It never gets old.
Oh, sorry, I should clarify that.
It never gets old watching young players battle it out in a hard fought football game in the most inclement of elements. Witnessing these players improvise and compete under conditions of nature that even the most hardened of wildlife would seek shelter from is a pure and authentic football experience.
Of course, it also never gets old watching UW triumph over the Cougs in dominating fashion during the Apple Cup. That’s just fun.
UW’s physically dominating victory over WSU in the 111th Apple Cup – now and forever to be known as Snow Bowl II (very creative I know) served two purposes. It punched the Huskies’ ticket to the PAC 12 Championship game. It also provided some long-awaited payback – and closure – for UW’s loss to the Cougs in the 85th Apple Cup, aka Snow Bowl I.
With the Apple Cup resolved and with the full slate of conference games now mostly complete, we have a pretty good idea of the conference pecking order and can provide an updated bowl projection. At the risk of giving away my pick for the upcoming championship game against Utah, here is my latest thinking on bowl slotting.
Rose Bowl: Washington
The Dawgs are in a great position to take advantage of a Utah team that struggled with BYU and is playing backups in key positions. Should they take care of business, one would have to expect that Michigan and a date with Jim Harbaugh is in the offing.
Fiesta Bowl: Washington State
The Cougs caught a bit of a break in the sense that the weather prevented the possibility (not saying UW would have … just the possibility) of a more significant Apple Cup blowout victory. UCF and Ohio State are sure to jump them in the upcoming rankings, but those two are essentially auto-bids anyhow (assuming Ohio State wins the B1G and goes to the Playoff). As a ten-win team, WSU should remain in the top 12 which is where they need to be to get a NY6 bid. In a twist of irony, I expect them to play LSU – the one team they feel they’ve been unfairly ranked behind the latter half of the season – in most likely the Fiesta or possibly the Peach Bowl.
Alamo Bowl: Utah
Holiday Bowl: Stanford
Redbox Bowl: Oregon
Sun Bowl: Arizona State
Las Vegas Bowl: California
Cheez-It Bowl: Open
The conference will only produce seven bowl eligible teams this year, five of which reside in the North (!?!). That is a big shift from the ten teams that I originally thought would get eligible. That means the inaugural Cheez-It Bowl will be offering an at-large team.
13. Oregon State (1-8 / 2-10)
Oregon 55, Oregon State 15
We talked a few weeks back about how Oregon State would be defined by how strongly or how weakly it finished the season knowing that the post-season was not an option. A peek at the score from last weekend’s Civil War should tell you just about all you need to know in that regard.
I will say this: I don’t think Oregon State quit on Jonathan Smith. I do think, however, that they lost focus. Hustle without execution is just wasted energy. Never was that more apparent than on what have been the worst trick play attempt that I’ve witnessed in my entire life:
Sloppy plays like this combined with a run defense that surrendered 392 rushing yards turned the Civil War into a laugher and sent the Beavers into the offseason with a whole lot of work to do.
11. USC (4-5 / 5-7)
#3 Notre Dame 27, USC 17
Raise your hand if you had USC not getting bowl eligible in your preseason predictions.
2018 will go down as USC’s worst season since they last had a losing season in 2000. Helton, who is just one season removed from a PAC 12 championship and two from a Rose Bowl victory, got the dreaded “vote of confidence” from AD Lynn Swann on Sunday. But that gesture only ensures that Helton opens 2019 squarely on the hot seat. The affect of that on the recruiting trail and the offseason engagement of the players is sure to haunt USC, especially with UCLA rising across town.
Given all of this, I see USC as one of the two toughest situations in the PAC as it stands right now.
10. UCLA (3-6 / 3-9)
Stanford 49, UCLA 42
I don’t think Chip Kelly necessarily wants to run a passing offense. But against a Stanford team that just kept abusing the scoreboard, he had no choice. Wilton Speight put up 466 yards on 9.9 yards per attempt (but no TDs) in his farewell game for UCLA.
The Bruins now get to go back to the drawing board, focus on beating USC on the recruiting trail and figure out how to build on the experience set that the 20 true freshmen who took snaps for them in 2018 have established. Defense will be the key for Kelly as he ponders what to do about a unit that surrendered 38 points or more six different times this season.
9. Colorado (2-7 / 5-7)
Colorado 21, California 33
It isn’t easy to start a season 5-0 and then not get bowl eligible. In fact, I’m having trouble finding any examples of that happening in recent history (though I’m sure there must be a few). But here we are.
Colorado has already fired its coach and is in full-on search mode. That actually is good news for the program given that they’ve gotten the jump on evaluating the quality candidates on what should be a buyer’s market for coaches. I fully expect that advantage to result in a good hire maybe as soon as this week. That the Buffs are already getting ready for next season is the only thing that, in my mind, puts them in a slightly better situation than USC.
On the field, the team can at least claim that they put up a pretty good fight against Cal. Surrendering two pick-sixes in the first five minutes of the game might have yet have a devastating affect on the psyche of QB Steven Montez. But the team showed some grit hanging in there for the remaining 55 minutes of the game, particularly in stifling the Cal offense on third downs. That might provide them a little momentum going into the offseason.
8. Arizona (4-5 / 5-7)
Arizona State 42, Arizona 41
There were probably many more fans that had Arizona winning the PAC 12 South then there were who thought bowl eligibility would go unachieved for the Wildcats. While this season will go down as a disappointment, it will also get they typical “first year coach” asterisk.
The good news is Arizona was right there on the cusp of actually qualifying for the post-season. A JJ Taylor fumble and a missed 45 yard field goal were the deciding plays that conspired to deny Arizona after what was a pretty good game on offense. Taylor had 244 all purpose yards and Khalil Tate passed for 282 yards to go with three TDs.
The defense continues to be a work in progress. Stopping the run has been a challenge for Arizona all year and will undoubtedly be a focus area going into the offseason.
7. California (4-4 / 7-4)
It’s hard to believe that the Cal Bears still have a game left to play. Thanks to the air quality issues that came with the California wild fires, Cal and Stanford will play the Big Game this weekend.
Until then, the Bears will enjoy the notoriety of being the “team on the upswing” (which is actually a backhanded compliment that implies you sucked earlier but are getting better now) in the PAC. Their win over Colorado will be viewed as dominating thanks to the early lead they built with those two defensive touchdowns.
But we all know that as good as Cal’s D is, they are a major work in progress on offense. The Stanford game represents a chance to really make a statement, but those 15 practices in front of which ever bowl they go to will be critical in this program’s development.
Up next: the Big Game – Stanford at Cal
6. Arizona State (5-4 / 7-5)
Arizona State 42, Arizona 41
Give the Devils their due.
They could have easily folded under the pressure of the deficit that they faced against Arizona during the Territorial Cup in Tucson. But they hung in there just as they have all season. That toughness is starting to define this team in a surprising and interesting way under coach Herm Edwards.
Neither of ASU’s key players – QB Manny Wilkins (he’s a senior) and WR N’Keal Harry (he’s sure to declare) – had particularly big games. But Eno Benjamin, who locked up the PAC 12 rushing (yards and TDs) title with his 80 yard, 3 TD day, was up to the task. His 22 yard TD on the first play after the JJ Taylor fourth quarter fumble was a classic dagger shot and a declaration to the rest of the league that the best back in the conference may just reside in Tempe.
5. Oregon (5-4 / 8-4)
Oregon 55, Oregon State 15
Mario Cristobal’s first Civil War as head coach went exactly as he hoped it would minus the injury to QB Justin Herbert that forced him out in the 2nd quarter. The Ducks played stout defense and physically dominated on offense. Running backs CJ Verdell (187 yds, 4 TDs) and Travis Dye (199 yds, 2 TDs) recorded 411 all purpose yards and seven touchdowns between the two of them to set the pace for Oregon.
As the Ducks await news on their bowl slotting, all eyes will be on Herbert and whether or not the sack he took in the 2nd quarter did any extensive damage to his throwing shoulder. Braxton Burmeister, who took most of the back up snaps in relief of Herbert, finished the game but only attempted two passes. Needless to say, Oregon needs a healthy Herbert in any kind of post-season appearance in order to be competitive.
4. Stanford (5-3 / 7-4)
It was interesting to hear David Shaw talk about his team after their exciting win over UCLA. He flat out acknowledged that this Stanford team isn’t the kind of team he planned on having this season, but that he has come to embrace it for what it is: a soft, pass-first, pass-often team that counts more on its offense than it does its defense to win games.
Regardless of whether he likes it or not, Stanford is good at what it does. Costello can chuck it up there with the best of them and count on his stable of big receivers to come down with it most of the time. JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who led the PAC this year with 14 TD catches, had three scores to go along with his 106 yards. The Bruins simply didn’t have an answer for either him or his partner in crime, Trent Irwin, at the wide receiver position.
It will be very interesting to see if Stanford can get that same kind of success going against Cal this week. On one hand, we saw UW have its worst day defending the pass when they played Stanford a few weeks back. On the other, Cal has a great scheme and some good secondary talent of their own. The Cardinal need to be wary.
Up next: the Big Game – Stanford at Cal
3. #12 Washington State (7-2 / 10-2)
#16 Washington 28, #8 WSU 15
Coug fans are understandably divided about what is now their team’s sixth straight loss to Washington. On one hand, the Air Raid was yet again dismantled by Pete Kwiatkowski and Jimmy Lake’s approach to disguising coverage and keeping everything in front. At some point one has to acknowledge that “better execution” is not the solution to counter-attacking what it is that UW is doing in these games.
On the other hand, there is no denying that this has been a remarkable year for WSU. While Washington may have spoiled Gardner Minshew’s Heisman invite – he had season worsts in yardage (152), yards per attempt (4.2) and interceptions (2) – the Cougs showed some toughness in this one that hadn’t been seen in the last three Apple Cups. It is true that UW was gobbling up big chunks of yards on most offensive plays, but the Cougs stood in there and held the Dawgs to under 30 points – a feat that you would expect would give their offense a chance on most normal Saturdays.
I do think we need to acknowledge the weather. There is no doubt that the team with the bigger players is always going to have an advantage in inclement conditions if for no other reason than chaos favors size (call it natural selection if you will). That said, there can be no dispute that Minshew’s play was more affected by Washington than mother nature. I offer the exhibit below.
First notice the helmets … interesting to note that the WSU brass brought back these same uniforms with the cursive “Cougars” helmets for last weekend’s game. Second, check out the arm on Drew Bledsoe cutting through the swirling snow on that legendary pass to Bobo. Amazing.
2. #17 Utah (6-3 / 9-3)
BYU 27, #17 Utah 35
Utah is in a bit of an awkward position. By virtue of the fact that they are the PAC 12 South champs, they will get an extra game and a shot at the Rose Bowl. Thus, their #2 ranking in this Power Ranking.
That said, this is still a team struggling to overcome some critical injuries and who, if we are being honest, is probably the fourth best team in the conference right now.
The proof of this observation lies in Utah’s own performance against BYU. Neither of the two key injury replacements were all that effective with QB Jason Shelley throwing for just 5.0 yards per attempt and with RB Armand Shyne mustering 47 yards on a 3.1 ypc average.
And it isn’t just the offense. Utah’s vaunted defense really struggled against one of the most poor offenses in the nation. Four touchdowns surrendered, 7 of 18 on third down and 153 rushing yards isn’t bad but it isn’t the kind of exemplary performance that Utah is counting on from its D.
These last two games have provided important reps for both Shelley and Shyne. But neither Colorado (in a blizzard) or BYU come close to presenting the kind of challenge that UW will bring to Santa Clara. Those two players are going to have to take big steps up in production to help Utah justify this spot in the Power Ranking much less to win the conference.
Up next: the PAC 12 Championship Game – #17 Utah vs #10 Washington
1. #10 Washington (7-2 / 9-3)
#16 Washington 28, #8 WSU 15
I wrote before the game that the time for worrying about how the Huskies “look” in victory has passed. The Huskies are contending with their own version of the playoffs with the end goal being a Rose Bowl championship.
So what happened right after I wrote that? The Huskies, of course, put together one of their most impressive (if not the most impressive) total effort of the season especially after you adjust for the crazy weather. The pass defense was stellar. The rushing attack behind Myles Gaskin (170 yds, 6.4 ypc, 3 TDs) and Salvon Ahmed (109 total yards) was dominating. The passing game (80% completion, 15.2 ypa, 1 TD) was ridiculously efficient. We even saw a semblance of a … dare I say it … pass rush! (hello Joe Tryon).
The Huskies made a statement against a top 10 team in the Apple Cup and have now positioned themselves as a NY6 kind of team no matter the outcome of the PAC 12 Championship. The contributions coming from the players coming back from injury – in particular Trey Adams, Shane Bowman and Hunter Bryant – along with the emergence of young players who have worked themselves into the rotation (Tryon, Elijah Molden, Keith Taylor) have really affected the play on the field. The Huskies are rolling right now.