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Pac-12 Football Notebook: Can Oregon Stay in CFP Top Four? Is South Race Over?

Cal's player availability issues; WSU's chance to shine; quarterback absences; four running backs star

We're heading down the homestetch of the 2021 season, but not much has been decided, leaving us to ask eight questions this week:

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Question No. 1: Will Oregon earn a berth in the College Football Playoff if it wins the rest of its games?

The answer is a very definite – maybe

The Ducks were No. 4 in the first CFP rankings and presumably will remain in the top four this week, since No. 3 Michigan State lost, and none of the teams behind Oregon did anything to warrant a promotion: No. 5 Ohio State beat a 3-6 Nebraska team by nine points, No. 6 Cincinnati escaped with an eight-point victory over a 3-5 Tulsa squad, No. 7 Michigan won handily over a 2-6 Indiana team, and No. 8 Oklahoma did not play.

But the theory that Oregon will be in the top four in the final CFP rankings if it wins its final four games, including a Pac-12 title game, has flaws.

None of the Ducks’ remaining opponents is ranked, which is a double-edged sword. With no powerhouse in its path, Oregon presumably has a pretty good chance to finish 12-1. However, that path provides little chance to improve the Ducks’ resume.

Meanwhile, Ohio State has games remaining against Michigan State, Michigan and, if it wins those, against the Big Ten West champion. Michigan has that game against Ohio State left.

Oklahoma has games remaining against No. 12 Baylor (although the Bears will drop after losing to TCU), and No. 11 Oklahoma State as well as a potential game against a strong team in the Big 12 title game.

Cincinnati has no games against CFP-ranked teams left so it will have a tough time advancing unless several teams ranked ahead of the Bearcats lose. And that may not be enough.

So here’s the bottom line:

Oregon has the best chance of the contending teams to win the rest of its games, but if some of the contending teams win the rest of their games, the Ducks are likely to be left out.

Whether Oregon will win the rest of their games is very much in question, too. Although Oregon faces no ranked teams, its road to 12-1 is not easy, with games remaining against Washington State, Utah and Oregon State and probably Utah again in the conference title game.

The guess here is that Oregon will lose at least one more game this season, and no two-loss team has ever earned a berth in the College Football Playoff.

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Question No. 2: Is the Pac-12 South race over?

Utah holds a one-game lead over second-place Arizona State, and the Utes’ win over the Sun Devils gives Utah the tie-breaker if the teams finish tied. So the Utes essentially own a two-game lead with three games to play, and with two of those games against Colorado and Arizona, it seems like a done deal.

But let’s take a look at how things have developed in the South:

---USC was a heavy preseason favorite to win the South, but faded out of the picture when it lost to Stanford decisively at home in its second game.

---UCLA became the favorite in the South when it knocked off LSU in its second game and rose to No. 13 in the rankings. But losses to Fresno State and Arizona State pushed the Bruins out of the the top spot.

---Arizona State took over the favorite role when it started 2-0 in Pac-12 play, including that road win over UCLA, moving to No. 18 in the AP poll, becoming the only Pac-12 team besides Oregon in the top 25.

---Meanwhile Utah had been dismissed from the title conversation after early-season losses to BYU and San Diego State dropped the Utes to 1-2. But it turns out, BYU and San Diego State are pretty good, both ranked in the CFP top 25. When Utah turned to Cameron Rising at quarterback, the Utes took off. At the same time Arizona State  stumbled, losing to Utah and Washington State in consecutive games.

So now Utah is the kingpin in the South, but this thing ain’t over.

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Question No. 3: Will Cal get its key players back for next week’s home game against USC?

Who knows?

The Golden Bears were without 24 players, including 10 starters, Saturday. Most were out because of COVID issues, although the total includes several players sidelined with injuries. Cal reportedly had only 42 to 44 scholarship players available for Saturday’s loss to Arizona.

However, Cal had made a point of saying 99 percent of the players have been vaccinated. The key factor is the City of Berkeley.

When a few players tested positive early in the week, according to ESPN.com, the City of Berkeley required the entire team to be tested on Wednesday, even if they were vaccinated and asymptomatic. Those tests revealed that a lot of players (and five assistant coaches) were infected, causing them to be unavailable.

There are two ways to look at this:

1. The City of Berkeley is providing the best method for limiting the spread of COVID-19 in the community and doing what is needed to eliminate the threat of COVID in this country.

2. Cal football is playing at a distinct disadvantage with protocols that exist for no other Pac-12 team.

Whether the sidelined players – including quarterback Chase Garbers – will be able to play next week will be determined by the City of Berkeley. And that’s a tough one to predict.

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Question No. 4: Trivia test: How many Pac-12 teams have had the same starting quarterback for every game this season?

Just four – Oregon (Anthony Brown), Colorado (Brendon Lewis), Washington (Dylan  Morris) and Arizona State (Jayden Daniels).

This is one reason the Ducks are the only ranked Pac-12 team. Utah and Oregon State improved their teams by making a change at the quarterback spot.

Five of the 10 conference teams that played this week started a quarterback this weekend who was not their starter in their opener: Cal, Stanford, Arizona, Utah and Oregon State. That does not include USC, which has Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart sharing the quarterback duties.

Cal (without Chase Garbers) and Stanford (without Tanner McKee) demonstrated how much they depend on their starting quarterbacks in feeble offensive showings without them.

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Question No. 5: Which Pac-12 running back had the best performance this weekend?

---Utah’s Tavion Thomas: 177 rushing yards, 8.9 yards per carry, 4 TDs (8 TDs in past two games). Utah beat Stanford 52-7 as three Utes rushed for more than 100 yards.

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---Oregon’s Travis Dye: 211 rushing yards, 7.5 yards per carry, 1 TD, 2 catches for 13 yards. Oregon beat Washington 26-16.

---Colorado’s Jarek Broussard: 151 rushing yards, 6.3 yards per carry, 0 TDs. Colorado beat Oregon State 37-34 in overtime.

---Arizona State’s Rachaad White: 202 yards rushing, 7.2 yards per carry, 3 TDs, 2 catches for 35 yards. Arizona State beat USC 31-16.

Tough choice.

We eliminate Thomas because he did it against one of the worst rushing defenses in the country, and Broussard's number don't quite compare with the others. That brings us to White and Dye, both of whom rushed for more than 200 yards. Neither USC nor Washington is great against the run, but White just seemed a little more impressive.

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Question No. 6: Is Oregon State a good team only at home?

The Beavers are monsters in Corvallis. They are 4-0 at home, including a victory over Utah, which is 5-0 in the Pac-12 otherwise.

But the Beavers are 1-4 on the road, including consecutive losses to Cal and Colorado, which are a combined 4-12 against their other opponents.

What makes it odd is that teams that rely on a running game typically travel well, but that had not helped the Beavers.

(Note: Jonathan Smith's strategy to go for a short pass with five seconds left rather than attempt a Hail Mary was a great coaching move on Saturday. Colorado had five defenders lined up on the goal-line when Oregon State started the play from the Colorado 49-yard line with 5.0 seconds remaining and the Beavers down by three points. The Beavers completed a 9-yard pass along the sideline and Anthony Gould immediately got out of bounds, leaving 1.0 second on the clock. It led to a game-tying 60-yard field goal by Everett Hayes, but Smith's move was forgotten when  Oregon State eventually lost in overtime.)

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Question No. 7: Is USC’s strategy of having Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart share the quarterback duties a good strategy?

Hard to say after two games. The Trojans piled up 41 points with that method against Arizona, but the offense struggled to score 16 points in Saturday’s loss to Arizona State.

In the short term, it seems like a bad idea. When you have quarterbacks alternating it means neither has established himself as No. 1. More significantly, offensive continuity is difficult to maintain with two quarterbacks.

In the long term? Well, maybe it better prepares Dart for the future since the Trojans aren’t going to win a Pac-12 championship this season. But who knows where Dart and Slovis will be in a year from now?

In any case it is a bold move by Donte Williams, since it opens him up to criticism.

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Question No. 8: Does Washington State have a chance to beat Oregon on Saturday and shake up the Pac-12 North race?

Washington State is riding a four-game winning streak in Pac-12 games, and no other team can claim that. The Cougars' only loss in their past five games was a two-point defeat against BYU, which is ranked 14th in this week's AP poll. 

The WSU Cougars will be coming off a bye following a decisive road victory over Arizona State, while Oregon has been less than dominant in most games this season, even in Eugene, the site of Saturday's game against WSU.

The Cougars look like the third-best team in the conference at the moment, and they are on the upswing, despite the upheaval in the coaching staff.

WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura did not play in the loss to Utah and missed much of the loss to USC. De Laura and the Cougars' run-and-shoot offense will present problems for the Ducks, who rank 10th in Pac-12 in pass defense.

If Washington State beats Oregon, the Cougars and Ducks will be tied for first place in the North, and WSU would have the tie-breaker. Simply put, Washington State, which was picked to finish last in the North, would play in the Pac-12 championship game if it wins its final three games against Oregon, Arizona and Washington.

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The Pac-12 top five teams:

1. Oregon (8-1) – Ducks are the only Pac-12 team that is ranked this week.

2. Utah (6-3) -- That beatdown of Stanford was impressive, even if the Cardinal did not have QB Tanner McKee available.

3. Washington State (5-4) -- Who's been better the past six weeks?

4. Arizona State (6-3) -- Sun Devils got a win over USC, but it was not a spotless performance. 

5. UCLA (5-4) -- By not playing this week, the Bruins edge out Oregon State, which has lost two in a row.

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Player of the Year Standings

This ranking seems to change radically every week, and it may change significantly a few more times before the season is over. Drake London is off the list because he done for the season, although he is the best offensive player in the conference.

1. Travis Dye, Oregon running back -- This may be a temporary stop at the top for Dye, but he is second in the Pac-12 in rushing (820 yards), has 26 receptions for 277 yards, has scored 12 touchdowns and plays for the best team in the conference,

2. Cameron Rising, Utah quarterback -- Utes are 5-1 in his starts, and his promotion to a starting role has turned Utah's season around.

3. Tavion Thomas, Utah running back -- Over the last two games, Thomas rushed for  337 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 7.7 yards per carry. He leads the conference with 14 touchdowns, and the Utes are in first place in the South.

4. Jayden de Laura, Washington State quarterback – He leads the Pac-12 in touchdown passes with 17 and is second in passer rating. More important, the Cougars are 5-1 when he starts and is available for the entire game.

5. (tie) B.J. Baylor, Oregon State running back -- He still leads the Pac-12 in rushing with 970 yards, but as the Beavers fade so do his player-of-the-year chances.

5. (tie) Anthony Brown, Oregon quarterback -- He hasn't been great, but he is the quarterback of a team ranked No. 4 in the latest CFP rankings, so he has to be on the list.

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Cover photo of Oregon quarterback Tavion Thomas is by Stan Szeto, USA TODAY Sports.

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Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53Find Cal Sports Report on Facebook by searching: @si.calsportsreport or going to https://www.facebook.com/si.calsportsreport