The best part of the start of conference play in the PAC 12 is the sense that the games finally start "for real" and that what we see on the field from here on out is a good representation of what each team is and is not. No more do we need to qualify our observations about the competition with "but look who they played".
The second best part of the start of conference play is that the number of words required to write this piece each week shrinks dramatically. That's good for you and for me.
WIN / WIN, baby.
The PAC starts conference play after a bloody preseason that saw far too many losses and close calls relative to national expectations. The two best P12 prospects for the PAC 12 in the college football playoffs race - USC and Oregon - both suffered damaging defeats over the course of the first three weeks. This leaves the conference without any obvious playoff contenders.
The other storyline emerging as we enter conference play is the level of parity that appears to be taking shape in the PAC. Teams that were projected at the bottom of the conference - Utah, Washington, Colorado, and Cal - are each showing signs of developing strengths and have exceeded many expectations already. On the flip side the teams projected at the top of the conference - UCLA, Oregon, USC and ASU - have each disappointed with some of the unexpected gaps and deficiencies that they have put on tape thus far. While this isn't to say that the pecking order has really changed that much, the reality of there being so much youth in the conference this year is that there are opportunities for some shuffling of deck chairs as teams try to take advantage early in the season.
Fortunately for the PAC, there is a ton of talent across the conference. Because of the youth - and I'm thinking specifically of teams like UCLA, USC, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona - you can easily see a scenario where teams get stronger as the season goes longer, even in the face of attrition and injury. But, for now, there are some great opportunities for upsets and surprises as the conference season gets underway.
#9 UCLA at #16 Arizona (+4.5)
ESPN's College Gameday is going to Tucson this week to cover the Bruins visit to Arizona. This game has divisional championship implications in what is considered by many to be the most competitive division in all of the major conferences. It has all the trappings of a great television productions: two demonstrative coaches in Jim Mora and Rich Rodriguez, a hyped true freshman QB in Josh Rosen, an (over) hyped superstar in Myles Jack and all of the attractions of a game played on a hot night in the desert.
Beyond the glitz and glamor of the production there lies an intriguing matchup between two programs on a similar arc. The Bruins are increasingly becoming defined by an offensive line that seems to have turned the corner from "having potential" to "dominating". This has been great news for RB Paul Perkins who led the PAC in rushing a year ago with an underperforming line. He's been a force so far and looks to have a huge night against a 'Zona defense that doesn't matchup well with run-first teams.
The fortunes for Arizona will hinge on two factors. The first is whether or not QB Anu Solomon can get the passing game going with stars like WR Cayleb Jones and WR Samaje Grant making plays against a so-so UCLA secondary. Solomon is still struggling with accuracy, but he has a great ability to keep plays alive and plenty of arm strength. The second facotr is whether or not the Wildcat defense can goad Bruins QB Josh Rosen into a few mistakes. Arizona DC Jeff Casteel is good at disguising his blitzes and coverages with his 3-3-5 and, I expect, that Rosen will be presented with looks he's not yet seen in his college career. If he's throws a few interceptions, the tide of this game can change quickly.
Arizona is a tough place to visit for a QB making his first appearance in a PAC 12 game. I think we've seen enough of Rosen so far to legitimately wonder if he's ready to lead the Bruins to a big win in a high-stakes game on the road. While I expect Perkins to have a big game, I do think that Rosen makes a few costly mistakes that the Wildcats ultimately capitalize on. I'm going with Rich-Rod in the home upset.
Gekko's Pick: UCLA 31, Arizona 35
USC at Arizona State (+6.5)
The pressure is on Steve Sarkisian as the vultures continue to swirl above the embattled USC head coach. Now just 11-5 at the helm of the Trojans, it is not clear to many pundits that USC is on a trajectory much different than the one that Lane Kiffin had them on while under sanction. The preseason "Drunk Sark" incident created a hot bed and the flames picked up following yet another loss to an unranked team - something that has happened to USC every year since Pete Carroll left.
Despite all of the distractions, this is still a loaded USC team. The offensive line should be a strength, the quarterback should be playing at an elite level, the rushing attack is deep and the defense has a lot of talent, particularly in the back seven. If you look at the Trojans rationally, you know that the team hasn't really "underperformed" as much as they made some major mistakes with negative plays (including penalties) against Stanford that cost them a game. Otherwise, their body of work all season has been fairly strong.
Arizona State, on the other hand, has not been steady. Their opener against TAMU was sloppy and the faith of the Sun Devil fan has been shaken by the fact that supposed strengths - pass rush, quarterback play and rushing attack - have been weaknesses. In particular, the offensive line play has been very poor as ASU has struggled to replace their two tackles. This has affected QB Mike Bercovici's comfort in the pocket and Demario Richard's ability to emerge as a rushing threat.
On paper, I think USC is the better team. If this game were to be played in USC, I'd be all about the Trojans. But this game isn't being played on paper. It's being played in Tempe. Arizona has not been a kind destination to Steve Sarkisian. On top of that, I think Todd Graham is the better coach. In a game that features two teams desperate to avoid falling into a deep pit, give me the one that has the better leadership. Give me Arizona State straight away.
Gekko's Pick: USC 42, ASU 48
Rest of the PAC
Utah at Oregon (-13)
I probably should have put this in the "featured pick" section. Utah's visit to Oregon is a pivot point for the Ducks who have yet to demonstrate that they are anywhere close to matching the recent standards that have been established in the program. While the Ducks were tested against Michigan State, questions have been raised around the Spartans given their two other lackluster performances. Thus, the matchup against Utah looks to be a real measuring stick.
It's not exactly clear who Oregon will start at QB yet. When he's in there, Vernon Adams has shown an ability to move the team through the air, even if it has been in the form of fits and starts. He's been relatively mobile, though his arm strength has been sapped by what I perceive to be a lack of conditioning and the injury to this thumb. Even still, his presence incorporates the threat of Oregon's receiving corps and provides balance to the team. If he can't go, the Ducks will struggle against a Utah defense that has the stoutness to standup that smallish Duck O-Line and to get ball carriers on the ground - including stud RB Royce Freeman - if they get hands on.
Still, Utah is dealing with its own health issues. QB Kendal Thompson isn't the same kind of threat that Travis Wilson is and the loss of DE Hunter Dimick cannot be discounted. At full strength, I think the Utes could make this game. In their current state, I don't like the matchups quite as much - in particular the inability to pressure Oregon's weak secondary. I'm going with the Ducks.
Gekko's Pick: Utah 27, Oregon 35
Stanford at Oregon State (+15)
The Cardinal are getting more than two touchdowns on the road to Corvallis. I'm not sure if this spread is more a statement about how Vegas thinks Stanford is better than they've shown to start the season or if they think that OSU is in for a rude awakening given their youth and scheme overhaul. Probably a little bit of both.
Stanford should win this one going away. While they've got some vulnerability on that defensive line against a better-than-you think OSU offensive line, the Stanford linebacking corps is built specifically to stop a run-first QB like Seth Collins. Offensively, the Cardinal have advantages at just about every level, even if QB Kevin Hogan can't go. Look for Christian McCaffrey to have a big game for phenom Bryce Love to bust out an explosive play or two as the Cardinal roll.
Gekko's Pick: Stanford 42, OSU 24
Nicholls St at Colorado
There isn't a whole lot to say about this one other than the fact that, with a win, Colorado will have three wins going into conference play and their best shot at bowl eligibility since they came into the PAC 12. This one ought to be a slam dunk for a Buffs team that is finding its sea legs.
Gekko's Pick: Nicholls St 13, Colorado 38