LAS VEGAS (AP) — For a conference just about on its last legs, the Pac-12 is having a heck of a final kick.
No. 3 Washington (12-0) and No. 5 Oregon (11-1), two of the four conference teams ranked in the AP Top 25, meet Friday for an almost certain spot in the College Football Playoff. The Pac-12 has not placed a team in the playoffs since the Huskies made it in the 2016 season.
That lack of success in the NCAA’s marquee sport is why every team — other than Oregon State and Washington State — is heading to other conferences next year. Washington and Oregon will be Big Ten Conference rivals, while their respective state rivals try to keep the Pac-12 going in some form with the help of an alliance with the Mountain West.
The irony is the conference is breaking apart while having its best season in many years.
“It’s been a great year of football in the Pac-12,” Huskies second-year coach Kalen DeBoer said. “Multiple people who have been in the conference a long time in roles that would definitely know have said that it has never been stronger.”
Oregon quarterback Bo Nix is the leading candidate to claim the Heisman Trophy, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, and a strong performance in the conference championship could wrap it up. FanDuel lists LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels as a close second, but he won’t play again before the final voting takes place.
Nix has put up incredible numbers — 78.6% completion rate for 3,906 yards and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 37-2.
This is the second season at Oregon for Nix, a senior. He played his first three seasons at Auburn, but didn’t reach 3,000 yards until his first year with the Ducks.
“I think Bo’s always had that ability,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said. “He’s playing at an extremely high level and everybody’s seen it right now. You talk about the caliber of player he is, he’s gotten better and better every single week of the season. … He’s playing as good as anybody in the nation right now.”
Nix put himself in contention for the Heisman with a strong final month. He averaged 392.3 yards passing over the last four games with 16 touchdowns and one interception.
“I’ve hit a real good rhythm at the right time,” Nix said. “All year, we’ve been putting together something. We’ve been trying to be really accurate and really efficient with all of our throws. I feel like we’ve done a really good job of that here lately.”
Rome Odunze made enough big plays throughout the season to be a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the best wide receiver in the country.
It could be argued that a run play was his signature moment of the regular season.
Odunze’s 23-yard reverse on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter last Saturday against Washington State will live on in the lore of the Apple Cup as it help set up the winning field goal to cap a 12-0 regular season.
But as a pass catcher, Odunze has not been stopped. He finished the regular season with 73 catches for 1,326 yards and 13 touchdowns and had at least 100 yards receiving and two touchdowns in each of the final three games.
And he was pretty good in the first meeting with Oregon with eight catches for 128 yards and two TDs.
“My main focus is the Pac-12 Championship, but if I do the right things, hopefully I’ll be the one carrying that (award) after everything is done,” Odunze said.
Without question, Washington has been in more close games this season than the Ducks and found a way to win each time. Each of the Huskies’ final eight games were decided by 10 points or less, six by one score, including the final two weeks when Washington won 22-20 at Oregon State before beating Washington State 24-21 in the Apple Cup.
On the other hand, Oregon’s mostly lived off blowouts. Since the loss to Washington, the Ducks have played just one game decided by 10 points or less with an average margin of victory in those six games being 26 points.
“I think something we’ve learned about ourselves with these games is we’re just going to fight to the end,” Washington edge rusher Bralen Trice said. “Simplest terms, we’re not going to give up. Back against the wall, we’ll show up and do whatever it takes.”
Oregon center Jackson Powers-Johnson said point differential is not a good barometer.
“People say they’ve only won by a couple of points, but it’s hard to win in this league,” Powers-Johnson said. “They played some great teams. I think it’s going to be a great game.”
The game is all but sold out, with just a handful of tickets in Section 118 available Thursday morning on Ticketmaster that weren’t resales.
But that doesn’t mean Allegiant Stadium will necessarily be packed. Tickets were as low as $30 before fees on Vivid Seats, and prices have dropped throughout the week. That’s usually a sign there are more tickets available than buyers, so there could be empty seats even with a technical sellout.
The game is not a drive away for most of the fans for both teams, which wasn’t the case last year when USC played Utah before a announced crowd of 61,195. That was the largest neutral-site crowd in Pac-12 Championship history.