Now that the Pac-12 Conference has been eliminated from consideration for a berth in the College Football Playoffs — 10th-ranked USC’s 49-14 loss to Notre Dame left a hideous scar that cannot be unseen — the Apple Cup Nov. 25 at Husky Stadium may serve as the peak moment of the conference’s regular season.
Except for the distasteful part, if you’re a Huskies fan.
Even though he is unlikely to concede the point more than he has already, coach Chris Petersen knows his 16th-ranked Huskies (8-2, 5-2) are at a scheduling disadvantage because the 15h-ranked Cougars (9-2, 5-2), thanks to a bye, get two weeks to prepare. Washington, meanwhile, draws another Saturday night special, a 7:30 game against Utah (5-5, 2-5) at Husky Stadium.
When Arizona State had two weeks to prepare for the Huskies Oct. 14, the Sun Devils won 13-7 at Tempe. Outplayed and outcoached, the Huskies, ranked sixth, played their poorest game of the season. The schedule advantage was hardly the only reason for the loss — three missed field goals ranked a bit higher — but in a game of small margins, every edge counted.
The problem will draw no eye moisture from the Palouse.
Since Washington State has lost the past four Apple Cups, as well as seven of the past eight, by a combined average score of 37-17, the Cougars want every advantage available, including the hiring, if necessary, of pirates, sasquatches, aliens and anything else that pops into the perpetual fever dream of coach Mike Leach.
The Cougars also have their own schedule gripe this season, losing on a Friday night at Cal 37-3 following a Saturday road game in Eugene. The then-undefeated and eighth-ranked Cougars, like the Huskies against ASU, played their poorest game of the season.
Nevertheless, all the Cougars have to do advance to the Pac-12 Championship game is beat the Huskies. For the Huskies to advance, they have to beat Utah and the Cougars and hope that Cal beats Stanford Saturday. The Cardinal is a 17-point favorite at home.
How much the short weeks and opponent byes play into each team’s craptastic outcome is hard to document. But each head coach was mystified at how off his team was relative to the norm. When dealing with college kids, many of whom have the attention spans of flies, any kind of distraction and disruption can have disproportionate impact.
The irritating fact is, because of the wrinkles in the Pac-12 master schedule forced by TV demands for programming throughout a given weekend, some teams each year get hosed worse than others.
The Huskies this year had three games (also Oregon State) in which the opponent had two weeks of prep time, plus only one conference game so far that had a daytime start (UCLA). Somehow, USC had no bye. Washington State played its first five at home, then five of its final seven on the road.
Every coach has some reason to be irked at being jerked around by the schedule, figuring winning in the Pac-12 is tough enough without starting the poker game a card shy. Petersen said earlier this season that there’s been talk in the conference about extending the season a week to add a second bye and balance the distribution.
“It looks like it does help some things,” he said. “But then a week longer, you are in finals and right up to bowl games . . . Everyone thought (this season’s) start was too early anyways.
“For us on the bye, to have it somewhere in the middle of the schedule is a good thing. To have three teams that have byes right before you, that is not ideal.”
The conference talk about an additional bye week was just that. No action.
The scheduling disadvantages that the Pac-12 is forced to install helps compromise the conference’s chances to be among the CFP’s final four, whose selection process still retains some of the old system’s beauty-content element. No one in the Pac-12 this year is without warts, abetted by their own poor makeup job.
Then there is the player-health element of short weeks and early-morning returns home after night starts. It is a meanness little appreciated by fans unless they’ve experienced being hit over the head and kicked in the shins for four hours and then staggering through Sea-Tac Airport at 3 a.m.
But as with the NFL’s insistence on Thursday night games, the TV money in big time college ball is everything. At least the players at the next level get more than pizza money.
As with Congress, expect no meaningful reform.
As to the matter in the near future, the Apple Cup, the Cougars looked a lot better the last couple of weeks, winning at home 24-21 over Stanford and Saturday 33-25 at Utah. The Huskies play the same tandem, but the 30-22 loss at Palo Alto Saturday introduces the notion that UW is closer to the great mediocre middle of the Pac-12 than the top.
They still have to beat the Utes for a 9-2 mark that ties the Cougars and gives a chance for bigger stakes in the Apple Cup. With two weeks to prepare, The Pirate has enough time to cook up something for The Bishop far more diabolical than cupcakes.