Gold: Final thoughts heading into the Pac-12's Week 4
Now the real fun begins.
After beating up on strangers for three weeks, the Pac-12 begins its conference slate en masse on Saturday, save for USC and Stanford, who met in the Trojans’ 41-28 Week 2 win. Now is when we start to learn which of this season’s surprise Pac-12 teams — here’s looking at you, Washington, Washington State, and Oregon State — are for real, and which ones are just non-conference crusaders.
Of the three, the No. 18 Huskies have the most forgiving Week 4 matchup, with Stanford heading to Husky Stadium, while the Cougars host No. 15 Oregon and the Beavers host No. 7 USC. If either the Cougars or Beavers pull off a big upset, they’ll vault up into the top 25 rankings and beyond.
Here’s a look at my final thoughts heading into Week 4 of the Pac-12 slate.
UCLA at Colorado, 11 a.m., Pac-12 Network
The Bruins might just be the most disappointing 3-0 team in the country, having put up a pair of uninspiring blowouts in Weeks 1 and 2 against Bowling Green and Alabama State and a Week 3 dud against South Alabama. Escaping the Jaguars with a 32-31 home win was just about the bare minimum.
But the scheduling gods continue to look down favorably on UCLA with a matchup against the brutal Buffaloes, who might just be the worst team in Power 5. Colorado is certainly the worst team in the Pac-12, off to an 0-3 start, with losses to TCU, Air Force, and Minnesota.
The Bruins should have little trouble here, but they’ve found weird ways to lose under Chip Kelly.
Final Verdict: Bruins start 4-0 for the first time since 2013
No. 15 Oregon at Washington State, 1 p.m., FOX
One of the weekend’s best games, both teams have a lot at stake on Saturday.
For the Ducks, the gulf between 3-1 and 2-2 is miles long. For the Cougars, two wins over top-20 teams doesn’t just put them in the top 25, it firmly plants them in the top 15 themselves.
Neither team will have an easy go of it: Washington State’s passing game with Cam Ward took a big step forward in a Week 3 win over Colorado State. Wazzu won 38-7 while Ward had 299 passing yards and four touchdowns. That was a massive step forward for Ward, who rebounded from a two-interception performance in Week 2 against Wisconsin. Ward was poised down the stretch against the then-No. 19 Badgers, and that was enough to lead the Cougars to a 17-14 upset win.
Oregon has taken huge strides after a 49-3 loss to then-No. 3 Georgia in Week 1, atoning for an embarrassing showing with a rout over Eastern Washington and a sound thrashing over BYU last weekend. It’s hard to figure which team has more momentum at this point, though the Ducks have the talent advantage. I’m almost at a pick-em on this one.
Final Verdict: The Ducks survive a valiant effort by Ward and the offense
Arizona at Cal, 2:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
This game is fascinating, especially considering what happened last year. The woebegone Wildcats were headed to a winless season if not for Cal being stricken by COVID-19, almost from top to bottom. The Bears barely had enough players to field a team against Arizona. In many ways, the same was true for the Wildcats.
Now both teams are healthy, in more ways than one. Arizona recruited its way toward a respectable program while Cal gained some big transfers and, more importantly, is at or near full-strength after last year’s debacle.
Both teams enter at 2-1, with disparate paths; the Wildcats scored a big win at San Diego State in Week 1 only to crumble in a big way against Mississippi State at home in Week 2, before bouncing back to beat North Dakota State last Saturday. Cal beat UC Davis and UNLV in Weeks 1 and 2 and fell a fallen Hail Mary away from tying Notre Dame late last week.
If Arizona’s passing game looks like it did against the Bisons, Cal is going to have a hard time stopping the Wildcats. But the Bears have a much better defense, and a home game with revenge on their mind.
Final Verdict: Wildcats look better in a Pac-12 game than they have in years, but Cal rebounds from last year’s COVID-cursed defeat
No. 7 USC at Oregon State, 6:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
On a weekend that features No. 20 Florida at No. 11 Tennessee, No. 10 Arkansas at No. 23 Texas A&M, and No. 5 Clemson at No. 21 Wake Forest, the Trojans battle with the Beavers might just be the best matchup in all of college football.
Both teams enter the game at 3-0 with a pair of significant wins, including one common opponent. That opponent — Fresno State — entered the season as one of the best Group of 5 teams in the country, and the Trojans punished the Bulldogs, 45-17, one week after Oregon State eked by, 35-32.
USC also claims a convincing win over Stanford, 41-28, in Week 2, while the Beavers opened their season with 34-17 home win over Boise State. The fact that this matchup is at Reser Stadium is significant — the stadium is undergoing renovations that will limit attendance to under 30,000, but it will be a raucous 30,000.
This game will come down to USC’s defense stopping Oregon State quarterback Chance Nolan, who is off to a great start this year. The Trojans’ passing game, of course, isn’t half-bad itself. But USC scoring points is a given; defensively, the Trojans have allowed ample yardage but are already in double-figures for takeaways.
Final Verdict: The Trojan Train keeps on rolling
No. 13 Utah at Arizona State, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Pitting the preseason pick as conference champion with arguably the league’s most fragile team at the moment is not exactly fair right out of the gates. But we couldn’t have known that Arizona State would be coming off a weekend that saw their coach and school come to a “mutual decision” that Herm Edwards would no longer be ASU head coach after losing to Eastern Michigan last weekend. I mean, we could’ve guessed, but we couldn’t have known.
The Utes, meanwhile, have bounced back in a big way from a season-opening heartbreaker at Florida. Utah put up two games worth of points in a 73-7 Week 2 win over Southern Utah, then bounced back from a surprise loss to San Diego State last season with a 35-7 thrashing of the Aztecs in Week 3.
Utah’s running game hasn’t been what it was the last couple years with Tavion Thomas dealing with myriad issues, but quarterback Cameron Rising has rebounded nicely from a crushing end-zone interception that ended the Utes’ rally in Week 1 against the Gators. He has only thrown that one pick this year, to go along with eight touchdowns, while completing 67.1% of his passes.
Final Verdict: Utes squash the emotionally bruised Sun Devils
Stanford at No. 18 Washington, 7:30 p.m., FS1
Stanford flipped the switch on the Huskies in recent years, owning a 12-5 advantage from 2004-20. Last year the Huskies regained the momentum for the first time since the early 2000s, when they’d won 20 of 22 matchups with the Cardinal, only losing in 1982 and 1994 during a two-decade-plus run.
Despite out-gaining Stanford last year, 375-265, and despite out-rushing the Cardinal, 229-71, Washington only snuck by with a last-minute touchdown and 2-point conversion in a game in which they committed zero turnovers and forced three. The fact Stanford was still even in the game — and leading with 22 seconds to go — is a shock.
While Washington’s run game isn’t quite what it was last year, the passing game has been brilliant behind Michael Penix Jr. Penix is playing better than any other conference quarterback, and he’s developing real rapport with his top wideouts.
Tanner McKee, meanwhile, is off to a pedestrian start for the Cardinal, throwing three touchdowns and three interceptions in two games this year. With Stanford having an early bye week last Saturday, McKee needs to get into a rhythm, but he’ll be tested against a Washington defense that already has seven sacks.
Final Verdict: Huskies continue their terrific offensive play against the overmatched Cardinal