Race for Pac-12 title still not entirely clear cut
So, seventh-ranked Stanford looks like a lock for the Pac-12 North title, right? Not so fast.
Oregon visits the Cardinal this weekend, and while the Ducks are underdogs, there's still a chance - albeit an improbable one - that they could defend their Pac-12 championship. But there are a couple of moving parts.
Stanford, which finishes out the regular season with an out-of-conference game against Notre Dame, clinches the North outright with a victory over Oregon on Saturday, and indeed, the Cardinal (8-1, 7-0 Pac-12) are favored.
But don't underestimate the Ducks. Quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. is back after an early season finger injury and Oregon (6-3, 4-2) is riding a three-game winning streak while playing as well as it has all season.
Oregon would no doubt like to turn the table on Stanford - which upset the Ducks in both 2012 and 2013 and kept them out of the conference championship game and the chance for that coveted shot at the Rose Bowl.
''The last four years the winner of this game has won the Pac-12 championship so it's everything. For us our ultimate goal every year is to win the Pac-12 and we have a chance this Saturday so it's huge,'' Stanford linebacker Kevin Anderson said.
Adams said it's hard not to think about the possibility of a conference championship berth. Oregon went to the national championship game last season.
''We don't want to be just completely thinking about the Pac-12 North, but it's in our minds, definitely,'' Adams said. ''Hopefully, we just get this win and things happen. We've got to win one game at a time and go from there.''
Washington State (6-3, 4-2) is out of contention for the North title because of how the tie-breaker rules play out, but the good news for the Cougars is that they are already bowl eligible. It looks as if coach Mike Leach is finally turning the program around in Pullman.
Also out of the picture are Oregon State, Washington and Cal, which will have to upset Stanford for the Ducks to get in.
The Pac-12 South is a bit murkier.
The Utes play Arizona (5-5, 2-5) in Tucson this weekend before returning home to face UCLA in a game that will go a long way in determining how the division will shake out. Utah wraps up the season with South bottom-dweller Colorado (4-6, 1-5).
''We still stick to a game-by-game approach, but we see the big picture,'' Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. ''We understand what we want to accomplish and that's to try to get to the Pac-12 championship game, which requires winning the south. That's not something that we ignore, but our focus on a week-to-week basis is completely on the next opponent.''
A combination of losses by the Bruins (7-2, 4-2) and USC (6-3, 4-2) could also get the Utes into the Pac-12 championship game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on Dec. 5.
Utah was just one win away from clinching the South division in 2011, the team's first in the league.
If the Bruins can defeat upstart Washington State at home on Saturday, it will set up a pivotal game against Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium, before the finale at USC.
The Trojans, who visit Colorado on Friday, are also still alive, but they'll have to take care of their own business, including a winning trip to Oregon, while rooting for a Utes loss. USC holds the tiebreaker against Utah because of a 42-24 victory over the Utes on Oct. 24.
If UCLA and USC both win over the next two weeks - that means the Bruins beat Utah - the rivalry game between the two teams to cap the regular season will decide the South.
In addition to the Buffaloes, the Arizona schools are already out of the league championship race.
As for the bowl picture, the Pac-12 has contracts with seven bowl games, but if a conference team earns a spot in the College Football Playoff, then an eighth team from the league could draw a postseason berth. At this point, Stanford appears to have the best chance of cracking the top four in the nation.
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in San Francisco contributed to this report.