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Can the Buffaloes win the Pac-12 South?

Probably not, but there’s a chance.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday afternoon, the Pac-12 South co-leaders will face off. Tied for first place at 1-0, the Colorado Buffaloes will be favorites of the Arizona Wildcats. Wait, what?

The Buffs are somehow in first place, despite having only beaten Arizona State in conference play. They will likely take sole possession of first place after their game against Arizona, who just beat an awful UCLA, 20-17, at home. This is strange, but it shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

We all knew the Pac-12 South was going to be a mess in 2019. Utah is still probably going to win the division, but if they have any more stumbles, 8-4 might be enough to make the Pac-12 Championship. Let’s break down each team’s chances.

UCLA Bruins (1-4 overall, 1-1 in conference)

UCLA may have beaten Washington State in a wild comeback, but this is still a dreadful team. Other than a home game against Oregon State, the Bruins will likely be heavy underdogs in the rest of their games this season.

Worst Case: 2-10 (2-7)

Best Case: 4-8 (4-5)

Most Likely: 3-9 (3-6)

Arizona Wildcats (3-1, 1-0)

Arizona is currently tied for first place in the Pac-12 (Oregon, CU and UofA are all 1-0, lol), but they won’t stay there. Their three wins look nice, but no one would mistake Northern Arizona, Texas Tech or UCLA for quality teams. They’re about to embark on a three-game stretch at Colorado, vs. Washington and at USC, and they finish with a three-game stretch at Oregon, vs. Utah, and at Arizona State. Even more daunting is that offensive stars Khalil Tate and J.J. Taylor are both dealing with injuries at the moment.

Worst Case: 4-8 (2-7)

Best Case: 7-5 (4-5)

Most Likely: 5-7 (3-6)

USC Trojans (3-2, 1-1)

The Trojans are completely unpredictable and will continue to be. They have elite talent on both sides of the ball, but they are soft, injury-plagued and horribly coached. Sometimes there’s so much talent that it doesn’t matter — their third string QB will just lob passes to his freak receivers, just as they did to beat Utah. But most of the time, USC’s malaise will keep them out of rhythm and their defense will get out-schemed by smart coaches. USC has a tough schedule ahead — at Colorado, vs. Oregon, at Arizona State, at California — but they could still make a wild run with a clean sweep of the South division.

Worst Case: 5-7 (4-5)

Best Case: 8-4 (7-2)

Most Likely: 6-6 (5-4)

Colorado Buffaloes (3-1, 1-0)

The goal of the season has always been a bowl game. As talented as this team’s stars are, the Buffs lack depth and consistency. They’re extremely hard to predict since we don’t even know who’s going to play this week, because let’s be honest, CU is in serious trouble if Laviska Shenault Jr. or Mustafa Johnson miss extended time.

That said, a bowl game is still very much on the table, if not the expectation at this point. The Buffs have three wins in the bag, and two of which demonstrated mental toughness they lacked in their previous two 5-7 finishes. Colorado should beat Arizona on Saturday, regardless of Shenault or Johnson, and they still have games against UCLA and Stanford that should be comfortable wins (knocks on wood). That’s six wins right there, just in games CU will be strong favorites to win.

After those six wins, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest CU can contend for the Pac-12 South. But it’s still possible. They still have USC at home, which will be hard because the Buffs’ secondary might get embarrassed by those freak receivers, but CU has to beat USC some time (it seems fitting that Clay Helton loses to CU and is fired on the spot). There’s also a road game against Wazzu, which I assume is a loss, but the Cougs may continue their collapse into October. Games against Washington and at Utah are assumed losses, too, but UW lost to Cal and Utah lost to USC’s third-string QB, so anything is possible.

Worst Case: 5-7 (3-6)

Best Case: 8-4 (6-3)

Most Likely: 6-6 (4-5)

Arizona State Sun Devils (4-1, 1-1)

It’s difficult to peg the Devils right now. Their offense is depending on a freshman QB and a dreadful offensive line. Their defense looks terrific, but they struggled against the one above-average offense they’ve played this season. Their win over Michigan State needed the Spartans (who are not good) to miss three field goals. They beat Cal only because Chase Garbers got hurt and the Bears offense went from trash to a dumpster fire.

But ASU did win those games, scored with the Buffs (although the CU defense is really bad), and have a favorable schedule coming up. They have three road games left, and those are against Utah (likely loss), UCLA (should-be win) and Oregon State (sure win). The rest of the schedule is winnable home games against struggling Washington State, unpredictable USC, an Oregon team prone to losing heartbreakers in the desert, and the hopeless Arizona Wildcats. Only Utah and Oregon figure to be losses, but even in their best scenario, the Devils would have three conference losses, including their home loss to CU.

Worst Case: 6-6 (3-9)

Best Case: 9-3 (6-3)

Most Likely: 8-4 (5-4)

Utah Utes (4-1, 1-1)

Utah entered the season as heavy favorites to win the South, as legitimate contenders to win the Pac-12 Championship, and as a dark horse contender to make the College Football Playoff. Through five games, only the first statement is true.

The case for Utah winning the South is easy: they’re the best team and have a favorable schedule. The Utes defense is elite and should keep them in any game, even if Tyler Huntley is erratic and Zack Moss struggles to stay healthy. They are the only team in the South with a reliable strategy for winning games, like if ASU had a better defense and were more consistent offensively. As far as the schedule goes, their only real challenge left is a game at Washington. Otherwise, they play Oregon State and Arizona on the road, then host ASU, Cal, UCLA and CU. Only Washington should be a loss and only Arizona State and Colorado should pose any problems.

The case for Utah losing would be injuries and chaos. The Utes’ offensive line has been surprisingly soft, so injuries to Huntley and Moss may continue to be a problem if they keep taking hits. If they can’t pull away from even mediocre teams, upsets are much more likely, because no matter how good that defense is, weird stuff happens. I could very easily see Utah losing to Washington, then drop a game or two because one play goes wrong. Such an example would be Utah leading ASU 13-7 in the fourth quarter, then Brandon Aiyuk breaks away for a 60-yard score to win the game. Or against Colorado, the Utes can’t run the ball, and neither can the Buffs, but one team has Laviska Shenault and the other team doesn’t. Something like that, combined with ASU, USC or CU finishing 8-4 could determine the South.

Worst Case: 8-4 (5-3)

Best Case: 10-2 (7-2)

Most Likely: 9-3 (6-3)