It finally starts to feel like the Pac-12 pecking order is sorting itself into some semblance of stability. Of course, that’s exactly when the conference promises to throw a wrench into our best-laid plans. This week’s slate features some interesting “prove-it” games for teams with solid records- ASU-Cal, USC-UW-, a couple of games between teams below true contention- Stan-OSU, UCLA-UA-, and one matchup between two teams who can’t afford a second consecutive disappointing result- WSU-Utah. With teams lined up so similarly, we should be in for some good games. Lines from Vegas Insider.
Arizona St @ California (Friday), Cal -4.5
The Pac-12’s obsession with cannibalization continues. A week after Utah travelled to USC as the conference’s top ranked team and lost, the last undefeated team in the Pac faces a challenging defense on a short week. I wrote last week that I was having a hard time getting a read on Arizona St beyond the generic “good D, less good O” take. Their close home loss to Colorado didn’t clear things up for me. Cal, on the other hand, pulled off an impressive win on the road against Ole Miss. Oddly, the Bears have played tough games on the road and easier games at home, and all of them have been relatively close. With their ball control and defense identity, it makes sense that they would play close games. I believe in what Justin Wilcox is doing. Arizona St has not run the ball efficiently this year. What offense they have produced has come from the intermediate passing game, which is Cal’s defensive strength.
Cal 23 – ASU 17
USC @ Washington, UW -10
Going strictly by the numbers, this game shouldn’t scare the Huskies terribly much. It’s a home game against a team that lost to a mutual opponent that UW smashed. USC hasn’t won a road game this year and two of their three wins have been by a single score. Their starting QB is out for the year. The presumptive backup transferred. Kedon Slovis, who was forced into backup duty, might miss the game with a concussion. Going strictly by what we’ve seen on the field, UW looks like the safer bet.
Of course, there’s always another layer to the story with USC, which has a lot to do with the fact that they have the most underlying raw talent in the conference. How that talent is coached and developed is subject to interpretation. Defensively, they’re fast, powerful, and aggressive. Their ferocious d-line might leave some holes for Sean McGrew to slither through. It would be great if Salvon Ahmed could get back on the field and break one open. The play-action game will be paramount due to the defensive aggression. Jacob Eason will have to play smart and find guys like Hunter Bryant and Puka Nacua, who won’t be physically overwhelmed by the Trojan secondary. Talanoa Hufanga, USC’s star safety, is likely out of the game with a concussion, which removes a security blanket from the back end.
On the other side of the ball, USC will go heavy in the air raid. Despite the presence of the excellent Stephen Carr at RB, they aren’t even trying to run the ball. Either Slovis or Matt Fink will have three of the best receivers in the country to throw to. Against Utah, Fink routinely underthrew them and they all (Michael Pittman, especially) came back to the ball to make something out of nothing over smaller DBs. The UW defensive backfield will have to be ready for those underthrows. Jimmy Lake has dominated WSU’s version of the air raid, so I expect them to be ready.
UW 31 – USC 20
Stanford @ Oregon St, Stan -5
At 1-3 and with all 3 losses coming by double-digits, it’s getting late early for the Trees. Oregon St’s defense finally showed signs of life the last time out against FCS UC-Davis. Jake Luton has done enough for the Beavers to keep them in games against poor opponents. It will be difficult for him to do the same against a team that has more defensive talent, even if they haven’t shown it on the field yet. Cameron Scarlett has only been lukewarm as the undisputed lead back in Palo Alto. This game could be an opportunity for him to break out with multiple scores.
Stanford 30 – Oregon St 24
Washington St @ Utah, Utah -5.5
The line for this game opened at Utah -8 and it has moved 1.5, 2, 2.5, or 3 points depending on where you look. What that tells me is the same thing I already knew- it’s hard to tell how much last week’s losses really mean for either team. Anthony Gordon is clearly a stud in Wazzu’s offense, but blowing a 48-17 lead and giving up 67 points to a previously flailing UCLA offense is a big indictment of the defense. Utah lost to an unpredictable USC team down to their 4th choice QB.
It helps that there is some history between Leach and Whittingham. Last year, Wazzu won 28-24 in Pullman. The year before that, it was the Cougs 33-25 in Utah. They did not play the two years before that. In short, Utah has made life somewhat difficult for WSU’s air raid without enough offense to back it up. Before last week, I would have said that the offensive growth is what makes this year’s Utah team different from Utah teams of the recent past. Even in the loss to USC, Tyler Huntley played very well. If they can clean up some of the penalties that turned TDs into FGs last week, I could see a game similar to the last two years, but with enough points on the Utes end to come out ahead. Either way, it should be close down the stretch.
Utah 31 – WSU 27
UCLA @ Arizona, AZ -7.5
Pac-12 after dark can’t get much wilder than it was last week, though it’s appropriate that UCLA is featured again. Is it possible that the Bruins turned a corner in a magical 18 minutes in Pullman? I doubt that Dorian Thompson-Robinson suddenly became a good QB after 1.25 years of being one of the worst in the country. It’s worth noting that Arizona’s secondary is also not good, even though they played slightly better against Texas Tech than I expected them to play. One sequence of numbers to keep in mind when you evaluate this game: 14, 14, 14, 14. Those are UCLA’s score totals in their first 3 games plus the first WSU game until they exploded late. I’ll still double that output; it just won’t be enough to outgun Khalil Tate and company.
Arizona 38 – UCLA 28
Stan -5 (high confidence)
Last Week ATS: 2-4 (1-1 HC)
Season ATS: 23-16 (5-1 HC)
Last Week SU: 2-4
Season SU: 27-12