Thursday, September 25th
UCLA (-4) @ Arizona State, 7PM PST, Fox Sports 1
After coming into the season as a sexy, "dark-horse" pick as a CFP contender, the Bruins have struggled to live up to that lofty praise. While they sit at 3-0, it's been harder than expected as they have won by 8, 7 and 3 points against what has been mediocre competition. Still, they are undefeated and look as likely as any of the other teams in the South to win the division. The big story of course is whether star QB Brett Hundley will play, and at this point we probably won't know until game time. With or without him, the UCLA offense has been good but far from great. They rank 42nd in pass efficiency and 73rd in rushing yards per game, though part of that is the terrible pass protection the Bruins have given Hundley - they rank 120th in sacks allowed per game, a figure that looks even worse when you consider they rank just 70th in pass attempts. RB Paul Perkins does show signs of giving the Bruins a legitimate running threat though, and if Hundley plays you have to respect his ability to make spectacular plays. Of greater interest though will be seeing how the UCLA defense handles an explosive ASU offense, though how explosive they'll be without QB Taylor Kelly is a major question mark. The Bruin D has not put up good numbers, ranking 81st in pass efficiency allowed and 55th in rush yards allowed per game. But they came up huge in game one, turning 2 picks and a fumble recovery into 3 defensive TD's.
While the status of Hundley is still uncertain (though I expect him to play), we know that Kelly is out. Whether that means a major come-down for a red-hot ASU offense is unknown, but there's no doubt that Kelly was highly effective as the triggerman in the Sun Devil offense. They rank 13th in the country in yards/game and 8th in yards/play with a balanced spread attack that has generated 304.3 yards/game rushing and 234.7 yards/game passing with a 156.8 passing rating (28th in the nation). QB Mike Bercovici steps into the starting role, and the strong-armed Jr. has an elite target to throw to in WR Jaelen Strong, and perhaps more importantly he has a terrific RB to lean on in D.J. Foster who has gained 510 yards in just 54 carries on the season and also acts as a major threat in the passing game. Things are not as rosy on the defensive side of the ball, as the Sun Devils rank 75th (just behind the Bruins) in yards allowed per game at 396.7. The pass defense has been middling, allowing a 126.4 passer rating (71st nationally), but the run defense has been particularly vulnerable, giving up 197.0 yards/game (99th). This is still a Todd Graham defense though, which means they will be aggressive and come after whoever is at QB for the Bruins to take advantage of their terrible protection. The trouble is their weakness vs. the run could mean UCLA simply doesn't have to pass that often. This is a tough one to call, but I see the Bruins pulling out an important win in a back-and-forth affair: UCLA 37, ASU 31
Saturday, September 27th
Colorado @ Cal (-14), 1PM PST, Pac-12 Networks
In the wake of spectacular play-maker WR Paul Richardson (gone early to the NFL), the Buffaloes have had to become more of a grind-it-out offense. Coach Mike McIntyre would love to be able to lean on a strong, consistent running game, but the OL isn't up to snuff, and the thunder & lightning combo of big Christian Powell and little Tony Jones has been hit or miss. QB Sefo Liufau continues to mature into a good game manager, taking what the defense gives him but really missing that home run threat that Richardson provided. He's found a terrific target in Jr. WR Nelson Spruce who ranks 3rd in the country in receptions/game (9.3), but a lot of Liufau's throws have been of the short variety to Fr. targets Shay Fields and Bryce Bobo; between them they have 38 catches in 4 games, but for just 290 yards. Defensively, Colorado has improved from last year, but that still leaves them a below-average group; they rank 75th in allowing 5.42 yards/play. The big problem is the run defense which has given up 5.11 yards/rush (101st nationally) and has allowed 4 different 100-yard rushers on the season. They've fared much better vs. the pass, but some of that has been the competition they've faced. They'll get a much bigger test in that regard this week.
Cal was 1-play away from escaping with a big win on the road and feeling pretty good about themselves at 3-0 and 1-0 in the conference. Instead, they allowed a Hail Mary to beat them and complete an epic 4th quarter meltdown that saw them surrender an 18-point lead and give up an astounding 36 points. How they recover emotionally from that will go a long ways towards defining their season moving forward. Gaining yards wasn't a big problem for the Bears last year (453.5 ypg, 34th nationally) but they had trouble turning those yards into points (23.0, 97th nationally). This year, not only are they gaining yards (522.0, 17th nationally), but they're getting points too (43.7, 16th nationally). Part of that may be the balance that HC Sonny Dykes has found this year in his Bear Raid as the run game now has some juice to it with Jr. RB Daniel Lasco leading the way. QB Jared Goff has taken a step forward in his 2nd year, ranking 7th in QB efficiency at 185.8. The offense has been much more explosive this year with 6 receivers averaging 20+ ypr. Even considering the epic collapse last week, the defense looks better this year - they've been fairly stout against the run (111.0 ypg, 3.58 ypr) and had a pretty good pass rush (2.67 sacks/game). Even the pass defense has done reasonably well; while they've surrendered 316.7 ypg, the pass efficiency allowed number is just 117.01 which puts them 47th nationally. On paper, I think Cal wins this by a couple of scores at least, but I wonder if there will be an emotional hangover - let's call it: Cal 38, Colorado 28
WSU @ Utah (-13), 5PM PST, Pac-12 Networks
WSU followed up a get-well game vs. Portland State by pushing Oregon for 4 quarters and falling just short, losing 38-31 but proving that the Ducks are vulnerable. You know what you're going to get from the Cougars on offense - pass, pass, pass. Just when you think they're going to dink and dunk you underneath all game, they'll unleash 4 verticals to try to catch your safeties sleeping, and every blue moon they'll mix in a run. They actually ran the ball reasonably well vs. Oregon, with their backs picking up 69 yards on 16 carries, but it was still the Connor Halliday show as he put the ball up 63 times in what was the best performance of his career, completing 43 of them for 436 yards, 4 TD's and no interceptions, but thanks also belong to a great game by the Cougar WR's - they are deep and talented, from Vincy Mayle to Dom Williams, to River Cracraft to Isaiah Myers. Defensively their beefy DL had their way with a banged-up Oregon OL as they sacked Marcus Mariota an astounding 7 times and did a good job bottling up the zone read option. The problems came when Mariota was able to evade the rush - he found wide open receivers. This has been a problem all year as they rank 114th in pass efficiency defense. They are moderately better at stopping the run, ranking 70th at 3.99 ypr. But despite the impressive showing vs. Oregon, they are still 1-3 on the season and 0-1 in the conference. Will they be inspired by their close call, or are they emotionally drained as they head to the elevation of Salt Lake City?
People might forget that Utah started off last season playing very well and were sitting at 4-2 mid-season before QB Travis Wilson injured his throwing hand and then suffered a concussion that ended his season as they finished 5-7. Before Wilson got hurt, the offense was performing quite well, so it's not a total surprise to see what they've done so far this year under their 7th OC in 7 years, Dave Christensen. His up-tempo spread attack isn't a major change from what Dennis Erickson had them doing last year, but they are more efficient at it, ranking 43rd at 6.28 ypp. It has benefited Wilson the most - he ranks 3rd currently with a 195.9 pass efficiency rating, and if he'd avoid taking reckless chances when he scrambles, he might stay healthy for a full season. WR Dres Anderson has been the big-play stud we thought he could be, but Kenneth Scott has also emerged as a reliable 2nd target. The running game has gotten a nice boost from JC transfer Devontae Booker joining with Bubba Poole to form an effective 1-2 punch. On defense they remain a typical Kyle Whittingham defense - physical and aggressive. They are tied for 2nd in the country in sacks/game at 5.0, and they've only allowed 4.11 ypp to rank 5th. They'll get their biggest test so far with the Coug Air Raid attack, and you have to wonder if they'll suffer a let-down after beating Michigan and with UCLA up next. Since both teams have a reason for potentially coming out a little flat, I'm just going to look at the numbers, and what I see is Utah doing enough to harass Halliday and enough offense from Wilson to keep the Cougs playing catch-up: Utah 41, WSU 30
Oregon St @ USC (-9), 7:30PM PST, ESPN
Under Mike Riley, Oregon State has developed a reputation of starting their seasons slowly and finishing strong. If that is playing out this season, the Pac-12 better watch-out, because while the Beavers stumbled out of the gates vs. Portland State and nearly allowed Hawaii to complete a huge comeback against them, they still won both games. After a bye week, they looked like they're hitting their groove as they handled a respectable San Diego State team. If they continue their upward trajectory, OSU could be a serious threat in the conference this year. With Sr. QB Sean Mannion at the controls it's no surprise the Beaver passing game has remained potent; despite the loss of WR Brandin Cooks to the NFL, Victor Bolden and Richard Mullaney have stepped up as reliable targets and TE Connor Hamlett has provided a significant threat up the seam. Of greater note is how the Beaver run game - once a major staple with Ken Simonton, Steven Jackson and more recently Jacquizz Rodgers, but meager of late - has returned this year with Storm Woods and Terron Ward providing a credible 1-2 punch. It still takes a back seat to the passing game, but they can now make teams pay for focusing too much on Mannion. It's added up to an offense that ranks 17th in the nation in "Explosive drives" and 38th in "Methodical drives" according to the FEI metric. Of greater surprise is how well the defense has played despite some notable losses on that side of the ball. They rank 6th in the nation allowing just 255.0 ypg and 7th with 4.16 ypp. They currently have the top rated pass defense, allowing a 67.02 pass efficiency rating, allowing just a 42.6 completion rate, 9.7 ypc and with 4 picks. The run defense has been more vulnerable, allowing 4.25 ypc (79th nationally). They'll get their biggest test to date against the Trojans.
USC was flying high after a big win over Stanford, but they crashed hard the following week as Boston College ran over, under around and through their defense to the astounding tune of 452 yards as the Eagles upset the Trojans 37-31. Whether it was being beat up from the week before, the cross-country trip, lack of depth or something about Sark's approach to road trips, it was a humbling loss. With a week off to lick their wounds and back at home, I would expect to see a better performance from USC this week. Their offensive explosion in week 1 vs. Fresno State has lost some luster as subsequent opponents have also abused the Bulldogs, and Sark's HUNH offense has had a rough time since then. They rank just 71st nationally with 5.68 ypp. The change in offense has clearly benefited QB Cody Kessler, and the USC passing game ranks 14th with a 167.3 pass efficiency rating, but it's been less successful for the running game, ranking just 103rd with 3.48 ypc. RB Buck Allen has done well, rushing for 106.0 ypg and 5.30 ypc, but it's been tough going for the rest of the Trojan runners. Part of the issue has been spotty pass protection as USC ranks just 92nd with 2.33 sacks allowed per game. Defensively they appear to have taken a step back - this was an elite unit last year, but they were abused by BC QB Tyler Murphy on the ground. They were decent vs. Stanford, giving up 413 yards to the Cardinal but generating 2 turnovers and holding them to 10 points, and they shut down Fresno State. The Oregon State offense provides a more favorable match-up with a stationary target in Mannion. I think the Trojans will bounce back, but the Beavers will give them a good fight: USC 24, Oregon St 17
Record Last Week:
Against the spread: 4-2
Record for the Year:
Against the spread: 15-14