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Defense driving new teams to top of Pac-12 standings

Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire

Pac-12 Network analyst Evan Moore would like to think that his alma mater, Stanford, got the ball rolling (or more accurately stopping) on this new conference trend of improved defense, but that is just one of several possible factors he sees at play in the new-look Pac-12.

Among those, Moore said, are inconsistent offenses at multiple schools, the fall of once offensively potent Oregon and a better understanding of what it takes to compete for national championships.

“Have defenses gotten better?” Moore asked, rhetorically. “Yes, but one thing contributing to that is that there’s a lot of instability at quarterback throughout the conference so you get inconsistency offensively. The defenses are looking better in conference play because offenses are not as potent and powerful as we’ve seen in the Pac-12.”

Moore noted that as many as eight of the Pac-12 QB situations were undecided going into training camp and that has been followed by erratic QB play.

Whatever your take, there is no denying the seismic shift in the conference. Entering Week 8 of the college football season, five Pac-12 teams were ranked among the nation’s top 40 in scoring defense. Washington was seventh; Utah was 16th, Colorado was 27th; Stanford was 35th; and UCLA was 39th. All were allowing 23.1 points per game or fewer, with Washington leading the way at 14.2. USC was tied for 44th at 24.

Colorado (15), Washington (18), Utah (26) and UCLA (28) were also ranked among the top 30 in total defense. That’s a big change for the Pac-12, and it relates directly to the new-look standings in the North and South divisions.

Perennial North winners Stanford and Oregon are sitting at the middle and the bottom of the standings, respectively. Preseason favorites USC and UCLA are in third and fifth place, respectively in the South.

In the North, Washington is the conference’s standard-bearer with a 6-0 record and a No. 5 AP ranking. Washington State sits second at 4-2, 3-0 in the conference. In the South, the conference’s newest members, Utah and Colorado, own the top two spots at 6-1 and 5-2, with No. 19 and No. 26 AP rankings.

Oregon State Beavers wide receiver Victor Bolden Jr., right, is tackled by Utah cornerback Brian Allen in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Corvallis, Ore., on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. Utah won 19-14. (AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez)

(AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez)

Washington State is the only one of those schools whose defense does not own an elite ranking, although the Cougars are among the nation’s top half in both of the aforementioned defensive categories.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said last month that he’d like to see the conference compete for, and win a national championship. The Pac-12 was shut out of the four-game College Football Playoff last season — the only one of the Power Five conferences to which that happened.

At the same time, Scott likes the conference’s current parity.

“I like the overall trajectory of the conference in football. It hasn’t always been the case the last few years,” Scott said before the Arizona State-Cal game on Sept. 24. “Most people have realized we’re as deep as any conference out there right now. We’ve had teams right at the top echelon but I think until we start winning some more national championships, the rest of the country won’t necessarily see it that way.”

As it stands, Washington holds the best shot at a College Football Playoff berth. If it wins out, it will make it, but it will also have to deal with myriad distractions and increased attention as it closes in on that feat.

“We don’t keep the noise out,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said on the Pac-12 coaches conference call this week. “There’s no way to do that but we do have discussions about where or focus needs to be and these kids have been really good all season long. We’ll see if we can stay focused on the important things.”

If Washington falters, Utah (6-1) is also in the mix. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham noted that this is the third straight season Utah has been 6-1 so the Utes are growing more accustomed to success.

“We felt going into the season we had a chance to be pretty competitive,” he said.

It’s no surprise that those teams are the conference’s two best in scoring defense, and Moore wonders if the conference is simply paying greater attention to the national message being sent.

“Look what happened to Oregon when it played Ohio State,” Moore said. “Oregon was this high-powered offense but they got exposed by Ohio State in the (2015) national championship.

“The SEC and Big Ten are winning titles. To challenge that or get the Pac-12 to win a title, it’s become more apparent and evident that it’s only going to be done by putting a team on the field that is well balanced.”

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