- Week in and week out, the Pac-12 North provides an intriguing matchup. Three key games remain in a division race where four teams are still alive.
We start to take certain things for granted during October, the median month of college football’s regular season schedule. With plenty of football in the rearview and plenty still to come, we settle into the relaxed, comforting feeling provided by the knowledge that each successive Saturday brings a new wave of games. Beyond the presence of a full slate of football, there are more specific things we can count on every week as the temperatures slowly descend. Alabama will wipe the floor with whatever mid-tier SEC team stumbles into its path. The Big 12 will provide at least one shootout for our viewing pleasure. This season, another dependable tradition has arrived: Every Saturday features an exciting clash of ranked teams from the Pac-12’s North division.
This week is no exception to that rule. No. 14 Washington State travels to Stanford looking to build off the momentum of its massive win over Oregon a week ago. The No. 24 Cardinal, written off after consecutive blowout losses a few weeks ago, somehow still control their own destiny in the North, but to win it they’ll have to get through the conference’s lone remaining College Football Playoff hopeful. It’s just another week for the only division in football with four teams ranked in the AP poll.
It started back on Sep. 22, when No. 7 Stanford traveled to Eugene and led an improbable late rally to pull out an overtime win over the 20th-ranked Ducks. A week later, Oregon went on the road and took care of a then-ranked Cal team that has since fallen off. After a bye week, Oregon—there’s a theme developing here—got a huge home win over No. 7 Washington, then stumbled in Pullman against No. 25 Washington State. It was a four-game gauntlet for the Ducks to open conference play, but their split was enough to keep them alive in the race for the North. They’ll need some help; current division leader Washington is 4–1, while Washington State and Stanford sit a half-game back at 3–1.
What makes this division race so interesting is that all four teams have divergent offensive strategies, varying strengths, and game-breaking stars. Saturday’s Washington State-Stanford matchup is a perfect example of contrasting styles. The Cougars run Mike Leach’s air raid offense to perfection: quarterback Gardner Minshew leads the nation in passing attempts, completions and yards per game (392). Unsurprisingly, that means WSU runs the ball less than any team in the country. Leach wants to play at a fast tempo and outscore opponents behind Minshew and his deep stable of talented pass-catchers. The key has been an outstanding offensive line that has allowed just five sacks all year.
Under David Shaw, Stanford has typically been associated with a power running game and a dominant defense. Last year’s Heisman runner-up Bryce Love has been hobbled with injuries all season, so the Cardinal have adjusted and become more balanced. Their best offensive weapon has been wideout JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who has caught nine touchdown passes. Shaw doesn’t want to play at the Cougars’ preferred pace; Stanford runs the third-fewest plays per game in the nation. Under the lights at Stanford Stadium, the Cardinal will try to methodically move the ball—hopefully with a healthy Love leading the way—against WSU’s 63rd-ranked defense (S&P+) and keep it away from Minshew as much as possible.
Whoever emerges on Saturday night will have greatly increased their chances of winning the North, but they’ll still have a major obstacle to go through. Washington remains the best team in this division by S&P+ and controls its own destiny with games against Stanford (next Saturday) and Washington State (Nov. 23). A conference title and Rose Bowl berth would be solid consolation prizes for the Huskies, who are no longer in the running for the playoff thanks to a pair of tantalizingly close losses to Auburn and Oregon. Out of the four North contenders, Washington is the only one with a truly elite defense. Linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven is the nation’s leading tackler, and the secondary features shutdown corner Byron Murphy and versatile safety Taylor Rapp. The Huskies are merely solid on offense, with a run-first attack led by Myles Gaskin. Quarterback Jake Browning—who threw 43 touchdowns in 2016—has just 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season.
For Oregon, the race is out of its hands at this point. It has to handle business against upcoming Pac-12 South opponents and hope the other three North contenders beat each other up and slip up elsewhere. It’s been a season of frustrating inconsistency for the Ducks. Oregon was up 24–7 on Stanford and appeared to go up 31–7, but the touchdown was controversially overturned. With the ball at the one, Oregon fumbled twice in three plays, the latter a high snap returned 80 yards for a touchdown that put the Cardinal right back in it. Even then, Oregon was running out the clock up three when running back CJ Verdell fumbled with less than a minute to play. The Ducks flashed their tremendous potential in their win over Washington, then came out lifeless a week later and fell behind 27–0 at half to Washington State.
Oregon absolutely has the talent and schedule to win out. Mario Cristobal’s up-tempo, pistol offense is loaded with weapons, starting with quarterback Justin Herbert and receiver Dillon Mitchell. Cristobal, a longtime offensive line coach, has quickly built a strong, athletic line that allows Oregon to run the ball effectively and gives Herbert time to pick apart defenses in play-action. If the Ducks can get to 7–2 (which would require a road win over a tough Utah team), they’ll need Washington to lose once and WSU and Stanford to lose twice.
We’ll know more about Stanford’s legitimacy over the next two weeks. If it can’t handle the Cougars at home, a trip to Washington looms as a knockout blow for the shaky Cardinal. The Pac-12 North may have a de-facto championship game when Washington takes the field in Pullman the Friday night after Thanksgiving looking to win its sixth consecutive game against Washington State.
For now, enjoy it all. As October turns to November, there’s nothing more fun than watching division races unfold. Enjoy the stylistic chess matches between Leach, Shaw and Chris Petersen. Enjoy Alabama’s dominance. Enjoy the races in the Big 12, SEC East, and Big Ten. Just don’t take any of it for granted, because before too long it’ll be February and we’ll all be wondering where the magical months of football season have gone.