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Pac-12 Championship preview: Washington, Oregon meet again as teams bid farewell with CFP berth on the line

The Pac-12 entered the 2023 college football season dead in the water after the mass exodus that occurred over the summer. 

The “Conference of Champions” was decimated after Colorado decided the time was right to jump ship, followed by Utah, Arizona and Arizona State announcing their moves to the Big 12 in 2024.

The Pac-12 logo is seen on the field after the 115th Apple Cup between the Washington Huskies and the Washington State Cougars at Husky Stadium on November 25, 2023, in Seattle. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Oregon and Washington chose to join UCLA and USC in the Big Ten before Cal and Stanford made the move to the ACC. 

All that remained of the once-storied conference was Washington State and Oregon State as the season kicked off, the swan song for the Pac-12.

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And then the college football world realized that the conference was arguably the deepest in the country as the season commenced.

At one point, the Pac-12 had a record eight teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 before the West Coast schools beat up on each other throughout the season.

“I consider what they did in September, I think you have to consider what they did,” Fox Sports analyst and former Washington quarterback Brock Huard told Fox News Digital when discussing the depth of the Pac-12. “That’s all we got are those games to compare out of conference versus other Power Five conferences, and they had the best winning percentage of any of them. I do take that into account. I’ve watched the level of play. I’ve been in the Big Ten and the Big 12 and the Pac-12 this year. And from my eyes, just watching game tape and covering the games, it is the deepest.”

“Obviously, maybe the very top end with Michigan and Ohio State, the top end with Alabama and Georgia, maybe the top end is a little higher in a few other places. But as far as the length of the lineup, to use a baseball analogy, there’s nobody deeper this year than the conference.”

The conference has now reached its last stand as No. 3 Washington and No. 5 Oregon square off Friday night in Las Vegas with a College Football Playoff spot on the line and the opportunity to snap the Pac-12’s six-year playoff drought.

The Ducks and Huskies played in a Week 7 thriller in Seattle that saw Washington get three 4th-down stops and Oregon miss a game-tying field goal attempt as time expired.

“I mean we didn’t finish. We didn’t win the game last time,” Oregon head coach Dan Lanning said on Monday, according to On3. “That’s the kind of thing that sticks with you.”

Rome Odunze celebrates beating Oregon

Rome Odunze #1 of the Washington Huskies celebrates as fans storm the field after the Washington Huskies beat the Oregon Ducks at Husky Stadium on October 14, 2023, in Seattle. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The two teams have taken slightly different paths to the rematch.

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Oregon has looked dominant at times, soundly beating Utah and Oregon State, allowing just 13 combined points against the two top-25 schools.

Huard told Fox News Digital that Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer mentioned on Huard’s radio show how Oregon has played with a sense of urgency since the Week 7 defeat.

“They are a veteran team,” Huard said of Oregon. “These are two of the most veteran teams I have seen in college football. Both teams have many sixth-year players that start all across the line of scrimmage. Oregon has a seventh-year defensive tackle. So, they are a bunch of grown-ups.”

Bo Nix will make his 60th start. That will never be topped in the history of college football as we know it. The added COVID year gave him that fifth year as a starter. So, they’re experienced, they’re deep, they’re with a sense of urgency, and they are playing their best ball when it matters the most.”

Nix is the betting favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, leading the country in passing yards (3,906) and throwing 37 touchdowns with just two interceptions. His completion percentage of 78.6 is far and away the best in the nation.

The defense for the Ducks has also been stellar all season, allowing just 306.9 yards and 15.9 points per game.

Bo Nix plays against Oregon State

Bo Nix of the Oregon Ducks drops back to pass in the first half during a game against the Oregon State Beavers at Autzen Stadium on November 24, 2023, in Eugene, Oregon. (Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images)

They’ll be facing a Washington offense that has seen a drop in production since their Week 7 matchup with Oregon. 

The Huskies defeated Washington State on Saturday but did so by scoring 25 points or less for the second straight game and for the third time in the last six contests. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has seen his Heisman odds dip despite Washington going undefeated in the regular season and defeating three top-25 teams during the last four weeks of the regular season.

“Over the last five weeks in these games, from Arizona State to Stanford to USC to Utah to Oregon State and Washington State, there’s just not been a time where you can take a breath,” Huard said of Washington’s play over the last several weeks, “where they ran away from any of them. Part of that is their target was enormous. I think part of that is carrying the weight of perfection and the expectations that come with that. It had never been done before to go unscathed in Pac-12 conference play. They did what nobody else has done over the last decade-plus.”

“I think carrying a lot of that and just battling through, as everybody does, some injuries. They don’t have as much depth as a Georgia. They don’t have as much depth as a Michigan. They don’t have as much depth as an Oregon even. So, I think that depth was tested. I think the bodies and the minds were pretty beat up. And I think, frankly, the best thing for them is, for the first time in a long time, to be counted out and to be underdogs and to have that expectation on the other team and not necessarily as much on them.”

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Michael Penix Jr. plays against Washington State

Michael Penix Jr. of the Washington Huskies reacts after a first down against the Washington State Cougars during the fourth quarter at Husky Stadium on November 25, 2023, in Seattle. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

When asked for his thoughts on what the Pac-12 Championship Game will come down to, Huard pointed to two areas.

“I think, specifically, the other team that will be on the field Friday night, and that is the Pac-12 officials,” Huard told Fox News Digital with a chuckle. “As the conference comes to a close, they have been in the crosshairs many times after dark over the last decade or so. They’re going to have to be at their best because this is going to be a complicated game to call.”

“This is going to be a physical game. Oregon is a defense that plays press coverage 80-plus percent of the time. They will challenge those officials to make highly contested calls, debatable calls, pass interference calls [and] holding calls. It is going to be a difficult game to officiate anyway. And then throw in the whole background of the Pac-12 officiating, I think it will be in a lot of the conversations come Friday night or Saturday morning.”

Huard also pointed to the decision-making by both head coaches, which ultimately decided the first matchup between Oregon and Washington.

A view of Husky Stadium

A scenic general view of Lake Washington and boats behind Husky Stadium before the game between the Washington Huskies and the Oregon Ducks on October 14, 2023, in Seattle. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

“No. 2 is just the decision-making. You saw Kalen DeBoer go for it on 4th-and-1 at his own 29 with the biggest onions you can ever have,” Huard said. “You watched Dan Lanning on Oct. 14 go for it multiple times and fail. So, if you have those critical decisions that both sides are going to have to make, both DeBoer and Lanning, how will they do that? And ultimately, the process versus the result will certainly be scrutinized.” 

With the CFP committee ranking Oregon as the top one-loss team in the country, the Pac-12 should have a team in the playoff, regardless of Friday’s result. 

As the conference enters into the unknown, one last matchup between Pacific Northwest rivals will take center stage. 

“It’s going to be one for the ages,” Huard said. “It’s sad to me that this is the final chapter of the conference, but if it is, you have some of the greatest cast of characters. And let’s not forget, two of the three finalists in New York City for that Heisman Trophy will both be coming out of this conference as well.”

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