Realistic season-ending goals for Pac-12 football teams

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Ariel Hayat/Senior Staff

It’s finally that time of year again, and sports enthusiasts like us wouldn’t have it any other way: November sporting events. As the end of October signifies the beginning of basketball and hockey season as well as the dramatic conclusion of baseball season, the month of November also stands as arguably the most exciting time of the college football season. Whether a team is fighting for a shot at postseason glory, or simply clawing its way toward bowl-eligibility, every win here on out is a tremendous difference maker.

At this point in the year, preseason rankings and projections are history. What matters now is seeing how each Pac-12 team will approach the final games of its season. As teams like UCLA and Arizona try to salvage the most of disastrous stretches in recent weeks, multiple schools up North have the chance to make 2016 a season to remember. With just a few games remaining on each team’s schedule, here’s a glimpse at the realistic goals for Pac-12 football squads.

Stay Healthy and Seek Improvement: Oregon State and Arizona

While the Beavers (2-6, 1-4) and Wildcats (2-6, 0-5) are both technically still bowl-eligible, don’t expect any late-season magic from the Pac-12’s weakest links this year. In Gary Andersen’s second year at the helm for the Beavers, Oregon State has actually improved upon last year’s 2-10 overall, 0-9 in conference play record already. Outside of sophomore running back Ryan Nall, however, OSU hasn’t had a lot of success on either side of the ball. The Wildcats have been hit with injuries throughout the entire season, starting in week one when starting quarterback Anu Solomon went down with a knee injury. While the return of Solomon might wake up Arizona’s non-existent offense, the Wildcats season is already too much of a disaster to completely fix. At this point, OSU and Arizona should already be looking toward next season.

In the Mix for Six: Arizona State, Cal, UCLA, Oregon

5-4, 4-4, 3-5, 3-5. The middle of the pack teams. In a conference where no win is guaranteed until the clock hits zero, all four of these teams have had opportunities to win close games, only to see wins slip away late. Injuries have derailed the seasons of UCLA (3-5, 1-4) and Oregon’s (3-5, 1-4) primary playmakers (QB Josh Rosen and RB Royce Freeman), resulting in the downfall of two programs who began the year as top 25 teams with Pac-12 title hopes. The Bruins and Ducks still have a chance to sneak their way into a bowl game, but it’ll take each team winning at least three of its last four contests. If Rosen and the Bruin offense aren’t healthy and Freeman and freshman quarterback Justin Herbert are unable to turn the Ducks’ season around, it’ll be a long offseason for coaches Jim Mora and Mark Helfrich. Don’t sleep on UCLA and Oregon just yet, but I wouldn’t place my bets on them.

The Sun Devils (5-4, 2-4) and Bears (4-4, 2-3) have come a long way since their meeting Sept. 24 meeting in Tempe. The Sun Devils have lost three conference games in a row after being a contender for the Pac-12 South title in the first half of the season. Todd Graham’s fire-power offense has been forced to start three different quarterbacks in nine games this season, leading the team to fall off pace from division-rivals Utah and Colorado. The Bears, meanwhile, have fluctuated between a win at home and a loss on the road all season long, resulting in a mediocre 4-4 record. Coming off a frustrating loss at USC this past week, Cal is undoubtedly pumped to return to Memorial Stadium this Saturday, where it is undefeated on the year. That being said, the Bears face a very tough test in Washington this Saturday. The Sun Devils and Bears have a better chance at that monumental sixth win than the Bruins and Ducks, but it will take defensive improvements from both teams if they want to play a post-November game.

Preparing for Bowling: Stanford

I don’t think this is how head coach David Shaw saw the Cardinal’s season unfolding. Eight games into Stanford’s trying season, redshirt sophomore Keller Chryst is the new man under center, taking over for the struggling Ryan Burns. While the Cardinal (5-3, 3-3) are playing well below their preseason expectations at this point in the season, they are almost a lock to clinch a bowl berth with at least one victory in the upcoming month. And with star running back Christian McCaffrey up and running again after experiencing midseason injuries, the offense is due for a strong finish. With Oregon State, Oregon, Cal and Rice looming in the month of November, it isn’t impossible for the always dangerous Cardinal defense to lead Shaw’s team to an 8-4 or even a 9-3 finish. Stanford won’t be back in the Rose Bowl this year, but could climb its way back into a solid matchup in late December. Not bad for a team that only had nine offensive touchdowns through its first seven games.

Title Hopes: USC, Colorado, Utah, Washington State, Washington

Rather than discuss the recent highs and lows of these five teams, I’d like to analyze what’s in store for title contenders with four weeks left in the regular season. The once-stagnant Trojans (5-3, 4-2) have found a proven leader in freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. Now just one conference loss behind the Utes and Buffaloes, USC has the opportunity to realistically finish the year 8-4 — they still have to face Washington on the road — the same record it finished last year when it faced Stanford in last year’s Pac-12 title game. They do hold the tiebreaker over Colorado, but fell to the Utes earlier this year in Salt Lake City.

The No. 21 Buffaloes (6-2, 4-1) are bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. And they’re not satisfied. Junior running back Phillip Lindsay has been fantastic all year, and should continue to impress in the next couple of weeks against UCLA and Arizona. The only obstacles facing Colorado are No. 25 Washington State on Nov. 19, and as fate would have it, co-division leader No. 16 Utah on Nov. 26 on the final day of the regular season. Both games will challenge Mike MacIntyre’s fired-up team and reveal just how great this Colorado team has been all season long. If they beat Utah in their final matchup of the year, the Buffaloes should be the South’s representative in the 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game. To make things more interesting, Colorado received a huge break in its schedule this year: it will not face the Huskies this year in the regular season. A Dec. 2 showdown in Santa Clara is the only way that these teams can meet.

The No. 16 Utes (7-2, 4-2) matched the speed and execution of the Huskies drive for drive this past weekend. Other than a fourth quarter miscue on special teams, Utah challenged the top dog (literally) in the conference and nearly ruined Washington’s perfect season. While the close loss may have actually boosted Utah’s stock as a team, it has dropped the Utes into a second place tie with the Trojans in the Pac-12 South. While slim College Football Playoff hopes are now out of the question for Utah, unretired senior running back Joe Williams continues to do his thing: devastating defenses that have struggled to contain the hottest tailback in the conference. Should the Utes defeat the Sun Devils and Ducks, it’s likely that the winner of Utah-Colorado will be crowned Pac-12 South champion. Although it will be a tough road test for the Utes, a victory would mean a win over both USC and Colorado, solidifying their place in the championship game. Who’s down for another Washington-Utah classic?

And then there were two: the undisputed kings of the Pac-12 this year belong to No. 25 Washington State (6-2, 5-0) and No. 4 Washington (8-0, 5-0). There’s not much to say here other than the state of Washington has flat-out dominated conference play all year, and the winner of The Apple Cup on Nov. 25 will end up representing the North on Dec. 2. The only critical hurdle separating the two teams from a combined unbeaten conference record is the WSU-Colorado matchup, but Mike Leach’s Cougars are playing confidently with redshirt junior quarterback Luke Falk leading the charge. The Cougars may not overtake the Huskies, but considering that they lost to Eastern Washington on opening night, a trip to the Rose Bowl Game would be a stunning but not entirely impossible outcome for this team. At this point, it’s difficult to see two teams with terrific offenses stumble this late into the season. Then again, that’s what makes upsets so enjoyable.

College Football Playoff Berth: Washington

It’s simple: if the Huskies win out, including the Pac-12 championship game, they will be headed to the highly acclaimed College Football Playoff. Heisman candidate and quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin, receiver John Ross and the Huskies’ loaded defense have exemplified what it means to win games as a team. Chris Petersen’s team has earned every bit of national media that they have received and should continue to garner the attention of the College Football Playoff committee as long as they stay unbeaten.

Contact Josh Yuen at [email protected].