Clarity has come to the Pac-12 South division race, if there is a division race.
USC has emerged as the heavy favorite, if the Trojans finish their season.
One week in, and Pac-12 football is on fragile ground as COVID-19 cases rise, quarantines take hold and cancellations surface.
But the Trojans are in charge of the South after four brilliant minutes on Saturday morning stunned Arizona State and tipped the race in their favor.
Let’s dive in …
— USC’s one-game lead over ASU is actually a two-game lead because of the head-to-head result, which would be decisive in the event of a tie.
And it’s a two-game lead with only five games to play — not much time for the Sun Devils to make up the ground.
— The Trojans caught a significant break in unfortunate fashion with what initially appeared to be a tricky trip — in a letdown situation — to Tucson.
But the cancellation of Arizona’s opener at Utah means the Wildcats will be playing for the first time when they take the field against USC, a significant advantage for the game-tested visitors.
— Another potential contender, Utah, has encountered significant COVID-19 issues.
In addition to canceling their opener, the Utes might not play this week at UCLA. And if they do, a slew of starters could be absent.
That increases the likelihood that Utah will 1) lose this week, or 2) experience some form of competitive disadvantage when the Trojans come to town in Week Three.
That could be the season opener for the Utes as a team, or for key starters.
— Although more impressive than expected in Week One, Colorado seemingly lacks the defensive talent to mount any serious pursuit of the division.
The Buffaloes allowed 42 points and 478 yards to an opponent, UCLA, that had four possessions truncated by turnovers.
— The final advantage for the Trojans within the division: UCLA appears to be UCLA.
And so in the spirit of calling a race when it looks too early but really isn’t, USC is our unofficial South champion.
To the power ratings (all times Pacific) …
1. USC (1-0)
Result: Beat Arizona State 28-27
Next up: at Arizona (12:30 p.m., FOX)
Comment: The final minutes were a tour de force in playmaking, but let’s talk about an important development from the first 56: The Trojans were outplayed decisively at the line of scrimmage; if that’s not resolved, they won’t produce the dominant 7-0 season needed to make the playoff selection committee’s short list.
2. Arizona State (0-1)
Result: Lost at USC 28-27
Next up: vs. California (7:30 p.m., ESPN2)
Comment: One way to view the defeat: Had you told the Hotline ahead of time that the Sun Devils would be without receiver Frank Darby — and have no semblance of a downfield passing game — we wouldn’t have given them an iota of a morsel of a chance. And yet, there they were.
3. Oregon (1-0)
Result: Beat Stanford 35-14
Next up: at Washington State (4 p.m., FOX)
Comment: Hard to tell exactly where the Ducks stand given that Stanford was without quarterback Davis Mills. But Tyler Shough’s mobility adds a dimension to the offense that was lacking last year, when keeping Justin Herbert healthy seemed to dictate much of the play-calling.
4. California (0-0)
Next up: at Arizona State (7:30 p.m., ESPN2)
Comment: If they can play, the Bears are facing a significant disadvantage with their first game coming on the road against an opponent that had 60 minutes of high-level competition to work out the kinks.
5. Utah (0-0)
Next up: at UCLA (7:30 p.m., FOX)
Comment: For some idea what the Utes are dealing with: The seven-day positive rate across the state is more than 20%; and on campus, it’s even worse: a 28% increase. Within the conference footprint, Arizona is next with a statewide positive rate of 12.8%, per Johns Hopkins data.
6. Washington State (1-0)
Result: Won at Oregon State 38-28
Next up: vs. Oregon (4 p.m., FOX)
Comment: So now that we have some clarity on that Nick Rolovich whopper from Saturday night, it’s clear that the vast majority of the 32 missing players — and perhaps all but one — were out for non-COVID-19 reasons. But in the current environment, a post-game bomb of that nature, absent any context from Rolovich, will naturally create virus-related speculation.
7. Washington (0-0)
Next up: vs. Oregon State (8 p.m., FS1)
Comment: Assuming the Huskies play Saturday night, Jimmy Lake will have gone 348 days from the point he was named head coach to his first game as head coach. (It only feels like 3,448.) That just might be some sort of deeply unfortunate record.
8. Colorado (1-0)
Result: Beat UCLA 48-42
Next up: at Stanford (12:30 p.m., ESPN2)
Comment: Difficult to overstate the significance of the victory to CU’s postseason math: The Pac-12 is requiring teams to finish .500 or better to go bowling, and the Buffs now have a reasonable chance with Stanford and Arizona on the schedule.
9. Stanford (0-1)
Result: Lost at Oregon 35-14
Next up: vs. Colorado (12:30 p.m., ESPN2)
Comment: The ripple effect of Davis Mills’ absence began with the passing game, extended to the Red Zone efficiency and eventually reached the defense, which wore down. The field goal situation was baffling, on multiple levels.
10. UCLA (0-1)
Result: Lost at Colorado 48-42
Next up: vs. Utah (7:30 p.m., FOX)
Comment: If you don’t change defensive coordinators, it’s difficult to materially change the defense.
11. Oregon State (0-1)
Result: Lost to Washington State 38-28
Next up: at Washington (8 p.m., FS1)
Comment: The Beavers played like they had never seen WSU’s run-and-shoot — and they hadn’t. But they faced Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot last year when he was at Hawaii. And it produced 488 yards and 31 points with lesser talent than WSU. So that should have been our first clue.
12. Arizona (0-0)
Next up: vs. USC (12:30 p.m., FOX)
Comment: As much as our focus turns to the impacted teams when cancellations occur (i.e., Utah and Cal), let’s not forget the disappointment felt by opposing players, especially when the news comes on the Friday of game week after they have waited months to play.