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November 17, 2011

Week 12 preview in the Pac-12

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Now that Oregon has won its showdown with Stanford and is virtually assured of playing for the Pac-12 championship, it's time to focus on the on the Pac-12 sack race.

Err that's the Pac-12 South race. But considering the pratfalls in that division, that's an easy mistake to make. Each time a team seems to take control, it invariably trips and crashes.

THE SCHEDULE
Washington at Oregon State, 3:30 p.m.
Utah at Washington State, 5 p.m.
Colorado at UCLA, 7:30 p.m.
USC at Oregon, 8 p.m.
Arizona at Arizona State, 9:30 p.m.
California at Stanford, 10:15 p.m.
COMING FRIDAY
USC at Oregon is our national game of the week, and we will have a complete breakdown of that game on Friday.
Seriously, it's possible - though unlikely - the South Division winner could go 6-6 and be in danger of finishing with a losing season with a loss in the Pac-12 championship game, which technically would make that team ineligible for a bowl game.

With USC ineligible because of NCAA probation, this was supposed to be a golden opportunity for Arizona State to win the South and advance to the first Pac-12 championship game. And when the Sun Devils won at Utah on Oct. 8 to improve their record to 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the conference, that certainly appeared the case.

But since then Arizona State is 1-3, including back-to-back losses to UCLA and Washington State. Even if the Sun Devils win their remaining games against archrival Arizona and California, they still might need help to get into the championship game.

"We had a chance to be where we hadn't been before," Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson said. "I still look at the light at the end of the tunnel. If we win these last two football games, we have a chance to still win our division. We still have that opportunity. It's not totally gone."

Then there's UCLA. The Bruins were in the proverbial driver's seat after upsetting Arizona State two weeks ago. But last week, they were whipped 31-6 by Utah in Salt Lake City. Now, they're tied with Arizona State at 4-3 in the conference standings, though they remain in control of their own destiny with two games to play.

Those two opponents are Colorado - which is predicting victory against the Bruins after upsetting Arizona last week - and archrival USC.

"We have to turn the corner and start winning more games," said UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, who is feeling significant heat for the Bruins' mediocre showing in his four-year tenure. "There's no question about that. But we're in the hunt here in the Pac-12 South and we've got a big game this weekend and we're looking forward to it."

[Video: Should Oregon play for the BCS title?]

No doubt USC, with nothing else to play for, would relish the chance to knock its city rival out of the championship picture.

Utah, which is on a three-game winning streak, is back in the race despite losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn seven games ago and having a meager 3-4 conference record.

It almost seems that no team really wants to win the division.

And maybe no one does. After all, the "reward" for winning the South likely will be a trip to Autzen in December to face high-powered Oregon, which will be looking for its third consecutive conference championship and still may be holding out hope to get into the national championship game.

The Sun Devils already have lost to the Ducks by two touchdowns. UCLA lost by 47 the last time the Bruins went to Eugene.

Of course, the teams really do want to win the division. There still is the thrill of competition and accomplishment. There is glory in victory.

Even in a sack race.

Best matchup: Oregon's run offense vs. USC's run defense. The strength and explosiveness of Oregon's rushing offense is common knowledge. The Ducks average 291.8 yards per game to rank fifth in the nation. RB LaMichael James averages 150.9 rushing yards per game to lead the nation. Meanwhile, USC is eighth in the country in rushing defense. The Trojans have held seven opponents to 134 or fewer rushing yards. Besides James, three other Pac-12 running backs have rushed for 1,000 yards - Utah's John White, Cal's Isi Sofele and Washington's Chris Polk. The Trojans held each of the three to fewer than 60 rushing yards.

[Game tickets: Watch your favorite team in action]

Player on the spot: Colorado QB Tyler Hansen. Upon ending a seven-game losing streak with a victory over Arizona last week, Hansen guaranteed the Buffaloes would beat UCLA in Pasadena. That's big talk coming from a quarterback of a 2-9 team with a struggling offense. We'll see if he can back it up.

Keep an eye on: California S Sean Cattouse. One of Stanford QB Andrew Luck's best highlights came at Cattouse's expense. In last season's "Big Game," Luck ran over Cattouse in the open field. Cattouse had to endure the inevitable jokes, but he is looking for redemption. The Bears need him to play well to slow down Stanford's offense.

Numbers game: Arizona QB Nick Foles has set the school record for career passing yards with 9,289. He also holds school records for completions (865) and attempts (1,301). Foles has passed for at least 200 yards in 15 consecutive games.

Quotes of the week

"I told her to root for her baby. It wouldn't be the first time she rooted against me with him. Pool, basketball - it's all the same." - Colorado coach Jon Embree, on who his wife will root for when the Buffaloes play UCLA. Their son, Taylor, is a UCLA receiver

[Heisman Watch: Is Oregon's James in the top 5?]

"It's a prestigious award to who? Not to me. I only care about winning games." - Oregon RB LaMichael James, on the Heisman

"I think Oregon is very good this year. But I think they were better when we played them in the past." - USC QB Matt Barkley

Poll watch: With last week's road victory over Stanford, Oregon moved up to No. 4 in the BCS standings and still has outside hopes of reaching the BCS national championship game. Stanford fell to No. 9 in the BCS standings but could reach a BCS bowl if it wins its remaining regular-season games. Those are the only Pac-12 teams in the BCS standings. USC is ineligible for the BCS but is No. 18 in The Associated Press poll.

Etc.: Reports have Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne approaching former Florida coach Urban Meyer about the Wildcats' coaching position and Meyer saying he wasn't interested. Washington QB Keith Price reportedly has no structural damage in his sprained left knee, but his status remains questionable. Redshirt freshman Nick Montana, Joe's son, could get his first start. Washington State redshirt freshman QB Connor Halliday will make his first start after coming off the bench and setting a conference freshman record with 494 passing yards last week; that's the second-highest total in school history. Arizona State RB Cameron Marshall has rushed for at least one touchdown in seven consecutive games. WR Jamal Miles has set a school single-season record with two kickoff returns for touchdowns. He has three career kickoff returns for touchdowns, which also is a school record. Cal RB Isi Sofele has exceeded 1,000 yards rushing, marking the ninth season in the past 10 that the Bears have had a 1,000-yard rusher. Oregon aims to extend a 21-game home winning streak. The Ducks have 19 consecutive conference victories. Stanford QB Andrew Luck has thrown 74 career touchdown passes, second-most in school history. He needs four more to surpass the record set by John Elway. USC junior TB Curtis McNeal has exceeded 100 yards in three of the past four games and is coming off a career-high 148-yard output. Utah is 6-0 when John White has rushed for 100 yards. He's hit triple digits in four of the Utes' past five games. Oregon State DT Taylor Henry has quit the team to focus on academics. UCLA QB Kevin Prince will remain the starter although former starter Richard Brehaut is back from a broken leg. Oregon State has given up 27 first downs to opponents via penalties, the most in the nation. Stanford has scored at least 30 points in 13 consecutive games. USC now has had at least eight victories in 10 consecutive seasons. Senior WR James Rodgers has 218 career receptions and needs three more to set the Oregon State school record. Freshman WR Kasen Williams has led Washington in receiving in each of the past two games. Washington State WR Marquess Wilson has set a single-season school record with 1,197 receiving yards. He's only the second Washington State player with multiple 1,000-yard seasons.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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