O’Connell: Oregon’s Loss To ASU Created More Questions Than Answers
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – It’s our fault really. All of us who started to get too comfortable with the idea that the “Conference of Champions” might actually have two teams that belong in the conversation considering college football’s “elites.”
On my Pac-12 Today radio show (SiriusXM channel 373 from 4-7 p.m. MT) I must have uttered this statement, or some variation of it, fifty times. “Assuming we get a one-loss Oregon and a one-loss Utah facing off in Santa Clara for a Pac-12 Championship…”
I said that so many times! Why?! Why would I assume that things would go according to plan!? That everything would break correctly for whoever won the conference crown to be in the legitimate playoff discussion? Precedent tells us that the Pac-12 will tear itself to shreds over a mandatory nine-conference-game regular season. That the division champions will emerge battered and bruised by parity to square off in a half-full NFL stadium for bragging rights on the West Coast, but not a real shot at inclusion in the CFP. Like a fool, I believed that this established way of things would not hold true in 2019. I bought into the idea that the dominance of the Ducks and Utes would last until they faced off against one another.
Herm Edwards and the Arizona State Sun Devils were not nearly so foolish. Despite riding a four-game losing streak that included dropping contests to lowly UCLA and rising-but-still-lowly Oregon State, ASU showed up ready to win against the number 6 team in the country. They were not so reckless in their adoption of the idea that Oregon was truly elite. Ultimately, the Sun Devils held off a furious Oregon rally to win 31-28 and plunge conversation around the Pac-12 back into familiar disarray.
The team most affected by the aftermath? Probably Utah, of course. Kyle Whittingham’s Utes will now find themselves ranked 6th. The lone Pac-12 power in a melting pot of college football blue-bloods. This means that even if everything works out for the Utes, and they finish the season as Pac-12 Champions, they will not have overthrown a top-ten foe to get there. Because of a soft non-conference slate, and the ensuing cannibalism of the Pac-12, Utah is in desperate need of a signature win over a highly regarded opponent. That was supposed to be Oregon.
After Saturday night’s performance in Tempe, the Ducks will be doubted. The vaunted Oregon offensive line will be questioned after only paving the way for 150 yards rushing. Justin Herbert, once a draft darling and Heisman contender, will be questioned for his two awful interceptions in crunch time. The criticisms, whether justifiable or merely knee-reactions to a bad week will, unfortunately, carry over to commentary about the entire conference, and more importantly, the Utes.
Even if Utah wins in dominant fashion these next two weeks, those wins will have come over an underwhelming Buffaloes squad under a first-year head coach and an Oregon team characterized more by “what might have been” than what actually is. Pundits will praise the Utes out of one side of their mouths but say “yeah but who did they beat?” out of the other.
We may not get to the point where any of this matters. If Utah suffers the same sort of misstep that Oregon did this weekend, the conversation changes entirely. For now, Ute fans will be wringing their hands over how somebody else’s mistakes might hurt their team. Of course, in the end, it may not matter, because an eventual one-loss Pac-12 Champion still needs help.
Realistic hopes for a spot in the top four demand some or all of the following; Georgia must lose, Alabama likely needs to lose even though they won’t even be playing for an SEC championship, Oklahoma can’t look too good in the Bedlam game versus a ranked Oklahoma State and then in a Big 12 Championship against Baylor.
Even Minnesota might still be considered for leapfrogging up the rankings, should they beat Wisconsin and then upset Ohio State in a Big 10 Championship game. (depending on how bad an OSU loss is, of course)
Utah can only hope to control what is in front of them, two more games and a potential Pac-12 Championship. Beyond that, fans can only hope for the best. Of course, these complicated scenarios all point to the obvious need for one significant change in college football – an expanded College Football Playoff. That’s a discussion for another day though.
Utah Utes Scoreboard
Utah Utes Team Leaders
Utah Utes Standings