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Pac-12 Football: Unusual Season Calls for Unusual Championship; Red-Zone Nightmares

Pac-12 Football: Unusual Season Calls for Unusual Championship; Red-Zone Nightmares

Pac-12 Football: Unusual Season Calls for Unusual Championship; Red-Zone Nightmares

If the 2020 college football season has proven nothing else, it's that scheduling can have much more fluidity so long as involved parties agree. Take USC's 38-13 rout of Washington State, moved from Friday to Sunday in response to COVID-19 protocols.

The win presents the Trojans with what head coach Clay Helton called a great opportunity in their matchup with rival UCLA: Win, and they're in the Pac-12 Championship Game. What's more, with every team in the North having lost, USC would host the league title game.

But the scheduling fluidity that has marked this unusual season — not just in the Pac-12, but around the nation — should be exercised again if Colorado wins next week against Utah.

The Trojans and Buffaloes are the last two remaining undefeated teams in the conference, both sitting at 4-0. USC has the inside track on winning the South, however, by virtue of all four wins coming against league opponents. Colorado beat San Diego State out of the Mountain West on Nov. 28, 20-10 — coincidentally, a fluid move made after USC had to cancel the Buffs' visit to Los Angeles.

Now, a rescheduled USC-Colorado matchup for the final week of the regular season makes sense; neither UCLA nor Utah factor into the championship race. With all due respect to the Rumble in the Rockies, the fledgling Colorado-Utah series lacks the history to call it a true rivalry. Los Angeles' Crosstown Showdown, however, dates back more than 90 years and continued through World War II.

COVID-19 could theoretically accomplish what a global conflict didn't, but placement in the championship game of a severely shortened season? No — the solution is to abandon the divisional distinctions if the situation calls for it.

Candidate Karl

National Coach of the Year honors may be locked up for 2020 — Jamey Chadwell's Coastal Carolina bunch ranking in the College Football Playoff polls and setting Sun Belt Conference records in just the Chanticleers' fourth FBS campaign makes him hard to beat — but Colorado's Karl Dorrell deserves to at least be in the conversation.

The Buffaloes' overachievement, even in a truncated schedule, defies virtually all outside expectations. But what makes Dorrell's debut season particularly commendable are the circumstances leading to his arrival in Boulder.

Mel Tucker tendered his resignation on Feb. 12, 29 days before the cancelation of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament. Dorrell was introduced on Feb. 24, less than three weeks before COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill. Programs were on somewhat level ground with spring practices wiped out for the majority, but Colorado hardly had an opportunity to even meet its new coaching staff.

That makes some of the personnel gambles Dorrell and Co. took all the more impressive. Quarterback Sam Noyer has earned praise in this space previously for his seamless transition back from playing safety — not that he doesn't still show some of that defensive aggression.

Jarek Broussard has been an absolute revelation at running back, and the defense has made steady strides since allowing 42 points to UCLA in the opener. It's been an all-around impressive showing for the Buffs, and Dorrell's work is arguably the most surprising anywhere in college football.

D is Key

With its 25-18 win at Arizona State, UCLA moved above .500 for the first time in the Chip Kelly era. Kelly arrived in Westwood celebrated for his offensive chops, formed at FCS New Hampshire under future Hall of Famer Sean McDonnell, matured at Oregon alongside Mike Bellotti, then bloomed into game-changing philosophy in his four seasons as Ducks head coach.

However, the most promising stretch of his three years with the Bruins is owed to defense.

"I've been really proud of how our defense has played all season long," Kelly said in his postgame press conference. "We have a bunch of kids over there that play football extremely hard."

UCLA is holding opponents below 13 points per game in its wins, and after racking up five sacks on Saturday, ranks eighth in the nation with 3.6 per game. Caleb Johnson made two at Arizona State, including a rush around the edge to blast Jayden Daniels from the blindside. The play was reminiscent of Anthony Barr's iconic sack of Matt Barkley in the 2012 Crosstown Showdown.

Johnson's outstanding individual effort included a crucial fumble recovery (more on that play below) and 10 tackles. In his postgame press conference over Zoom, Johnson hit on a theme for this 2020 season for much of the Pac-12:

"It feels like we're headed in the right direction, and we're capable of being a really special team, especially in the upcoming year," he said.

A truncated season in which the Pac-12's collective chances of reaching the College Football Playoff are null doesn't diminish the value of a conference championship. However, the NCAA's freezing of eligibility almost renders this fall a head-start on spring 2021. If this UCLA defense retains its playmakers and continues to build, watch out for the Bruins come September.

Left Seeing Red

In the second half of its loss to Colorado, Arizona went on drives of 84 and 88 yards that produced a grand total of zero points. Coupled with a 75-yard, first-half drive that resulted in a field goal, the Wildcats left 18 points in red-zone opportunities on the board of an 11-point loss.

So continues one of the more dubious trends in this season, as Arizona languishes at No. 126 of 127 active FBS teams in red-zone touchdown percentage (36.36). Here's a breakdown of how the Wildcats' red-zone chances have unfolded:

While Arizona's miscues near the goal line are the most frequent and most damning — the difference between 0-4 and 3-1 has come down largely to its execution over those 60 feet of field — it's not the only Pac-12 program to struggle there.

Arizona State, which has six red-zone trips in its two games, has scored three touchdowns to rank No. 105 nationally in touchdown percentage. That's no insignificant stat for a team with losses by one and seven points, and one such failure against UCLA proved especially critical. Jayden Daniels fumbled a snap at the goal line, resulting in a UCLA takeaway.

USC came into its game Sunday ranked No. 95 nationally with touchdowns on just 55 percent of its chances inside the 20. Washington has 10 touchdowns in 18 red-zone opportunities, and was tied with rival Washington State before Sunday's game at No. 89 nationally with a 55.56 TD percentage.

Dr. Covey

Britain Covey crumpling to the Levi's Stadium turf in the 2018 Pac-12 Championship Game cast a cloud over Utah that night much darker than those that inundated the Utes and Washington with consistent rain. Losing the do-everything wide receiver to a torn ACL hindered Utah on both offense and special teams, and their Rose Bowl Game aspirations by extension.

And labeling Covey "do-everything" is no empty cliche. He caught four touchdown passes and returned another in his 2015 Freshman All-American campaign, then returned from a two-year LDS mission in the 2018 season to function as both a primary pass-catching target and weapon in the run game. He even passed it around effectively.

But after a quick recovery to return for 2019, he exercised the NCAA's four-game eligibility rule to sit out the final two months of the campaign. The added time to heal seems to have done Covey well.

Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham called this punt-return touchdown against Oregon State "vintage Covey." Now, much like the above "do-everything" label, "vintage" is an adjective that gets overused. But in the case of Covey, who made his college debut in 2015 against Michigan, in the first game of Jim Harbaugh's tenure with the Wolverines, vintage works by its definition.

Because of the hold on eligibility this season due to COVID-19, Covey won't lose a year for 2020. That means we could see him as a Ute through 2022. That's a college career almost long enough for a doctorate, and one in which we'll see plenty more housecalls from Dr. Covey.

— 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 via Kyle Kensing.