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

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It's a lighter week than normal in the conference as ASU, USC, Stanford & UCLA all have the week off. Utah travels to Ann Arbor in the highest profile game of the week as the Utes look to knock off Michigan. Oregon visits WSU and Cal goes to Arizona to kick off conference play for those four schools. Colorado hosts Hawaii as the Warriors continue their Pac-12 2014 tour, and San Diego State visits Oregon State in a dangerous game for the Beavers.

Travis Wilson leads the Utes into the Big House to take on Michigan
Travis Wilson leads the Utes into the Big House to take on Michigan
Stephen Dunn

Saturday, September 20th:

Hawaii @ Colorado (-8), 11AM PST, Pac-12 Networks

Husky fans are plenty familiar with the Warriors after the close shave in week 1.  Since that game, they've hosted Oregon State and Northern Iowa, losing 38-30 to the Beavers after a furious 4th quarter rally fell short and edging FCS Northern Iowa 27-24.  They lost star RB Joey Iosefa to a broken ankle vs. OSU and he'll be out 4-6 weeks, so Steven Lakalaka has assumed the starting role.  This weekend marks Hawaii's first road game of the season as they get to deal with the elevation of Boulder.  QB Ikaika Woolsey has cooled off after a decent debut vs. Washington, completing just 34 of 80 pass attempts the last two weeks.  Defensively they've been OK, holding UNI to 320 yards and stuffing their running game, but allowing 464 to Oregon State and allowing their best running total in quite a while.

Colorado showed some spark last week vs. Arizona State, keeping the game within 2 scores and gashing their defense to the tune of 545 yards.  The Buffs may still be a little low on talent relative to the rest of the league, but they are improving and have the look of a team that will notch a few upsets this year.  QB Sefo Liufau continues to display a steady hand at QB making smart decisions and has developed a strong connection with WR Nelson Spruce (14th nationally in ypg).  The running game - and bruiser Christian Powell in particular - had a breakout game last week, plowing for 232 yards on 37 carries, led by Powell's 118 on 11 carries.  The defense remains a major problem though, surrendering 6.11 ypp (100th nationally) and are equally susceptible on the ground (5.40 ypc, 112th) and the air (139.33 passer rating allowed, 98th).  They'll get a test from a scrappy Hawaii team, but home field should be enough to tip the scales in their favor:  Colorado 37, Hawaii 27

Utah @ Michigan (-3.5), 12:30PM PST, ABC/ESPN2

Utah makes their third visit to the Big House where they are 1-1 all-time, having beaten Michigan 25-23 the last time they played in 2008.  This will mark their first major test of the season after easily dispatching FCS doormat Idaho State 56-14 and the floundering Fresno State 59-27, after which they got their first of two bye weeks.  The offense has been terrific so far under new OC Dave Christensen and a healthy Travis Wilson at QB, averaging 557.5 ypg.  Wilson ranks 2nd in the nation with a 213.9 passer rating and Ute run game has gone for 248.0 ypg.  WR Dres Anderson has been a big-play machine, averaging 27.9 ypc on his 7 receptions with 2 of them TD's.  Defensively they haven't really been challenged yet; Fresno could manage just 338 yards against them and Idaho State was a glorified scrimmage.  The Utes have shown their typically aggressive nature on defense, leading the nation with 5.5 sacks per game.

Michigan has sandwiched two blowout wins - against Appalachian State and Miami (OH) - around an embarrassing blowout loss to Notre Dame in the last game (for now) of a long-running rivalry.  The heat is turning up under HC Brady Hoke's seat as results have been trending downward in each of his 3 seasons in Ann Arbor.  While a win over Utah probably wouldn't move the needle a whole lot (or as much as it probably should), a loss would ratchet up the pressure in a big way.  It's been a tale of two seasons, as the offense has hummed in the two wins and looked inept vs. the Irish.  QB Devin Gardner is in his last year as a Wolverine (it seems like he's been there forever) but the offense is still geared toward the run game as they average 242.0 ypg (30th) and 6.26 ypc (14th).  But its the defense that has led the way so far this year as they rank 7th in the country allowing just 252.7 ypg including limiting the Irish to 280 yards.  Their run defense has been very stout (80.0 ypg, 10th) and the pass defense pretty good, lacking only in interceptions.  Turnovers have been the bugaboo for the Wolverines as they are -7 on the year in just 3 games.  This game will present a stiff test for the Michigan defense - they'll hope the 2-hour time difference and early start will work to slow down the Utes.  If they can take care of the football and run effectively they can avoid a very possible stumble ahead of conference play the following week, but I'm smelling an upset here:  Utah 27, Michigan 24

Cal @ Arizona (-8), 7PM PST, Pac-12 Networks

Things are looking a lot better around Berkeley as Cal has already doubled their 2013 win total, exacting revenge (on the road no less) against Northwestern and easily dispatching FCS Sacramento State.  Their only win last year was a 7 point squeaker over FCS Portland State, so two games into 2014 HC Sonny Dykes has tangible & significant signs of progress.  The run game is much improved so far, up to 183.5 ypg over 123.8 ypg from last year.  But the defense has been the biggest difference, limiting Northwestern to 354 yards after allowing 529.6 ypg last year.  Healthy players and a change to new DC Art Kaufman seem to have made a real difference.  On offense, So. QB Jared Goff is still the starter and the triggerman for the Bear Raid, but they've added the wrinkle of running threat Luke Rubenzer getting significant time at QB as well.  How they manage this rotation the remainder of the season will be interesting to watch, as Rubenzer is a major threat with his feet but nowhere near the passer that Goff is.

Arizona did what they needed to with their OOC slate, picking up 3 wins to get halfway to bowl eligibility.  Wins at UTSA and vs. Nevada were not easy, but probably good tests for the Wildcats as they hit conference play and see a step up in competition.  RichRod is on his 3rd QB in as many years, but Anu Solomon looks to be the guy for the next four years - the RS-Fr has impressed, showing good mobility and great decision-making, ranking 23rd currently with a 163.6 passer rating, completing 62.7% of his passes with only 1 interception.  The running game hasn't missed a beat with Ka'Deem Carey graduated, as true frosh Nick Wilson has stepped up, averaging 149.7 ypg and Sr. Terris Jones-Grigsby notched 124 yards in game one (on just 13 carries) before suffering an injured ankle.  Add in a deep and talented WR pool where 4 of the top 5 pass-catchers are Sophomores, and you can imagine defensive coordinators all around the conference losing sleep thinking about how much better an already very good Arizona offense could get over the next 3-4 years.  But the key for the Wildcats in their quest to win the conference is how well their defense can play.  So far, they've been OK, allowing 383.0 ypg and 6.12 ypp, both figures ranking right in the middle of FBS.  They'll get a stronger challenge this week vs. Cal.  I expect this to be a shootout, and in the comforts of home I see Arizona coming out on top:  Arizona 41, Cal 35

Oregon (-23) @ WSU, 7:30PM PST, ESPN

The Oregon machine keeps rolling along.  Their offense remains among the best in the game and QB Marcus Mariota looks like a legit Heisman candidate, ranking 4th nationally with his 202.96 passer rating, built off a 70.4% completion pct and 806 yards on just 50 completions with no picks.  He's as mobile as ever, though his value in the passing game means Oregon coaches probably cringe a little every time he runs.  The run game features 3 legit threats in Jr. Byron Marshall, So. Thomas Tyner and Fr. Royce Freeman.  The receivers - a major question mark entering the season - have been explosive as Fr. Devon Allen and Darren Carrington and So. Dwayne Stanford are all averaging better than 19 ypc.  Of concern though are mounting injuries along the OL.  The defense - long underrated due to pace-of-play inflating the gross numbers - looks to be working out some kinks still.  Liberal rotation patterns cloud things a bit, but the defense ranks just 79th in the country in ypp allowed at 5.54, and the pass defense has similarly been mediocre, allowing a 123.3 passer rating (62nd nationally).  They are still aggressive, racking up 3.67 sacks/g and nabbing 4 interceptions.  Both trends bode well vs. WSU.

Angst in Pullman eased slightly last week as they notched their first win, a relatively satisfying stomping of FCS Portland State 59-21 (the same Vikings team that led Oregon State at the half in game 1).  In year 3 of the Air Raid, the passing game is humming along.  While Sr. QB Connor Halliday probably isn't the perfect Mike Leach triggerman - his accuracy and gunslinger instincts still cause too many stalled drives and turnovers - he's shown definite progress on all fronts and boasts his highest QB rating of his career (155.2, 32nd nationally).  The run game however is not just an afterthought, it's been almost entirely useless as an effective change-of-pace.  And while on a per pass attempt basis the pass blocking has been OK, Halliday is still taking a ton of big hits back there.  Defensively the Cougars have bounced back from a terrible opening game vs. Rutgers, but will face their biggest challenge to date vs. the Ducks.  Playing in Pullman is always a nice boost, but this is just not a good match-up for WSU - Oregon's aggressive D will put a lot of heat on Halliday, and while he'll get his yards, it won't be enough:  Oregon 57, WSU 30

San Diego St @ Oregon State (-10), 7:30PM PST, Fox Sports 1

San Diego State has flown under the radar a bit - while they've been to four-straight bowl games and claimed the MWC title in 2012, they haven't had the kind of gaudy season that got Boise State on the national radar or the marquee win that made people pay attention to Fresno State.  Their 1-1 record might not catch your eye, but the loss was a gutty, painful one on the road as they watched #21 North Carolina rally in the 4th quarter to overcome a 10-point deficit and win 31-27.  SDSU has a pretty good run game going with So. RB Donnel Pumphrey and Jr RB Chase Price as they're averaging 181.0 ypg through two games. Sr. QB Quinn Kaehler had a rough game with 3 picks vs. the Tar Heels, but he was solid last year and figures to rebound.  Defensively the Aztecs are known for their 3-3-5 base alignment which can cause problems for offenses not used to facing it.  They ranked 37th last year allowing just 5.26 ypp.  What did them in vs. NC was the dual-threat ability of QB Marquise Williams - they'll face a much different QB this week.  They also have the benefit of a bye week to rest up and prepare.

Oregon State has sidestepped disaster in their first two games, overcoming a halftime deficit to beat FCS Portland State 29-14, and then weathering a furious comeback by Hawaii as they saw a 38-7 lead end up a 38-30 win.  With a week off to rest and work on kinks, they will hope to show the typical in-season improvement trajectory that HC Mike Riley is known for.  From a numbers perspective, things look good - a renewed focus on the run game has paid off as the Beavers are averaging 170.0 ypg so far, up from just 94.4 last year.  Sr. RB Terron Ward and Jr. RB Storm Woods have traded off in the two games in terms of effectiveness, but between them OSU appears to have some balance added back into the offense.  Sr. QB Sean Mannion has been as prolific as expected.  While he misses having the dynamic Brandin Cooks to throw to, So. WR Victor Bolden has stepped up as a #1 target to keep the chains moving.  The defense has also posted good numbers, though quality of opposition must be factored.  They are allowing just 275.0 ypg, (13th nationally), a 65.13 passer rating (2nd nationally) and 115.5 rushing ypg.  Those numbers will rise when they hit conference play, but it's been a confidence-building start for a group that had a lot of holes to fill.  The Beavers need to take care that they don't look ahead to next week's match-up with USC, because SDSU is fully capable of leaving Corvallis with the win.  I see this is a game Oregon State grinds out, but it should be a close one:  Oregon State 24, San Diego State 20

Record Last Week:

Straight-up:  7-1

Against the spread:  4-3 (1 game had no line)

Record for the Year:

Straight-up:  27-4

Against the spread:  11-12