I'm writing this on the morn of the Apple Cup. With all due respect to my PAC 12 brethren - and I really do enjoy following the conference as a whole - I must admit that my interest in any program that doesn't have the name "Washington" somewhere in its university name is pretty much non-existent right now.
That said, a commitment is a commitment. So let's jump in.
Pick of the Week
#22 UCLA at USC (-3) - O/U 62
This one is pretty straight forward: the winner is the South Division champion. In essence, we have a playoff game going on this weekend in Los Angeles.
Drama has prevailed in LA all season long. From the emergence of true freshman QB Josh Rosen, to the season-ending injuries to UCLA stars like Eddie Vanderdoes and Myles Jack to the dismissal of Steve Sarkisian due to alcohol abuse issues, it seems like most of the key story lines of the PAC 12 this year have come from southern California. All of this just adds to the drama of a match up that has been dominated by Jim Mora and the Bruins for the past three seasons.
UCLA will certainly be confident going into their cross-town rival's house. The won there two seasons ago and, to be frank, know that the Coliseum crowd is among the least intimidating in the conference. That said, it will be the first such showing for Rosen who is directing an offense that has had its share of ups and downs over the past few weeks. The UCLA offensive line has been good, but has been showing cracks in both pass pro and run blocking over that time. Rosen has shown an ability to hit the big play and he's established quite the connection with WR Jordan Payton, but he's not had as reliable a rushing attack to lean on as he had been used to.
The Trojans come into this one with a bitter taste in their collective mouth following the thrashing that Oregon put on them a week ago. The thing about that game was that USC actually had a strong showing on both the offensive and defensive lines reflecting interim head coach Clay Helton's desire to rebrand USC into a highly physical football team. USC projects well in both areas against the Bruins.
This could well be a pick 'em type of affair. I think on a position group by group basis, USC has more advantages. Their QB is more expeirenced, they have a deeper RB corps, they have more explosive receivers and they have more and healthier athletes spread around the defense. On the flip side, Justin Wilcox is really struggling in trying to figure out how to balance Clay Helton's desire to be more aggressive in the pass rush with his tendency to play "bend don't break" defense. Beyond that, Rosen just seems to have a certain "it" factor.
Is it enough? I'm going to say no. I like the Trojans in a tight one to win the South and put Clay Helton into a position to claim the full-time head coaching job at USC.
Gekko's Pick: UCLA 23, USC 24 (take UCLA and the points, take the UNDER)
Rest of the PAC
#6 Notre Dame at #9 Stanford (-3.5) - O/U 56
Much is riding on this last home game for the Stanford Cardinal. The North division champion has one last shot to both keep their playoff hopes alive and to sustain the Heisman campaign for star RB Christian McCaffrey.
The Fightin' Irish travel to Palo Alto already having answered many questions this season, inculding the key one regarding how they'd respond to the loss of several key players to season-ending injury including star QB Malik Zaire. They, too, are looking to secure a playoff spot. Going by the stats, the Irish sport one of the six most efficient offenses in the nation per FEI not to mention an top 10 special teams. Like all Brian Kelly teams, they make very few mistakes and have the ability to grind their opponents down as the game goes on.
The same holds true for the Stanford Cardinal. Though their styles are different, they are sporting pretty much the same approach with a highly efficient offense and a willingness to allow special teams to help them win the field position game.
This game is impossible to call. My gut tells me that Stanford has been played it close a few too many times for comfort and that their luck runs out this weekend.
Gekko's Pick: Notre Dame 31, Stanford 27 (take the points, take the OVER)
Colorado at #23 Utah (-16) - O/U 49
I've admired the fight that the Buffaloes have put up all season. However, I think that their souls were effectively crushed when they lost their QB Sefo Liufau for the WSU game and watched the Cougs come into town and dominate them with their defense.
The Utes, similarly, have to be feeling discombobulated as, over the course of two weeks, they have lost their star RB, fell out of contention for a South title that once seemed a given and had to deal with persistent rumors that their head coach wants to take another job in the same division.
So, we've got a match up of train wrecks going on here.
My heart tells me that Colorado has enough fight left in them to claim the motivational high ground. But my heart also tells me that it wouldn't be such a bad idea for me to take on the remaining half of the blueberry pie my wife made last night for Thanksgiving desert. I better go with my head on this.
Gekko's Pick: Colorado 17, Utah 20 (take the points, take the UNDER)
Oregon State at #17 Oregon (-36.5) - O/U 70.5
The line on this might be a little on the aggressive side, but I can't fundamentally disagree with the concept. What might be more surprising is that the over/under implies that the Beavers will be able to score some points against what remains a pretty questionable Oregon defense.
The problem for the Beavers is that they don't have the kind of quarterback who can stress that pourous Oregon secondary, even with Victor Bolden and Jordan Villamin to throw to. The Ducks have a pretty good pass rush behind star DE DeForest Buckner and I expect it to be effective in this one.
On the flip side, I could see Vernon Adams finally having some success in the base Oregon offense as opposed to what he has been doing in terms of simply exploiting busted coverages or in working magic in broken down plays. In fact, I'll be somewhat shocked if Mark Helfrich doesn't just lean on Royce Freeman all day long.
Gekko's Pick: Oregon State 10, Oregon 58 (lay the points, take the under)
Arizona State at Cal (-3) - O/U 68.5
The Golden Bears host the Sun Devils in a match up of the two teams in the PAC who sport two-word mascot names. That oddity aside, this should be an interesting affair featuring two teams with contrasting styles and assets to work with.
Arizona State has been streaking since their come-from-behind win over UW a few weeks ago. They seem to have come to grips with their flaws and done a better job of embracing their strengths. For example, they've been more conscientious in establishing Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard in the running game then trying to force a Mike Bercovici to DJ Foster connection that has struggled all season.
Cal, on the other hand, is in the midst of a terrible down turn having lost four of five (the fifth being a win over Oregon State). My preseason pick for "breakout team" of the year has been plagued by an inconsistent rushing attack and a defense that has really softened up after some early season success. That said, QB Jared Goff continues to play at a pretty high level and has both the tools and experience to handle an aggressive ASU defense.
I like Cal at home in what will be Jared Goff's final home game for the Bears.
Gekko's Pick: ASU 38, Cal 44 (lay the points, take the OVER)
#20 WSU at Washington
Picks for this one have already been posted. The Cougs are going into Montlake looking to not only bolster their bowl positioning but to knock UW out of the post season altogether. As a group, they've been feeling pretty good about themselves. Offensive lineman Gunnar Ecklund has been boasting that the Cougs "are tougher" than the Huskies while prominent alumnus QB Jason Gesser, who sports a career 0-4 record in Apple Cups, went on the record saying that the Huskies offense was very bad and that there should be no way that the Cougs could lose to them.
I can understand why the Cougs feel confident. They've had a great run, won some big games and demonstrated continuous improvement as the season has gone along. That said, they've been able to inflate their record just a bit thanks to a generous schedule that only got easier when they had the opportunity to face Oregon without Vernon Adams. In addition, they seem to mistake "gotten better" for "being good" when it comes to the status of their defense overall.
They still may well have enough horses to beat UW. However, Coug fans would have you believe that their offense will be just as good with backup QB Peyton Bender in there as it would be with starter Luke Falk - a player that most Coug fans feel should be a Heisman candidate. They can't have it both ways, now can they?
Check in with the CrowdLine and let us know how you think the Apple Cup will turn out.