All season, it looked like the Pac was going to sort itself into rough tiers, with Utah and Oregon at the top, UW and USC below them, and some mix of Arizona, Oregon State, Colorado, and UCLA at the bottom. Instead, it now looks like Utah stands alone at the top, Oregon falls a level below them, and virtually everyone else is in a morass of mediocrity. Let’s try to figure out how these flawed foes will fare.
Washington State @ Washington (Friday), UW -6.5
Something is rotten in Montlake. When my subjective perception differs from big picture data, I try to remain as objective as possible. All season, the stats have said that this Husky team is better than their outcomes on the field- that they have had a combination of bad luck and bad timing that have led to negative results when the underlying performances deserved better. Virtually every advanced stat model agrees and the Huskies have consistently rated in the top 20 even though they haven’t looked like a top-20 team on the field the vast majority of the time. Likewise, Jacob Eason has been rated as the #5 draft eligible QB in the country, but it would be hard to place his recent performances in the top 5 in the Pac-12 North. In that vein, it’s hard to imagine picking the Huskies to beat anyone with a pulse by a TD right now.
Of course, if you zoom out even further, the picture becomes more favorable to UW. The Huskies have come into a majority of the 5 Petersen vs. Leach Apple Cups as the lower-rated team or with a worse record. This year, the teams come in with identical records, though WSU’s consecutive wins give their fans a better feeling about the squad. In those five games, the Huskies have outscored the Cougs 190-69, won the turnover battle 19-6, and held WSU under half of their season average for points scored every time. Even on teams that weren’t among the best statistical defenses in the country (like the 2014-15 editions), coaches Kwiatkowski and Lake have had no trouble game planning for the Air Raid.
So where does that leave us this time around? I’m going to split the difference and say that the Husky O-Line does not have the catastrophic performance that doomed the offense against Colorado, nor does Jacob Eason melt down mentally in the same way that nearly cost UW against Oregon State. The Dawgs have run the ball down WSU’s throat year after year, and that game plan should work against a defense that allows 176 yards per game. Salvon Ahmed and Richard Newton are not on Myles Gaskin’s level, but Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman also torched this defense. Anthony Gordon will likely put up some solid numbers, but if history is any guide, he will also throw lots of incomplete passes and WSU will turn the ball over more than the Dawgs. It won’t be the kind of thorough beat-down of the last few years, but I need to see Leach come close against Petersen before I can pick his team to win outright, especially on the road.
UW 27 – WSU 23
Oregon State @ Oregon, Ore- 17.5
It will be interesting to see how the Ducks come out in this one after a back-breaking loss to ASU that ended their hopes of making the CFP. Meanwhile, OSU has won 3 of 5, and the losses were an encouraging loss to UW and an insane, last-second 54-53 loss in Pullman. Jonathan Smith has the Beavs trending in the right direction. Jayden Daniels and the Sun Devils once again showed that the seam in Oregon’s excellent defense is the deep pass. OSU is better equipped to exploit that weakness than ASU was, though they don’t have the defense to hold the Ducks to seven points through three quarters. The ASU game also reminded us that Justin Herbert is better when he isn’t forced into a pass-happy style. He threw 16 incompletions and 2 INTs and his numbers remain much better when his team is able to run first. I still believe that Oregon’s defense is stout enough to hold off the Beavs, but Jake Luton and Isaiah Hodgins have generally been productive enough to stay within spreads this big.
Oregon 38 – OSU 24
Notre Dame @ Stanford, ND -14
Last week’s Big Game between Cal and Stanford looked like a coin-flip until Chase Garbers and Christopher Brown wear cleared for the Bears late in the week. Cal took advantage and held on for 24-20 win that made them bowl eligible and essentially ended Stanford’s season. While the Irish don’t have a CFP spot to play for, they are a very strong team who have stomped several teams who are at or above Stanford’s level. Notre Dame’s other foray into the Pac this year ended as a closer-than-expected win against USC, but Ian Book and Chase Claypool are both playing even better now and they should have little trouble with Stanford.
ND 35 – Stan 17
Colorado @ Utah, Utah -28
I strongly suspect that Tyler Huntley and the Utes were listening carefully to the pundits who said that Oregon’s loss ended the Pac’s chances to put a team in the CFP. With the exception of a tough win in Seattle, the Utes have torn through their schedule since their early-season loss at USC. On the heels of consecutive wins by 28+, they have more reason than ever to try to earn some style points and move up in the rankings for a Pac-12 title game showdown with Oregon. Steven Montez, Laviska Shenault, and the rest of the Buffs certainly looked like an improved squad against UW. UW’s duds against Cal and Stanford did not lead to surges by those teams, and Colorado has been much better at home all year, so I don’t trust that improvement to automatically roll over.
Utah 45 – Colorado 13
Arizona @ Arizona State, ASU -12.5
The best explanation for this game being pegged at less than 2 TDs is ASU’s strange 0-5 ATS record as a favorite. As a dog, the Sun Devils are a much better 4-1-1. While the most recent memory of Herm Edwards’s squad is Jayden Daniels scorching Oregon’s secondary for a season-defining win, they had lost 5 in a row prior to that game. On the other hand, the inspired performance against the Ducks proves that ASU hasn’t given up on the season. I’m not sure the same can be said for the Wildcats. Arizona hasn’t won since beating Colorado back when a gallon of gas cost 35 cents and Ben Hur was #1 at the box office. UA has lost six in a row and hasn’t covered a single one of those spreads. Yes, it’s a rivalry game, but if any team had a reason to start playing younger players to prepare them for next year, it’s this one. Plus, Arizona’s leaky run defense plays into the hands of an Eno Benjamin-centric attack. A backdoor cover is possible here due to ASU’s penchant for lower scoring games, but I fully expect a comfortable Sparky win.
ASU 31 – UA 17
Cal @ UCLA, UCLA -2.5
These teams have had seasons that have mirrored each other in many ways. Cal started impressively, beating UW in Seattle and working its way into the top 25. They collapsed with four straight losses in the middle of the year, but have won two of three, qualified for a bowl, and look to end on a high note. UCLA looked utterly incompetent at the start of the year, so much so that their three-game win streak in the middle of the conference schedule shocked me and many others. Now, UCLA has returned to form with 101 points surrendered the last two weeks. They cannot make a bowl and seem to have squandered that momentum. Cal has generally been better this year when less is expected of them (4-2 ATS as a dog, 4-1 ATS away). Their offense has done enough with Chase Garbers in the lineup to let the defense win games for them. This line seems to reflect the aggregate performance through the year rather than a recent trend one way or the other- two fairly even teams, neither of them worthy of much faith. Cal has proven itself capable on the road, and I suspect the offense can do just enough once again.
Cal 24 – UCLA 23
ND -14 (high confidence)
Last Week ATS: 3-3 (0-1 HC)
Season ATS: 41-42 (6-6 HC)
Last Week SU: 3-3
Season SU: 58-25