Popping the tab on a post-Thanksgiving 12-pack from the Pac-12 (and beyond!), starting with the weekend’s main dish, the Apple Cup ...
1. Friday’s Washington-Washington State game will have ramifications for the Pac-12 title game, the Heisman Trophy race and the College Football Playoff picture. That’s about as big as it gets for Pac-12 football in 2018.
The only way this game would be any bigger is if the winner advanced directly to the Rose Bowl, a la the 2009 Civil War. The Pac-12 title game tends to be a dud; only twice in seven years has the game been decided by single digits. While that game technically determines the Rose Bowl participant, nothing that happens next week in the sterile setting of Santa Clara will match the raucous, snowy scene in Pullman.
Nationally, this rivalry doesn’t rate on the same level as the Iron Bowl or Ohio State-Michigan. But if I could only watch one game this weekend, I’d pick the Apple Cup. I don’t think you’ll find two coaches more different than Mike Leach and Chris Petersen, both in personality and philosophy. The Cougars and Gardner Minshew might be the best story in college football this season. The Huskies have underachieved, but it won’t feel that way if they spoil Washington State’s dream season and end up in the Rose Bowl.
As Adam Jude of The Seattle Times writes here, it should be fun.
2. The onus will be on Washington State to make this game competitive, something the Cougars have failed to do in four previous matchups against Chris Petersen. Average margin of victory in those games: 27.5 points.
Are the Cougars too soft? Is Washington too physical? Does Petersen have Leach’s number? As the Times’ Larry Stone writes here, those questions will persist until Wazzu wins an Apple Cup.
3. I’m of the opinion that this Washington State team is different. I arrive at that conclusion after being a Wazzu skeptic for most of the season, expecting one of those classic “Coug it” moments somewhere along the line. Well, I was wrong. Washington State might lose, but I’ll be pretty surprised if the Cougars get blown out.
The undeniable difference with this Wazzu team is quarterback Gardner Minshew. The Cougars always seem to have a prolific quarterback, but as the Times’ Matt Calkins writes here, none have achieved the rock-star status of Minshew in such a short time.
4. On the radio this week with my pal Steve Tannen, we batted around the idea of Minshew as a Heisman finalist. I’d take it a step further: if Minshew plays well in the Apple Cup and the Pac-12 title game, I could easily see him being No. 1 on my ballot.
Minshew plays for a top-10 team and leads the nation in passing by nearly 500 yards. That’s a pretty solid Heisman formula. But as I told Steve, playing at Washington State means he doesn’t have much margin for error. A bad game this week or next will knock him off the Heisman radar pretty quickly.
5. A neat story here by the Times’ Adam Jude about Washington running back Myles Gaskin, who needs 94 yards to become the first player in Pac-12 history to top 1,000 in four straight seasons.
6. The Times’ sports staff leans 6-3 to the Cougars, but fans are much more evenly divided (51-49 in favor of Wazzu, at last check.) I picked Washington State, 38-34.
7. Amid all the Apple Cup hype, the Civil War feels like a bit of an afterthought. Oregon is bidding for a better bowl game and Oregon State is hoping for a signature win for Jonathan Smith. Otherwise, bragging rights are the only thing at stake Friday in Corvallis.
If the teams are reaching for motivation, they can find it in their two previous matchups. As the R-G’s Ryan Thorburn writes here, the Ducks haven’t forgotten their 2016 loss in Corvallis or last year’s trash talk about their “fancy raincoats.” I assume the Beavers haven’t forgotten last year’s 69-10 beatdown, either.
8. Meanwhile, bowl eligibility is at stake in the Territorial Cup between Arizona and Arizona State.
The Sun Devils are bowling for sure at 6-5. The Wildcats need a victory to finish 6-6. ASU is a small favorite, but I keep going back to Arizona’s crazy home-road splits: The Wildcats have a minus-80 point differential on the road and a plus-66 point differential at home.
This is the first Territorial Cup for Herm Edwards and Kevin Sumlin, but as Greg Moore writes in The Arizona Republic, it didn’t take long for either one to get the flavor.
9. The Pac-12 bowl picture will become significantly clearer after this weekend, but here’s the latest projection from Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News.
Wilner sticks with his pick of Washington in the Rose Bowl, though he’s finding it harder and harder to resist the power of the ’Stache. Should the Cougars lose this week or next, it will be interesting to see whether they stay high enough in the CFP rankings to earn a spot in the Fiesta Bowl.
Remember that the CFP committee assigns placement in the New Year’s Six games based on the committee’s rankings. It’s doubtful the Cougars (currently ranked eighth) could fall past No. 11 and still make the Fiesta Bowl.
10. Getting two teams in the New Year’s Six would bump every team up a spot in the bowl hierarchy. For Oregon, that could be the difference between the Holiday Bowl in San Diego and the Sun Bowl in El Paso.
The Ducks are guaranteed to finish behind Washington State, Washington and Utah, with a chance of finishing behind Stanford or Cal as well. But The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel says the Holiday Bowl is keen on Oregon, which makes you wonder if the Holiday might bypass 9-4 Utah for 8-4 Oregon if the Utes lose in the Pac-12 title game.
11. The Pac-12 will have at least one new coach next season with Colorado officially cutting ties with Mike MacIntyre. The website Ralphie Report has a nice eulogy for MacIntyre here, arguing he was the right man for the job in 2012 but the wrong person to take the Buffs any further.
12. And finally, sincere thanks to the many excellent writers around the Pac-12 who provided fodder for this column on a weekly basis, and to everyone who followed along this year. I hope you enjoyed reading this half as much as I enjoyed writing it.
And if I can leave you with one parting thought: Read more Liz Bruenig.