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SALT LAKE CITY — It’s a two-team race in the Pac-12, and Oregon and Utah have the best opportunity available in the conference to break through a two-year dry spell to reach the College Football Playoff. On Tuesday, the playoff selection committee released its third rankings of the season and kept the two teams in contention.
Utah, which is expected to claim its second-consecutive South Division title, stayed put at No. 7 in the latest rankings after the Utes dominated UCLA 49-3 Saturday in their penultimate home game of the season. Utah has two games left in the regular season: a road matchup against a beleaguered Arizona program and a home finale against Colorado. Utah has more than a 90% winning projection in both games, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
The Utes remain one spot behind Oregon at No. 6, which also stayed put in the rankings this week. The Ducks claimed the North Division title Saturday after defeating Arizona at home, 34-6. The Ducks stay behind Alabama, which was ranked fifth by the committee last week, after the Crimson Tide lost starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to a season-ending hip injury.
"I think the committee felt like they're both excellent football teams," Bill Hancock, selection committee executive director, told media during a teleconference. "I think the USC thing probably got the most discussion when they analyzed those two. Oregon obviously defeated USC handily, and Utah lost. And Oregon's resume, including the loss to a good Auburn team in the last seconds of the game, and Utah really doesn't have anything like that. So that was the difference."
"Oregon is a team that's won nine in a row, good road wins against ranked Southern Cal, at Washington, quality quarterback play, undefeated in the conference, only loss on a neutral field to Auburn," committee chairman Rob Mullens added. "And then Utah, really strong defense, only loss is to No. 23 USC, and that's what separated them from Oregon, and when they lost to USC, Zack Moss, their elite running back, missed most of that game."
The two Pac-12 programs remain on a collision course for the conference’s championship game, and the winner will have a resume-building game to likely propel it into the four-team playoff as a conference champion. Oregon currently has a 36% chance of making the playoff, according to FiveThirtyEight, and Utah has a 27% chance.
Should Oregon win out, a 45% chance, their odds improve significantly to 77%, which would be the second-highest odds at making the playoff, according to FiveThirtyEight. Should Utah win out, a 40% chance, their playoff odds improve to 67% to make the playoff.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said the rankings have made the outside noise “louder,” but the team is keeping the “same approach and have the same M.O. of just not listening and not paying attention to it.”
“Just keeping your vision and your focus with what the immediate task at hand is,” he added, “and our guys, to this point, have done a great job of that. And here we are, the last two games of the regular season, and hopefully we don't deviate from that now at this point.”
Also ranked from the Pac-12 for the first time this season is USC, which came in at No. 23. The Trojans have four losses on the season, but have been consistently effective in the Pac-12. USC can still mathematically claim the South Division title if Utah loses one of its next two games.
"Well, they beat No. 7 Utah, which is impressive, and when you look at the opponents that they've lost to, those opponents have a record of 29-11," Mullens said. "So they've challenged themselves in the nonconference with Notre Dame and BYU, so that impressed the committee."
The selection committee kept its top four teams the same, with LSU claiming the No. 1 spot for the second-consecutive week after the Tigers defeated Ole Miss 58-37 on the road. Behind LSU in the rankings are No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Georgia. Just outside the four playoff teams are No. 5 Alabama and No. 6 Oregon.
Of the top teams ranked, Georgia had the closest call Saturday as then-No. 12 Auburn staged a near-comeback late in the game. But the Bulldogs prevailed to claim a 21-14 win over the Tigers. With the win, Georgia claimed the SEC East Division title and will likely matchup with LSU in the conference championship game.
The upcoming weekend features one game where both opponents are ranked in the College Football Playoff rankings, a Big Ten showdown between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Penn State. The winner will likely claim the Big Ten’s East Division title and a spot in the conference championship.