Vegas, baby: Washington, Oregon aim for Pac-12 and CFP glory

Washington and Oregon go head-to-head in a program-defining Pac-12 Championship game that will determine which teams will compete in the College Football Playoff. (Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – In the penultimate rankings of the four-team College Football Rankings era, the Pac-12 conference was put in prime position to have one final go at the playoff. Even though the initial road looks clear for the winner, the exact trajectory is still foggy.

No. 3 Washington (12-0, 9-0 Pac-12) and No. 5 Oregon (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) are set to face off in Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium for the final Pac-12 Championship as we know it Friday night.

At first glance, it’s likely that the winner in Vegas would clinch a spot in the playoff. Where the winner ends up within the last four standing, however, can range from a relatively simple discussion, to one of the most compelling conversations about the No. 3 and 4 spots in CFP history.

Selection committee chair Boo Corrigan said it best Tuesday night after the rankings were released about the difficult decisions that lie ahead.

“There’s nothing easy about any part of this,” Corrigan said after a slight shakeup to the top four, with Georgia retaining the No. 1 spot, Michigan jumping to No. 2, Washington settling at No. 3 and Florida State slipping into No. 4.

Washington moved up to No. 3 after the Huskies’ close 24-21 Apple Cup victory against Washington State. Even though the game was not the most decisive, it showed glimpses of what the Huskies can be this season, with their defense shutting down the third-best passing offense in Division I.

It’s an impressive jump from their form earlier in the season, giving up 337 and 312 yards to Oregon and USC, respectively.

Washington also became the first team, and maybe the last, in the 12-team Pac-12 era to go 12-0 in the regular season. The 2010 Oregon Ducks were the last team to go 12-0, when the conference housed only 10 teams.

Corrigan briefly discussed the difference between Washington and No. 4 Florida State (12-0, 9-0 ACC), and the difficult advantage of having so many close teams.

“Not to be funny, but you can’t get closer than three and four,” Corrigan said. “The advantage we have this year, and I do believe it’s an advantage, we’ve got a lot of great teams, and we’ve got a lot of great choices to make.”

Oregon moved up to No. 5, as the Ducks continued their dominant streak in a 31-7 win at home against the Beavers of Oregon State. The Ducks have the second-highest scoring offense in the country (45.3 points per game), but their defense since their loss to the Huskies has catapulted them to the highest-ranked one-loss team.

Over the last two weeks, the Ducks defense has only given up 20 points combined, while shutting down an Oregon State squad that averaged 34 points per game on the year and throttling Arizona State, 49-13.

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Corrigan commented on the Ducks’ recent performance when discussing why they are the highest-ranked one-loss team in the rankings.

“Oregon has continued to dominate,” Corrigan said. “They just continue to impress the committee with their offense and their defense.”

As impressive as they have been, the Ducks will need to find a way to avenge their only loss of the season against the Huskies, in what may be one of the most important games in their respective recent histories.

In their regular-season matchup on Oct. 14, the game came down to the final play when Oregon kicker Camden Lewis missed a 43-yard field goal at the end of regulation to seal the 36-33 victory for Washington.

Both teams had their spurts during the game, with 965 yards of combined total offense, with Oregon quarterback Bo Nix and Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. putting up high-caliber performances.

Nix and Penix Jr. lead the top two passing offenses in the country, with plenty of expectations they will continue the high-flying performances that started in October, while the defenses will have to find ways to slow down the train on the other end.

The Ducks will look to limit the Huskies’ offense like they did last time, when Oregon had nearly 10 more minutes of possession. They will try to do this by attempting to shut down Washington’s star wide receiver Rome Odunze, forcing the Huskies to rely on their rushing attack which has had struggles at times throughout the year.

Washington needs to continue capitalizing on fourth-down attempts, as well as try and find a way to silence an Oregon offense that is one of the best in the country. The Huskies went 2-3 in their previous matchup on fourth down, while also forcing the Ducks to go 0-3 on their fourth-down tries.

This game will be decided by which defense can disrupt the opposition’s gameplan, after both sides struggled to bring their offense back on the field back in October.

The final Pac-12 champion of this era will practically lock in a playoff spot, but who and where they play will be a critical debate Saturday night into Sunday morning, when the final rankings will be revealed.

In the event that Washington wins, it would be nearly impossible to imagine the Huskies dropping from No. 3, with more potential to move up.

The only two scenarios that seem relatively possible to have Washington move up are if No. 1 Georgia (12-0, 8-0 SEC) and/or No. 2 Michigan (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten) lose in their respective conference championships.

In the more likely situation of Georgia falling to No. 8 Alabama (11-1, 8-0 SEC), the Huskies may move up to No. 2, with the Wolverines jumping to No. 1. In this case, Washington’s opponent would likely be Florida State in the event it wins the ACC Championship. If the Seminoles were to lose, it could be Texas or Alabama jumping up to the No. 3 spot.

Very similarly to the first example, if Michigan loses to heavy underdogs No. 16 Iowa in the Big Ten Championship, Washington may move up to No. 2.

For the more chaotic scenario, Washington can move up to the No. 1 team in the final rankings if Georgia and Michigan were to both lose, creating a scramble of one-loss teams battling for the final few spots.

The Ducks’ road may be slightly more complex depending on exactly where they land. With a win over Washington, Oregon would presumably jump Washington and enter the top four.

If the chaotic situation noted above were to occur (Oregon, Florida State, Alabama and Texas all winning) the Ducks’ final placement could range from No. 2 to No. 4, depending on how the selection committee views the complete line of work for all four teams.

Other than that, Oregon’s most likely spot would be at No. 3 or No. 4, if all of the teams above them win, with the potential of leaping over the Seminoles if they do not look great in their second game without quarterback Jordan Travis.

No. 15 Arizona (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12) and No. 20 Oregon State (8-4, 5-4 Pac-12) stayed in the rankings, with their eyes now on where they may end up during bowl season.

The Wildcats finished in third place in the conference, after a 3-6 finish in the Pac-12 in 2022, coach Jedd Fisch’s sophomore year. It’s been an extraordinary turnaround for a program that just a few years ago went 1-11 in the conference.

Even though the Wildcats missed out on playing in the Pac-12 Championship, they are in a great position to take on an unfamiliar opponent: the No. 12 Oklahoma Sooners (10-2, 7-2 Big-12).

It is not confirmed, but all signs point towards the Wildcats and Sooners going head-to-head in the Valero Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, on Dec. 28.

The bowl, which has been a Big 12 vs Pac-12 game for the last decade, traditionally takes the third-highest-ranked teams in each conference to face off at the Alamodome. This would be the second time each team has participated in the Alamo Bowl, and their first meeting since Sept. 16, 1989, when the Wildcats took down the Sooners 6-3 in Tucson.

The Beavers are currently projected to face off against another Big 12 team in Iowa State in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 16.

Oregon State will be without former head coach Jonathan Smith, who was hired by Michigan State to lead its program hours after the Beavers finished their season.

Fans and media personalities often enjoy exploring the hypothetical situations teams may enter on Selection Sunday, trying to paint a probable picture of what the final four may look like.

But for Washington and Oregon, one thing is clear: shut out all of the noise, focus on winning the final Pac-12 Championship of this era and earning a spot to potentially bring home the conference’s long-awaited CFP title.

College Football Playoff Selection Committee Rankings – Nov. 28, 2023

Georgia (12-0) (-)
Michigan (12-0) (+1)
Washington (12-0) (+1)
Florida State (12-0) (+1)
Oregon (11-1) (+1)
Ohio State (11-1) (-4)
Texas (11-1) (-)
Alabama (11-1) (-)
Missouri (10-2) (-)
Penn State (10-2) (+1)
Ole Miss (10-2) (+1)
Oklahoma (10-2) (+1)
LSU (9-3) (+1)
Louisville (10-2) (-4)
Arizona (9-3) (-)
Iowa (10-2) (+1)
Notre Dame (9-3) (+1)
Oklahoma State (9-3) (+2)
NC State (9-3) (+3)
Oregon State (8-4) (-4)
Tennessee (8-4) (-)
Tulane (11-1) (+1)
Clemson (8-4) (+1)
Liberty (12-0) (+1)
Kansas State (8-4) (-6)

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jesse Brawders expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in educational studies. Brawders is a freelance esports commentator.