No front-runner emerging in Pac-12 South

BY foxsports • November 16, 2011

The UCLA Bruins had a frustrating flight back from Utah, believing their hold on the Pac-12's South Division was gone after a lopsided loss to the Utes.

Once they arrived at the airport, their outlook had changed.

On the TV screen was the score of Arizona State's game against Washington State. The Cougars had beaten the Sun Devils and UCLA's lead in the South, earned with its victory over Arizona State the week before, was still intact.

''The realization that we were still alive came as a little bit of a what-can-be type of moment,'' UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said Tuesday. ''Hopefully, it will cause us to have the best week of practice all year, and that's what we need.''

The Pac-12 North has been two front-runners and a bunch of chasers all season. No. 4 Oregon, barring an unforeseen slipup, all but wrapped up the division title with its impressive win over No. 8 Stanford in the Bay Area on Saturday night.

The race for the South has featured a jumble of teams knocking each other off each week, leaving no clear-cut favorite and the possibility that one team could back into the inaugural Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 2.

Had Southern California been eligible for the postseason, none of this likely would have mattered. The 18th-ranked Trojans lead the division at 5-2 and 8-2, overall, but another year of NCAA sanctions is keeping them out of the Pac-12 title game, no matter their record.

That leaves the rest of the division to fight it out for a second-place finish that will open the door to the title game.

''It's just one of those years where there's a lot of competition down there, everything's jumbled up,'' Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. ''Of course, SC, who's having a pretty good year, isn't eligible and that would change the perception of how that is coming out of that division.''

UCLA (5-5, 4-3) is in control of the South, at least for now.

All but written off after a blowout loss to an Arizona team that had just fired its coach, the Bruins grabbed the South Division lead by beating Arizona State 29-28 on Nov. 5.

Tied with the Sun Devils and with the tiebreaker in hand, UCLA couldn't keep the momentum going and was run off the field by Utah's John White in what appeared to be a debilitating 31-6 loss on Saturday.

It wasn't quite so bad when the Bruins learned what had happened to Arizona State.

The Sun Devils (6-4, 4-3) appeared to be in control of the South after rolling over Colorado on Oct. 29. Their momentum quickly ran out with the loss to UCLA, a game they could have won had Alex Garoutte made a 46-yard field goal at the final buzzer.

Given another chance with UCLA's loss to Utah, Arizona State foundered again, allowing Washington State's backup quarterback, freshman Connor Halliday, to throw for 494 yards and four touchdowns.

''Obviously, we were playing well early and have stumbled the last couple of weeks,'' Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. ''There's a lot of equality and people knocking each other off, more than anything.''

It all comes down to the final two weeks.

UCLA can take the South by winning its final two games, against Colorado and USC. Problem is, the Buffaloes appear to be getting better - they beat Arizona last week - and the Trojans have been the best team in the division most of the season.

Arizona State finishes the season with games against rival Arizona this weekend and against California in its finale. Neither one will be easy unless the Sun Devils improve dramatically. And they'll still need help from the Bruins.

Utah, at 3-4 and 6-4 overall, still has a shot despite losing its first four Pac-12 games. The way the season has gone in the South, don't be surprised if that's how it turns out.

''In the South, nobody wants to grab it, take it,'' Erickson said.

Whether they grab it or back in, someone's going to win the South. The reward? Oregon in the conference title game.

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