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Picking the Pac-12 - Week One (plus TV schedule)

Football season finally kicks in the Pac-12! Most of the games are tune-ups against FCS opponents, but there are a few games of national interest as UCLA travels to Virginia and Cal visits Northwestern. Colorado opens with their annual rivalry game with Colorado State, and USC hosts Fresno State.

QB Brett Hundley leads the Bruins against Virginia on the road
QB Brett Hundley leads the Bruins against Virginia on the road
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday, August 28th

Idaho State @ Utah (no line), 4:30PM (PST), Pac 12 Networks

It's been a tough go for coach Mike Kramer at Idaho State as they've managed just 6 wins over the last 3 seasons; still, that represents an improvement over his predecessor John Zamberlin who need 4 seasons to amass 6 wins.  Simply put, the Bengals are a bad FCS team.  This year may not provide much relief - they are an Air Raid team that is replacing their top 3 receivers.  At best they should provide some valuable preparation for the Utes before facing WSU in week 5.

Utah enters their 4th season in the Pac-12 with head coach Kyle Whittingham on a rapidly warming seat.  Two years of no bowl games has many Utes fans grumbling, and pressure is mounting on the program to show some hope of being able to compete in their new conference.  Utah welcomes their 3rd OC in as many years as former Wyoming HC, Missouri OC (and a one-time Washington grad assistant) Dave Christensen takes over with Dennis Erickson moving over to coach the RB's.  The good news is the return of QB Travis Wilson after a concussion that threatened his career.  The bad news is they still have a number of questions in a secondary that ranked as one of the worse pass defenses in the country.  They'll get plenty of practice with Idaho State coming to town, but I expect their front to get plenty of pressure on the Bengals and the offense should breeze:  Utah 54, Idaho State 14

Rutgers @ WSU (-8) (CenturyLink Field, Seattle), 7PM (PST), Fox Sports 1

Along with Princeton - their opponent in the first college football game - Rutgers has been playing football longer than any other school.  Yet in all that time, this game marks their first visit to the Pacific Northwest.  They had better enjoy the scenery on their time off, because this game doesn't look like a good match-up for them.  The newest members of the Big Ten Conference aren't necessarily a bad team, but they are coming off a season where their pass defense ranked 100th in pass efficiency defense - yikes.  Not a good sign against an Air Raid offense.  Meanwhile the Rutgers offense was bottom third in the country, hence why Ralph Friedgen was brought on board as the new OC.  Whether he can do anything to cut down on QB Gary Nova's problem with interceptions will be critical to their chances.

WSU gets their Seattle game out of the way in a hurry this year, opening their season in the C-Link.  It's too bad they're having to resort to selling tickets via Groupon, because the Cougars have a favorable draw in this one.  Yes, they have major question marks in their secondary and their defense overall - just a mediocre group in 2013 - could take a step backwards.  But unless Friedgen can work miracles immediately, Rutgers' offense shouldn't present a significant challenge.  And the better news is the Cougars boast perhaps the deepest WR group in the conference and a 3rd year starter in Connor Halliday at QB facing what was a terrible pass defense in 2013.  Combine that with a cross-country trip for the visitors from New Jersey and this has the look of a fun opener for Cougar fans:  WSU 47, Rutgers 30

Weber State @ ASU (no line), 7:30PM (PST), Pac 12 Networks

Weber State is looking to bounce back after a disappointing two year run under Jody Sears.  The Wildcats have won just 4 games over the last 2 seasons giving new coach Jay Hill a major rebuilding project.  They will be breaking in a new QB but will have a couple of experienced RB's to lean on.  Defensively they have to hope they can improve on last year's numbers as they surrendered 41 points and 476 yards per game.

Arizona State should be one of the more entertaining teams in the country this year, boasting what could be an elite offense with Sr. QB Taylor Kelly at the controls for his 3rd straight season getting the ball to weapons like Jaelen Strong, D.J. Foster and Eric Lauderdale.  They may need all the points they can get from this group as the defense took some major hits, losing 7 starters including stud DT Will Sutton.  HC Todd Graham has prided himself on his ability to assemble quality defenses, and he has the benefit of being able to reload easily via the JC route - something he has taken frequent advantage of in his time in Tempe.  This should end up little more than a glorified scrimmage:  Arizona State 63, Weber State 13

Friday, August 29th

Colorado State @ Colorado (Sports Authority Field, Denver) (-3), 6PM (PST), Fox Sports 1

You could make a pretty good argument that the low point of CSU's 2013 season was dropping the opener to rival Colorado.  They would rally to finish with 8 wins, including a thriller over WSU in the New Mexico Bowl.  Under Nick Saban disciple Jim McElwain, the Rams have made significant strides on offense, finishing in the top-30 in both rushing and passing.  QB Garrett Grayson took the job last year and impressed, and he should have another strong season unless his green OL can't keep him upright.  They are strongest defensively in their LB corps, but the secondary needs improvement.

While they really had nowhere else to go but up, it has to be encouraging for Colorado fans to see the progress in just one season under the watch of Mike McIntyre.  He performed a significant turnaround at San Jose State, and so far, so good with a similar climb in Boulder.  While the Buffaloes were still overwhelmed against the upper tier of the conference, they showed some signs of fight and identified what should be their starter at QB for the next 3 years in Sefo Liufau.  However they will sorely miss WR Paul Richardson who was a major part of their offense with 10 TD's on 83 catches for 1,343 yards - they simply don't have anyone on the roster that appears to come close to that kind of explosive play-making ability.  My guess is that this rebuild is going to require patience from Buffs fans, and that will need to start this weekend:  Colorado State 34, Colorado 27

UNLV @ Arizona (-24), 7:30PM (PST), ESPN

Former UW assistant Bobby Hauck cooled off his scorching hot seat last year with UNLV's first bowl game in 13 seasons.  Whether that can be sustained is still a major question, and on top of everything they are facing significant APR troubles (they successfully appealed a bowl ban for 2014, but they need to show significant improvement in the classroom ASAP).  They have experience in the OL and a fantastic WR in Devante Davis and one of the better secondaries in the MWC.  But they need to replace their QB, have questions at RB and look highly suspect in their front 7.

Arizona faces a similar situation offensively to Washington in having to replace significant production at QB (B.J. Denker) and RB (Ka'Deem Carey), and like the Huskies they can lean on an experienced OL.  They also boast a WR group that could emerge as the best in the conference with the return to health of Austin Hill.  Given the pedigree of Rich Rodriquez it would be a surprise if the Wildcats don't field an effective if not downright dangerous offense even with RS-Fr Anu Solomon seeing his first game action at QB.  On the defensive side Arizona made strides forward last year, but face some major question marks with their DL and cornerbacks.  The ongoing suspension of Tra'Mayne Bondurant is an unwelcome complication for DC Jeff Casteel.  Still, the talent difference should overcome any other issues - while I think Arizona will have some kinks to work out in game 1, they should emerge with the win even if it's not the blowout it was last year:  Arizona 34, UNLV 17

Saturday, August 30th

UCLA (-21) @ Virginia, 9AM (PST), ESPN

Unless you've been living in a hole, you've probably heard that UCLA is a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 and earn a berth in the first-ever College Football Playoffs.  While I find those projections highly optimistic, you probably won't know if from their opener.  On the one hand, they are traveling cross country for an early morning game.  However it's against Virginia, they of the 2-10 record last year with one of those coming against FCS foe VMI.  UCLA's defense has some big holes to fill, but they do boast some highly impressive recruits to fill those holes, and they should feast on a weak Cavalier OL.  On offense it's the Brett Hundley show again as the QB embarks on what Bruins fans hope is a Heisman-worth campaign.  He'll have to hope for better protection from his OL and for the talent at the skill positions to transform potential into production.

You have to give Mike London credit - despite a lousy 18-31 record at Virginia, he has brought in some high-level talent, landing 3 5-star recruits and 7 4-star recruits since 2011.  Clearly he has some recruiting chops.  However that talent hasn't done a whole lot for him, and he's facing a lot of pressure to restore Virgina to the winning ways they were used to under George Welsh from 1982-2000.  There are reasons for optimism - highly-touted QB recruit Greyson Lambert has won the job as a RS-So and he has a strong cast of runners behind him.  Unfortunately his OL looks dicey at best, and the Bruins could feast.  On the defensive side things look a little better as they are improving their depth and may be ready to effectively run DC Jon Tenuta's aggressive scheme.  If the Cavs are to have a shot in this one, it will likely hinge on their own front 7 getting heat on Hundley.  Despite that and the travel fatigue that could slow UCLA in the first half as they attempt to reset their internal clocks, I think the Bruins simply have too much talent for Virginia to handle and a coaching advantage - call it:  UCLA 30, Virginia 17

Cal @ Northwestern (-11), 12:30PM (PST), ABC/ESPN2

While it was ultimately a loss, Cal had to be feeling fairly good about how tough they had played Northwestern in their opener last year.  As it turned out though, the Wildcats were not the quality team they have been in recent years, and any good feelings Cal had about themselves quickly faded under a wave of injuries and an epically terrible defense that left them with only 1 win - a tightly contested one over FCS Portland State.  With new DC Art Kaufman in to replace the much-maligned Andy Buh, there is a glimmer of hope that things can improve defensively.  They really have no other direction to go but up.  The Bear Raid offense will again revolve around QB Jared Goff and a talented group of WR's, but they had a hard time converting yards into points last year, ranking 34th and yds/g but just 96th in points/g.

It will be fascinating to see how Northwestern performs in the wake of their historic unionization vote.  Early reports suggest the team is more unified than ever, but that unity has yet to be tested by adversity.  Putting all that aside, the Wildcats seem poised to bounce back and prove last year's 5-7 record was an anomaly.  All things considered the defense was above-average last year and they look strong in the front 7.  The secondary is more of a concern - talented, but lacking experience.  The offense could be improved, especially if RB Venric Mark is fully back to health.  I think they'll look to make a statement in this game:  Northwestern 41, Cal 27

UC Davis @ Stanford (no line), 1PM (PST), Pac 12 Networks

Chris Petersen's alma mater has slipped a bit since his time there - they are a decent Big Sky team but haven't been championship contenders in over a decade.  This year they project as a middle of the conference team with a decent rushing attack and experienced defense, but they're breaking in a new QB.  Fortunately for the Aggies it's only a 2-hour drive to Palo Alto.

Stanford faces their first major reloading situation under David Shaw as they break in 4 new starters on the OL and 5 key players from their defense, not to mention their outstanding DC Derek Mason, now the head coach at Vanderbilt.  I say "reloading" rather than "rebuilding" because the talent is sufficient to expect no more than a modest drop-off (and potentially no drop at all).  Davis will provide a nice tune-up - a grinder-type offense where they can stuff the run and pin their ears back to rush the QB when the Aggies find themselves down big.  This is a Stanford offense with some big-play potential in receivers Ty Montgomery, Devin Cajuste and Michael Rector.  The Cardinal should have an easy time of it:  Stanford 48, UC Davis 6

Portland State @ Oregon State (no line), 1PM (PST), Pac 12 Networks

Former Husky Nigel Burton begins his 5th season as HC for the Vikings.  Results have been mixed so far, with records ranging from 2-9 to 7-4, and no wins in 5 tries against FBS opponents.  This year they are projected to finish 8th in the 13-team Big Sky.

With most teams a match-up with Portland State wouldn't generate any real worry.  However most teams don't have 2 losses in their last 3 games vs. FCS opponents.  Oregon State HC Mike Riley will certainly be preaching the message to his team that they can't overlook the Vikings, and they had better be receptive.  While the loss last year to Eastern Washington was somewhat understandable given the Eagles high level of success and an electric playmaker in Vernon Adams at QB, the loss to Sacramento State in 2012 remains a head-scratcher.  Remember that the Hornets finished that season just 4-7.  For the Beavers, they have a number of things to worry about, from rebuilding both their OL and DL and possibly having to find a new K, in addition to the difficult task of life after Brandin Cooks.  If the Beavers are serious about establishing more of a run game this season, this would be a great game to build up some confidence in that area.  Oregon State should win this with room to spare, but don't discount the in-state aspect - Portland State will be extra-hungry to prove something, and I could see this game being closer than Beaver fans will feel comfortable with:  Oregon State 37, Portland State 17

Fresno State @ USC (-22), 4:30PM (PST), Fox

It will be a new era in Fresno as they move on from record-setting QB Derek Carr, and it will be fascinating to see how well rising-star HC Tim DeRuyter can overcome that loss.  Regardless of who ends up starting at QB, you can A) expect them to continue playing at a hyper-fast pace, and B) figure they simply can't replicate the level of passing success they had with Carr.  That said, the offense still has weapons, including 1,000 yard WR Josh Harper and some good RB's, though they figure to take a step back up front.  Defensively they look pretty good, with a really strong secondary.  They will be looking to earn a little payback after losing to these same Trojans last year in the Las Vegas Bowl.

It didn't take long for Sark to face his first crisis at USC with the Josh Shaw PR mess.  While it will likely dent Sark's public image, I suspect it will a situation where the team circles the wagons and plays with a laser-focus.  On the field though it's a blow - while the Trojans have elite starting talent, sanctions have had a major impact on their depth, and losing Shaw to a non football-related issue is not the kind of luck they need to make a run at the Pac-12 title.  Still, the talent is ridiculous and they have a highly-regarded DC in Justin Wilcox who will be licking his chops to see what he can do with it.  This was an elite defense last year, and they could be again this year.  On offense, QB Cody Kessler should benefit from the move to Sark's HUNH approach.  He finished 2013 on a roll, and he should find the new scheme even more to his benefit as it should help mitigate the one significant question mark for the Trojan offense - their OL.  With a terrific cast of RB's and WR's, this offense could put up top-10 numbers.  I think they'll use the Shaw controversy as a rallying point and have a satisfying opener over a solid Fresno team:  USC 34, Fresno State 13

South Dakota @ Oregon (no line), 7:30PM (PST), Pac 12 Networks

There was a time when Joe Glenn was considered an up-and-comer as a coach, having guided Northern Colorado to two consecutive D-2 National Championships and then winning a D-1AA title with Montana before taking on the challenge of coaching Wyoming.  That didn't go quite as well and he was fired after 6 years.  He's been granted another lease on his coaching life with South Dakota, and entering his 3rd season there things haven't gone so well as he sports a 5-18 record with the Coyotes.

Unlike their in-state rivals in Corvallis, the Ducks have had no embarrassments in their tune-up games against FCS programs, and this game should be no different.  Oregon will be test-driving a rather green receiver corps as they try to replace Josh Huff and Bralon Addison as well as breaking in a new group of interior DL.  It won't matter, as they have elite talent at QB, RB and CB and highly touted players at DE.  Next to getting some experience for the new starters, the top priority will be making sure QB Marcus Mariota doesn't get hurt.  The Ducks roll in this one:  Oregon 63, South Dakota 10