Friday, November 28th:
Stanford @ UCLA (-5.5), 12:30PM PT, ABC
It's been a tough year of adjustment for the Cardinal as they've dropped from 4-straight BCS bowls to a possibility of a losing season. At 6-5 they have secured bowl eligibility, but with this weekend's game and a bowl game left there's a very real chance of finishing 6-7. It certainly doesn't help their cause that WR Ty Montgomery - their best player on offense - is out with a shoulder injury. True frosh RB/WR Christian McCaffrey has gotten more touches of late and looks like a real weapon, but the Cardinal still don't have that thumper type of RB they can send at a defense 30 times. Stanford will (as they have all season) rely on their stifling defense to keep the game close and give them a chance. While they are no longer the best defense in the country, they are still elite and very strong against both the run and the pass. The only weakness they've shown is allowing longer, methodical drives
UCLA has weathered a modest start to the season and a mid-year 2-game slide and is rolling along as one of the hottest teams in the country. A win here sends them to their 3rd Pac-12 Championship game in the 4 years it's been held and with an outside shot at earning a CFP berth, so one would think there should be no let-down after the rivalry game last week vs. USC. QB Brett Hundley remains the 2nd most dynamic QB in the conference, testing teams with his feet and his patience and accuracy in the passing game. And he has a terrific RB in Paul Perkins to help carry the load on offense. What's been more impressive is how a talented defense has coalesced of late and is playing very, very well. They leaned heavily on their ability to score off of turnovers early in the year, but of late they have stepped up - they now have a legit pass rush, their pass defense overall is very good and they are solid vs. the run. It will not be easy for the Bruin offense to score against Stanford, but their defense is playing better than the Cardinal offense. The question is whether the pressure of so much riding on this game will sink UCLA while Stanford is free to play spoiler. I think the Cardinal keep this one close, but the Bruins eke out the win: UCLA 23, Stanford 20
Arizona State @ Arizona (-2.5), 12:30PM PT, Fox
It's a heck of a Territorial Cup matchup as both teams enter the game ranked for the first time since 1986, and if Stanford manages to upset UCLA, the winner will head to the Pac-12 Championship game. ASU could have avoided this drama had they taken care of business a couple weeks ago vs. Oregon State, but they laid an egg and lost control of their own destiny, as well as blowing any shot at the CFP. They also started slow last week vs. WSU before kicking things up a notch, using their aggressive defense to record 5 takeaways including 4 interceptions. That's the approach under HC Todd Graham - blitz heavily and take some gambles on defense to make things happen. A bevy of first-time starters and JC transfers has gelled over the course of the season and the ASU defense is no longer a liability, though as you'd expect they are somewhat vulnerable to big plays. Offensively things haven't quite seemed on track since QB Taylor Kelly returned from injury. They are still playing well, but he's not quite the running threat he was before and his passing has taken a small step back as well. The good news for the Sun Devils is stud WR Jaelen Strong will return after sitting out the WSU game due to injury.
Arizona has already posted their best season of the three-year RichRod era, but the opportunity is there for the best year for the Wildcats since the 1998 team that finished 12-1. To get there though they may have to do it without QB Anu Solomon who left the Utah game last week with a foot injury. He's questionable, which puts some doubt into the ability of the Arizona offense to remain as potent as they've been up to this point. That said, Solomon's play has slipped of late, with defenses limiting his effectiveness especially in the passing game and putting a lot of pressure on RBs Nick Wilson and Terris Jones-Grigsby. Backup QB Jesse Scroggins is a bit more of a runner, so if he has to go the Arizona offense might lean more on their ground game. Defensively the Wildcats have relied heavily on the talents of OLB Scooby Wright who ranks 4th in the country (and 3rd in the conference!) in sacks/game and 1st in tackles for loss/game. I think they'll have a tough time with the ASU offense and despite being the home team will lose their third straight to their rivals: Arizona State 31, Arizona 24
Saturday, November 29th:
Utah (-9) @ Colorado, 10AM PT, Pac-12 Networks
With their 3rd OC in as many years in former UW grad assistant Dave Christensen, the Utes have still not totally solved their troubles with the QB position. Much of the recent misery has been due to injury, but even with a pretty highly regarded QB recruit in Travis Wilson playing in his 3rd season, this has not been a position of strength for Utah. Wilson has had flashes this year and throughout his career, but even with a terrific RB to lean on in Devontae Booker, the passing game has been hit and miss. Losing Dres Anderson obviously didn't help, but you can't help but feel like HC Kyle Whittingham is one really good QB away from making a serious run at the Pac-12 South title. They have relied quite a bit on a typically aggressive and hard-nosed Ute defense that this year is the runaway nationwide leader in sacks led by stud DE Nate Orchard. That fearsome pass rush has helped the Utes field one of the top passing defenses in the country, but they are a bit more vulnerable on the ground. Utah has already clinched a bowl, but a win here combined with losses elsewhere in the conference could boost their position in the pecking order quite a bit.
In year 2 of a massive rebuilding project, HC Mike McIntyre faces the depressing possibility that his clearly improved program could go winless in-conference, something that not even the worst teams under Chuck Fairbanks, Bill McCartney, Dan Hawkins or Jon Embree suffered through. Much like their new/old rivals at Utah, the Buffaloes are uncertain of their QB as Jordan Gehrke got his first start last week in relief of Sefo Liufau. Either way, the Colorado offense has been struggling of late. The run game has shown flashes here and there but has not established itself as something McIntyre is willing to focus on, and the passing game has mostly been finding short gains against zone coverage by targeting WR Nelson Spruce. Liufau's biggest issue was interceptions, having thrown 14 on the year as the Buffs sit at 115th in the country at turnover margin. The news is worse on the defensive side of things as Colorado ranks as arguably the worst in the conference. They are not terrible against the pass, but that's about it. They are among the very worst in the country at surrendering explosive plays. The one ray of hope here is that the Buffs have played Utah tough since their rivalry game resumed after they entered the conference as all three games have been decided by 7 points or less. Unfortunately for McIntyre and Colorado fans, I don't see this one being that close: Utah 31, Colorado 17
Notre Dame @ USC (-7), 12:30PM PT, Fox
Just a few short weeks ago Notre Dame was a handful of plays away from upsetting #1 Florida State and cementing a place at the CFP table. But Irish luck ran short, and after a tougher than expected win over Navy, they got blown out by Arizona State and are now riding a 3-game losing streak. Excuse me for a second while I play the world's tiniest violin in sympathy...OK, done. The Domers are sitting at 7-4, and Notre Dame fans have to be wondering if under HC Brian Kelly the 12-1 season that saw them stomped in the BCS title game was an aberration, with 8-5 records the norm. They'll get a shot this weekend in the Coliseum to turn things around with a win over the hated Trojans, something Kelly has done well (3-1 so far). Notre Dame's offense has been one of the better such units this year under QB Everett Golson with some support from RB Tarean Folston. Their defense hasn't been quite as good, and is now particularly beat up with 3 more starters out with injury.
Steve Sarkisian can sympathize - his Trojans, already short on players due to scholarship restrictions, have seen injuries whittle them down to less than 50 scholarship players suiting up last week vs. UCLA. That lack of depth takes a toll regardless of how talented the starters are, but that's the situation he walked into. And so here he sits in familiar territory at 7 wins and eliminated from the Pac-12 South race. A win over Notre Dame would give him a boost heading into the bowl season and help USC come bowl selection time. The Trojan offense was surprisingly meek against the Bruins, with the OL taking most of the hit as they couldn't open holes for RB Buck Allen and allowed QB Cody Kessler to be sacked 6 times. That has to get fixed if USC is to generate any success offensively. On defense they flipped the usual script as they were respectable vs. the run but got torched in the passing game, allowing several big plays as Brett Hundley looked like the Heisman candidate he had been proclaimed at the start of the season. It's hard to know what to make of this one - both teams are beat up and staggering to the finish line, but I think the losses from the Irish DL will be the difference as USC pulls out a tough win: USC 34, Notre Dame 30
Brigham Young @ California (-4), 1:30PM PT, Pac-12 Networks
Since bolting the Mountain West a few years back and then finding all the chairs were occupied when music stopped playing and no invite forthcoming to a bigger conference, the Cougars have been scrambling to fill their schedule as an independent, which is why there was the odd sight of them playing FCS Savannah State last week. This would be the Savannah State that has recorded 4 wins total over their last 5 seasons. It looked like the Cougars might see their season go down the drain when starting QB Taysom Hill went down with a season-ending leg injury and they lost 4 straight games. But thanks to a pillow-soft late season schedule, BYU has rallied and earned bowl eligibility - and a berth already extended from the Miami Beach Bowl - and hopes to keep their 3-game winning streak going. Their offense has moved to a more traditional run-pass mix with backup QB Christian Stewart and they've been particularly effective on passing downs. On defense they have slipped a bit from a typical Bronco Mendenhall unit, ranking just 61st (FEI) & 59th (S&P) in the advanced metrics. They appear to be stronger vs. the run than the pass and are more vulnerable to sustained drives than explosive ones.
Cal meanwhile sits at 5 wins with this last chance to secure bowl eligibility, something that would represent a moderately surprising achievement in year two of the Sonny Dykes era, coming on the heels of last year's 1-11 mess. A potent offense is what's carried them so far this season, but it's more "good" than truly "great". RB Daniel Lasco has provided the Bears with an unexpectedly strong rushing threat, but this offense is still geared towards the pass, and they have a stable of talented receivers and one of the best young QBs in the conference in Jared Goff. Which is why it's odd to see them forcing true frosh QB Luke Rubenzer into the action so often. He's basically a wildcat QB in how they use him, and on the rare occasions he does pass, he's far more raw and clearly less talented than Goff. It's a head-scratcher. The bigger problem though is a lousy defense. While not quite as epically awful as last year's unit, this one is still pretty bad, particularly vs. the pass and in giving up big plays. The Bears have all the motivation in this one, but also the most pressure, so the question is how they'll handle that pressure - will they wilt, or will they play with laser-focus and effort? Both FEI and S&P see this as a close match-up, but with a slight lean towards BYU. This looks to be a shoot-out given the match-ups, territory more familiar to Cal than to BYU this year. Still, I see the Cougars pulling this one out: BYU 45, Cal 38
Oregon (-19.5) @ Oregon State, 5PM PT, ABC
Oregon coasted over an out-manned Colorado team last weekend, covering the spread and doing what they needed to in order to avoid a calamitous upset. With a berth in the Pac-12 Championship game long secured, they have two goals - avoid a let-down that would sink their chances of making the initial CFP, and stay healthy. They've done the former, but have taken some lumps with the latter, losing C Hroniss Grasu for a few games and TE Pharoah Brown for the season. This week they take on another overmatched opponent, but this time it's a rivalry game that has often brought out the best in the Beavers. On paper, the Ducks hold every advantage in this one. Their run game is as good as ever behind super-frosh Royce Freeman (with some assistance from 5-star So. Thomas Tyner), and they have arguably the best QB in the country in Marcus Mariota. On defense things look more difficult, but Oregon still appears to be the better unit. Against a depleted OSU backfield the Duck run defense should hold up which will put the onus on their secondary to avoid getting burned.
As if the Civil War weren't enough motivation for the Beavers, they also have bowl eligibility on the line in this one. But they enter the game pretty beat-up, with RB Terron Ward out and Storm Woods questionable, while DT Jalen Grimble is also day-to-day. Their best hope lies with Sr. QB Sean Mannion - while this hasn't been a particularly memorable senior season, he remains the best pure passer in the league and emerging targets in WRs Victor Bolden and Jordan Villamin. If they can generate some run game success, that will open up play-action possibilities for the Beavers. However it's hard to see their defense being able to stop the Ducks. In particular their run defense appears ripe to be exploited. Their pass defense rates higher, but it's hard to see them containing Mariota. Oregon State has often played better than you would think in these matchups, but it's hard to see them containing Oregon in this one: Oregon 49, Oregon State 20
Record Last Week:
Against the spread: 4-2
Record for the Year:
Against the spread: 46-30