Out of the Tunnel: Race for division titles filled with twists and turns

Nearly every season, the twists and turns the road to the BCS national championship takes could be mistaken for Lombard Street. With many thinking Alabama and Oregon were on a collision course to play for the title in Miami, it quickly became apparent during Saturday's upset of the top-ranked Crimson Tide that the college football world would look very different come Sunday morning.

All eyes this week will be on the West Coast and it's not hard to understand why. There are only three games on Saturday involving two ranked teams, and all but one resides in the Pac-12. Both division races could be wrapped up by the time midnight strikes. ESPN's College GameDay will be in Eugene for an early look at how Oregon will try to avoid the same fate that Alabama suffered.

The Ducks refused to mention the possibility of playing the Crimson Tide when asked about the matchup until recently. Their philosophy stays the same: Win the Day. It's not quite that simple for Chip Kelly and the coaching staff, however, as their long injury list has many wondering if their once-unstoppable offense can be stopped and if that much-improved defense can be run over. Kelly won't discuss injuries, but regardless of if Taylor Hart, Dion Jordan, Isaac Remington, Ricky Heimuli and others are good to go on Saturday, the new-look Stanford offense under quarterback Kevin Hogan will present a difficult test with a much different philosophy on how to attack from what the team is used to seeing.

Cardinal coach David Shaw is well aware that the series hasn't been close the past two years and, like others in the Pac-12, hasn't been shy about calling the Ducks a special team. That's not stopping Shaw from burning the midnight oil to exploit an Oregon team that, for the first time this season, looked vulnerable against Cal this past Saturday. Stanford will take the league's top-ranked defense up to Eugene, and the Cardinal's terrific front seven should be able to put a little more pressure on redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota than others have been able to. Turnovers have played a big role the past few seasons in this North matchup and there's nothing to suggest that won't be the case again on Saturday.

Down south, USC and UCLA will play an early version of their crosstown showdown with the division on the line. Though it's not directly for a trip the Rose Bowl, it feels like it's that type of lead-up. The Trojans have won 12 of the past 13 in the series and although it has been a disappointing season, the team should have no problem getting pumped up to face a dangerous UCLA team.

There should be plenty of more twists in the road to a championship this weekend and, luckily for the Pac-12, that will mean a great showcase for just how strong the conference is.

A side note on… Oregon State


I'm glad it wasn't just me that was struck by all of the doom and gloom around the Beavers following their loss in Palo Alto on Saturday. Yes, in all likelihood it cost OSU a trip to the Rose Bowl and possibly a second BCS bid for the conference. Yet, amid all the angst that came out on Twitter and other places following the defeat, there wasn't much perspective on the season as a whole for the program.

Oregonian beat writer Lindsay Schnell did a good job summing up that everybody needs to take a timeout and look back to preseason expectations to realize that folks should be plenty happy with how things have turned out:

"Is it disappointing for fans who were dreaming of a storybook season that ended in Pasadena? Sure. Does it hurt a little bit more when you consider what’s going on 45 miles south of Corvallis, where the Ducks are positioning themselves for a(nother) trip to the title game? Definitely. Does it mean fans should diminish all Oregon State has accomplished already? Absolutely not."

It is good to have high expectations, and perhaps no fan base in the league is as quick to turn from max optimism to down in the dumps quicker than those in the orange and black. Oregon State, nationally, still is one of the turnaround stories of 2012: It's no small feat going from 3-9 to 8-4 or 9-3.

So, to all the OSU faithful out there, take the Stanford game just like most players and coaches do. You have 24 hours to celebrate or mourn. But after that, it's time to move on.

Stat pack

- Great note from CBSSports.com's Bruce Feldman in his Sunday Big Picture column: The Pac-10 was known as the conference of quarterbacks. Maybe the Pac-12 should be known as the conference of quarterback killers. Four of the country's top five pass-rushing teams come from the Pac-12 (Stanford, ASU, USC and UCLA). Tulsa, No. 3, is the lone outsider. And it's not just because the league throws a lot more than other conferences do. In fact, only two schools have thrown more than 360 times this year, which is actually not that much, relatively speaking.

- Washington beat writer Bob Condotta noted that UW had just one 1,000-yard rusher from 1997 until Steve Sarkisian arrived as head coach. In the past four years under Sark, the Huskies have had one player top the mark every season. Remarkably, only 10 players at the program have ever hit the 1,000-yard milestone in a season.

- Speaking of Washington, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins is the school record holder in both catches and yards at the position, and he's just a sophomore. He also took a few snaps at defensive end against Utah on Saturday.

- Arizona had the ball just 18:12 but managed to put up 56 points on Colorado, largely thanks to the Pac-12 record Ka'Deem Carey set for rushing yards in a game. The Buffs held the ball for 41:48, most in a game for the team since 1980.

- Utah is a 11-1 when John White rushes for 100-plus yards, with the lone loss coming against Washington last week.

- Washington State's Air Raid attack has produced two quarterbacks - Connor Halliday and Jeff Tuel - who have thrown for more than 1,500 yards.

- USC receiver Marqise Lee is second in the country in all-purpose yardage and is a big reason why the Trojans' offense is averaging 462 yards per game, the most since the 2005 team set a school record. A Heisman candidate, Lee is on the verge of setting two more Pac-12 records this season as he's 14 catches and 86 yards away from the single-season mark in both categories.

- The Trojans' defense has doubled its interception total from a year ago to 18 with two games left. Overall, 48 percent of the team that has played a snap this season were players seeing their first action for USC, including 26 true or redshirt freshmen.

- UCLA's 30 points in the second quarter against Washington State were the most ever scored in a quarter in school history.

- Oregon has scored 30 or more points in 23 straight games, the longest streak in the FBS. The Ducks are 41-2 when scoring 30-plus in the Chip Kelly era.

Tweet of the week

Fischer's Top 10

1. Oregon

2. Kansas State

3. Notre Dame

4. Alabama

5. Georgia

6. Texas A&M

7. Louisiana Tech

8. Ohio State

9. LSU

10. Florida State

Looking forward to

I'm headed to Oregon to see the battle for the Pac-12 North with Stanford (and an early, early alarm to catch all the College GameDay festivities), but USC-UCLA is definitely the most intriguing game on the Pac-12 slate, in my opinion. It could turn out a number of different ways and with each team looking to make a big statement, it should be a must-watch contest.

They said it

David Shaw to SI.com on Stanford's chances against Oregon: "This is the best team in the country. It's going to take our best game and not their best game to pull this thing off."

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