While the Bruins find themselves part way into a late-season surge into bowl eligibility, other members of the Pac-10 are fighting for fighting for the Number One spot. The race to the top is particularly wide open this year, with half of the conference retaining some hope of advancing to the Rose Bowl, under scenarios ranging from "win and you're in" to a Rube Goldberg-esk, LSAT-worthy game of logic to decipher.
Oregon and Arizona each have the simplest paths: win and they are in. Assuming that it can pull out a win in the Palouse next Saturday, Oregon State has a reasonable shot at Pasadena, though requiring help. While Stanford has looked to be the team to beat over the past month, it will need the previous three teams to all fall in order for its New Years plans to change. USC, oddly enough considering the past three weeks, still has a theoretical shot at another Rose Bowl appearance, the sheer improbability of which would make the series of events enabling it almost worth the price of (SC's) admission. The scenarios for each still-eligible team to advance to the Rose Bowl follows:
Note: unless otherwise specified, for purposes of the below hypotheticals, I am making the assumption that Oregon State will beat Washington State next Saturday. No offense to the Cougars, but it makes these scenarios much easier to game out.
Oregon: The simplest path to Pasadena is for the Ducks to win out; holding a 1-game lead in the loss column, all they need to do is not lose. Easy, right?
The Ducks can still advance to the Rose Bowl with a loss to Arizona, but would require both a Stanford loss to Cal, and Arizona to lose one of its remaining game (@ ASU, @ USC) in addition to a rebound win against Oregon State. Oregon would come out on the short end of any 2-or-3 way tiebreakers among prospective 7-2 teams, whether they be Arizona, Oregon State or Stanford.
Arizona: The Wildcats are the other remaining team to control its own destiny, though it has one additional game remaining than do the Ducks. After tonight's loss at Cal, wins over Oregon, Arizona State and USC would send the Wildcats to their first ever Rose Bowl. The Wildcats currently hold head-to-head tiebreakers over Oregon State and Stanford. With a win over the Ducks, they would then prevail in any 2-or-3 way tiebreaker among 7-2 teams at the top of the Pac-10.
A loss in Eugene on Saturday would effectively eliminate the Wildcats from title consideration. I say effectively, because there is a highly improbable scenario in which they could still advance with a 6-3 conference record (as will be illustrated in my USC scenario below).
Oregon State: The Beavers do need some outside help in order to make this New Year's trip, but the chances are not as bad as could be. A trip to Eugene to end the regular season is the toughest test: A win there, together with a win during the previous weekend's trip to Pullman, and the Beavers need one loss by the Wildcats in order to win the Pac-10
Oddly enough, the Beavers could conceivably advance to the Rose Bowl even with a loss in the Palouse. In a theoretical 4-or-5 way tie among varying combinations of Arizona, Cal, Oregon, Stanford and USC at the top of the Pac-10 (6-3) following a bounce-back win in Eugene, they would win after 2 rounds of tiebreaks.
Stanford: While the past month has shown Stanford to be the current class of the conference, the Cardinal have the most difficult path of the real Rose Bowl contenders. While trailing Oregon by 1 game in the loss column, and having lost to fellow 2-loss teams Arizona and Oregon State earlier in the season, all three of these teams must lose in order for the Cardinal to follow a victory over Cal with a trip to Pasadena. While Stanford wins in a head-to-head tiebreak with the Ducks, the addition of any more teams to the mix would knock them down the bowl ladder.
USC: As funny as it may seem after the last three weeks, USC does retain a theoretical chance of advancing to the Rose Bowl. The particular set of circumstances required for this to happen is quite unlikely, even comical to consider, but could happen. If USC were to win out, the occurrence of all of the following events would lead to SC in the Rose Bowl:
Oregon State losing at Washington State, then rebounding to beat the Ducks in Eugene.
Cal closes the regular season with a pair of road wins, at Stanford and Washington.
Arizona beats Oregon and Arizona State before falling to the Trojans in Los Angeles
This set of events would result in a 6-way (YES, SIX WAY) tie for first place at the end of the Pac-10's regular season. The resulting morass would require 2 rounds of tiebreakers; Cal, Oregon and Stanford would be eliminated after the first round, while USC would prevail in the resulting 3-way tiebreak with Arizona and Oregon State.