Ducks, Sun Devils hoping to keep focus
PHOENIX (AP) Oregon and Arizona State are in control-your-own-destiny territory, in the Pac-12 race and, quite possibly, the College Football Playoff.
Win out in the regular season and they’ll play each other in the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 5 in San Francisco. The winner of that game will be 12-1 and seemingly a lock for one of the four playoff spots.
The key will be to not look too far ahead. There are still places to trip up and spoil all those aspirations.
Here’s a look at what lies ahead for the Ducks and Sun Devils:
The Ducks, ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press Top 25, would be in the playoff if the season ended today. Oregon moved up to No. 2 in the latest playoff rankings, joining Mississippi State (1), Florida State (3) and TCU (4) among the teams in the coveted top four.
The Ducks lost to Arizona at home on Oct. 2, but the rest of their resume looks good, including an early season win over then-No. 7 Michigan State, along with road wins over UCLA and Utah, both ranked at the time. Oregon also cleared a big hurdle two weeks ago by knocking off Stanford, which had beaten the Ducks each of the past two seasons on the way to the Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl.
The Ducks clinched the Pac-12 North with last weekend’s 51-27 win over Utah, putting them at 9-1 overall and 6-1 in conference.
”A big, big win for a lot of reasons,” coach Mark Helfrich said.
But it came with a price.
Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, center Hroniss Grasu and tight end Pharaoh Brown all were injured against the Utes, with Brown suffering what Helfrich called a ”significant injury” after he was carted off the field.
Oregon has a bye this week to try and heal from what’s been a season full of injuries.
”We’re going to do something of a wait-and-see on a lot of things here,” Helfrich said.
The Ducks seemingly have a clear shot to the Pac-12 title game.
After the bye, Oregon faces struggling Colorado and figures to be a multiple-touchdown favorite. The regular-season finale is against another laboring team, Oregon State, but strange things can happen in rivalry games.
Arizona State has taken two massive steps to climb up the playoff rankings.
The first was on Oct. 18, when the Sun Devils beat Stanford, the team that rolled over them twice last season, including the Pac-12 Championship game in Tempe.
The next and perhaps bigger step came last week, when Arizona State showed the country it can win a big game by knocking off then-No. 8 Notre Dame 55-31 on national television.
The big-ticket victory moved the Sun Devils up to No. 6 in the playoff rankings and to No. 7 in the AP poll.
They may be outside the top four in the playoff rankings, but they’re right on the doorstep and still in control of the Pac-12 South.
”All the pieces of the puzzle are coming together,” ASU running back D.J. Foster said.
The Sun Devils just need to hold it together.
Their next game is on the road, against Oregon State. The Beavers have been struggling – four straight losses – but are playing at home in a game that will start at 8:45 p.m. local time.
Get past that, Arizona State must deal with the pass-happy offense of Washington State. The Cougars have struggled defensively, so the Sun Devils should get through that unscathed without a letdown.
But to earn a second straight spot in the Pac-12 title game, the Sun Devils will likely have to beat Arizona in the regular-season finale.
This rivalry game seems to get wilder every season and the Wildcats are not only good – No. 14 in playoff rankings, 17 in AP poll – they’ll be playing at home and with a chip on their shoulders after losing the past two games in the series.
”For us right now, the most important thing is to minimize distraction and focus fundamentally on getting better and continue to win games,” Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said. ”I want our players to believe that they are better than they are and I expect them to play like that on Saturday.”