It is a light weekend in the Pac-12 with Cal, Washington, and Oregon all on BYE weeks.
The theme for this week is attrition, as in “man, there are a lot of injured players in this conference.” Every single team playing this weekend is dealing with injuries to key players. Some, like Arizona’s J.J. Taylor, Arizona State’s Brady White, and Utah’s Armand Shyne are out for the year. Others, such as UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, and OSU’s Ryan Nall, are simply banged up and at varying stages of “questionable.”
Speaking of questionability, the status of the conference in the national perception remains as such. With one game against an out-of-conference opponent and with teams like WSU, UCLA, Utah, and Colorado all looking to demonstrate that they are legit and should be ranked, the stakes are high. Let's jump into the picks.
Game of the Week
UCLA @ WSU (-7)
The Cougs are a touchdown favorite at home against a Bruins team that many, myself included, expected to lead the PAC in 2016.
The Bruins have really sputtered as Josh Rosen has struggled in a refurbished pro-style offense and the UCLA rushing attack has all but disappeared. The biggest culprits appear to be a vastly underachieving offensive line and Rosen himself.
Defensively, the Bruins have performed better than their record. They surrender just 4.6 yards per play, second in the PAC to UW, and Football Outsiders has them ranked 13th in their overall defensive S&P rankings. UCLA has been particularly effective against the pass thanks to a lot of pocket p-crushing from DT Eddie Vanderdoes and an excellent secondary headlined by CB Fabian Moreau.
The Cougs have been resurgent since starting the season 0-2. In their last two blowout victories, the Cougs have featured strong defensive play of their own to go along with Luke Falk’s hyper-accuracy in the passing game. This game looks like a classic strength-on-strength matchup.
To complicate matters, it would appear that Rosen will be unavailable for the game. That might be a blessing in disguise for a Bruins team tripping into what will likely be a cold and wet setting in Pullman. I would look for Jim Mora to come out and really focus on establishing his rushing attack, especially on the heels of the ASU game where UCLA ran for net negative yards as a team.
I’m feeling UCLA here. Call me crazy, but this team is better than their record. Their advanced stats (16th in S&P) bear this out. Senior Mike Fafaul will likely be taking the snaps and I expect him to be handing off a lot to Nate Starks, Soso Jamabo, and the rest of that deep RB rotation. On the flipside, I can see UCLA’s D containing WSU’s offense to short gains and frequent punts, not unlike Boise State.
The Pick: UCLA 27, WSU 20
Rest of the PAC
Stanford @ Notre Dame (-3.0)
Talk about games that have lost their preseason sizzle. Before the season, both of these teams were considered top 10 teams and legitimate contenders for the college football playoffs. Now, the two of them have a combined record of 5-6 and are considered two of the more disappointing teams in the nation so far. This will be the first time these two have squared off since the 2009 season without at least one of them being ranked.
Notre Dame is by far the more “broken” of the two teams. They've been inconsistent on offense and not competitive on defense. Injuries have been a major factor, but the lack of ability to compete on the line of scrimmage transcends those issues. They rank 95th in sacks allowed and are 84th in rush defense.
That's a bad mix for trying to handle a wounded Stanford team that still has some pass rush talent and Christian McCaffrey. I think Stanford comes roaring back with a dominating physical performance.
The Pick: Stanford 31, Notre Dame 13
USC @ Arizona (+9.5)
The Trojans are going to win this one on the road. They've rediscovered their swagger since the insertion of QB Sam Darnold into the lineup. He's an efficient QB who can obviously make plays with his legs, but is also starting to show more willingness to push the ball downfield. That's a bonus when you already have a YAC machine like JuJu Smith-Schuster to throw to.
The Wildcats are getting healthier but still don't have enough depth to take on a more physical USC team. I do expect the ‘Cats to be aggressive in their defensive scheme against a redshirt freshman QB. A couple of turnovers ought to keep this one close, but not close enough.
The Pick: USC 38, Arizona 28
ASU @ Colorado (-12.5)
This will be a tough one for an ASU team that, surprisingly, finds itself in the middle of a divisional race. The Sun Devils will travel to Boulder without the services of their top two QBs and having to rely on the head and arm of a true freshman QB in Dillon Sterling-Cole (yet another QB with a hyphenated name). Against a Colorado defense that is establishing its reputation for its toughness, this is a tall order.
I expect Colorado to breeze through this one. Their offense is in a great position to exploit matchup challenges with ASU, particularly on the perimeter where WRs Devin Ross and Shay Fields figure to have big days against a lot of man coverage. I do worry that QB Steven Montez might be pressured into some turnovers against ASU’s blitzing schemes, but I expect they’ll still score enough to overcome them.
The Pick: ASU 14, Colorado 27
Utah @ Oregon State (+9)
Gary Andersen and his Beavers are probably feeling pretty good about themselves after breaking a 10-game in-conference losing streak last weekend against Cal. In that one, the Beavers discovered their identity as a rushing team. Their bruising tailback, Ryan Nall, racked up 221 yards while their QB, Darrell Garretson, discovered that he is probably better off as a runner than a passer, at least when his pocket starts to break down.
I think OSU has more juice in this matchup than most will give them credit for. Utah doesn't present the kind of speedy, spread-them-out offense that would excessively exploit OSU’s problems managing ball carriers in space. In addition, I think that the OSU skill players will have some opportunities to make plays.
That said, OSU will still get ground down physically by a Utah team that is bigger and stronger. I can see this one staying close for a bit and then turning Utah’s way after a couple of Troy Williams’s patented 15-play drives. I know that Utah is now down to fourth- and fifth-string running backs (though the return of RB Joe Willams from ‘"medical retirement is an interesting twist) and that remains a mitigating factor. But I still think that they pull it out.
The Pick: Utah 17, OSU 16