Pac-12 Football Notes: Questions Surround Oregon – Sports Illustrated

The offensive performance of Oregon and quarterback Bo Nix highlighted Pac-12 action this weekend, but the Ducks are just one of four issues this week.
—Can Oregon become the first Pac-12 team since it expanded to 11 teams in 2011 to go unbeaten in conference play?
The Ducks' remaining schedule is favorable. The only ranked team left on Oregon’s schedule is Utah, and the Ducks get them in Eugene on Nov. 19. USC is not on Oregon’s schedule this year, which is a blessing, but the Ducks might have to face the Trojans in the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas.
—Does Oregon have a chance to reach the College Football Playoff?
The Ducks are up to No. 8 in this week’s AP poll, and the College Football Playoff selection committee would have to consider inviting a 12-1 Pac-12 champion to its four-team party, especially one that is fifth in the nation in total offense and seventh in scoring.
But that season-opening 49-3 loss to Georgia in the opener is an annoying stain no detergent can remove and the CFP committee can’t ignore. The Ducks can claim they are different team than they were back on Sept. 3 as evidenced by the fact that they have scored more than 40 points in each of its past six games.
However, because of the “Georgia issue” a once-beaten conference-champion USC team would have a better chance of earning a CFP berth than a once-beaten conference-champion Oregon squad.
We will get a better idea of what the CFP selection committee thinks of Oregon and USC when its first rankings are released on Nov. 1.
—Does Oregon have an adequate defense?
Amid all the hoopla about Oregon’s offense is the fact that the Ducks could not stop UCLA and Dorian Thompson-Robinson. If we discount the kneel-down UCLA possession that started with one second left in the first half, the Bruins scored points on their first five possessions and six of seven possessions overall. The only time Oregon prevented UCLA from scoring came midway in the fourth quarter, when Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw an interception in the end zone after getting to the Ducks’ 13-yard line.
So how could UCLA lose by two touchdowns? Two factors:
A. Oregon scored on their first seven possessions, the final six of those drives resulting in touchdowns. UCLA did not prevent a Ducks score until midway in the fourth quarter.
B. The bold, successful onside kick in the second quarter gave Oregon an extra possession. UCLA scored a field goal and a touchdown on its first two possessions but found itself behind 24-10 when it started its third drive.
—Is Bo Nix the best quarterback in the Pac-12?
He looks like it at the moment, but the category is crowded. Thompson-Robinson and USC’s Caleb Williams entered the weekend as Heisman Trophy contenders, and Nix will no doubt join that group this week. And let’s not forget Utah’s Cameron Rising, the preseason all-Pac-12 quarterback who willed the Utes to a victory over USC last week.
The Pac-12 quarterback category is so strong that Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. leads the nation in passing yards per game and is barely in this discussion.
But Nix rises to the top this week after his performance against the Bruins. He was 22-for-28 with five touchdown passes and no interceptions. He also ran for 51 yards and seemed to get first downs with his feet on every key third and fourth down. A UCLA defense that had held its previous six opponents to 4.88 yards per play, best in the Pac-12, looked completely helpless against Nix.
But the place atop this quarterback hierarchy is precarious.
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While Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, Oregon’s Dan Lanning and USC’s Lincoln Riley are constantly getting kudos for what they are accomplishing, you could claim Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith has been just as impressive at a place where football success is a challenge. If you subscribe to the theory that a coach’s worth is measured over time and not in his first season, Smith’s record is telling, realizing he took over a team that was 1-11 the year before he arrived in 2018:
2018 – 2-10
2019 – 5-7
2020 – 2-5 (pandemic season results can be dismissed)
2021 – 7-6
2022 – 6-2
You will recall the Beavers nearly beat USC, which scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:13 left.
And the Beavers’ 42-9 victory over Colorado Saturday represented their largest margin of victory in a Pac-12 game since 2012. Oregon State is bowl-eligible for the second straight year, but that was barely noticed for this team, which has higher aspirations. And they are doing it with their backup quarterback (Ben Gulbranson) and a freshman running back (Damien Martinez) who is getting better each week. Martinez rushed for 178 yards against Colorado and has run for 372 yards over the past three games, an average of 124 yards per game.
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The Cardinal has scored one touchdown in its past two games combined. And won both – 16-14 over Notre Dame and 15-14 over Arizona State on Saturday, ending the Cardinal’s 10-game losing streak against Pac-12 opponents.
But Stanford nearly did the unthinkable for the second time in three games. In the 28-27 loss to Oregon State on Oct. 8, the Cardinal somehow allowed the Beavers’ Tra’Shaun Harrison to make a game-winning 56-yard touchdown catch with 13 seconds left when Oregon State had no timeouts left. Then on Saturday, Stanford let Elijhah Badger get behind its defense for what was initially ruled a 42-yard completion to the 1-yard line with three seconds left on a fourth-and-19 play from the Stanford 43-yard line. But just before Arizona State could get off a snap from the 1-yard line, the play was reviewed, and the replay official noticed that Badger’s right foot landed out of bounds, making it an incompletion and saving a Stanford victory.
Since the start of the 2021 season, Cal has outscored its opponents 448-425, but the Bears are 8-11 in that stretch because the Bears cannot win close games.
With its 28-21 loss to Washington, Cal is now 1-8 since the start of the 2021 season in games decided by seven points or fewer. What would have been a game-tying Hail Mary catch against Notre Dame rolled off the stomach of Cal wide receiver Jemiah Hunter in the end zone. Cal lost to Colorado when a Buffaloes touchdown reception in overtime that was initially ruled incomplete was overturned on review. And Cal got to the Washington 42-yard line in the closing seconds Saturday, but could get no closer.
The agonizing result of the close losses is that Cal is 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the conference, apparently heading for their 13th consecutive season with a losing conference record. No other Pac-12 school has a current streak of more than five straight losing records in conference play.
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1. Oregon (6-1, 4-0 Pac-12) – The only team unbeaten in Pac-12 play has won six straight, scoring more than 40 points in all six
2. USC (6-1, 4-1) – A close loss at Utah does not take the Trojans out of the national championship race.
3. UCLA (6-1, 3-1) – The Bruins could get another shot at Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.
4. Utah (5-2, 3-1) – Utes’ Nov. 19 game at Oregon will be telling
5. Washington (6-2, 3-2) – By just a hair over Oregon State
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1. Quarterback Bo Nix, Oregon – The difference-maker for the only team unbeaten in Pac-12 play
2. Quarterback Caleb Williams, USC – 19 touchdown passes, 1 interception
3. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA – Still the Pac-12 leader in passer rating.
4. Quarterback Cameron Rising, Utah – Utes win because Rising is their quarterback
5. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr., Washington – It says something when the nation’s leader in passing yardage barely makes this list, and when the nation’s seventh-leading rusher (UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet) isn’t on the list at all.
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Cover photo of Oregon's Bo Nix is by Ben Lonergan, The Register-Guard, USA TODAY Network
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Jake Curtis worked in the San Francisco Chronicle sports department for 27 years, covering virtually every sport, including numerous Final Fours, several college football national championship games, an NBA Finals, world championship boxing matches and a World Cup. He was a Cal beat writer for many of those years.

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