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Pickin’ the PAC: A Top Ten Showdown

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The biggest game of the weekend doesn’t technically happen on the weekend.

Stanford v UCLA Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Whenever two top ten teams matchup in a football game, it is a noteworthy happening in College Football-ville. Whenever that matchup happens in the PAC 10, it is kind of a big deal.

When it involves the Huskies, which hasn’t happened since 1997, its pants off time.

The last time (I believe) that two AP ranked top 10 teams met from within the PAC 12 conference was in 2013 when then #5 Stanford hosted #3 Oregon in a game that, in my opinion, re-legitimized the concept of “power football” in the college game. Stanford pitched a shutout for three quarters until the Ducks rallied for 20 points in the fourth. But it was too little too late as the Cardinal won 26-20.

Will history repeat itself in 2016? This time it is Washington and not Oregon playing the role of Stanford’s foil.

#10 Washington hosting #7 Stanford is just one of many PAC 12 games with interesting subtexts happening this weekend. Let’s jump in.

Game of the Week

#7 Stanford at #10 Washington (Wash -3.0)

You know that I’m not going to make a pick in this one. We like to reserve that for a separate weekly feature. Nonetheless, one cannot deny the immensity of this matchup.

For the Cardinal, a road win over a top 10 ranked team shapes up as what would likely become their signature victory on a playoff resume. In addition, a big effort by super star Christian McCaffrey could put a major boost behind his somewhat lagging Heisman candidacy.

NCAA Football: Stanford at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

On the flip side, the Huskies are looking to claim legitimacy for the pre-season hype and the lofty top 10 ranking four weeks into the season. A win over Stanford, the current standard-bearer in the PAC and the one team on the west coast that programs around the nation recognize as playing “real football”, would put the Huskies in the captain’s chair of the PAC 12 North division race. It would also make them a valid threat in the college football playoff race.

How it shapes up remains to be seen. The Cardinal have struggled to find a rhythm to their offense over their first three games as they break in a new QB and some new parts on the offensive line. McCaffrey has been excellent, but has had to shoulder more of the workload on an offense that hasn’t yet seen big contributions from guys like WR Francis Owusu (who will miss this game) and TE Dalton Schultz.

The Huskies, on the other hand, have had their own struggles. Arizona last weekend exposed some discipline issues in the run defense of the vaunted Husky “death row” while the offense has continued to struggle with third down and short-yardage situations.

Both teams will emphasize a ball control game (at +9, the Huskies lead the conference in turnover margin by more than 2x over the #2 teams, Oregon State and Arizona) and field position. Defensively, the Huskies will boast some depth and size advantages - in particular on the defensive line. On the reverse, the Cardinal have more experience and accomplishment offensively than does UW. Notwithstanding injuries to two of their top corners, I’d also note that Stanford’s secondary is in a good position to contain UW’s young receiving corps.

In the end, this game will come down to turnovers, rushing game and field position. Check the home page at www.UWDawgPound.com for our staff picks.

The Rest of the PAC

#18 Utah at California (Cal -1.5)

Yes, you read that correctly. Cal is picked by the oddsmakers as a 1.5 point home favorite against the ranked Utah Utes. That kind of spread is actually a wash given the home field advantage normally allocated in games like this. Still, it is indicative of the fact that bettors have suspicions as to whether or not the Utes can really shut down Cal.

Those concerns are well-founded. Cal QB Davis Webb has been better than anyone could have hoped for as measured both in terms of raw stats and the everyday-eyeball test. He looks comfortable directing the Cal offense, has benefited from better than expected pass pro and has found a superstar in WR Chase Hansen.

Utah will bring a lineup of “all bigs” to the party. Cal hasn’t faced a lineup as big as Utah’s all season and I expect will be shocked by just how physical the Utes are along both lines. In addition, QB Troy Williams has huge receivers (e.g. Tim Patrick) and running backs (e.g. Zack Moss) to lean on in executing the Whittingham game plan.

Despite my man-crush on Cal, I really don’t think that Cal has the raw speed to effectively neutralize Utah’s length. I don’t think Cal’s o-line will hold up against Utah’s four man rush and, with DT James Looney dinged up, I have to believe that Williams will benefit from a relatively clean pocket.

The Pick: #18 Utah 37, Cal 35

Oregon State at Colorado (Colorado -17.5)

I want you to close your eyes and concentrate....

Colorado ....

Seventeen and a half points ....

Now open your eyes (which would be a funny trick if you actually had closed them) and pinch yourself.

While I sit here and try to digest 17.5 points being laid by Colorado in any game, I can’t even find a reason to argue the point. The truth is that Colorado ought to be a significant favorite given what we’ve seen them pull off over the first four weeks of the season. The Buffs have demonstrated that in Devin Ross and Shay Fields they have one of the best receiving tandems in the league. The offensive line has been sneaky good. The defense has been gritty. It also, apparently, does not seem to matter who is at QB.

Of course, playing as a favorite is a different beast than playing as an underdog. Teams that seem to exceed expectations for long stretches often tend to regress to mean when least expected.

Colorado v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

That is what I think is going to happen here. The Beavers got crushed last week because they couldn’t stop Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols and because Darrel Garretson couldn’t get anything going for the orange. But Conor Blount gave the Beavers a spark and they were very competitive in the second half.

I’m betting that Oregon State takes advantage of the fact that Colorado doesn’t know much about handling being a 17.5 point favorite and pulls the straight upset. Look for WR Seth Collins and RB Ryan Nall to have big days.

The Pick: Oregon State 31, Colorado 27

Arizona State at USC (USC -10)

The Trojans are favored by double digits at home. Could somebody please explain to me how the hell that could possibly be justified?

I get that there is a sense that Clay Helton’s streak of losing five out of six games as a full time head coach can’t continue. I understand that people believe that Sam Darnold provided “a spark” in last weekend’s game against Utah. I comprehend the point of view that says USC is “too talented” to keep playing football as if they were the 1932 YMCA Men’s Team taking on the University of Washington.

But, I have to say, ASU is not the kind of team that other teams tend to “bounce back” against. ASU’s pressure defense, I suppose, could be neutralized by USC’s talented O-Line and Darnold’s mobility. But, to date, that O-Line has been an out-of-synch disappointment and Darnold is still playing in only his second game.

I also can’t help but to think that ASU QB Manny Wilkins had his coming out party last week against Cal. He may not be the most talented passer, but he has multiple tools and he is starting to develop chemistry with receivers like Jalen Harvey and N’Keal Harry (yup, Harvey and Harry).

I think the Devils go 5-0 and start making some of their own noise about being a playoff contender.

The Pick: ASU 41, USC 31

Arizona at UCLA (UCLA -13)

There may not be a more beat up team in the PAC 12 than the Arizona Wildcats.

That was a true statement before their brutal game against Washington last weekend. Now the Wildcats head out to the Rose Bowl to take on a physical UCLA defense down a few more key players, including standout freshman RB J.J. Taylor.

There is no way that Arizona makes it out of LA a winner. In fact, I’m getting a sense that the Bruins are ready for a breakout game. They played well enough to beat Stanford last week - particularly given the outstanding production of their defensive front seven. I think Josh Rosen puts up his best game of the season and rolls the Wildcats.

The Pick: Arizona 20, UCLA 38

Oregon at Washington State (Ore -1.5)

I posited earlier this week that Oregon was in “dumpster fire” status. We’ll get a full sense of that after this weekend.

The Ducks head to Pullman having lost two in a row, down a few key players and, seemingly, not particularly bought into the program that head coach and his assistants, including newcomers Brady Hoke and Graham Yost, are pitching. The Oregon defense, outside of the contributions of outstanding freshman Troy Dye, has been a mess while the offense has suffered bouts of fits and starts while QB Dakota Prokup tries to figure out if he is a runner or a passer.

The Cougs have problems of their own. Their offense has been more inefficient than Mike Leach wants to see. QB Luke Falk has struggled to get the ball downfield and WSU’s receivers have done little to help him out. Turnovers have plagued this team as has untimely turnovers.

That leaves us with two wounded teams, both of whom playing well below expectations but either of whom capable of exploding at any time. It really is a fascinating matchup.

I like Oregon here. The Ducks receivers should have advantage over the Cougar secondary, which I think will create opportunities for Dakota Prokup. I’m not sure if Royce Freeman will be back (he probably will be), but the rushing attack hasn’t been a problem. The Ducks ought to be able to score. I’m not sure that I can say the same for WSU.

The Pick: Oregon 40, WSU 31