At this juncture of the conference title race, barring Oregon imploding, we’re in a battle for second place. The upper tier of the Pac-12, which I define as any team with a record over .500 in conference, is comprised of Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Washington. The rest of the teams in the Pac-12 I didn’t mention are arguably already clear also-rans.
Oregon only plays two more games against upper tier teams; a home and away with Washington. With victories over UCLA and Arizona in the bag, Oregon not only has the edge, but also the easiest path to the title based on current results. Obviously, anything can happen, but it’s hard to imagine Oregon getting derailed.
That leaves the Bruins slugging it out with the other top tier teams if trends hold. Examining their paths, Arizona and ASU have slightly easier rows to hoe. Arizona is 1-1 against top tier teams and has five more against them. ASU is 0-2 against top tier teams and also has five games remaining against them. Meanwhile, UCLA is 0-1 against top tier teams and has six games remaining against them. Likely “Paper Tiger” Washington hasn’t played a top tier team and has eight games to play against them.
Washington already has a bad conference loss against Utah and plays the most top tier opponents overall. Their top tier games are split evenly four at home, four on the road. They have the toughest road to second place. I really believe they will fall by the wayside over the next five games. I could be wrong, but I believe they are the least likely of the top tier teams to claim second place.
Looking at ASU, they are not off to a good start. Like Arizona and UCLA, they’ve lost to Oregon. However, they’ve also lost at home to Arizona. That loss was pretty critical for them. That coupled with the fact that three of their five remaining games against top tier teams are road games puts them behind the proverbial 8-ball. Even if they split with UCLA and Washington, going to Arizona is a daunting task. ASU also has to travel to X-Factor Colorado. Add to this an anemic RPI and only two quality wins, and I think ASU is a very unlikely candidate for second place.
That leaves Arizona and UCLA as the probable contenders for second place. Based on the top tier road map, Arizona has the easier path. Arizona’s remaining top tier games find them home three out of five of those games. And as noted, they own a road victory over ASU. However, Arizona struggled at home against Utah and Colorado. (They actually lost to Colorado, but were robbed by incompetent referees.) They have the edge, but I wouldn’t want to be a Wildcat on Valentine’s Day when they go to Colorado.
UCLA has one more top tier team on their remaining schedule than Arizona. Those games are evenly split between home and away contests for the Bruins. The loss to Oregon at Pauley was disheartening because it exposed some bad habits and flaws for the Bruins, but Arizona’s in the same boat in that they lost their only chance to beat the Ducks, too.
Given all this hoozafudge, how important is it that we beat Arizona. The answer depends on which game you mean. Beating Arizona at Pauley is critical for the Bruins, whereas Beating Arizona in Tucson is not. Understand, beating Arizona Thursday would be huge. We would erase some of the pain from this past Saturday and take the edge over them for second place. However, it’s not critical. What is critical beating ASU Saturday. Losing to Arizona just means we have to look to match them at home. Losing to ASU means we didn’t match Arizona there, and legitimizes ASU as a contender.
So, while I would love for UCLA to win both games this week, and believe it’s possible, the reality is a loss at Arizona is manageable long term. A loss at ASU could be crippling. It sez here they’ll beat ASU… and maybe Arizona.