On a wet night at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, Arizona State saw its control over the outcome of the Pac-12 South slip out of its fingers.
In a waterfall of mistakes, the Sun Devils ultimately gave up an 18-14 fourth-quarter lead and lost to then-No. 4 Utah 34-18. Now, they'll need a lot of help if they're going to accomplish their preseason goals. As a result, ASU head coach Todd Graham shifted the narrative following the team's first practice of the week in Tempe.
“We need to heal up this week and we’ve talked about it, that we’re in control of writing the final chapter of the 2015 season,” Graham said on Tuesday. “The final chapter has not been written.”
On bye this week, ASU sits at 4-3 overall and joins Arizona, UCLA, and USC with two conference losses. At 3-0, No. 3 Utah is two games clear of any competitors in the loss column and looks to be in great position to win the division.
But, the past has shown that the early-season clear-cut favorite to win the South doesn’t always win in the end. In 2011, ASU started 3-0 in conference play and was seen as the favorites to win the division. But then, the Sun Devils quickly collapsed.
ASU lost five of its last six games in 2011 in the inaugural Pac-12 season and subsequently fired then-head coach Dennis Erickson at the end of the year. The Trojans ended up winning the South with a 7-2 Pac-12 record after starting 1-1 in conference play.
In 2012, UCLA won the Pac-12 South outright with three conference losses after starting the season 1-2 in league play. USC started 4-1 before dropping three out of its last four league games and ASU again started 3-0 only to subsequently lose four straight. As the Trojans and Sun Devil collapsed, the Bruins won five-straight conference games – two against ranked teams -- and took the South outright even after losing their final game of the reguar season to Stanford.
It's well established that even in four short years, the Pac-12 has been unpredictable even at the midway point of the season or later.
Now, the Sun Devils have to hope that undefeated Utah turns out to be like the ASU teams in 2011 or ASU and USC in 2012, but players know they can’t control other teams, they can only control themselves.
“We got a big game and we know at the end of the day, we got five games to go out and win and if it happens, so be it and we’re in the championship that’s awesome,” ASU senior wide receiver D.J. Foster said. “But we got to continue and focus on what we can control and I mean if it works out it works out. We just got to go 5-0.”
While ASU’s two conference losses makes it a major longshot, it still isn't impossible for the Sun Devils to outright win the Pac-12 South.
The Sun Devil would of course likely have to win out and also have Utah do no better than 3-3 in its last six games in order to give it three conference losses. The Utes play USC on the road this week, then Oregon State at home, Washington on the road, Arizona on the road, UCLA at home and Colorado at home.
If ASU gets into a three-way tie for first place in the South with either USC or UCLA and Utah all having 7-2 records in the Pac-12, there would be no chance for the Sun Devils to win the division due to the tiebreaker protocol.
To determine the South champion in a multi-team tie, the first set of criteria would be head-to-head results. ASU lost to USC and Utah, so it would be eliminated in that three-way scenario. It beat UCLA, but lost to Utah, so its record would be 1-1. In the scenario that UCLA wins out to generate a three-way tie, that also would make the Bruins and Utes 1-1 head-to-head.
The next step in the procedure is the teams’ record in intra-divisional games. By the end of the season, if ASU wins out, it would have two South losses and UCLA would have only one. No matter what Utah's South record was, ASU would be eliminated. Essentially, ASU can't advance to the title game from a three-way tie scenario with Utah and any other South team unless all three teams have three losses.
While ASU's best possible path of it winning out coupled with Utah losing three of its last six is asking a lot – and is fairly unlikely – like ASU senior quarterback Mike Bercovici said on Tuesday, “anything can happen.”
“We’ve got five games left in the regular season and anything can happen,” Bercovici said. “I can’t tell you how many seasons I’ve been apart of where the championship is dependent on one game based on who loses and who wins.”
But for now, the Sun Devils only have one goal in mind – to beat Oregon on Oct. 29.
“Obviously we got five games ahead of us,” Graham said. “None more important than Oregon and we don’t control anything but us. These guys have done some great things here in their careers here and we want to make sure we do everything in our power to go and compete at the level we need to compete with.”
- Graham said on Tuesday that sophomore safety Armand Perry has a possibility of playing against Oregon on Oct. 29 after suffering a high-ankle sprain against Cal Poly on Sept. 12. “He looks like there’s a chance,” Graham said. “I think a good chance. I would say 50/50 or better.”