Thursday, November 7th
Oregon (-10.5) @ Stanford, 6PM PST, ESPN
While Oregon loves to preach "Win the Day", you can bet that the Ducks have had this game circled on their calendars for a year now. This is the 4th year in a row they've been in the National Championship hunt, and you know they are very aware that Stanford presents one of their major hurdles on the way to earning a ticket to the BCS Title Game. You can also bet that Oregon coaches have dissected film from last year's game to figure out how to correct what went wrong. This is the most balanced offense these Ducks have fielded since Chip Kelly introduced his version of the spread-option in Eugene, and it's the growth in the passing game with Marcus Mariota throwing to Bralon Addison, Josh Huff, D'Anthony Thomas, etc. that has fueled the evolution (and credit should probably also be given to Mark Helfrich). This might also be the best defense they've fielded, which is saying something. Their secondary ranks among the best in the country, and they feature a long, talented front 4 that they can rotate liberally. But the key will be the Oregon OL - can they get enough push to create lanes for the run game? Can they give Mariota enough time in the pocket to find his receivers coming free downfield?
Give David Shaw credit - despite some key personnel losses off this team from last year (Chase Thomas, Zach Ertz, Stepfan Taylor), they keep rolling methodically along and currently sit as the top 1-loss team in the BCS. The defense - expected to be the cornerstone of the team heading into the year - is rounding into shape and beginning to live up to those expectations, but they've proven vulnerable at times this year, particularly at the hands of Washington and Utah. Could those offenses provide a blueprint for Oregon? Stanford will rely on their physical and imposing front 7 to control the line of scrimmage and harass Mariota into poor throws, but their secondary has proven vulnerable when the pass rush is neutralized. Offensively they have had to shift their emphasis a bit as they are no longer heavily dependent on their TE's in the passing game and have developed a legit threat in WR Ty Montgomery. RB Tyler Gaffney won't wow you, but he's been solid and consistent. The advanced metrics really like Stanford, and they'll get the benefit of playing this one at home, but I think Oregon just has too many weapons and Stanford has proven vulnerable to similar offenses this season. Call it Oregon 35, Stanford 24
Saturday, November 9th
USC (-16.5) @ California, 12PM PST, Fox
Despite typically suiting up only 40 or so scholarship players each week, the Trojans seem to be hitting their stride with Lane Kiffin long gone. The offense is nowhere near as explosive as in recent years and the OL is far from dominant, but they are gaining confidence behind a decent ground game and improving QB play from Cody Kessler. It also helps to get Marqise Lee back on the field. But this USC team is led by a terrific defense, one that ranks among the best in the nation even after getting eviscerated by ASU. They have a great combination of strength and athleticism throughout the lineup, and it's scary to think how much better they'd be with a healthy Morgan Breslin. USC will need a lot of help to win the South as they're a game back of ASU with the Sun Devils' win over the Trojans giving them the tiebreaker edge, but they have a legit shot at getting to double-digit wins this season.
Cal is just a mess right now. Their injury woes have been well-documented, and now comes an ugly incident with one freshman sending another to the hospital. If the more explosive allegations prove true, this is the kind of thing that could get Sonny Dykes fired. On the other hand, if they aren't true, this could also turn into something the team uses as a rallying point where they close ranks and take on an "us vs. the world" mentality. Despite their struggles on the field, the team clearly hasn't quit on Dykes - they gave Arizona all they could handle last week, but they just don't have the talent and depth yet to make that effort pay off. Expect Cal to have trouble keeping QB Jared Goff upright against the Trojan front, and for USC's offense to get another confidence boost facing a terrible Bears defense. Still, I can't shake the feeling that Cal will put a scare into USC and keep it close for most of the game: USC 27, Cal 17
Arizona State (-7) @ Utah, 1PM PST, Pac 12 Networks
After an up and down stretch early in the season for ASU, the Sun Devils have really hit their stride and are playing as well as any team in the conference lately. Their ground game has emerged to provide balance with a very effective passing attack. QB Taylor Kelly doesn't wow you with his measurables, but he makes plays and is a great trigger-man for this offense. The defense has looked better since the return of DT Jaxon Hood to the lineup, and the surgical efficiency of the offense has allowed the defense the freedom to play more aggressively. The Sun Devils got their first road win of the season last week in Pullman, and will hope to build on that as they attempt to maintain their lead in the South.
Utah is a great example of the thin line that can exist between success and failure. While they sit at 1-4 in the conference and just 4 wins overall, they are just a handful of plays away from being 4-1 in conference and 7-1 overall. The Utes were riding high after their big upset win over Stanford, but an injury to the throwing hand of QB Travis Wilson has been a major factor in their current 2-game slide, and while they are talking optimistically about his readiness this weekend, you have to wonder if that's just coach-speak. Where the Utes have a chance to pull the upset is through their physical front 7 - they are among the best in the country at getting to the QB, and that's been an area of weakness for ASU. As well as the Sun Devils are playing right now, this feels like a game where Utah could put a major scare into them. If it weren't for the uncertainty about Wilson I might call for the upset; instead, I'll say ASU 34, Utah 23
UCLA (-1) @ Arizona, 7PM PST, ESPN
After an impressive start to the season, injuries and the tough one-two punch of Stanford & Oregon have taken some of the air out of UCLA's sails. Even in their "get well" game vs. Colorado last week the Buffs made them work harder than they would have liked. The biggest problems are up front where a beat-up Bruin OL and an injury to starting RB Jordon James has put a lot of pressure on QB Brett Hundley, and the RS-So. has cracked at times. The defense has shown cracks as well - while physically quite talented, there are also growing pains to be expected from the amount of youth in the lineup. While the Bruins control their own destiny in the South, they face a tough 4-game stretch to close the season starting this week in Tucson.
Arizona is a tough team to get a gauge on. While it appears that QB B.J. Denker is really blossoming into a true all-around QB and the defense appears to be much-improved, you also have to take into account their schedule - a pillow-soft OOC slate and their two easiest in-conference games already in the books (including a close call last week vs. Cal). Still, you have to be wary of the Wildcat offense, especially their run game with RB Ka'Deem Carey and Denker at QB. The defense however has not fared so well in-conference, and they still have games vs. Oregon and ASU to come. On the other hand, they get this one at home, and you have to think the memory of their thrashing in Pasadena last year will provide some extra motivation. What does that all add up to? The toughest pick of the week for me. My gut tells me that UCLA is the better team, and despite being banged-up I think they'll do enough to keep Carey contained and Hundley will make enough plays to pull out the win: UCLA 34, Arizona 27
Record last week:
Vs. the spread: 1-3
Record this year:
Vs. the spread: 35-31-1