Instant reaction to Pac-12 developments on and off the field …
1. Good, but not good enough
Pac-12 leadership should be pushing to delay to the College Football Playoff, starting yesterday.
No conference needs it more and, as we explained Saturday morning, this is the ideal time to make the case that moving the event to the second half of January would best serve the sport.
But let’s assume the CFP is not delayed and does not expand — that the selection committee picks the four-team field on Dec. 20, as scheduled.
And let’s assume that the champions and runners-up in the Power Five, and the best teams in the Group of Five (i.e., BYU and Cincinnati), finish with more games played than the Pac-12 champion.
In that scenario, there is only one way for the Pac-12 winner to receive serious consideration, and it’s not a 7-0 season.
It’s a dominant 7-0 season.
USC and Oregon are the only teams with a chance to make that case.
Brand bias exists in the selection process, and the Duck and Trojans are the only teams with the reputations and preseason buzz to warrant consideration.
Colorado at 7-0 is not viewed the same way as USC at 7-0.
Washington at 7-0 is not viewed the same way as Oregon at 7-0 — at least not this season.
Nope, for the Pac-12 to make serious playoff push, the Trojans or Ducks must produce a dominant, undefeated season.
So far, not so good.
The Ducks struggled to put away Washington State on Saturday, trailing for most of three quarters before taking control late.
Yes, it was an impressive win given the circumstances (first road game for quarterback Tyler Shough and so many new players).
But the victory wasn’t nearly dominant enough to convince the selection committee to slot the Ducks alongside the likes of Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State.
They need to maul opponents the rest of the way.
As for USC, well, FOX analyst Joel Klatt said it best after the late rally to beat Arizona, which followed the late rally to beat Arizona State.
“I hate to throw cold water on it, but this is not going to impress many people.”
The Trojans are struggling to put away inferior teams in the South. They’re leaving too many points on the field and giving away too many yards.
They could very well dance and dodge their way to a 6-0 record and showdown with Oregon in the title game.
They could very well win the title.
But they won’t get a hard look from the committee unless they start playing the first 56 minutes of each game like they have played the last four of the first two.
2. Survive, advance and adjust.
The Pac-12 went four-for-four Saturday (games scheduled and games played), and we haven’t heard of testing issues that would derail the Cal-UCLA matchup on Sunday morning.
In this environment, five out of six is a major win for the conference.
Sure, it was a wild 48 hours at the end of the week, with two games canceled and one replacement created.
But that’s reality in the era of COVID testing, contact tracing and quarantines.
We expect the same level of chaos every week, with Thursday and Friday as the key dates because of the testing cadence within the programs.
(If the road team boards its plane on Friday, that’s a good sign.)
Merton Hanks, the chief of football operations, told the Hotline that all options will be considered to get as many games played as possible.
The conference did well to create Cal-UCLA out of thin air.
It doesn’t want healthy teams sitting idle.
It will play Sundays, and it will match teams that aren’t scheduled to meet.
It has a Plan B, C and D.
What we saw with the Bruins and Bears, we will assuredly see again.
After all, the entire point of voting to play was to play.
That requires flexibility and creativity.
So far, the conference gets high marks for both.
3. The Rise 2.0
We’re one-third the way through the regular season … unless we’re two-thirds the way through.
How many games remain, we cannot say.
How many games does Colorado need to win to become bowl-eligible? That we can say: One.
The Buffaloes are the biggest surprise of the first fortnight after the victory at Stanford pushed them to 2-0.
They’re tied with USC atop the South, Karl Dorrell is the early frontrunner for Coach of the Year, tailback Jarek Broussard is the favorite for Newcomer of the Year, and quarterback Sam Noyer looks like he should have been CU’s starter last year.
We’re not sold on the Buffaloes’ defense, but they have playmakers, they have belief and, crucially, they have a lower statewide COVID-19 positivity rate than Arizona, Utah and Oregon — meaning they have a fighting chance to stay negative for the next five weeks.
All this despite the late coaching change and lack of spring practice.
Four years ago, the Buffaloes rose from the cellar to win the South.
They didn’t finish last in 2019, but they were picked to finish there this season by some publications.
It would be very 2020 for them to replicate 2016.
4. Stanford’s ticked (and rightfully so)
Every team is vulnerable to COVID disruption and nobody cares about excuses, including the Hotline.
But Stanford’s case is different.
The Cardinal lost its starting quarterback hours before the season opener because of “game testing protocol errors” by the conference’s third-party testing company, SafeSite.
Davis Mills wasn’t infected and wasn’t a close contact, but he was considered a positive case and held out of the Oregon game.
Upon returning to campus, he spent four days in isolation while the situation was resolved.
His absence impacted Stanford’s performance at Oregon, and his lack of practice affected the Cardinal Saturday against Colorado.
One of the best pure passers in the conference, Mills was off target in the first half of what became a 35-32 loss to Colorado.
The conference issued a public apology to Mills and Stanford on Friday morning — he isn’t named because of student privacy laws — but coach David Shaw could barely contain his frustration following the loss.
“We don’t know how the Oregon game goes if he’s able to play. We don’t know how this game goes if he’s able to practice all week. Those are things that are unknown,” Shaw said.
“I think it was obvious that he was rusty. He was in isolation essentially from Saturday afternoon until Thursday night, was able to come in and get one practice, and it showed. It’s unfortunate.
“I’m not happy about it, by any stretch of the imagination. Not much we could have done about it. But to say that it didn’t affect his performance, I think would be inaccurate.”
Bottom line: Teams are having a difficult enough time getting players on the field; for anyone to be held out because of an operational mistake is unconscionable.
If it happens again — to any player on any team — the conference will have some explaining to to.
5. Hotline advice.
The reason for the outbreak at Arizona State is unclear, but this much is apparent to us:
There is an elevated risk level for road teams, on two fronts:
The travel party could be exposed during the trip, and the players who don’t travel could become infected while remaining back on campus.
Think about it: The players left behind don’t have a curfew; they aren’t getting tested over the weekend; they don’t have team responsibilities.
Instead, they can hang out with friends and attend parties or do whatever else college students do.
And then the travel party returns and gets exposed to the players who were left behind … and the risk of spread skyrockets.
Our suggestion to every team in college football:
Upon returning from a road trip, test the players who didn’t travel before allowing them to rejoin team activities.
And use a PCR test, which is more accurate than an antigen test.
PCR tests take longer to produce results, and if that means holding 30 players out until Tuesday or Wednesday — and disrupting your practice plan — then change the plan.
All the preparation in the world doesn’t help if you have an outbreak.
Solve for spread first, then prepare for the opponent.
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