PULLMAN – With two weeks left in the regular season, it’s guaranteed that the Pac-12 football championship will end up in one of two states. But within those two states, four teams are still in the hunt.
As it stands, the College Football Playoff probably won’t be looking for the Pac-12 to fill one its four spots when the national semifinalists are revealed on Dec. 3. By forfeiting one of those coveted spots, the conference also forfeits the lucrative $6 million payout dispersed among the 12 teams. And of the Power Five leagues, the Pac-12 might be the only one without an invite.
The flip side of that? These next few weeks should be plenty exhilarating for the fans in Palo Alto, Pullman and Seattle.
Leaving nothing to chance, USC claimed the Pac-12 South on Saturday by cruising past Colorado 38-24 in Boulder. The Pac-12 North, meanwhile, prefers a flair for the dramatic. Stanford, Washington State and Washington plan to take this the distance and it’ll be another two weeks before the Trojans learn who they’ll square off with in the Dec. 1 title game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
(It’s sure to be a point of contention that regardless of who it is, that team will be at some sort of disadvantage having played six days earlier, while USC will be coming off a bye week.)
Of the three challengers in the North, WSU is the only one that controls its own path. The Cougars (9-2, 6-2) won themselves that luxury by beating Utah 33-25 in Salt Lake City on Saturday and tripping up Stanford 24-21 in Pullman a week earlier. Now another high-stakes Apple Cup is on the horizon.
The only way the Cougars can set up a rematch with the Trojans in the Pac-12 title game is by vanquishing the Huskies on Nov. 25 in Seattle.
“The offseason, we had a finish mindset,” WSU quarterback Luke Falk said after Saturday’s game in Utah. “Right now, we’re just doing the little things, we’re not thinking about the bigger picture. We’re just doing the things that help get the opportunity we want.”
Senior safety Rob Taylor echoed those sentiments: “We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied. We’ve just got to finish. End of the day, we’ve got to finish.”
Less than 24 hours before their own game kicked off at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Cougars gathered at their team hotel in downtown Salt Lake City to catch the final quarter of UW-Stanford.
Stanford’s 30-22 win on The Farm didn’t do much for WSU – as long as the Cougars could escape Utah victorious, they’d control their own destiny – but it did put the Huskies in a tough spot. UW isn’t out of the picture, but a return to the championship would require the Huskies to win out and for Cal to beat Stanford in next week’s rivalry game at Palo Alto.
It’s a more straightforward path for the Cardinal, who only have to beat the Golden Bears next week and get a UW win in the Apple Cup in order to reach their fourth title game in seven years.
The odds are slim, but there’s also a chance all three of the North contenders finish the regular season with three losses (UW losing to Utah, WSU losing to UW and Stanford losing to Cal). In that scenario, the league’s multiteam tiebreaking criteria would come into play. Because the Huskies would have the best record against opponents from the North (4-1), they’d be the ones booking a date with the Trojans.
In theory, the Cougars have it best. They control their own destiny and with a bye on Saturday, they’ll be able to heal up and get a jump on studying Chris Petersen’s Huskies.
“We’ve played 11 straight games, which is a tough toll,” Falk said. “And we’re just going to get our bodies right, minds right and focus on Washington when we go back to practice.”
Added Madison: “I think this bye week’s come at a perfect time for us.”