Pac-12 bowl projections: Utah to the Rose, USC to the Cotton

With two contenders down and one left standing, the Pac-12’s bid to end its six-year College Football Playoff drought now hinges on USC beating three ranked opponents in succession with a flawed defense and star tailback Travis Dye out for the duration.

Can the Trojans handle No. 16 UCLA, then No. 18 Notre Dame, then either No. 15 Washington, No. 12 Oregon or No. 10 Utah in the conference championship?

That’s a question for later in the week.

Today, we’ll venture into one of the Hotline’s favorite places: the alternate universe.

Once UCLA’s loss to Arizona went final late Saturday night, we compiled a what-if list in what has generally been a highly successful season for the Pac-12.

Here are our top three:

— What if: Washington hadn’t lost to Arizona State?

The result made slightly more sense at the time than it does now. The Huskies hadn’t won in Tempe in 20 years and were coming off a poor showing at UCLA. In a back-and-forth affair, their defense repeatedly failed to stop ASU on third down and surrendered the winning touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.

More than one month later, with UW on a four-game winning streak and fresh off the breakthrough victory at Oregon — and with ASU in steep decline — the outcome is a head-scratcher. Had the Huskies survived, they would have one loss and stand as a surprise contender for a playoff berth.

— What if: Oregon hadn’t whiffed on the fourth-down play in the final minutes of the loss to Washington?

Coach Dan Lanning declined to call timeout and re-insert quarterback Bo Nix. Instead, he charged forward with a backup quarterback (Ty Thompson) on fourth-and-1 from his own 34-yard line in a tie game. If Nix had returned and converted with 1:26 left, the Ducks would have been well positioned for the eventual winning field goal — and to remain in playoff contention.

— What if: Utah quarterback Cam Rising hadn’t thrown an interception in the final seconds of the season opener at Florida?

This is the big one, folks.

The Utes trailed by three points when Rising forced a pass into the end zone. Had he taken a sack or thrown the ball away, the Utes could have kicked a short game-tying field goal. Survive in overtime, and they would be heading to Oregon this week with one loss and designs on the playoff. Instead, they have two losses and no shot at the CFP.

To the bowl projections …

Rose Bowl

Team: Utah (8-2/6-1)
Home: None
Road: Oregon and Colorado
Comment: Our revised projections call for the Utes to beat Oregon, demolish Colorado and take care of USC in the conference championship. Once again, they are peaking at just the right time.

Cotton Bowl

Team: USC (9-1/7-1)
Home: Notre Dame
Road: UCLA
Comment: As a two-loss conference runner-up, the Trojans would hold their ground in the CFP rankings and qualify for the New Year’s Six in the only bowl with room for an at-large team.

Alamo Bowl

Team: Washington (8-2/5-2)
Home: Colorado
Road: WSU
Comment: The Huskies could end up in the Rose Bowl or plunge all the way to El Paso depending on the outcome of the Apple Cup — and whether the Pac-12 produces an at-large team for the Cotton.

Holiday Bowl

Team: Oregon (8-2/6-1)
Home: Utah
Road: Oregon State
Comment: The defense simply hasn’t progressed as we expected and faces two difficult assignments. One more loss, and the Ducks tumble from title contention to the second tier.

Las Vegas Bowl

Team: UCLA (8-2/5-2)
Home: USC
Road: Cal
Comment: Plenty of possibilities remain, including the Rose Bowl. And yes, we could envision a scenario in which the Bruins beat USC this weekend and then stumble in Berkeley. Any team that loses at home to Arizona is capable of losing at Cal.

Sun Bowl

Team: Oregon State (7-3/4-3)
Home: Oregon
Road: ASU
Comment: With so many good teams in the conference, the Beavers picked a bad year to have one of their best seasons. We can’t see them climbing higher than Las Vegas even if they win out and finish 9-3 overall.

LA Bowl

Team: Washington State (6-4/3-4)
Home: Washington
Road: Arizona
Comment: Little chance of the Cougars jumping over OSU in the pecking order because of the head-to-head result and the requirement that the Sun and LA bowls select teams based on conference record.

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Team: Arizona (4-6/2-4)
Home: Washington State, ASU
Road: None
Comment: The Wildcats are alive one week later than we expected thanks to the victory at UCLA. Their new challenge: Win two games that, while at home, are essentially toss-ups.


Team: Arizona State (3-7/2-5)
Home: Oregon State
Road: Arizona
Comment: Have to imagine some ASU fans are rooting for Arizona to win this week and move to the brink of a bowl berth so the Sun Devils can crush the dream.


Team: Cal (3-7/1-6)
Home: Stanford and UCLA
Road: none
Comment: The Bears are in hunker-down mode — as in, hunker down and do everything possible to make sure Jaydn Ott doesn’t enter the transfer portal.


Team: Colorado (1-9/1-6)
Home: Utah
Road: Washington
Comment: With everything that has gone wrong for the Buffs this season, here’s the capper: They finish with two of the hottest teams in the conference, both in must-win mode.


Team: Stanford (3-7/1-7)
Home: Brigham Young
Road: Cal
Comment: Insult to all the injuries: Cal’s collapse means the Cardinal doesn’t even have the opportunity to play spoiler.

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