What the heck is going on in the Pac-12? It’s complicated

Washington State is the Pac-12’s only team with a shot, albeit a long one, at the College Football Playoff. And as for the Pac-12 South, well, it’s a jumble.

Plot twists are dominating this Pac-12 season.

The Cougars are coming off a big win over Oregon under the spotlight brought by ESPN’s College GameDay, and they’re the only one-loss team left in the Pac-12. Presuming the CFP doesn’t include any two-loss teams, Washington State is the conference’s only hope at cracking college football’s final four.

Stranger things have happened, but at this point, Washington State’s chances are slim at best. The three teams currently at the top of the national rankings have no losses.

And that’s assuming the Cougars win out. They’ll be challenged this weekend by a trip to Stanford, and the Apple Cup against rival Washington looms, as well.

Washington State was picked in the preseason to finish fifth in the North. The division has four teams ranked in the AP Top 25: Washington State at No. 14, Washington at No. 15, Oregon at No. 19 and Stanford at No. 24. The Pac-12 South has one representative: Utah at No. 23. It’s the second time this season that five Pac-12 teams have been ranked.

So why isn’t Washington State getting buzz in the playoff conversation? Especially given all the ranked teams? Cougars coach Mike Leach suggested perhaps it’s because the conference doesn’t have a perennial frontrunner, like Alabama in the SEC, and a clear-cut team to beat.

“I’ve said this for a long time, if you had a tournament with the bottom of everybody’s conference with anybody else’s conference, we’d crush the bottom of theirs,” Leach said. “And what makes that difficult and what makes that imposing is there are some games throughout the year in other conferences where you’re not as threatened, you’re not in as great of jeopardy as we are in this conference. In this conference, they can all get you, you know?”

That parity isn’t doing the league’s teams any favors when it comes to a national championship. Just ask Oregon, which seemed poised to sweep into the CFP conversation had the Ducks won in Pullman. Oregon visits Arizona on Saturday.

“We see it on a weekly basis, is that the league is very good and ultra-competitive so sometimes you almost cannibalize yourself as a conference where good teams are playing good teams,” coach Mario Cristobal said.

The South is certainly cannibalizing itself.

Utah has rebounded into the division lead following its thumping of USC last weekend. The Utes are tied with the Trojans atop the standings, but hold the tiebreaker.

Earlier this season, Utah was reeling from a pair of conference losses to the Washington schools, and coach Kyle Whittingham urged patience. Now the Utes are on a three-game winning streak with UCLA on Friday night in Pasadena.

“We just want to be consistent in our approach. This group has been great about that. Their preparation each week has been very consistent. No peaks or valleys, they come out and take care of their business on the practice field, in the meeting room and that is really where it starts,” Whittingham said. “They have done a great job of that.”

There’s a cluster beneath the Utes and the Trojans of teams with two conference wins: Colorado, Arizona and UCLA. Yes, the Bruins, who started the Chip Kelly era with five straight losses, are actually in the thick of it.

“We worked out butts off to get in that race,” said defensive back Darnay Holmes said, “but we’re just going to keep on doing what we have to do.”

The Buffaloes, meanwhile, have taken a tumble with two straight conference losses — against USC and Washington, both on the road — after climbing to No. 19 in the rankings earlier in the season.

“It is tough to go out and lose two games on the road, but we have done it against some great teams. I think we are going to learn from this experience,” said linebacker Drew Lewis. “I can tell that our confidence is always going to be there. I am trying to do what I can as a defensive leader on this team to rally my guys and get them going. I think we are going to come out even hotter next week. We have to turn this around for sure.”

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