Oregon vs. Washington kicks off epic three-way Pac-12 showdown

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By Samantha Rose

A few weeks before the college football season got underway, the Pac-12 sent a film crew to Lake Tahoe for a celebrity golf tournament. 

The detour, hours from any campus, was not designed to hit the links, but rather to snag a few minutes with some of the league’s most famous alumni — who would in turn form the basis for the latest marketing push emanating from the conference office. While in the past such an effort may have been centered on a few Hollywood luminaries who were affiliated with some of the 12 schools, this year’s marching orders were succinct: quarterbacks on quarterbacks.

The end result in cutting one of the Pac-12’s most notable promo reels was Stanford great John Elway and Cal legend Aaron Rodgers, among others, referencing some of the remarkable statistics and accomplishments their successors in the league had put up. Such a focus was only natural, not just because it centered on the most important position on the field, but because 2023’s group of starters is arguably the best collection of QBs the conference has ever seen.

Depending on who you ask, it might even be the best any conference has ever seen.

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Making such a declaration is best left to the end of the year marketing materials, but, as the summer heat has faded away for the changing colors and cooler temperatures of fall, it’s increasingly become apparent that the lofty preseason praise was warranted. Six games in, three of the five most efficient passers operate out West, and nearly half the league has a place among the top 10 passing offenses in FBS.

Even more fun? The best of them are about to face off against each other in a round-robin for the ages, a trio of games that should determine not only who makes it to Las Vegas for the conference title game, but who takes home some individual hardware, too.

Though there is plenty of melancholy around the league’s impending breakup in 2024, just about all involved have to be overjoyed that the schedule makers — and, perhaps ironically, the college football gods themselves — have fashioned a fitting final six weeks of the regular season that has the potential to serve up as many touchdowns as it does chances to potentially end the Pac-12’s seven-year College Football Playoff drought.

The Pac-12 is flourishing in college football

The Pac-12 is flourishing in college football

This week begins the gauntlet in earnest, as No. 8 Oregon travels to No. 7 Washington in a game that is the first Pac-12 matchup of teams 5-0 or better since, remarkably, 2004. It will pit the top two teams in the country in total offense against each other and is the first time the pair of bitter Pacific Northwest rivals will meet with both sporting a top-10 ranking.

“All the hoopla is going to happen, and then we’re going to get on the field, and it’s going to be another football game,” Huskies head coach Kalen DeBoer said this week. “It’s going to be about winning, just like it is every other game.”

[No. 8 Oregon at No. 7 Washington: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET]

Though the Ducks have had the upper hand for much of the past two decades, winning 15 of the last 18 among the rivals, it was this contest last year when the purple and gold announced they were back on the national stage amid DeBoer’s debut campaign on Montlake. Washington scored 10 unanswered points in the final three minutes of a game that featured six lead changes, with many around the country seeing for the first time what a fully healthy Michael Penix Jr. (408 yards, two touchdowns) was capable of as he outdueled opposite number Bo Nix (335 total yards and three scores).

“It’s one I’m looking forward to just because of last year and how it ended,” said Nix on Tuesday. “Each game from here on out is going to serve a big purpose, they’re all going to be big games. We just have to go execute and do our jobs.”

Though Nix was injured late in the last meeting, he enters Saturday playing as well as he ever has since arriving in Eugene from Auburn two years ago. The senior played into the fourth quarter in only one of the team’s five wins, and he’s thrown just one interception against 15 touchdown passes as Oregon has outscored opponents by 39.8 points per game.

Cody Kessler ranks his Top 5 QBs in the Pac-12

Cody Kessler ranks his Top 5 QBs in the Pac-12

Statistically, Nix not only leads the country in completion percentage (80.4%) but is on pace to break the all-time mark as well. He is the fifth most efficient quarterback in FBS after six weeks of play, and his 184.7 rating is just a hair off of school legend Marcus Mariota’s mark when the latter made the playoff and won the Heisman, too.

“We have a ton of respect for Bo Nix and what he does, he’s a great athlete, a great quarterback who does it all,” added DeBoer, who has engineered the longest active winning streak outside of Georgia. “But for (Penix Jr.), it’s about doing his thing because we know the level he can operate at — it’s elite. If he’s himself and stays within his means and trusts his teammates, big things are going to happen every Saturday for him.”

Indeed, much like Nix, the second season of a second act for Penix Jr. is going about as well as he possibly could have hoped. The former Indiana signal-caller leads the country in total yards per game, passing yards per game and yards per attempt — an unfathomable 11.2 yards a throw that is indicative of just how much he’s let it lose down the field.

Of course, it helps to have the best collection of targets in the country. Big play machine Rome Odunze (19 yards per catch) leads the Pac-12 in receiving despite having just a tick over six catches per game and is one of three Huskies receivers averaging better than 15 yards per reception. Sophomore Germie Bernard isn’t far behind in giving the team a fourth but will likely make way on Saturday for Jalen McMillan after the junior appears set to return to action for the first time since the win over Michigan State in mid-September.

McMillan controls the middle of the field extremely well and opens up plenty for teammates like Ja’Lynn Polk when opponents drop into zone coverages. Tight ends Josh Cuevas and Jack Westover have also combined for five touchdowns and give another dimension in short yardage and the red zone.

Caleb Williams or Michael Penix Jr. for the Heisman?

Caleb Williams or Michael Penix Jr. for the Heisman?

“They’ve done a great job schematically finding ways for (Penix Jr.) to throw people open. He’s got great vision down the field, and he’s also being well protected,” remarked Oregon coach Dan Lanning. “A lot of times you want to go into the week and say you can’t let this one guy beat us. The reality is for them, they have several guys they can get the ball to.”

As enticing a matchup as Saturday will be on an overcast afternoon in Seattle, both the winner and loser will have to quickly turn the page as the calendar offers no chance to reflect on the final outcome. Because of the round-robin nature of the upcoming schedule and the fact that the two top teams in the Pac-12 standings will make it to Vegas for the title game, every contest is not quite an elimination from further success as much as it is an opportunity to get ahead on fellow conference rivals.

Both Nix, whose likeness dotted billboards in Times Square this offseason, and Penix Jr., who saw Washington launch a Heisman campaign this week surrounding his play, will also have to deal with the matter of a certain upcoming opponent in cardinal and gold — and the inevitable comparisons there will be to the country’s reigning most outstanding player.

[Washington at USC: Nov. 4]

Though USC’s Caleb Williams is taking a brief break from conference play this week to travel to South Bend for the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football against Notre Dame, the heavy favorite to go No. 1 overall in next spring’s NFL Draft has been just as dazzling with the ball in his hands as he was in authoring his own Hollywood script last season. The junior leads the country in touchdown passes and has accounted for at least four scores in every game this season — the only FBS player who can claim such a feat.

The Trojans lead the country in scoring (51.8 PPG) as a result and are the only Pac-12 team in a decade to score 40-plus points in six straight games.

[USC at Oregon: Nov. 11]

Williams is ahead of where he was at this point in last year’s Heisman-winning campaign in virtually every category, but the tricky thing for both he and his team is that he’s largely needed to become Superman every time he steps out onto the field because of USC’s continued defensive woes.

Following back-to-back one-score wins over Colorado and Arizona, embattled defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s unit is 112th in total defense and 79th in FBS in points allowed (27 PPG). To be fair, they have been able to apply pressure to the opposing signal-caller (22 sacks leads the league) but that’s balanced out quite a bit by allowing the most plays of 20-plus yards by any Power 5 team.

Oregon’s Bo Nix on Ducks culture and the atmosphere at Autzen

Oregon's Bo Nix on Ducks culture and the atmosphere at Autzen

“We wouldn’t have won that game without the defense,” an annoyed Williams told reporters after beating Arizona in triple overtime last week, trying to quash the bubbling narrative in Los Angeles. “We were down 17-0. This whole defense thing, our brothers, the score wouldn’t be 43-41 without them. Put it simply that way.”

Whether that can hold up against the barrage they’ll have to face over the coming weeks remains one of the bigger storylines as we reach the cusp of playoff rankings season. Five of their final six games are against teams currently in the top 25, and it was at this point last season when a tough road game in a hostile environment tripped up Lincoln Riley’s team.

“Caleb was exactly right, we’re not trying to hide from the areas we have to make improvement from (defensively),” said Riley, interestingly wearing a College Football Playoff hoodie after practice on Tuesday. “Do you show continued growth? That’s what will continue to get written throughout the entire year. There’s a lot of great things happening, and we’ll own the things that need to get better.”

One silver lining for the Trojans, who have continued to drop in the polls despite being undefeated and on the verge of their best start since 2005? They’re hardly alone in facing a difficult path forward.

Washington travels to the Coliseum on Nov. 4, followed by a pair of home games against Utah and Washington State sandwiched around a trip to Corvallis — potentially four ranked opponents to end the regular season for the Huskies.

USC’s Caleb Williams seals OT victory over Arizona

USC's Caleb Williams seals OT victory over Arizona

Oregon’s slate has a few more breathers baked in (home against Cal and at Arizona State next month) but still includes a gauntlet of Washington State on Oct. 21 and a trip to play the Utes at Rice-Eccles — where the Ducks haven’t won since a last-second victory in 2016 — the following week. They then host the Trojans and Beavers in November.

It has the potential to be as spectacular as everybody imagined when seeing roster after roster reload coming into the year.

The Pac-12, whether it wanted to or not, has been the focal point in college football for much of this early section of the season. Between media rights speculation over the summer to the crippling waves of realignment to the transfixing rebuild of Deion Sanders beneath the Flatirons, there certainly has been no shortage of attention on the “Conference of Champions.”

Now, however, the interest is about to zero in on everything that is about to happen between the lines — from prolific quarterbacks to the playoff hopefuls they captain — as the grand dénouement out West takes shape up and down the Pac-12 standings.

“Because of where we’re at in our seasons, and the records, and the rankings — it certainly means a lot,” noted DeBoer.

No promo needed to understand that.

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Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.



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