price when they face Oregon State this weekend. He injured his knee in UW’s loss last week at USC. “There is no structural damage to Keith’s knee,” coach Steve Sarkisian said. “There is some swelling that we’ll have to assess as this day moves forward and the week moves forward.”

4. In their showdown with Stanford last week, Oregon’s running offense started slowly, as is the case often. Coach Chip Kelly says often that few teams run an offense like the Ducks, so it takes a while in games to see how the opponent is defending them. And what Stanford was doing was working. “They were doing a good job in a couple of different things, so we had to attack them in a different way,” Kelly said. The Ducks ran for 232 yards, though after a quarter they were minus-5 in that category.

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