This Pac-12 football season has been a continual series of surprises, and that theme has carried right to the final weekend of the regular season, as UCLA got waxed 31-10 at home Friday by Stanford and Arizona, picked fourth in the South in the preseason, stormed to the title game next week by beating Arizona State.
The Bruins were a fairly solid 5.5-point favorite over Stanford, and seemed to have everything to play for — to Stanford’s nothing. Coaches talk about moving up the bowl pecking order, but that’s largely folderol that means nothing, once you get past the big bowls. So Stanford, which got bowl-eligible last week against Cal, had little tangible motivation.
All the Bruins had was . . . everything. With a win, they’d have claimed the Pac-12 South, gained a rematch against Oregon, and given themselves a shot at the four-team playoff if they could have thwarted the Ducks. At No. 8 in the rankings this week, they likely would have been almost assured a spot in the one of the four New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day bowls (the four outside the Rose and Sugar, which are acting as the playoff semifinals this year).
Now the top-12 ranking necessary to be in one of those is surely precarious. A second loss to the Ducks probably wouldn’t have knocked the Bruins from the top dozen, but this Stanford setback is likely damaging in that regard.
What a pratfall by UCLA, which one week shut down USC to the tune of 276 yards allowed, and six days later, surrenders Kevin Hogan’s 14-for-15 passing first half.
The happy beneficiary was Arizona, which capped a marvelous 10-2 regular season by holding off Arizona State, 42-35. Among other things, this will fan the notion that coach Rich Rodriguez could be a target for the open job at Florida.
But for now, the headline is that Arizona will meet Oregon Friday night at Levi’s Stadium for the Pac-12 title, and the story line all week will no doubt be the notion that RichRod has Oregon’s number, since his team smashed the Ducks 42-16 last year in Tucson (while Oregon’s Marcus Mariota was bothered by a knee problem) and again in October in Eugene, 31-24, as a three-touchdown-plus underdog (when Mariota seemed healthy).
Talking about his having lost his first two Territorial Cups to Arizona State, Rodriguez said to reporters, “You know how many times I thought about that this week? You try not to put more pressure on rivalry games, but let’s be honest, there is more.”
Think about this: The Arizona team headed to play the Ducks is the same one Washington pretty much dominated Nov. 15. If the Huskies hadn’t mangled the clock management in the final two minutes and lost 27-26, ‘Zona would have been dead in the water.
Arizona was No. 11 in last week’s playoff standings, so the emergence of the Wildcats is not necessarily a good thing for the conference. If Arizona goes on and beats Oregon again, could the selection committee see its way clear to voting the Wildcats into the thing?
“There’s a chance,” said Rodriguez. “You ever see the movie Dumb and Dumber?”
But back to UCLA (9-3), which had a pretty weird season. For most of the first half, the Bruins were assailed as having been overblown as a potential playoff team. Then they caught fire in November, thwarting Arizona, Washington and USC in dominating fashion.
Bruins coach Jim Mora said this week he thought the early struggles were the result partly of a lack of experience. But it appeared his team was over that hump — until Friday.