Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Pac-12 Balance of Power Shifts North

By Adam Russell

Although there are still a handful of games remaining in the season, it's pretty safe to say that the balance of power has officially shifted north in the Pac-12. With three teams in the BCS top 14 and a sweep so far of the two South Division powers, the North Division clearly has the upper hand in the conference.

Checking the past 10 years of Pac-10/12 conference champions, the first seven of those years saw only two schools currently in the North Division winning titles, with both Washington State and California sharing the top spot with Southern Cal. USC won four conference titles outright during that span and shared another with current South Division foe Arizona State.

But the past three years have shown a definite shift in power for the conference. The Oregon Ducks have won the last three conference titles and are the odds-on favorite to win a fourth. The North Division is 12-7 against the South teams so far this year. Three teams are already bowl eligible and a fourth is just one win away from joining the list. Last season, four teams from the North Division played in bowl games while only three made it from the South (although each division's paltry one win apiece in those post-season games was not indicative of the season overall).

The North, however, can cement its dominance over the South with a couple more games down the stretch. The only inter-division regular season game of note left is UCLA against Stanford after Thanksgiving, and of course the Pac-12 championship game, which could be a rematch between Oregon and UCLA if both schools can win out in the rest of their schedules.

In the South, UCLA is the front-runner ahead of USC, with those two scheduled to lock horns in two weeks before the Bruins take on Stanford to close out the season. The Trojans, meanwhile, have a tilt with Arizona State (just a game behind) this week before the Battle for L.A. and the season finale with Notre Dame (which could be a BCS-buster for the Fighting Irish).

But the BCS could also hang in the balance for a couple North Division schools in these final weeks. Stanford has the toughest battle ahead with Oregon State, Oregon, and UCLA left on the schedule. All three teams are in the BCS top 20 and Stanford would bolster its BCS ranking significantly with wins over all three and could end up with an at-large bid to a BCS bowl game. Oregon and Oregon State share nearly identical schedules, with Stanford, Cal, and each other left on the schedule.

A loss by Oregon State in either of the northern Cal games would give the division title to Oregon, provided the Ducks beat both Cal and Stanford — the Civil War would then be relegated to the "bitter rivalry" heap that is the end of the season. But if both Oregon schools can get by both Bay Area schools, then the Civil War becomes another winner take all affair as it was a couple years ago.

I haven't seen the odds yet, but I'm sure that Vegas is banking on one of the North Division schools to win the Pac-12 title. With their wins thus far over the South Division leaders, I would bet that Oregon, Oregon State, or Stanford could beat any of them again and take the championship. But then again, strange things can happen in college football in November, so I'm not laying down my paycheck just yet.

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