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Pickin’ the PAC: Desperate Times for Desperate Teams

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Oregon and Cal are fighting for their seasons in a Friday night special.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

A full slate of Pac-12 goodness kicks off tonight in what is shaping up as a bit of a do-or-die weekend for a few teams around the conference. Let’s take a look.

Game of the Week

Oregon at Cal (-3.0)

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this game to both programs. For the visiting Ducks, this game has “must-win” status. A loss here would leave Oregon in a position to have to win four of their final five to achieve bowl eligibility. Three of those games are tossups: @USC, @Utah, and vs Stanford. That is a tough road.

Cal is in a similar boat. They already have three wins, but finding three more among a final five games that is @USC, vs UW, @WSU, vs Stanford, and vs UCLA seems like a difficult chore. Both teams are approaching this Friday night special with a keen eye on the path to bowl eligibility.

Cal has a few natural advantages here. Davis Webb appears to be on the mend after injuring to his throwing hand a few weeks ago. It looks very possible that he’ll have a healing Chad Hansen, still the PAC’s leading receiver, available to help him drive a Cal offense that is second only to UW in Pac-12 scoring offense. Though they will be playing without starting RB Vic Enwere, who is lost for the season with a broken foot, you can expect the Bears are revving up the #Drop50 mantra as they eye a Duck defense that has been historically poor at just about every level.

Oregon is looking at a similar picture as they prepare for the Cal defense. The Ducks have scored 31 TDs of their own this season, just one fewer than Cal, and are optimistic that freshman QB Justin Herbert’s trial by fire against UW two weekends ago has given him an edge. The Ducks will attack Cal’s D with a full complement of running backs, including Royce Freeman and Tony Brooks-James (both averaging more than 7 yards per carry), and try to exploit a Cal team that is dead last in the nation in rush defense (5.87 yards per carry surrendered).

This is shaping up to be a classic Air-vs-Ground, #PAC12AfterDark throwdown. Hide the children and crate the animals. This one is going to be offensive.

This one almost certainly will come down to whichever team is able to generate an extra possession or two, as I’m not sure that either side can stop the other. Don’t be surprised to see Cal put up 500 yards of passing while Oregon posts 400 yards of rushing. It is going to be that kind of game.

My gut is telling me that the team with the healthier QB (Oregon) is less likely to commit an extra turnover, but who knows? I’ll go ahead and predict that Cal does drop 50, but loses anyhow.

The Pick: Oregon 55, Cal 52

The Rest of the PAC

Colorado at Stanford (-2.0)

When we all looked at this game to start the season, I’m sure we expected the fates of these two programs to be somewhat transposed by this time. Yet, here we are with Colorado one win away from bowl eligibility and the opportunity to score their first ever Pac-12 victory over a Stanford team that has fallen out of the national dialogue like an anvil through a vat of Jello.

Nevertheless, this is a compelling matchup. The Buffs are back to QB Sefo Liufau as their starter and will be leaning on him to drive one of the more surprising passing attacks in the nation. As a team they are averaging 8.9 yards per attempt, second in the conference only to Washington. The receiver trio of Bryce Bobo, Devin Ross and Shay Fields will be a challenge for a Stanford secondary that is still a bit banged up. Interesting side note: Fields, Ross, and Bobo are #4, #5 and #6 in Pac-12 receiving yardage so far this year.

The Cardinal may have a difficult time keeping up with Colorado’s offense, especially if a questionable Christian McCaffrey can’t go. Stanford is also suffering from injuries along their offensive line which will likely create problems for QB Ryan Burns. In fact, I’m having a hard time imagining Stanford doing much of anything here other than playing from behind for most of the game.

I’m going Colorado.

The Pick: Colorado 34, Stanford 24

#19 Utah at UCLA (-7)

The Bruins are a mess right now. Without Josh Rosen, who is officially a gametime decision, they are stuck with former walk-on QB Mike Fafaul going against one of the stouter pass rushes in the conference. In addition, they confront that defense with a rushing attack that has inexplicably become one of the worst in the nation (126th at 2.81 yards per attempt).

Luckily for UCLA, their own defense has become one of the better units in the PAC and they go against a Utah offense struggling in its own right. QB Troy Williams has not established himself as a consistent threat in the passing game and will be leaning heavily on the legs of RB Joe Williams to generate offense for the Utes.

This is going to be a sloppy slugfest down in LA. I expect the Bruins to come out fighting, given that a loss here puts them in a position to have to win three of their last four to get bowl eligible. Unfortunately for the home team, Utah tends to win if they can drag their opponent onto the mat for an old-fashioned tussle.

Give me the Utes.

The Pick: Utah 20, UCLA 9

WSU at Arizona State (+8)

The Cougs are an 8-point road favorite against at ASU team that actually has a better overall record so far into the season. That line looks even kookier after you consider that ASU has beaten WSU 10 of the last 12 times, and that they haven’t lost to the Cougs in Tempe since 2001.

Still, history doesn’t mean much when it comes to the actual matchups happening on the field. WSU has been one of the hotter teams in the conference despite the fact that they are getting mediocre production out of their passing game (7.1 yards per attempt is 75th in the nation) and almost no pass rush out of their defense (7 sacks is tied for 6th fewest in the nation). Their success over the past several weeks can be traced to strong offensive line play and a rush defense that is limiting opponents to just 3.69 yards per carry.

ASU is limping into this one a damaged team. QB Manny Wilkins is playing injured behind an offensive line that has struggled to hold ground all season. That said, WSU might be a decent matchup for that beleaguered line. I can see them having some success. If they can, Wilkins has dangerous weapons; WR Tim White, RB Demario Richard, WR N’Keal Harry and RB Kalen Ballage are all playing well right now.

None of it matters, though, if ASU’s D can’t generate stops. This is where I think things begin to fall apart for Todd Graham. I don’t think Luke Falk is going to have much trouble with ASU’s blitzes and I like the matchup of WSU’s receivers against that soft ASU secondary.

The Pick: WSU 38, ASU 28