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Why Oregon might no longer be the Pac-12 favorite

The Cardinal turned their toughest conference road trip into a win, and they get the Ducks at home ... and USC's fall is also good for UCLA.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Pac-12 is the star of the show in Week 4 of the college football season. On paper, the week is a bit of a dud in general, featuring only two battles of ranked teams. But both of those games -- No. 9 UCLA at No. 16 Arizona, No. 18 Utah at No. 13 Oregon -- are key matchups in the Pac-12 race, and No. 19 USC-Arizona State is just as big in that regard.

For this week's win projections post, then, let's focus on the battle unfolding in Pacific Time. How is this race likely to play out?

First, the Pac-12 has been a little disappointing out of the gates.

There is no full-fledged disaster like what the SEC appears to have in Auburn and Arkansas, but quite a few teams are lingering below where they were projected in the S&P+ ratings before the season. In fact, only four teams are exceeding their projections at the moment, and there have been disappointing losses even within that group (USC losing to Stanford, Stanford losing to Northwestern).

Team Projected rank Current rank Difference
Washington (2-1) 64 58 +6
USC (2-1) 12 8 +4
Stanford (2-1) 18 14 +4
California (3-0) 50 46 +4
Oregon State (2-1) 80 83 -3
Colorado (2-1) 69 73 -4
Arizona State (2-1) 23 28 -5
Utah (3-0) 41 47 -6
UCLA (3-0) 6 16 -10
Oregon (2-1) 4 15 -11
Arizona (3-0) 36 48 -12
Washington State (2-1) 56 90 -34

From a stats vs. eyeballs perspective, the most surprising result among these has to be USC's rise. The Trojans ranked eighth heading into Week 3 but didn't actually fall following their 41-31 loss to Stanford. Part of this could always be explained away with an "It's early, and there are always funky early ratings" disclaimer. But two teams play each game, and while the national narrative might be "USC disappoints again," from a stat perspective, Stanford impressed more than USC disappointed.

Now, three of the most disappointing teams on this list remain undefeated, and two others (Arizona State and Oregon) have only suffered losses to good teams on the ends of long road trips. So among the major conference contenders, hope is lost for none. If you keep winning, even ugly, you give yourself a chance to flourish.

Still, regression by a team like Oregon, with a defense that has been all sorts of sketchy, has opened up the Pac-12 race.


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UCLA leads South in projected Pac-12 wins

Here's a look at the week-to-week projected win totals in the Pac-12 South, based on S&P+ ratings. The goal here is to both show you who has the best odds of winning the division and the biggest potential potholes for each contender.

Because Oregon has fallen to 16th overall, and because USC somehow hasn't fallen, the game between the Trojans and Ducks has become a virtual tossup. Unfortunately for the Trojans, their loss to Stanford means they'll probably have to win said tossup to have a strong shot at the South. But as you see, they don't have a single projected loss remaining -- only a lot of games in which they are slight favorites (at ASU in Week 4, Oregon, UCLA in Week 13).

Meanwhile, UCLA has two projected losses (at Stanford in Week 7, at USC) but currently leads in the win column, due to more highly projected wins.

Perhaps the most surprising projections come lower on the list. Arizona and Utah are undefeated and ranked, but the numbers don't like either. Preseason projections still account for 30 percent of teams' ratings, which doesn't help, but neither do Arizona's poor performance against UTSA or Utah's plodding offense, which has been outgained by the opponent, on a per-play basis, in every game so far. The Wildcats are inconsistent, and the Utes are playing with fire.

Of course, if Arizona knocks off UCLA at home this weekend -- in no way inconceivable -- that shifts quite a bit. And if Arizona State takes down USC in Saturday's late game, we can probably put the Trojans' hopes to bed.

And now Stanford leads Oregon

I saved the surprise for last. Did you notice how Stanford has eased ahead of Oregon above?

You can disagree, and you have some evidence on your side. The Cardinal don't seem to be punished too much by what has, this past Saturday aside, been a consistent issue: the inability to steadily turn scoring opportunities into actual points). They have been a constant top-20 presence in the S&P+ rankings despite a 10-6 record since the start of 2014.

Regardless, Stanford is ahead of Oregon on the table. And with Oregon's iffy defense, combined with Stanford's awesomeness against USC, that's not completely ridiculous. The Cardinal get the Ducks in Palo Alto; their only remaining conference road games are against Oregon State, Washington State, and Colorado (the three lowest-rated teams in the conference); and ... you see where I'm going with this ...

Stanford-Oregon is still a virtual tossup, as are Oregon-Arizona State and USC-Oregon. If the Ducks win two of those, they are likely right back on top of the pack. Plus, Stanford's defensive depth is so perilous that injuries or a general fade could derail the Cardinal's chances.

In terms of present-tense odds, Stanford has a win in pocket and more games that fall into the "likely win" category than Oregon. After his magnificent performance in Los Angeles (18-for-23 for 279 yards and two touchdowns), gimpy old Kevin Hogan has a reasonable chance of not only leading his team back to the Pac-12 title game, but winning his third conference title.

That's not really what I expected to see two weeks ago after Stanford's egg-laying session at Northwestern. Things change quickly sometimes.

Week 4 Pac-12 S&P+ projections

  • In Seattle: California 28.0, Washington 27.9 (win probability: 50.1%)
  • In Tempe: USC 36.2, Arizona State 29.8 (win probability: 64.5%)
  • In Tucson: UCLA 35.5, Arizona 27.3 (win probability: 68.3%)
  • In Eugene: Oregon 38.8, Utah 23.4 (win probability: 81.2%)
  • In Corvallis: Stanford 31.6, Oregon State 14.3 (win probability: 84.2%)

The most interesting matchup here, from a pure dissonance perspective? Perhaps Cal-Washington. The Golden Bears rank 20th in Off. S&P+ and 84th in Def. S&P+; the Huskies rank 23rd in Def. S&P+ and 107t in Off. S&P+.