Washington State’s field-goal unit, including Archbishop Murphy grad Abe Lucas (72), celebrates a made kick during a game against Stanford on Saturday in Stanford, Calif. (Don Feria / Associated Press)

Washington State’s field-goal unit, including Archbishop Murphy grad Abe Lucas (72), celebrates a made kick during a game against Stanford on Saturday in Stanford, Calif. (Don Feria / Associated Press)

Cougs’ path to College Football Playoff clearest in Pac-12

10th-ranked Washington State is the only one-loss team left in the conference.

By Theo Lawson

The Spokesman-Review

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Mike Leach and his Washington State football team may be the top target for Pac-12 referees who’ve been peeved by the aggressive text messages the Cougars’ coach sent off to various conference executives decrying the league’s replay review process — and those who’ve been accused of tampering with it.

A fair percentage of Cougars fans already seem to think Pac-12 officials are after them, and many voiced those opinions when targeting wasn’t called on USC’s Porter Gustin — influencing the result of a Week 4 contest in Los Angeles, won by the Trojans 39-36.

Most recently, the Cougars were subjected to nine penalties in Saturday’s win over Stanford. WSU supporters would point to the fact the Cardinal drew just three.

But, if league commissioner Larry Scott had the option to slip a call or two to any of his 12 members at this stage of the season, 10th-ranked, one-loss Washington State would probably be his top recipient. The College Football Playoff disperses $6 million to each conference represented in the four-team semifinal and the Cougars, winners of four straight games, remain the Pac-12’s best and likely only chance at getting a share of the pot.

It’s a straightforward path for WSU now: there’s four games left on the regular-season schedule — versus Cal, at Colorado, versus Arizona, versus Washington. If the Cougars win each, they’ll earn the Pac-12 North’s top seed and book their first trip to the conference’s championship game since the conference split into two divisions seven years ago.

“It’s kind of in the back of our heads right now,” WSU defensive back Hunter Dale said after the Cougars’ 41-38 win at Stanford. “But we’ve got a lot more games in the Pac-12 and each of them are going to be hard just like it was tonight.”

The king of the Pac-12 North could be determined by the Apple Cup game for the third consecutive season. Or, the scenario most WSU fans would prefer, it’s decided one week before the annual rivalry game. A UW loss to Stanford this weekend would give the Huskies three conference losses and allow WSU to get its hands on the Pac-12 North title a week early if the Cougars win their next three games.

For Stanford to reach the title game, the Cardinal would need to win their final three games — and require at least two more losses from WSU. The Cougars will have head-to-head tiebreakers on Stanford and Oregon, which also faces an uphill climb having already lost three conference games. The Ducks would have the head-to-head edge on a three-loss UW team, but WSU and Stanford would each have to finish with four conference losses for Oregon to reach the title game.

The picture in the Pac-12 South is just as wobbly as the one in the North. Utah is the current frontrunner with a 4-2 conference record, but the Utes sit just one game ahead of USC and Arizona, who both share 3-3 records. Utah beat both the Trojans and Wildcats in consecutive weeks, so the Utes would have a tiebreaker if all three shared an identical win-loss tally at the end of November.

The Cougars have the most desirable path to the Pac-12 title game of any team in the conference, but the road to the CFP is much more daunting. They’d have to snatch four more regular-season wins and claim a victory in the conference championship game. Even by doing that, WSU could still fall short. Four of the country’s top 10 teams — all from different conferences — are still unbeaten and WSU is one of eight top-15 teams with one loss.

But the CFP and even the Nov. 30 Pac-12 title game, as far as the Cougars are concerned, are thoughts for another day.

“All I’m worried about is playing the best we can against Cal and if we win one game a week often enough, that’s all we can control,” Leach said. “Because if we worry about other stuff, then it’s just clutter. I mean everyone thought we’d get our head kicked in nearly every game, so it didn’t do us any benefit to pay attention to that and it didn’t do us any benefit to pay attention to the other. It’s like John Wooden said, basically, ‘Don’t let criticism or praise affect you negatively.’ So we have to just focus on stuff like that.”

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