First & 20: Pac-12 hurting itself

Anthony Gimino

October 16, 2017 at 10:15 am.

Oct 13, 2017; Berkeley, CA, USA; California Golden Bears quarterback Ross Bowers (3) leaps for a touchdown against Washington State Cougars linebacker Justus Rogers (37) during the second half at Memorial Stadium. Photo Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 13, 2017; Berkeley, CA, USA; California Golden Bears quarterback Ross Bowers (3) leaps for a touchdown against Washington State Cougars linebacker Justus Rogers (37) during the second half at Memorial Stadium. Photo Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

If a Pac-12 team doesn’t make the College Football Playoff, the league might have nobody to blame but itself.

Every league is a slave to television and its capricious kickoff times and the need for broadcast windows outside of those on Saturday. We get that. That’s the new normal. But the Pac-12 — twice this season — has put one of its best teams in peril by scheduling it for back-to-back road games on a short week.

Preseason favorite USC had to go to Colorado and then get right back on a plane to Washington State for a raucous Friday night game. The Cougars hadn’t even played a road game at that point. A late field goal gave Washington State a 30-27 victory and national attention, while the then-No. 5 Trojans suffered their first loss and were knocked off their high horses.

Washington State now knows how that feels.

Put into the uncomfortable Saturday-Friday road combination, the eighth-ranked Cougars meekly bowed to Cal 37-3 in Berkeley last week, the kind of totally unexpected result that was the hallmark of a Week 7 slate in which four Top 10 teams went down to unranked teams.

The upshot of the 24 hours of chaos is that the Pac-12 is in the worst shape of the Power Five Conferences in terms of making the four-team playoff.

USC has one loss and it seems only a matter of time before it falls off the high wire it has walked in wins vs. Texas, Cal and, on Saturday night, Utah, surviving a two-point conversion attempt in the final minute. The Trojans, because of their strength of schedule, remain the league’s best shot at a playoff team.

The lack of nonconference strength of schedule means one-loss Washington State and Washington — which fell at Arizona State on Saturday night with the rested Sun Devils coming off a bye (another scheduling quirk) — means those teams need lots of help.

The Pac-12, fresh out of undefeated teams, has to get in line behind six unbeaten Power Five Conference teams — Alabama, Georgia, Penn State, Wisconsin, TCU and Miami. One-loss teams with better resumes than Pac-12 schools include Clemson, Oklahoma and even North Carolina State. Ohio State and Oklahoma State still loom among the one-loss class.

Washington showed last season that a one-loss champ with a horrible nonconference strength of schedule can squeeze into the playoff. But the Pac-12 is going to need some help. It is going to need chaos in other leagues to pick off contenders.

The league has stumbled into a marketing slogan and a social media hashtag in the past few years — #Pac12AfterDark. But #Pac12AfterDark has its, well, dark side.

Those Friday night games weren’t the only reason USC and Washington State lost, but the schedule didn’t exactly allow them to be at their best.

Not all schedules are equal. They aren’t always fair. But the Pac-12 schedule-makers have done the league no favors in its now-uphill chase to the playoff.

10 thoughts on Week 7

1. College football has a new superstar. Arizona sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate has rushed for 557 yards on only 29 carries in the past two weeks, scoring on runs of 58, 28, 47, 75, 45 and 71 yards. He’s the first FBS quarterback, according to ESPN, to rush for at least 200 yards in consecutive games since Navy’s Chris McCoy in 1997. Tate also completed 21 of 26 passes for 302 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, in those two games. The Lamar Jackson of the West?

2. Texas A&M has survived its gut check. The opening-game collapse at UCLA could have been devastating for the Aggies, but they have gone 5-1 since then — losing only to No. 1 Alabama — including getting a last-minute field goal to outlast Florida 19-17 on Saturday in The Swamp. Since being outscored 28-0 by the Bruins in the fourth quarter, A&M has a 75-33 edge in the final period. Kevin Sumlin might be OK after all.

3. Why wait on Mike Riley? The last two weeks — at home against Wisconsin and Ohio State — felt like a last stand for Nebraska’s third-year head coach. Pretty much. The Cornhuskers were clobbered by a combined 94-31. Go ahead. Make a change now. Nebraska nation turns its lonely eyes to Scott Frost.

4. Speaking of Scott Frost. In addition to the shakeup in the Top 10, two Group of Five conference teams — San Diego State and Navy — were knocked from the unbeaten ranks. That leaves Frost’s UCF team and Charlie Strong’s USF team — or, Central Florida and South Florida, if you prefer — as the favorites to earn a bid into a New Year’s Six bowl. The teams meet in Orlando on Nov. 24 to end the regular season.

5. This era of the Red River Showdown is going to be great. There’s no reason to think Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Texas’ Tom Herman won’t be in their jobs for a long time, and Saturday’s rivalry game seemed to be a sign of what’s to come — high-level teams, elite draft prospects and a thrilling finish amid the unique pageantry at the Cotton Bowl during the State Fair of Texas.

6. It’s the Year of the True Freshman Running Back. Boston College’s AJ Dillon ran for 272 yards and four touchdowns in a win at Louisville. Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor has three 200-yard games this season. Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins has 775 yards, averaging 7.8 per carry. Malik Davis leads Florida with 84.3 yards per game. Oklahoma’s Trey Sermon, Florida State’s Cam Akers and Clemson’s Travis Etienne are playing huge roles at traditional powers.

7. Clemson will be fine. Syracuse shocked the Tigers on Friday night, giving college football fans another glorious locker room video of passionate Orange head coach Dino Babers. As for Clemson, as long as quarterback Kelly Bryant gets healthy in the bye week, we still like its chances of getting to the playoff — and winning it.

8. Arizona State can play defense? The Sun Devils had allowed at least 30 points in 11 consecutive games … and then they beat No. 5 Washington 13-7 with repeated red-zone stops. Never stop making sense, college football.

9. Alabama is getting great play from a walk-on. Amid the five-star talent and future first-rounders on Alabama’s defense, take notice of senior cornerback Levi Wallace, who walked-on in 2013 after receiving no FBS scholarship offers. He’s moved from 2016 special teams contributor to pass coverage ace, breaking up three passes against Arkansas on Saturday, giving him a team-high nine to go with his team-best three interceptions.

10. Our revised playoff predictions: Alabama, Penn State, Clemson, Oklahoma.

5 top Heisman candidates

1. Stanford RB Bryce Love. He did it again Saturday, extending his streak of games with a 50-yard run to nine. He cruised to 147 yards in a little more than a half of work as Stanford — now in first in the Pac-12 North — easily dispatched Oregon 49-7.

2. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield. The senior had some Heisman moments in the win over Texas, connecting on timely deep balls and making key scrambles. He leads the nation in passing efficiency with a rating of 207.3.

3. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. The opportunity is all right in front of him: The Nittany Lions have Michigan on Saturday, followed by road games at Ohio State and Michigan State. Check back on Barkley’s status on Nov. 4.

4. Ohio State QB JT Barrett. Are we all-in on the Buckeyes, who have impressively stomped on inferior opponents since losing to Oklahoma? No. But Barrett’s 21-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio deserves some kudos as Ohio State prepares to swing away in a challenging final month that will define the Buckeyes’ season.

5. Alabama CB Minkah Fitzpatrick. Offered here for the defenders everywhere and as the top candidate from the top team in the nation.

5 top games for Week 8

1. Michigan at Penn State (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET) — The Nittany Lions aim offensive stars Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley into the teeth of Michigan’s defensive front in a key Big Ten East battle.

2. USC at Notre Dame (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET) — The rested Irish are coming off a bye week while the Trojans continue to stagger like a beat-up boxer. Notre Dame can make a playoff statement but must conquer USC’s Rocky-like resolve.

3. Oklahoma State at Texas (Saturday, noon ET) — The Longhorns clearly aren’t all the way back, but true freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger is a joy to watch … hey, so is Mason Rudolph and the Cowboys offense. This should be fun.

4. Syracuse at Miami (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET) — Will the Orange have a hangover from its upset of Clemson? What does Miami have left in the tank after back-to-back weeks of late and improbable wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech?

5. Oklahoma at Kansas State (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET) — Teams going into Manhattan are always on upset alert — TCU managed just fine Saturday, though — and then there’s this nugget: The youngest head coach in the FBS (Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, 34) will take on the oldest (Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, 78).