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Pickin’ the PAC: the South takes the stage

Is USC that good? Are the Arizona schools a threat? Can Colorado be the spoiler?

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Southern California
Turnover or touchdown? Sam Darnold looks to answer some questions about himself and the USC Trojans.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

I love UW bye weeks.

Things that don’t normally get my attention on Saturdays come back into focus. My honey-do list gets worked. My golf game gets practiced. My gym gets visited (I have to walk through it to get to my favorite coffee shop). My dogs get walked. My children get 10 minutes of attention (... each. What kind of father do you think I am).

Most importantly, I get the chance to take in some football played by teams not wearing purple and gold.

This weekend presents some intriguing matchups for fans of the PAC. Many questions could get answered here:

  1. Are the Wildcats a threat in the South?
  2. Do the Buffs have the chops to rise up and hand WSU a major blow in their race for the North?
  3. Will the Sun Devils make themselves a factor in the South?
  4. Is Jim Mora about done in Westwood?
  5. Are the Trojans really the standard bearers of the PAC?

This weekend is all about the South. After this weekend, we’ll have a really good idea of who the contenders are, how good certain players are and whether or not seats in certain programs are getting toasty.

It’s going to be a great weekend in the PAC. Let’s jump to the picks.

Game of the Week

#11 USC at #13 Notre Dame

(Sat 4:30p PT, NBC, ND -3, o65.6)

The Trojans, like it or not, are the current standard-bearer for the PAC 12. You can thank ASU for that. But USC goes into South Bend an incomplete team that really hasn’t looked much like USC in any but one game this year.

If you look up and down the Trojan lineup, you see a lot of names that perhaps you were not expecting to see when the season started. That is not surprising given that the Trojans have 10 different players injured and out for the season. But what they do have is QB Sam Darnold, a good pass defense and an efficient special teams.

Is that enough to beat the one-loss Fighting Irish?

Notre Dame has had a good season but has played a schedule that feels a lot like UW’s on the ol’ cupcake scale. Their one loss was a “good” one - a one-point loss to a Georgia team that they were a big underdog to. The rest of their wins have come against teams who they had an 81% or greater win probability advantage over.

That’s not to say that Notre Dame hasn’t earned their ranking. They’ve done exactly what good teams do in handling underdog opponents. It is just to say that they haven’t shown that they can win in a matchup of equals.

That said, this matchup seems to favor the Irish. This is the most balanced Notre Dame that I’ve seen since their unlikely FBS run from several years ago. Offensively, they are generating explosives at an impressive rate thanks to the best rushing attack in the nation and the efforts of 6’5” 200lb man child receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Dual threat QB Brandon Wimbush (8 rushing TDs, 6 passing TDs) is exactly the kind of QB that you can expect USC’s good-but-not-deep front seven to struggle with. Notre Dame is going to score some points.

The question then is whether or not they can prevent them. Sam Darnold has been sloppy with the ball all season (9 INTs, 6 fumbles). On the other hand, he has been aggressive in pushing the ball downfield and has demonstrated a knack for generating third down conversions all season.

The rushing attack behind him is solid, but both Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr have struggled with the massive turnover of the offensive line and their own injury issues. Notre Dame is one of the better rush defense teams in the nation and are sure to challenge this aspect of the Trojans’ offense.

It feels to me like a disappointment is looming for USC. Athlete for athlete, I might be persuaded that USC has an advantage. But Notre Dame looks like a more complete team. The big question for me is how the Irish respond to standing toe-to-toe with players just as big and fast as theirs. If they don’t wilt - and they really did not against Georgia - I see them winning a close one.

Gekko’s Pick: USC 20, Notre Dame 24

Rest of the PAC

Arizona at Cal

(Sat 5pm PT, PACN, Cal +3, o62.5)

What a shot-in-the-arm that new Arizona QB Khalil Tate has given to his once-limp Wildcat team. Since his insertion into the starting lineup, Tate has generated 557 yards rushing (29 attempts), 302 yards passing (on 81% accuracy) and 8 total TDs.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Arizona
Cal will have Arizona QB Khalil Tate in their sights this weekend.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Does Cal have anyone that can stop Tate?

Maybe. While the loss of LB Devante Downs for the season has cast a pall on the unit, the Cal D has been pretty good at containing the kinds of big plays that Tate has been generating the last few games. They are definitely better than UCLA in that regard. They’ve got good tacklers on the perimeter and a solid inside backer tandem. I would also expect a lot of single high safety kind of looks from Cal as they try to take Tate’s rushing lanes away and make him beat them through the air.

I just don’t think it will be enough. Cal can’t go point-for-point against Arizona. I don’t see another seven turnover explosion happening in their favor. This one looks good for the visiting team.

Gekko’s Pick: Arizona 45, Cal 27

Arizona State at Utah

(Sat 12:30p PT, FS1, Utah -10, o57)

Nothing would make me happier than to see the team that upset our beloved Huskies last weekend pick up right where they left off and go on a massive winning streak all the way to the South Division title. What better medicine could there be than to meet the Sun Devils a second time with the opportunity to right all the wrongs that we saw in the desert last Saturday.

Well, fair warning here: Washington fans are not going to like this pick.

The Sun Devils are not the team that we saw throttle the Huskies in Tempe. Low-scoring, defensive struggles that see ASU generate pressure with three and four man rushes is not a formula for success for Todd Graham’s team. They are still a team that needs to score points, generate a positive turnover margin and hope to do just enough to keep the opponent’s scoreboard under control.

Utah ought to be able to win this game. Their defense is more similar to UW’s than to Oregon’s and should be able to take advantage of ASU’s troubles on the offensive line. Offensively, Utah only needs to get to 24 points or so to have a really good chance at winning this game. Troy Williams, Darren Carrington, Zack Moss and Mitch Wishnowsky are all that Utah needs to put that kind of output on the board.

I like the Utes here.

Gekko’s Pick: ASU 17, Utah 24

Colorado at #15 WSU

(Sat 7:45pm PT, ESPN, WSU -10, o52.5)

Gut check time for the Cougs. Are they the team that started out 6-0 with a somewhat efficient offense and a balls-out, hair-on-fire defense? Or are they the clumsy, turnover-prone, timid team that got their asses handed to them in Berkeley?

They are probably somewhere in between. The question is whether or not the Buffs have enough in them to beat what is a pretty good and deserved top 25 team on the road.

Washington State v California
Tavares Martin, Jr. is going to miss the Colorado game after skipping a team practice earlier in the week.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I think that they do.

While the Buffs do have some issues with their offensive line, the Buffs present the Cougs their most difficult defensive challenge to date. WSU simply hasn’t played a team with a all-conference type of running back to go along with three legitimate big play threats at receiver.

That Colorado’s offense can score enough points to win isn’t the question for me. It is more of whether or not that Buffalo D can force some punts and a turnover or two from Luke Falk and co. Colorado’s D is 102nd in the nation in efficiency per S&P and has given up more than their fair share of explosives. In that way, I could easily see WSU getting off and putting points on the board, even with the suspension of Tavares Martin, Jr. hanging over their heads.

But something just feels off on this one. That Cal game feels like it might leave a hangover effect while Colorado seems due for a good game. I’m calling upset ... and definitely taking the over.

Gekko’s Pick: Colorado 44, WSU 38

Oregon at UCLA

(Sat 1pm PT, PACN, UCLA -6.5, o67.5)

If Oregon were to find a game that they could win without QB Justin Herbert available, this might be that game. The Bruins have been absolutely getting gashed by running teams all season. They are 130 out of 130 teams in the nation in yards per attempt surrendered (6.57) and S&P ranks them 129th in points allowed per rushing attempt surrendered (1.29).

That’s not good.

On the flip side, the UCLA offense has all it needs to terrorize the Oregon D. Josh Rosen hasn’t had as great a season as his stats might indicate, but he certainly has enough juice to put points up against the Ducks. I do think that Jim Leavitt is thinking about a special kind of blitz and pressure strategy that takes advantage of Oregon’s defensive speed to see if they can get to Rosen. UCLA’s offensive line has surrendered 13 sacks and countless QB hits on the season.

If Oregon can register three or four sacks and create an extra possession or two as a result, I could see Oregon winning this on the backs of their rushers alone. I also worry that UCLA might be looking ahead to UW which, in this case, would probably not be a good thing.

Gekko’s Pick: Oregon 38, UCLA 35

BYEs: Washington, Oregon State, Stanford