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Colorado vs. USC could decide the Pac-12 South

Yes, it’s too early to say, but this game will likely shape the division race.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

When the Colorado Buffaloes travel to Los Angeles to take on the USC Trojans (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12), they will have their toughest challenge to date. And even though it’s just the third of eight Pac-12 games, this game could very well decide the Pac-12 South, or at the very least shape the division race.

A few weeks ago, we floated an article that suggested the Buffaloes have a solid chance of winning the Pac-12 South. The argument was that only three games into the season, it was obvious that no one in the South was definitively good, except for maybe the Buffs, who had yet to prove their staying power. Now the Buffs are 5-0 on the season, 2-0 in the Pac-12, and firmly in first place in the division. USC, meanwhile, had already dropped a game at Stanford, but are in second place after consecutive close wins at Washington State and against Arizona. We still don’t know how good either team is, so anything can happen on Saturday.

If Colorado is able to get their first ever win against USC, they should be heavy favorites in the South. According to S+P metrics, CU has a 40% chance of beating USC, then a meager 21% chance of winning at Washington the next week. But after that, CU should be the favorite in each of their remaining five games, which will be vs. Oregon State, at Arizona, vs. Washington State, vs. Utah, and at California. If the Buffs get a win over USC, they would be likely to finish with 9 or 10 wins, which would be good enough to win the South; less conservative projections would have them at 10 wins with an outside chance of netting an 11th.

USC, meanwhile, should win over Colorado, just as they should be the second best team in the Pac-12. For a team as talented as they are, they have performed like a collection of elite recruits who have yet to learn how to play as one. Their two losses were to Stanford and Texas — which, fair, those are good teams — but USC also struggled to contain Washington State’s passing offense and nearly allowed feckless Arizona to come back from a 24-point halftime deficit. Should they realize their potential and beat Colorado, they would be 3-1 in the conference and be heavy favorites in every remaining Pac-12 game, sans an away game at Utah. With the head-to-head win, USC would also have the tie-breaker over Colorado even if they finish with a worse overall record.

Elsewhere in the South, only Utah is a threat to contend. Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA are all projected to finish with 6 wins or fewer, considering each team’s early struggles and the schedules ahead, none of which can even threaten for the crown. Utah, however, is favored in all of their remaining games, besides their trip to Boulder. But they already have 2 Pac-12 losses and would have to finish perfect or close to win. It’s possible, especially considering they have USC and Colorado yet, but it doesn’t look doable for a team that isn’t as talented as in year’s past.

Colorado can still win or lose the South regardless of the outcome on Saturday, but with how the schedules shape out, their game at USC will define the race to the Pac-12 Championship.