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Pac-12 Power Rankings: Clay Helton’s clock is ticking at USC

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Goodyear Cotton Bowl - USC v Ohio State Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Power rankings are often all the same, so we’re mixing things up. Each week you’ll get a rundown of 12 or fewer highlights, storylines and anything in between from the Conference of Champions.

What a weird week in the Pac-12. Every underdog won, including Cal against the Washington Huskies and the Oregon State Beavers on the road against the Colorado Buffaloes, thanks to a huge comeback.

The Oregon Ducks laid an egg, and USC was down to its third-string quarterback (it didn’t end well).

Plus, your Washington State Cougars are the darlings of the national media and the Pac-12’s only hope at the College Football Playoff.

Let’s get to this week’s power rankings!

1. Clay Helton should probably hire a realtor soon

USC v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

We had a good chat on our Slack channel this week about Clay Helton of the USC Trojans. Here’s a guy who won 11 games last year and the Pac-12 title, 10 games the year before and the Rose Bowl, and helped right the ship after the Steve Sarkisian fiasco en route to a Pac-12 South title in 2015.

And yet, the Trojans are 4-4 heading into November and Helton will most likely be canned at the end of the season, if not before. Helton already fired his offensive line coach and took away play-calling duties from Tee Martin.

Helton won’t be fired for his resume at USC. He’ll be fired because the road ahead for USC doesn’t look pretty. The Audible podcast this week referenced the old Pete Carroll line: You don’t have to recruit to USC, you have to evaluate. It doesn’t look like Helton has evaluated all that well (there have been injuries, too) and the program isn’t headed in the right direction.

2. The College Football Playoff committee likes WSU

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Head Coaches News Conference Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

There were a ton of reasons—valid and not—to rank WSU lower than eighth: its non-conference schedule, the loss to floundering USC, the weakness of the Pac-12, Pacific Standard Time, etc. But nope! The Cougs are in a good position, all things considered. Win out, and they’ll be in the conversation.

FiveThirtyEight puts WSU’s CFP chances at 14 percent this week. There is still a lot of football to be played, and all sorts of scenarios could play out. ESPN’s Heather Dinich has an interesting piece that uses ESPN’s analytics to project different scenarios. Something interesting: The analytics apparently say a two-loss Big Ten Champion Michigan Wolverines would be ranked ahead of a 12-1 Washington State. Hmmmmmm.

3. Gardner Minshew’s Heisman hype train is gaining steam

Washington State v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It definitely helped that Stewart Mandel, one of the more nationally known college football writers, was in attendance to see Minshew dominate against Stanford. A week after a straw poll of writers from The Athletic gave Minshew just one third-place vote, those same writers gave him 16 third-place votes and one second-place vote. ESPN has Minshew fourth in its “Experts’ Poll,” just one point out of third.

Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa pretty much has the award wrapped up, and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins could make a bit of a case, too. Getting Minshew to New York for the ceremony would be a huge accomplishment for him, for WSU and for Air Raid quarterbacks everywhere.

4. There’s drama on Montlake

Washington v California Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Boy, that couldn’t have gone any worse for the Washington Huskies, could it? Jake Browning gets yanked and almost immediately, backup Jake Haener throws a pick six. The Huskies lost by just two points in a game that was allergic to offense.

Not only that, but it was clear Browning was upset about being yanked and it showed on the sidelines as he talked to Chris Petersen.

Two things are at play here:

  1. The Huskies have a new offensive coordinator this season in Bush Hamdan. Jonathan Smith was the play caller last year but he’s leading Oregon State now. It’s clear that change hasn’t been as good as it needs to be.
  2. Jake Browning is a four-year starter who hasn’t seemed to progress as most would expect. Browning’s teammates have come and gone in the past four years, but Coug fans can relate to having frustration at a quarterback who has seemed to regress after so many starts.

5. Evan Weaver’s pick six got lots of cheers in Spokane

Weaver, the only Cal player to see the end zone on Saturday, grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep. I watched a number of his high school games and it was fun seeing a guy his size play running back and plow over poor defensive linemen in the Greater Spokane League who were 5’10 and 190 pounds.

It’s always good when the local kids have success, and Weaver has been key for the Golden Bears this year.

I often see an SUV driving the streets near my neighborhood with two big Cal and G-Prep decals on its back window and I assume it’s the Weaver family vehicle. Evan is sure to have a big cheering section in Pullman this weekend.

6. The Pac-12 has the same number of teams in the AP Top 25 as the American Athletic Conference and the Mountain West Conference

NCAA Football: Utah at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

That’s not something to be proud of. The SEC leads the way with seven teams ranked, while the ACC and Big Ten each have four. The Big 12 has three while WSU and Utah are carrying the Pac-12 flag.

But, the Pac-12 has had plenty of teams ranked at some point this season. As Matt Brown of The Athletic notes:

“Nine of 12 Pac-12 teams have appeared in the AP Top 25 this season, but only two are there now: Washington State and Utah. Matchups like Oregon-Washington and Oregon-Stanford got a lot of attention in the first half of the season, while hardly anybody paid attention when the Cougars beat the Utes 28-24 on Sept. 29. It’s starting to look like that was actually a preview of the Pac-12 title game.”

7. N’Keal Harry makes another highlight

It’s been a few weeks since we’ve highlighted Harry. He gave us two good reasons to do so this week.

First, his crucial 92-yard punt return touchdown:

Next, this incredible catch:

This guy is good.

8. Oregon State doesn’t beat Colorado without former WSU commit Isaiah Hodgins and a gutsy play call.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

You can’t win a game in the third quarter but you can definitely lose it. Or something like that.

The Beavers were doing Beaver things and found themselves down 31-3 in the third quarter at Colorado. Facing a 4th-and-2 from the Colorado eight-yard line, the Beavers opted to go for it and quarterback Jake Luton found Hodgins in the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown.

If the Beavers turn it over on downs there, the comeback probably doesn’t happen.

9. Remember when Colorado was ranked?

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It was only a few weeks ago when the Colorado Buffaloes were the darlings of the Pac-12. They were the only undefeated team and ranked in the top 25. There was even chatter about the UW-Colorado matchup being a possible College GameDay location (AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED?)

Now? The Buffs have lost three in a row, including Saturday’s loss to the Pac-12 basement Beavers. They go to Arizona on Friday, get WSU and Utah at home, and finish the season on the road at Cal. A few weeks ago that schedule seemed manageable. Not anymore.

10. We are all Brittany Thackery

Thackery is the manager of player personnel for the WSU football team. As you can see, she was quite excited as Mike Leach stoically stood by.