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Pac-12 Power Rankings: Oregon’s driving the bus

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Oregon v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/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.

We’re starting to get a little clarity in the Pac-12, at least in the North. The South is seemingly a two-team race, but the conference is a circus this season, which we touch on below. Plus, a new hand gesture that might make our rivals mad hits the airwaves, and a blind former football player comes to the aid of Lane Kiffin. What? You’ll see.

1. Oregon is in control in the North

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon’s come-from-behind 35-31 win over the Washington Huskies on Saturday gave the Ducks a solid lead in the Pac-12 North. How solid? Well, they have a two-game lead in the loss column over the Oregon State Beavers and a three-game lead in the loss column over Stanford, Washington, Cal and WSU. The Ducks get two Air Raid teams in a row up next (WSU and USC), and their toughest game the rest of the way is at Arizona State on Nov. 23.

Oregon’s defense is clicking, thanks to former Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos. Duck fans might want to check prices to Santa Clara and clear their schedules on Dec. 7.

2. Believe it or not, USC controls its own destiny in the South

NCAA Football: Arizona at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to a head-to-head win over the Utah Utes, the USC Trojans can win the South if they win out. Both the Utes and Trojans are 3-1 in conference play but neither team has a clear path to running the table the rest of the way. Utah visits Washington on Nov. 2 and USC hosts Oregon that same day. The Trojans also visit Arizona State on Nov. 9 and are dealing with lots of injuries.

But who could have thought the Trojans would be in this position after injuries forced them to start a third-string quarterback earlier this season, as well as the drama surrounding head coach Clay Helton, not to mention a vacant athletic director position?

Utah has the least difficult schedule the rest of the way, but it wouldn’t surprise me if USC’s roller coaster season gave us another unexpected outcome. Why? Because.....

3. The Pac-12 is absolutely bonkers

NCAA Football: Oregon State at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Wazzu’s circus loss to UCLA was one thing. UCLA then going out and beating Stanford was another. Oregon State beating Cal was, shall we say, unexpected, but Cal was starting a rookie and third-string quarterback.

Cal isn’t the only team to go down the bench of quarterbacks. USC and Stanford have as well.

Arizona State seems to be legit, and Washington is clearly not. WSU has endured its share of drama, what with its defensive coordinator quitting mid-season and all. Colorado had a big win over Nebraska and for the second season in a row, people thought the Buffaloes might actually be good. Welp!

We’re only halfway through the season, folks. More crazy business is upon us.

4. Sorry Utah, but it’s Oregon’s College Football Playoff hopes that are are still alive

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Had the Ducks lost to Washington, the Pac-12 would be assured of another winter without a playoff team. But Oregon’s still hanging around in the rankings. There are six undefeated teams ahead of the Ducks, though four of those teams still play each other (Ohio State-Penn State and Alabama-LSU).

But there are some Pac-12 believers out there.

As has been the case since Oregon blew a big lead against the Auburn Tigers to open the season, the Ducks need a lot of help. The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel pointed out a disaster scenario for a one-loss P5 conference champ, after Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa went out:

All of which leads us to … the CFP committee’s worst nightmare. You could see it coming from the moment Tua headed the locker room Saturday night. LSU edges Alabama and goes on to win the SEC, but Tua either doesn’t play or is clearly not himself. Once he returns, he easily leads Alabama to an 11-1 finish. The committee, which we know accounts for significant injuries, gives Alabama a mulligan for the LSU loss and puts both the Tigers and Tide in the Playoff at the expense of a 12-1 Power 5 champ elsewhere.

I really hope Tua recovers exceptionally quickly, because that’s a potential headache we could all stand to avoid.

Alabama winning out would seem to help Oregon, but everything could change in a week, of course.

Should the Utes run the table, they’ll have a loss to USC and a win over Oregon. Will that be enough? The Utes might need a little more chaos than Oregon does.

5. Dubs Down is a hand gesture I can get behind

Courtesy of @JustinWulf7

Like Horns Down before it, and Max Borghi’s Forks Down last week, Dubs Down is the next college football hand gesture to enter the public space. Can’t wait for the Pac-12 to start penalizing it. It clearly irks one Seattle radio station employee (NSFW language here).

6. Washington was penalized for a sneaky kick return, which is (only sort of) a shame

Here’s what happened: UW lined up to receive a kick from Oregon. Chico McClatcher laid down in the UW end zone after the ball was kicked to conceal his presence. It worked! Aaron Fuller took the kick to the right, stopped, and threw a pass to a wide open McClatcher on the other side of the field—the side where the Oregon players had vacated. McClatcher got a great return and gave UW good field position.

But the refs flagged it for unsportsmanlike conduct, forcing Chris Petersen to give them his angry face. Petersen explained after the game that he got four different explanations, which means he got zero explanations. Surprising? No.

Christian Caple of The Athletic got his hands on the rulebook and indicated that the rule is vague and allows the officials some broad judgment.

Here’s Caple:

I perused the NCAA rulebook in search of a section pertaining to that kind of play, but there doesn’t appear to be anything specific. Rather, my assumption was that it fell under the more general “unfair tactics” or “unfair acts” categories, which seemingly grant officials broad authority over determining whether an act of deception constitutes unsportsmanlike conduct.

A Pac-12 spokesperson confirmed that suspicion after I reached out Sunday morning, writing in an email: “The play was officiated properly in accordance with Rule 9-2-3c. ‘An obviously unfair act not specifically covered by the rules is a foul for unsportsmanlike conduct.’”

Banner Society has a piece on teams hiding players and the ball over the years and takes the NCAA rules to task.

The rules need to be clear, and I’d advocate for there not being a rule against this at all. Oregon State used the same trick against WSU last year:

Football is a game of wits, and whoever outwits his opponent will have the upper hand. Why get rid of that?

7. Steven Montez is probably glad he never has to play Wazzu ever again

Ouch! Two of those games were in a Pullman rain storm, but the home quarterbacks did just fine. It’s incredible to me that Colorado hasn’t thrown for a touchdown against WSU since 2012.

8. Turnover happens whenever a new coach is hired, but what’s happening at UCLA is a bit much

UCLA v Stanford Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It’s inevitable that a new coaching staff will want its own players and weed out players that don’t fit, for one reason or another. But the UCLA Bruins have lost 63 players in the 1.5 seasons Chip Kelly has been in town. That’s an entire travel squad! It’s also one reason why the Bruins are struggling so much. That puts a program in a hole that takes a while to dig out, and we’ll see if UCLA’s new athletic director has any patience for such a rebuild.

9. Jake Olson brings it on Twitter

Background: Lane Kiffin criticized Conference USA officiating when he tweeted a photo of three blind mice dressed as football officials and was fined. Olson, who was USC’s blind long snapper, brought the fire.

10. Pac-12 refs’ reputation is well-known across the country

Pac-12 Game of the Week

Washington State vs. Oregon

About those Oregon playoff hopes? Let’s eliminate them this week, shall we?

Oregon is good, but it hasn’t faced an offense quite like WSU’s this season. We all know about the four-year winning streak, and that nobody on Oregon’s roster has beaten WSU. The Ducks have no room for error and the Cougs suddenly have a good foundation to build off. Sure, it was one game against lowly Colorado, but it’s something.

Plus, it’s that time of week where optimism creeps in, regardless of what Bill Connelly thinks.

Go Cougs.