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Pac-12 Football: Appreciation in Spite of the College Football Playoff; COVID-19 Uncertainty

Pac-12 Football: Appreciation in Spite of the College Football Playoff; COVID-19 Uncertainty

Pac-12 Football: Appreciation in Spite of the College Football Playoff; COVID-19 Uncertainty

The 124th installment of the Oregon-Oregon State rivalry immediately goes down as one of the most remarkable in the series:

- An empty Reser Stadium as a result of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

- Enough fog to set the mood for a Pre-Code Hollywood horror flick.

- A Beavers comeback from down two scores in the second half.

- Controversial officiating on the game-deciding drive.

- Jermar Jefferson setting a record with 226 rushing yards in the clash for the Platypus, the end result of a performance that started with an 82-yard touchdown carry.

Seriously, people: Jefferson for Heisman.

And yet, in the moments following Oregon State's upset win, the broadcast threw back to a studio discussion of Oregon's diminished College Football Playoff prospects — which, by extension, are the Pac-12's diminished playoff prospects.

The omnipresence of the playoff since its inception in 2014 is exhausting. The championship game concludes typically a week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day; seemingly by Dr. King's day of remembrance, the national college football conversation turns to those two words the sport's punditry and marketers can't get enough of: Who's In?

It drones with the same incessant chorus described in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Telltale Heart." Perhaps it's fitting with the horror-movie fog that filled Reser Stadium, the refrain gained volume the closer Oregon State came to scoring a win deserving of discussion beyond the lens of how it affects Oregon's playoff chances.

In 2000, Oregon State alum Jonathan Smith quarterbacked the Beavers to their best season since the 1964 Rose Bowl campaign, if not the best year in program history period. Friday's win marked a new milestone in the monumental rebuilding job Smith inherited and now has moving ahead of schedule. Jefferson's outstanding play on the national stage should bolster what is the strongest Heisman candidacy to emanate from Corvallis since Terry Baker won the award in 1962. Oregon State's offensive renaissance continues despite the loss of an NFL quarterback (Jake Luton) and one of the greatest receivers in program history (Isaiah Hodgins).

All are great stories that deserve to live outside of the vacuum of Who's In.

The answer to that rhetorical question has been pretty standard since the playoff's inception: Not the Pac-12. Should the final four going on as played this season, the conference is likely to be excluded for the fourth consecutive year and fifth time in the tournament's seven all-time installments.

None of the past three seasons nor the current are comparable to 2003 or 2008, when the BCS left out USC teams that could be argued — and in the case of 2003 AP voters, was argued — were truly the nation's best. Stanford may have had a case in 2015, and Oregon under Mario Cristobal appears a "what if" or two away from emerging as that top-tier flag bearer — what if Joe Moorhead coordinated the 2019 offense, what if Penei Sewell hadn't opted out, etc.

But the problem with reducing the value of an entire league to having a single, dominant program is the failure to appreciate some fun — or, in the case of Oregon State's win this week — even historic football.

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With Oregon's loss, just one team remains unbeaten in the Pac-12 North... even if the road to staying perfect was treacherous.

Washington fell behind in its last-minute replace game against Utah, 21-0. Counting last year's thrilling Utes win at Husky Stadium, Saturday's initial onslaught gave Utah a 41-7 scoring run over two halves against Washington.

But the Huskies, after surrendering a two-score lead last year, had a receipt for the Utes this time around. Fittingly, Washington's hero in this unofficial Year of the Tight End was Cade Otton, whose eight receptions included two touchdowns. One was the game-winner.

Otton now has back-to-back 100-plus-yard receiving games, and is quietly having arguably the best season of any Pac-12 offensive player not named Jermar Jefferson. If Washington can continue on its current, inside track to reach a third Pac-12 Championship Game in five years, Jimmy Lake will be well on his way to continuing Chris Petersen's lofty legacy.

Uncertain Future

Washington's exciting conclusion to the weekend in Pac-12 football was a direct result of the tenuous reality for which COVID-19 has made for college football. Utah stepped in for Washington State, which had to cancel the Apple Cup for the first time since the height of World War II due to its inability to meet the 53-man roster threshold.

Washington State's lingering COVID-19 issues have already resulted in its scheduled contest with USC to be moved from Friday night to Sunday night. Likewise, the Trojans had to abandon this past weekend's game against Colorado. The Buffaloes remained undefeated with a win over fill-in San Diego State, but the scrapped matchup of the South's two unbeatens sours the chase for a Pac-12 Championship Game bid.

Not that the South's competition wasn't already wonky: Arizona State hasn't played since it gave up a two-touchdown lead in the waning minutes against USC on Nov. 7. The Sun Devils canceled their third straight game due to COVID issues, which freed up Utah for the impromptu matchup with Washington.

Arizona State is scheduled to host the lone South division team to play all four weeks thus far on the season, UCLA. But as the pandemic's grip on the nation tightens, Los Angeles County is implementing more restrictive policies. Sports and travel out of the area are not impacted, but the same cannot be said of Santa Clara County, where Stanford resides.

The Cardinal are slated to travel to Washington in the coming week, but the Dec. 12 date on The Farm against Oregon State appears destined for change.

If heightened COVID-19 protocols force Stanford to shut down prematurely, there's at least an iota of consolation in the Cardinal reclaiming the Stanford Axe.

Stanford's win on a Thomas Booker blocked PAT marks the wildest finish to the Big Game since Kevin Moen stampeded through the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band in 1982.

It's also the first Pac-12 rivalry game decided on a blocked extra point since Arizona State's James Brooks stuffed Alex Zendejas twice in the 2010 Territorial Cup.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

(Top photo courtesy OSUBeavers.com)