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How will the meaty middle play out?

10/18/2010

A confession: After reviewing myriad possibilities for my bowl projections on Sunday, I eventually just threw up my hands and penciled out a scenario I have little faith in.

Sorry. It's just too difficult at present to project the Pac-10's meaty middle, which includes five teams with 3-3 records.

Let's make some generalizations: It is fair to say Oregon (6-0), Stanford (5-1) and Arizona (5-1), by virtue of their overall records and national rankings, represent the top-third of the conference at this point. USC doesn't count in the overall pecking order -- though the Trojans do as an opponent -- because it isn't eligible for the postseason, per NCAA sanctions. And Washington State, at 1-6, isn't going to earn bowl eligibility, though you shouldn't be shocked if the Cougars post an upset that ends someone else's bowl hopes.

Our concern here is the 3-3 teams: Which ones get to six or seven wins and earn bowl eligibility. And which ones do not.

What's ahead for each.

  • Arizona State (3 home, 3 road): at California, Washington State, at USC, Stanford, UCLA, at Arizona.

  • California (4 home, 2 road): Arizona State, at Oregon State, at Washington State, Oregon, Stanford, Washington

  • Oregon State (4 home, 2 road): California, at UCLA, Washington State, USC, at Stanford, Oregon

  • UCLA (3 home, 3 road): at Oregon, Arizona, Oregon State, at Washington, at Arizona State, USC

  • Washington (2 home, 4 road): at Arizona, Stanford, at Oregon, UCLA, at California, at Washington State

First, it's better to be at home than on the road. So it would appear then that Cal and Oregon State have the best slates, and Washington got the worst.

Second, can we agree that games with Oregon, Stanford, Arizona and USC will present the biggest challenge? No? Well, we're going to do it that way for this evaluation.

Four of the five play three of those teams over the home stretch. Only Cal matches up with just two of them, and both are at home.

Again, good for Cal.

Another variable: Nick Foles. Arizona's starting quarterback is going to be out at least a few weeks with a knee injury. Let's say he's out four weeks. That means the Washington and UCLA would play against backup quarterback Matt Scott, while Arizona State likely would get Foles in his second game back. Scott is a former starter and no slouch, but that's an advantage to the Huskies and Bruins.

And another: Washington State. The Cougars are no longer a patsy, but it's still fair to say that every team expects to beat them. The only one of the five that has already played -- and beaten -- the Cougs is UCLA.

Finally, Arizona State needs seven wins because it played two FCS teams and only one of those games can count toward bowl eligibility, per NCAA rules. But hold the bus. If it ends up that there aren't enough teams nationally to fill the 70 slots for 35 bowl games, the NCAA might provide a waiver that could allow even 5-7 teams into bowl games. So if the Sun Devils are 6-6, and there's a vacancy in one of the Pac-10's contracted bowls, don't bet against the Sun Devils slipping in.

So, who's got the easiest road to bowl eligibility?

No team has what would qualify as an "easy" path, but Cal's seems the most manageable. But predicting what the Bears might do is not something on which you'd want to base a trip to Vegas.

The Beavers, who have a bye this weekend, probably need to get busy right now. It would be tough to need one or two wins over those final three games. The opposite is true for Washington: It's final three games are much easier than its next three.

The Cal-Arizona State game on Saturday figures to be telling. The Sun Devils aren't good on the road, particularly in the state of California, but if they steal one in Berkeley over the reeling Bears, then ASU fans probably could start making postseason plans. And Cal fans might start waving a white flag.

Further, you'd figure the Huskies sense an opportunity to steal a win in Tucson with the Wildcats preparing for their first game without Foles (and starting defensive tackle Justin Washington is questionable with a sprained knee).

But, to be frank, it's hard to get a handle on any of these five. In my power rankings, I've got it ASU, Washington, Oregon State, Cal and UCLA. If the Beavers hadn't lost receiver James Rodgers, I don't think they'd be in this discussion. But they did, and that probably provided the difference in a double-overtime loss at Washington.

So what's the endgame? Will one of these teams make a run and win eight games? Or will the conference end up with a muddle of 6-6 and 5-7 teams?

While the big national story with the Pac-10 over the second half of the season will be Oregon's national title -- or Rose Bowl -- hopes, and whether another team will enter the discussion for a second BCS bowl berth, how the meaty middle plays out also will be interesting to follow.