Nearly four months ago, UCLA was listed as an early favorite almost through its entire 2014 schedule. The exception? Mighty Oregon, just a year removed from four straight BCS bowls, and an early three-point favorite.
My, how things have changed.
UCLA stumbled out of the gate, collecting three uneven wins before stomping on then-No. 15 Arizona State last Thursday. The Bruins still have question marks, but they’re on the upswing, and back in the hearts and minds of at least a few national pundits. One ESPN analyst has them in the San Francisco Bowl, but another picked the Fiesta Bowl. CBS Sports has slotted UCLA back into the Sugar Bowl, as the No. 4 seed in a national semifinal against Alabama.
The No. 2 Ducks, meanwhile, might have cost themselves national title hopes with their 31-24 loss at home last night to Arizona — the most surprising undefeated team left in the country. (Earlier this week, Yahoo! Sports’ Pat Forde wrote this of the Wildcats: “Chances of being unbeaten by Halloween: zero.”)
Oregon’s hopes aren’t done yet, but it looks like a team that’s going to drop another game or two before the season is over. The Ducks’ offensive line isn’t keeping star quarterback Marcus Mariota upright, and its defense is getting gashed in embarrassing fashion. Among the Wildcats’ highlights last night: a true freshman running over an All-American cornerback, and a simple run up the middle to convert a late third-and-20.
Arizona might be for real, but it also needed a Hail Mary to beat Cal a week ago. The Wildcats don’t have inertia in the polls yet, and thus have less room for error if they drop a game or two.
By virtue of preseason hype, UCLA does have that room, though it got slimmer with Oregon’s loss. If the Bruins get past Utah tomorrow, beating the Ducks next Saturday at 12:30 p.m. on FOX won’t be as impressive given that UCLA will likely be higher-ranked.
UCLA hasn't been the Pac-12's highest-ranked team since Oct. 21, 2001 AP poll. Could happen again if it beats Utah. pic.twitter.com/EQDGZI3APr
— Jack Wang (@thejackwang) October 3, 2014
But it’s become clear that the Pac-12 North isn’t the powerhouse that it has been since the conference expanded, with either Cal or Washington State to take the division lead by the end of the weekend. That hurts the reputation of the league a bit nationally, but it also makes the Pac-12 South winner’s task a little less daunting.
As Jon Wilner of the Bay Area News Group points out, if Stanford loses to Notre Dame, UCLA might be the conference’s last hope at making the inaugural College Football Playoff. We’ll see what happens Saturday.