From the mud, muck and mess that was the first seven weeks of the Pac-12’s 2014 season, a smidgen of clarity started to creep through in Week 8. Like a Socratic archetype emerging from its cave, slowly, but surely, we’re starting to see the light.
By no means, however, are things back to normal -- whatever normal looks like in the Pac-12. Stanford, the two-time defending conference champion, lost to Arizona State, a team it had thoroughly dominated twice last season. And while the Cardinal still might rise from the ashes of their own blunders, for now it appears more likely than not that we’ll have a new league champion.
However, there were some things that actually made sense in Week 8, shocking as it may seem. USC dominated a weaker opponent. That made sense. Oregon continued its winning ways over Washington, extending its streak to 11 over the Huskies by 17 or more points. That made sense. Three of the five home teams won. That sort of made sense. But the road team is still 16-7 in conference play. That still makes no sense.
Oregon’s performance against Washington, complete and convincing, temporarily restored the natural order of the preseason -- a simpler time when most people projected the No. 3 Ducks as a playoff team. Saturday night, Oregon sent out a 45-point message that was unmistakably crystal clear: We’re still here.
As the Pac-12 engages in its annual act of self-consumption, the doom-and-gloom prognostications that the league would be left out of the first College Football Playoff might now seem premature. No word yet on the total number of torn ACLs from knee-jerk injuries.
And as the fires burned through the night in Morgantown, West Virginia, the Big 12’s chances of a playoff berth, too, may have gone up in flames. The Pac-12 may be a bunch of cannibals, but at least the Big 12 has the decency to barbecue itself first.
Indeed, it's the Ducks who hold the Pac-12's playoff future in their delicate, webbed feet.
“We have to be nastier,” said Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, looking ahead to the coming weeks. “We have to come off the ball and finish the plays. Our playmakers, our running backs, our skill guys are going to make the defenders miss and extend the plays, so we have to keep on working on finishing.”
Finishing hasn’t been Oregon’s strong suit the past couple of seasons. Following explosive starts in 2012 and 2013, the Ducks’ national championship hopes were derailed by Stanford two years ago, and again by the Cardinal in 2013. The Arizona stumble last season didn’t help, either. We'll see if this season's comes back to bite them.
But for now the Ducks must once again pick up the proverbial postseason flag and carry it for the conference. Per ESPN Stats & Info, since its loss to Arizona earlier this month, Oregon’s projected chance of winning the Pac-12 has actually risen by more than 20 percentage points. How does that make sense? The rest of the league has been munching on itself. Every other team in the Pac-12 North has at least two conference losses, so with the way the Ducks have performed in the past two games against UCLA and Washington -- plus their remaining schedule -- FPI projects that Oregon has a 88 percent chance to win the North.
Take that with a grain of seasoning of your choice. The Pac-12 has a funny way of making statistics look silly.
If Week 8 brought us a dusting of clarity, look for more in the coming weeks, especially in the South. Four teams head into Week 9 with one conference loss, and five of the division’s six teams are ranked in the latest AP Top 25 poll. The next two weeks brings us showdowns like USC at Utah, Arizona at UCLA and Utah at Arizona State. And of course there’s still the battle for Los Angeles and the Territorial Cup looming. One way or another, for better or worse, the South will sort itself out.
And when it does, Oregon will be there waiting. At least that’s what we believe after Week 8. By the end of Week 9, we might end up right back in the mud and the muck and the mess.