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Arizona claims contentious Pac-12 South, jumps into playoff race

Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson carried Arizona to a 42-35 win over Arizona State. Combined with UCLA's loss to Stanford, the Wildcats' victory earned them the Pac-12 South title and a rematch with Oregon in the conference championship game.

Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez requested that the PA announcer at Arizona Stadium not announce the score of the UCLA-Stanford game, but that wasn’t keeping the crowd from looking it up on their phones. As the Cardinal went up 28-10 and minutes later Nick Wilson broke free for a 72-yard run to put Arizona up 35-21 on Arizona State, even if the Wildcats didn’t really know the Pac-12 South was right there for the taking, they had to have a feeling. 

Watching a division race play out in instantaneous real-time is a real treat in the Twitter era. Being able to flip between the two games that determined who will be playing Oregon at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara next weekend felt like some sort of absolute power. 

It only required liberal use of the last channel button on the remote to stay on top of what was happening Friday. As Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns to beat UCLA, 31-10, Arizona held off a late charge from backup quarterback Mike Bercovici and the Sun Devils to pull out a 42-35 victory. With that, the Pac-12 South was decided.

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First let’s put into context what Rodriguez has done at Arizona in his three seasons in Tucson. Since arriving at the end of November in 2011, Rodriguez has won eight or more games in all three years, the first time the Wildcats have accomplished that feat since Jim Young won 26 games in a three-season stretch from 1973-75. Arizona’s 26-wins in the past three years also ties a school record for wins in a three-year stretch. This is Arizona’s first 10-win season since Dick Tomey’s Holiday Bowl-winning team in 1998. The Wildcats have a chance to win three-straight bowls for the first time in program history. 

The Pac-12 South was one of the most competitive divisions in college football this season, so it’s only fitting that it came down to the last weekend -- at the same time -- to decide who would get to play for the conference title. Each team had a claim to it, with UCLA owning that big win over Arizona State and a 17-7 win over Arizona, the Wildcats giving Oregon its only loss and Arizona State finding a way to win so many close games earlier in the season.

At the end it was Arizona’s impressive play against the Sun Devils that held the edge. Scooby Wright did Scooby Wright things, getting after Taylor Kelly and bothering the Arizona State quarterback so much that Todd Graham eventually went to Bercovici late in the third quarter. Wilson had 178 yards and three scores, averaging 7.4 yards per carry. And freshman quarterback Anu Solomon was efficient and calm. He completed 15-of-21 passes for 208 yards and two scores, while playing within himself and keeping his composure as Arizona held onto its lead. 

Earlier this week all of the talk was about whether or not two-loss UCLA could make the playoff if it beat Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. The discussion now has to shift the Wildcats’ way. If Arizona can beat Oregon for the second time this season, Rich Rodriguez’s team might have as much a claim as anyone and would likely be one of the highest ranked two-loss team. 

The Pac-12 doesn’t regularly get the national attention that the SEC does, but it’s as competitive a league as any in the country. The playoff committee has stopped short of saying a team needs to win a conference championship to get a spot in the top 4 at season’s end. With lots of chaos possible in the next eight days, there could be a few more teams with two losses who could vie for a top four ranking before it’s all over. 

Still, Arizona in the playoff sounded like a peyote-induced hallucination at the beginning of the year, yet at the end of November, the Wildcats are not only in the conversation, they might have a chance to control it.

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