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College football picks: Brutal stretch run in Pac-12 is obstacle to breaking CFP drought

Now comes the hard part for the Pac-12.

The Pac-12 has been tons of fun and high quality in what will be its last season in its current form. Next year, 10 Pac-12 schools scatter to three other Power Five conferences.

Before they go, the conference is trying to break a six-year College Football Playoff drought. To do so, it will have to overcome itself.

Because of some excellent out-of-conference results, the Pac-12 has four teams with zero or one loss. Only the Southeastern Conference has that many.

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Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader (6) runs the ball against North Carolina defensive back Don Chapman (2) and North Carolina linebacker Cedric Gray (33) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)Syracuse and Virginia Tech look to enhance bowl aspirations when they meet on Thursday nightArmy quarterback Larry Robinson (2) passes in the second half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. LSU won 62-0. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)AAC votes to add Army in 2024 for football, AP sources say. Army-Navy to remain nonconference gameUtah quarterback Bryson Barnes, right, passes as Southern California defensive end Romello Height defends during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)No. 8 Oregon at No. 13 Utah highlights Week 9 slate. Challenges await some Top 25 teams on the road

The difference: In the Pac-12, most of those teams still have to play each other, starting with No. 8 Oregon (6-1) at No 13 Utah (6-1) on Saturday.

The Utes also play No. 5 Washington (7-0) next month. The Ducks and Huskies have already played each other and each play No. 11 Oregon State (6-1) in late November. The Beavers handed Utah its only loss.

That doesn’t even count No. 24 Southern California’s back-to-back games against the Huskies and Ducks in early November, though calling the Trojans (6-2) a contender at this point seems like a stretch.

Ideally, what the Pac-12 — or any conference — wants is a conference title game that is likely to send the winner to the playoff. Realistically, that requires two teams with no more than one loss each.

That’s hard to achieve when all the best teams have to knock heads on the road to the championship game.

Balance and depth makes for a fun regular season, but powerful teams that separate from the pack — on in this case the Pac-12 — reach the playoff.

The Pac-12 needs two of its best to breakaway, which is why Oregon-Utah is one of the most intriguing games of Week 9.

No. 8 Oregon (minus 6 1/2) at No. 13 Utah

Utah’s Kyle Whittingham has made a strong case for Pac-12 and maybe even national coach of the year by keeping the two-time conference champions in contention despite a load of injuries and a work-in-progress offense. The Utes were too tough for USC last week. The Ducks are not as likely to be pushed around, but it has become apparent that Utah is not giving up its Pac-12 crown without a knock-down, drag-out fight.

PICK: Oregon 28-20.

No. 1 Georgia (minus 14 1/2) vs. Florida

The Bulldogs have won two in a row and five of the last six at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville, Florida. The Gators have shown some progress under coach Billy Napier in Year 2, but they still look a ways from being able to threaten the two-time defending national champions — even if the Bulldogs have not quite played to that level so far this season.

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PICK: Georgia 41-20.

No. 3 Ohio State (minus 14 1/2) at Wisconsin

After the Buckeyes dispatched Penn State, this trip to Camp Randall appears to be the biggest stumbling block between them and another pivotal showdown with No. 2 Michigan.

This is a huge one for the Badgers as the try to win the final version of the Big Ten West before the conference abandons divisions and expands in 2024. Wisconsin is alone in first place, but another loss could throw the Badgers back into a tiebreaker situation with Iowa — which they would lose. And, the Badgers are playing with a backup quarterback.

Ohio State has won nine straight against the Badgers since they upset a top-ranked Buckeyes team in Madison in 2010.

PICK: Ohio State 31-14.

No. 20 Duke (plus 4 1/2) at No. 18 Louisville

The biggest football game the basketball powers have ever played. A second loss for either would make it tricky to reach the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. Once again Duke QB Riley Leonard (ankle) is a question mark.

PICK: Louisville 21-18.

No. 6 Oklahoma (minus 10) at Kansas

The Sooners have won 18 straight against the Jayhawks, who are hoping for the return of QB Jaylon Daniels (back) after he missed the last three games. Kansas has been potent offensively even with backup QB Jason Bean. The defense, though, is not great. The path to an upset is to win an classic 2010s Big 12 shootout and the chances go way up with Daniels.

PICK: Oklahoma 49-34.

The rest of Saturday’s games involving ranked teams and FBS foes, with lines by FanDuel Sportsbook:

No. 4 Florida State (minus 20 1/2) at Wake Forest

You might not think of the Wake game as a hurdle for FSU to clear, but the Demon Deacons have won three straight meetings … FLORIDA STATE 42-17.

No. 5 Washington (minus 26 1/2) at Stanford

Michael Penix Jr. and the Huskies have a good get-right opponent after that ugly victory last week against Arizona State … WASHINGTON 55-20.

BYU at No. 7 Texas (minus 17 1/2)

QB Maalik Murphy fills in for Quinn Ewers (shoulder) with freshman Arch Manning moving up the depth chart to No. 2 … TEXAS 35-14.

Indiana at No. 10 Penn State (minus 31 1/2)

Going from Ohio State to the Hoosiers has to feel like getting upgraded to first-class from a middle seat in the last row in coach for the Nittany Lions … PENN STATE 42-7.

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No. 11 Oregon State at Arizona (minus 3 1/2)

Wildcats have quietly entered the chat in the Pac-12 and have a chance to play spoiler down the stretch … ARIZONA 24-20.

Vanderbilt (plus 24 1/2) at No. 12 Mississippi

Rebels have won four straight overall against Vandy, averaging 42 points per game … OLE MISS 35-14.

Pittsburgh (plus 20 1/2) at No. 14 Notre Dame

Irish have won six of seven meetings and haven’t lost at home to Pitt since 2008 … NOTRE DAME 34-17.

No. 17 North Carolina (minus 11 1/2) at Georgia Tech

Last year, the Tar Heels’ befuddling upset loss was to Georgia Tech, but they got that out of the way last week against Virginia … NORTH CAROLINA 30-14.

No. 19 Air Force (minus 11 1/2) at Colorado State

Falcons defense is third in the nation in yards per play allowed at 4.05 … AIR FORCE 34-17

No. 21 Tennessee (minus 3 1/2) at Kentucky

Matchup of quarterbacks ranked 11th (Joe Milton of Tennessee) and 13th (Devin Leary of Kentucky) in the SEC in passer rating … TENNESSEE 23-16.

No. 22 Tulane at Rice (plus 10 1/2)

Owls QB JT Daniels, at his fourth school, is leading the AAC with 2,173 yards passing and 17 touchdowns … TULANE 32-27.

Colorado (plus 17 1/2) at No. 23 UCLA

Deion Sanders’ Buffs have been listing but they are still an attraction. UCLA announced a rare sellout at the Rose Bowl … UCLA 35-21.

No. 24 Southern California (minus 10 1/2) at Cal

USC has lost two straight and still have three ranked teams on the schedule … USC 38-27.

Old Dominion (plus 19 1/2) at No. 25 James Madison

Dukes lost their only game as a ranked team in 2022 … JAMES MADISON 27-10.

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UNLV (plus 7 1/2) at Fresno State (@MattK_FS) — A surprising big game in the Mountain West with the Rebels bowl-eligible for the first time since 2013 … FRESNO STATE 35-31.

Purdue at Nebraska (minus 2 1/2) (@CHuskerJ) — Cornhuskers have lost four of five to the Boilermakers, which is a big part of why Nebraska has not been to a bowl game since 2016 … NEBRASKA 17-13.

Miami (Ohio) at Ohio (minus 6 12) (@jcohenap) Battle of the Bricks could decide the MAC East Division, but Miami will be without injured QB Brett Gabbert … OHIO 26-17.

Washington State (minus 5 1/2) at Arizona State (@ArtWMoore) Cougars are trying to snap a three game losing streak … WASHINGTON STATE 38-17.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com. Get alerts on the latest AP Top 25 poll throughout the season. Sign up here

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll