Arizona State's freeze at Oregon State turns up heat in Pac-12 South

Arizona State's freeze at Oregon State turns up heat in Pac-12 South
Oregon State running back Terron Ward scores on a 66-yard touchdown run during the Beavers' 35-27 upset victory over Arizona State on Saturday night. (Steve Dykes / Getty Images)

Arizona State had everything to play for Saturday night against Oregon State — the lead in the PAC-12 Conference South Division, a higher place in the College Football Playoff ranking and another week as a national championship contender.

The Sun Devils, coming off a huge home win over Notre Dame, controlled their playoff destiny.


A win against the Beavers might have propelled Arizona State to No. 4 in Tuesday's College Football Playoff rankings.

Victory would have pushed this year's "Fear the Fork" campaign one prong closer to a cataclysmic clash against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.

But the temperature dropped to snow-cone-making levels in Corvallis, and Arizona State got cold feet, literally. Sun Devil players, creatures used to the Arizona heat, huddled near heated benches.

Arizona State has been preparing two decades for another shot a national title. The Sun Devils were a minute away from winning it all in 1996 when Jake Plummer snaked 11 yards into the Rose Bowl end zone against Ohio State on Jan. 1, 1997.

One defensive stop and Arizona State, not Steve Spurrier's Florida Gators, would have ended up national champions. Ohio State wrecked that dream on a late touchdown pass from Joe Germaine to David Boston.

Eighteen years later Arizona State was repositioned, even after a disastrous 62-27 home loss to UCLA.

Saturday night, however, the Sun Devils collectively stuck their tongues on a frozen tether-ball pole.

Oregon State won, 35-27, sealing victory with a late pick-six on a Taylor Kelly pass.

"We weren't prepared to play them," Arizona State Coach Todd Graham lamented.

The follow up question should have been: Why not?

Arizona State's defeat opened the gate in the Pac-12 South Division race.

Stepping first into the void is UCLA, the team that waxed Arizona State on Sept. 25. The two-loss Bruins, as we tried to caution everyone weeks ago, were not eliminated from playoff contention after home losses to Utah and Oregon.

UCLA is the team (for now) that benefits most from Arizona State's defeat.

The question now is whether UCLA is prepared, or will become the next Pac-12 team — figuratively this time — that gets cold feet.

UCLA is the only South team that controls its own destiny, meaning the Bruins can win the division with closing victories against USC and Stanford.

Still being alive after missing not one, but two field goal chances to beat Utah is a perk of competing in the Pac-12 South, now a monster that rivals, if not exceeds, the high and mighty Southeastern Conference West.

Five of the six schools in the Pac-12 South were ranked in Sunday's Associated Press poll. That should mirror Tuesday's vote of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which seems to have a crush on the conference.

The Pac-12 South this week has more ranked schools than the SEC West, considered by most the best division in college football.

UCLA was No. 11 in last week's CFP rankings and should rise to No. 8 or No. 9. Here's the incredible part: The Bruins could fight their way to the No. 4 playoff spot.

UCLA may need some cooperation, but maybe not much. The Bruins need Oregon, which has clinched the North, to win its final two games and enter the Pac-12 title game at 11-1 and ranked in the top five.

That seems doable; Oregon closes with Colorado and Oregon State.

Mark this down again: Any two-loss champion from the Pac-12 South that defeats 11-1 Oregon in the title game is going to receive strong consideration for the playoff.

If UCLA closes with wins against USC, Stanford and Oregon, it will probably receive the committee nod over one-loss Big Ten champion Ohio State, one-loss Big 12 runner-up (most likely Texan Christian University) and even one-loss Mississippi State if the Bulldogs don't win the SEC West.

Being in position to pounce, though, is different than pouncing.

With the exception of USC, which has a trophy case of supporting evidence, Pac-12 schools have generally lacked killer instinct when they have needed it most.

The SEC respects USC because the Trojans are historically good "closers."

This year is the glaring exception, as three-loss USC has eliminated itself with goofball defeats to Arizona State and Utah.

Most of the league, under pressure, acts like Arizona State did Saturday night in Corvallis.

Some day, some year, another school besides USC needs to stand up when its path to No.1 is called.

Oregon and Stanford, the class of the league the past few years, have squandered their biggest moments.

Stanford would have been in the national title game last year if not for an inexplicable defeat at Utah.

Oregon blew its big chance in the 2010 national title game when it couldn't stop Auburn on its last drive and ended up losing on a last-second field goal.

Oregon fumbled another opportunity last year by getting blown out at Arizona.

Most Pac-12 programs could learn one thing from Florida State. Granted, most of the lessons offered by the FSU team are not ones you'd teach your children. The Seminoles are not very likable, and quarterback Jameis Winston is the opposite of a role model. No matter what they do, Seminoles players can't seem to get arrested in Tallahassee.

Florida State has one intangible, however, that most Pac-12 programs lack: put-away power.

Winston and the Seminoles win every close game because they don't panic, and they make every play they have to make.

Winston is not fazed by his mistakes and thinks every next pass he throws is going to be a touchdown. He has no more quarterbacking ability than Oregon's Marcus Mariota or UCLA's Brett Hundley.

Winston simply refuses to lose.

Oregon and UCLA can win the national title if Mariota or Hundley acts like Winston and refuses to lose four more games.

Will it happen this year, or are we looking at another Pac-12 freeze out?