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Saturday Night Five: Pac-12 football instant reaction

The ‘SN5’ column is back, with instant reaction to weekend developments in Pac-12 football (and, eventually, basketball) …

1. For Washington and the Pac-12: Mission semi-accomplished.

Sure, the Huskies needed a victory to grab inside position in the playoff race.

But on a fundamental level, the Pac-12 was desperate for its highest-ranked team to hold its own, to carry the conference banner into SEC country and depart with respect intact.

The Huskies did that.

They looked wobbly early and might have been run out of the stadium if not for the red zone defense.

Once they settled in, the Huskies looked like they belonged on the same stage as Auburn.

From nine down, they scored 10 in a row and had a lead midway through the fourth quarter: They shut down Auburn’s offense, moved the ball effectively against the Tigers’ defense and generated drama in the stadium.

It was, in other words, a far better display for the Pac-12 than Washington’s showing against Alabama in the playoff or its performance against Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.

And it was certainly better than USC’s two forays onto the big stage: the Alabama opener in 2016 and the loss to Ohio State in the Cotton.

(Yes, the bar was low for UW today, but clearing it was essential.)

The Pac-12 now needs Auburn to produce a first-class season — a New Year’s Six-level season, if not a CFP season — in order to legitimize UW’s near-miss.

2. Updating the playoff race.

It’s mighty early to assess the CFP situation, except that premium intersectional games such as Washington-Auburn ripple through the season.

The Huskies not only lost the game; they lost their margin for error.

The selection committee has yet to invite a two-loss team to the semifinals, meaning UW likely must run the table: 9-0 in the Pac-12, plus the conference title.

Perhaps we should mention that no team has gone undefeated in Pac-12 play since the division format was created in 2011.

So the Huskies presumably must win out and hope Auburn has an elite season — oh, and UW also needs help from other Pac-12 teams:

The more quality non-conference wins the conferences accumulates, collectively, the stronger the Huskies’ resume would be if they were to win the title.

That doesn’t necessarily make USC or Stanford a better bet than the Huskies, because both teams have more difficult schedules.

It means, rather, that the conference’s playoff prospects just got sliced in half.

3. Week One was, shall we say, suboptimal for the conference.

In addition to the big-stage loss in Atlanta, the conference dropped two home games to non-Power Five opponents (Cincinnati and BYU) and recorded zero wins of significance.

* 8-4 overall
* 7-4 against FBS
* 1-2 against Power Fives

Best win (take your pick): San Diego State, North Carolina, Wyoming, Colorado State, UNLV, UTSA or Bowling Green.

On the bright side: No losses to FCS teams!

And let’s not forget all the opportunities to shape the narrative and bolster the reputation: Upcoming opponents include Oklahoma, Michigan State, Notre Dame (twice) and Texas.

Of course, three of those five are on the road, which is part of the problem:

Too many of the Pac-12’s high-level games this season are on the road or not-very-neutral sites.

4. Two stumbles out of the gate.

Of the five new head coaches in the Pac-12, the two given the best chance for long-haul success by know-it-alls like me, Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin and UCLA’s Chip Kelly, had forgettable debuts.

Arizona’s home loss to Brigham Young was, from this vantage point, the most surprising result of the weekend for new coaches or old.

At home, with Khalil Tate and facing an opponent that was 4-9 last season, the Wildcats were out of sync, out-played, out-coached and out-mashed by BYU.

The system change on offense — making Tate into a pocket passer — figured to take time, but I did not expect Tate to spend that much time in the pocket. Nor did I expect the Wildcats’ defense to get overrun to the extent it was (183 yards allowed on the ground).

UCLA’s loss to Cincinnati made a tad more sense, in part because an early injury to quarterback Wilton Speight required the Bruins to rely exclusively on true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

The Bruins performance was mixed:

The defense is markedly better than the turnstile we saw last year — the aggressiveness alone is a positive change — but nor is it close to an elite unit.

(The first step out of the gutter only gets you to the sidewalk.)

Watching the Bruins, it was clear just how much work lies ahead for Kelly … and equally clear how many missteps were made by the previous staff.

UCLA should never be this … this … this blah.


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