Can Arizona and Stanford keep winning?

October, 28, 2010
10/28/10
6:05
PM ET
UCLA and Washington are reeling after tough losses. They both have injury issues. Bowl hopes are dwindling. But they can make themselves feel a lot better this weekend by upsetting ranked visitors at home.

And, by the way, if both won, they'd also upset the Pac-10's apple cart.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Paul SakumaThe best scenario for the Pac-10 is for Jim Harbaugh and Stanford to win out this season.
No. 13 Stanford is at Washington and No. 15 Arizona is at UCLA. If the Cardinal and Wildcats both prevail, they will meet on Nov. 6 at Stanford for a marquee showdown that likely would give the conference a second-top-10 team.

While Bruins and Huskies fans don't want to hear this, in terms of the Pac-10's big picture, the conference would really like to see a pair of highly ranked, one-loss teams battling in Palo Alto.

It's the best scenario for national prestige. It's also the best scenario for a second BCS bowl team, which means extra revenue for everyone. And Oregon certainly should be rooting for that if it wants to play for the national championship.

Here's a mailbag question (apologies for losing track of the name on it): "What's better for [Oregon's strength of schedule]? ... Stanford beats Arizona, leaving Stanford with one loss and Arizona with three, OR Arizona beats Stanford, leaving each with two losses. It's the same total number of losses, but how do their losses get divvied out and make a difference when evaluating Oregon's SOS?"

Good question. Naturally, I needed help from someone who is smart. So I fired this query off to ESPN BCS rankings guru Brad Edwards, who wrote back, "Some of the BCS computers judge teams not only on schedule strength, but also on 'best win.' Whenever you have a win over a team that didn't lose to anyone else, that helps the quality of your best win and can make a difference in a few computers. Therefore, the best case for Oregon is for Stanford to win out."

And the best case for the Pac-10 is this finish: Oregon (12-0), Stanford (11-1) and Arizona (9-3). That could mean three top-15 teams heading into the bowl season. And there's a solid chance that the conference would produce a second BCS bowl team, even if the Rose Bowl is forced to take a non-AQ team and decides to match it with a Big Ten team. [Edit note: This, obviously, has been changed. Originally, it had Arizona with a 10-2 record, which as many of you pointed out, is impossible. Dumb and sloppy on my part. My bad. General point stays the same, though].

Of course, the only two sets of folks who would be unquestionable happy with that scenario -- other than Pac-10 administrators -- are Ducks and Cardinal fans. Beavers, Bears, Huskies and Sun Devils probably see nothing good about it, even with the extra cash it would generate ($4.5 million, so $450,000 per team).

(Another interesting, though improbable scenario: What if Oregon State, which has only one conference loss, won out? It would knock the Ducks out of the national title game, but Oregon still might be attractive as a second BCS bowl team. And non-AQ powers Boise State and TCU could crow about "winning" the Pac-10).

What are the odds that the Pac-10 produces three teams with double-digits wins in the regular season (and don't forget USC has 13 games in which it could get to 10 victories)? Not too good considering it's never happened before, though it must be noted that's partly due to an 11-game regular-season schedule until the 12th game was added in 2002.

Three Pac-10 teams won 10 or more games in 2006, 2005, 2000 and 1982. But in each season at least one of the teams got a 10th win in a bowl game.

[+] EnlargeMike Stoops
AP Photo/John MillerMike Stoops and Arizona are headed for a potentially huge showdown with Stanford.
While it would be good for the conference for Stanford and Arizona to string some wins together over the final portion of the season, there's a good reason it's hard to do, starting with the depth of the conference.

"You better be prepared to play every week or you are going to get clobbered," noted Wildcats coach Mike Stoops.

And, of course, keeping a team focused every week isn't easy. As we've previously noted, just nine times in 38 years has a team gone unbeaten in Pac-10 play. So if it's hard to go unbeaten, it also is probably pretty difficult to be just once-beaten. The Pac-10 has produced multiple teams with one or fewer conference losses just five times over the past 12 years (the BCS era).

Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh saw what can happen when his team seemed content with a 31-7 fourth-quarter lead vs. Washington State and lost focus. The Cougars scored 21 in the fourth quarter and made the final appear a lot closer than it actually was.

"I was definitely not happy about it," Harbaugh said. "It's been addressed and it will continue to be addressed."

Both Arizona and Stanford are favored to win by a touchdown or more. But UCLA was good enough to beat Texas, and Washington won at USC. These are not teams to overlook. In fact, there are no good weekends to overlook a foe, even once easily overlook-able Washington State.

"You can't let [UCLA's] record stop anything we're doing," Arizona receiver Juron Criner said. "We've got to play them just like Iowa or a high-ranking team. We have no room to overlook anybody. Every game is going to be a big game from here on out."

When a team is only aiming for bowl eligibility, every game doesn't really matter. Just attaining bowl eligibility used to be a prime goal for Arizona and Stanford. When a team wants to play in a big money bowl game, every game does matter, and the ones that get overlooked along the way often provide the most pain at season's end.

In other words, the game has changed for Stanford and Arizona. Can they keep up?

Ted Miller | email

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