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  • After suffering unexpected losses last weekend, the pressure is high for Washington and Washington State as the Pac-12 schools gear up for a tough second-half schedule.
By Joan Niesen
October 20, 2017

The Pac-12’s last two unbeaten teams lost on Saturday, Washington to Arizona State and Washington State to Cal. For a state that’s not always considered a hotbed of college football, Washington had (and still has) a lot riding on this college football season as it fields two of the three best teams in the Pac-12. Last weekend’s losses loom big in the state’s—and the Pac 12’s—bid to get a team into the playoff for the second straight year (Washington was selected in 2016), but all hope isn’t lost yet. A one-loss Pac-12 team could still make the field of four, and Washington State has already beaten USC, the only other team in the conference that’s realistically vying for a playoff bid.

The Huskies won’t face the Trojans this season, but that’s about the only break in their upcoming schedule, which includes a bye this week and then UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Washington State. UCLA is the only one of those five teams that doesn’t have a winning record, and going into Week 8 it sits at .500 with a quarterback who has the potential to disrupt any game. Meanwhile, Washington State’s schedule is only a tiny bit better; it faces Colorado, Arizona, Stanford and Utah before that season-ending rivalry game with the Huskies. There’s a lot on the line in the season’s second half, and even though things seem pretty hopeless right now after each team scored only once last week—the Cougars mustered a field goal, the Huskies a fourth-quarter touchdown—both have the chance to make up ground and put Week 7 behind them. The sooner the better, though; each needs as many blowouts or comfortable margins of victory as it can muster. The Huskies will need to use their bye week wisely and try not to wallow in their offensive woes, and the Cougars, 11-point favorites against Colorado, need quarterback Luke Falk to put up as many points as he can.

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Falk has already passed for 2,286 yards this season, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt. Even last week against Cal, he put up some decent numbers, passing for 286 yards. The issue? Interceptions. Falk threw five of them last Saturday after racking up just two in his previous six games. The Cougars have to hope last week was the exception to the rule, and if it is, they should be back on track shortly, last week chalked up to nothing more than the most bizarre of aberrations.

Other players and teams other pressure this weekend...

Sam Ehlinger

Texas’s freshman quarterback was a delight to watch on Saturday. It isn’t often that an opposing quarterback outshines Baker Mayfield, but against Oklahoma, Ehlinger at least rivaled his opponent for the spotlight. He was good enough, throwing for 278 yards and rushing for 110, that Oklahoma’s players and coaches raved about his performance after the game—which I know is easier after a win, but still. This kid looks like he’s for real. That’s exciting for Texas fans, and also a ton of pressure for Ehlinger. One of the country’s most rabid fan bases now pins its hopes on him, and with Texas out of contention in the Big 12 (barring some apocalyptic results from other teams going forward), a lot will be made of his development and every move. In the meantime, he goes up against the Big 12’s second-highest ranked team on Saturday, Oklahoma State.

The unbeaten Group of Five teams

And then there were two. USF and UCF are now the only unbeaten Group of Five programs after San Diego State and Navy lost last weekend. Ranked No. 16, USF plays at Tulane Saturday night, and No. 20 UCF is at Navy that afternoon. Both teams are favored, but as we get into the second half of the season, every game counts more and more as these two teams make bids for New Year’s Six bowl berths—and keep the slimmest of playoff hopes alive. (That’s not going to happen, but still, dare to dream.) Tulane has played well in flashes this year, but UCF has the trickier opponent: a good Navy team that was ranked before its loss last week to Memphis. Still, UCF, despite its lower ranking, has to me a more impressive resume than USF in terms of opponents thus far, which bodes well for what it can do against Navy. Working against it: The Knights have never faced the Midshipmen and their confounding triple-option attack.

Both teams, despite worse strengths of schedule than the average Power 5 team, do have margins of victory working in their favor as well. USF is winning by an average of more than 20 points per game, UCF by 25. With resumes like that—controlling what they can control by beating up on a lesser schedule—these teams deserve consideration for big-time bowls if they keep up their current clip.

Wisconsin

The Badgers may be the undefeated team we’re talking the least about. At 6–0, they haven’t played a particularly grueling schedule, but they’re also a very, very good team. They’re less surprising than TCU as a playoff contender, but it’s still a bit of a wait-and-see game with the Badgers, who don’t play a truly challenging opponent until they get Michigan at home on Nov. 18. That all sounds great, right? What pressure? Well, the way I look at it, Paul Chryst’s team has a ton of time to kill before it gets to a high-level opponent, which could lead to a level of auto-pilot. It probably won’t—Wisconsin is always a disciplined program—but anticipation is never fun.

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Brian Kelly

Notre Dame, now all the way up to No. 13 in this week’s AP Poll, gets USC at home this weekend. It’ll be the biggest test so far in 2017 for a team that had few expectations going into the season, and though the pressure extends to the whole roster, Kelly seemed like a natural candidate for this list. Why? Because every time the Irish falter, it seems like someone is calling for his head. Beating USC on Saturday would be huge, for the 5–1 Irish’s lingering playoff hopes and to do away with any speculation that Notre Dame isn’t back after its 4–8 season a week ago. Plus, the Trojans are just an appetizer for the Irish, whose schedule doesn’t get much better down the line. Next week, it gears up for NC State, and Stanford, Miami and Navy all lurk.

LSU

This season has been a rollercoaster for the Tigers. Every time you count them out, they win. Every time you decide they might be good, they lose. Ed Orgeron and company are ranked again this week—No. 24 in the AP Poll—after they beat Auburn last Saturday in a tight game. Sure, the Tigers bid farewell to any playoff hopes weeks ago, but they still have the power to set a better tone in Orgeron’s first season. Plus, we’ve reached the point where any more inconsistency might make most people write them off entirely. Lose to Ole Miss on Saturday, and that very well could be the case. Win, and Alabama looms as another chance for LSU to prove itself.

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