We finally have doses of clarity in the both the Pac-12 North and South races. It's time to take inventory after a weekend of progress. The homestretch is upon us.
Game with biggest College Football Playoff implications: Notre Dame at Arizona State
Both the Irish and the Sun Devils weigh into this battle with identical 7-1 records and opportunities to make headway in the national rankings. Although this contest won't affect ASU's standing in the Pac-12 race, they're feeling good about themselves on that front after winning Saturday's overtime arm-wrestling match over Utah 19-16. They grabbed control of the South with that victory, and the story to watch behind that surge has been the Sun Devils' defensive improvement: They have posted progressively better efficiency statistics in every single game since the disastrous 62-27 drubbing at the hands of UCLA on Sept. 25. The Sun Devils allowed an atrocious 10.0 yards per play that night, but check out their game-by-game trend of betterment since then: 5.2, 4.7, 4.0, 3.3.
Each week seems to present a more difficult challenge for ASU's defense, and the next step involves corralling Notre Dame's balanced offense, which also features a mobile quarterback in Everett Golson.
Desperation Bowl: Washington State at Oregon State
Neither team is in a pretty situation. This initially looked like it was going to be a matchup of the Pac-12's two record-setting quarterbacks: The Beavers' Sean Mannion passed Matt Barkley for the most career passing yards last week, and Washington State's Connor Halliday was on track to smash the NCAA single season record in the same department. But then Halliday suffered a gruesome broken fibula in the Cougars' 44-17 loss to USC. A week after getting plastered at Stanford, the Beavers dropped a 45-31 home decision to Cal. So this matchup has lost a huge amount of luster. Washington State (2-7) has been eliminated from postseason contention, while Oregon State (4-4) must piece together two wins in its final four games just to make a bowl.
Diamond in the rough game: UCLA at Washington
While the stock of Saturday's game in Corvallis took a plunge, this Seattle showdown saw its value increase last weekend. UCLA made a firm defensive statement in its 17-7 win over Arizona, while Washington righted the ship with a 38-23 win at Colorado. Both of these teams have traversed stretches of significant struggle this season (Washington on offense, UCLA on defense), but they're both entering the stretch run with a chance to wrap up solid seasons. They're only a game behind ASU and they hold the tiebreaker over the Sun Devils, so the Bruins are still very much in the Pac-12 hunt. The 6-3 Huskies, meanwhile, still have a shot at a 10-win regular season. The matchup between mobile quarterback Brett Hundley and Hau'oli Kikaha, the nation's leading sack master (15.5 already), will go a long way in determining if that can happen. Meanwhile, Shaq Thompson will play both linebacker and running back for a Washington team that's looking for an offensive resurgence.
Chance to get back on track: Colorado at Arizona
The Wildcats dropped multiple opportunities in their disappointing loss at the Rose Bowl, but their Pac-12 South chances are still far from over. At 6-2, they'll need UCLA and USC both to drop another game, but the Wildcats still have their shot at division-leading Arizona State. The homestretch for Rich Rodriguez begins with a chance to regain confidence in Tucson. Colorado, meanwhile, has shown definite signs of life this year, but they're desperate to scratch out at least one Pac-12 win on the season. Their final three games -- this one, at Oregon, and versus Utah -- are all daunting.
One more Arizona note: Let's again appreciate what linebacker Scooby Wright III is doing. He's leading the Pac-12 with 12.1 tackles per game, and he's also in the top three nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss. In fact, the nation's top three sack masters all come from the Pac-12: Kikaha (15.5 sacks), Utah's Nate Orchard (12.0), and Wright (11.0).
The main Pac-12 event: Oregon at Utah
If the conference regular season ended today, rapidly improving Arizona State would be Oregon's opponent at Levi's Stadium. But don't forget that Utah gave the Sun Devils all they could handle on the road. And although the Ducks all but locked up the Pac-12 North crown with their 45-16 statement over Stanford, the Utes have a chance to play major spoiler to Oregon's College Football Playoff hopes. Rice-Eccles Stadium can serve as a tremendously difficult environment for visiting teams, and Utah's aggressive defense is still playing with a lot of confidence. Oregon, meanwhile, is on an absolute offensive rampage, so something will have to give under #SackLackCity's bright lights Saturday. This looks to be the Ducks' toughest remaining test before they head to Santa Clara, which seems all but assured at this point.