With two of the three hottest teams in the Pac-12 sidelined this week with byes, the league’s highest-rated squad must carry the torch. But it won’t be easy.

As UCLA and Oregon take a week to rest up, the seventh-ranked USC Trojans travel to No. 20 Utah for what was going to be the Pac-12 game of the year — defending national champions vs. everyone’s Hollywood sweethearts. If USC wins on the road at the Utes, a CFP berth is within reach. If the Utes take out the Trojans, the Pac-12 will cannibalize itself once more.

For now, here’s a look at my final thoughts heading into Week 7 of the Pac-12 slate.


Cal at Colorado, 11 a.m., Pac-12 Network

Losers of two of three before a bye week last Saturday, Cal gets its best chance of the year to pick up its first road victory.

The road hasn’t been so kind to the Bears, who lost at Notre Dame in Week 3 and at Washington State in Week 5. Cal has won three straight at home, though, but now the Bears travel to Colorado, the league’s worst team by a mile.

The Buffaloes are also coming off a bye week, and that may have given freshman quarterback Owen McCown some time to get more comfortable in the offense. McCown followed up a 26-of-42, 258-yard, one-touchdown, one-interception performance in a 45-17 loss to UCLA with a 14-for-30 showing for 186 yards and a score in a 43-20 loss at Arizona. Nothing too pretty, but you’ve got to be impressed that he cut his sack total from five to three and upped his rushing yards from 9 carries for minus-32 yards to 10 rushes for 43 yards in the span of a week.

It’ll be interesting to see how he comes along this week with some extra seasoning.

Not so interesting that he’ll threaten Cal, but interesting.

Final verdict: Cal prepares for the tough part of its schedule with a successful tune-up.

Arizona at Washington, 2:30 p.m., Pac-12

The Wildcats have looked much improved this season, but not as improved as Washington.

Both are on Pac-12 redemption paths this year, as the Wildcats won a single game and the Huskies won four a year ago, but both teams are in vastly different places.

Unfortunately for Arizona, the place Washington is in is exactly where the Wildcats don’t want them. The Huskies boast one of the league’s best passing attacks under the direction of Michael Penix Jr., who gets to bounce back from a surprising loss to Arizona State with a gimme game against the Wildcats’ weak defense. Arizona is allowing more than 430 yards per game and the Huskies are averaging nearly 500 yards offensively.

Washington should light up the Cats, just as Mississippi State, Cal, and Oregon did. The Bears and Ducks both nearly hit the half-century mark against the Wildcats, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Penix and the Huskies do the same. They’ll do it differently, though: Arizona’s run defense failed it in those losses. This time, Washington’s passing game should reign supreme.

Final verdict: Huskies indeed rain all over Arizona’s defense in a big win.

Stanford at Notre Dame, 4:30 p.m., NBC

Just a few weeks ago, you might have circled this game as a season- and perhaps even job-saving win for David Shaw and the struggling Cardinal. But suddenly Notre Dame has won three straight, including a big upset win over then-No. 16 BYU to move to 3-2 on the year. The Fighting Irish aren’t quite the laughing stock everyone made them out to be.

The Cardinal on the other hand? Stanford is in a bad way, losers of four straight, all of them conference games. That three of those losses came against top-20 teams doesn’t soften the blow for Cardinal fans who aren’t that far removed from the glory days of Andrew Luck, Christian McCaffrey, and Bryce Love.

There is no conceivable way that Stanford parts with Shaw midway through the season — I just don’t see that happening at an academics-first institution like Stanford — but if this slide continues, the axe might have to fall. It’s been quite a while since Stanford has won consistently.

Since 2018, when they finished with nine wins for the seventh time in eight seasons, the Cardinal have gone just 12-23.

Final verdict: Fighting Irish make it four straight.

No. 7 USC at No. 20 Utah, 5 p.m., Fox

Oh, what could have been? In an alternate universe, Utah staves off Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Zach Charbonnet, and a feisty UCLA defensive front to take out the Bruins and remain undefeated in Pac-12 play, setting up a battle of top-10 conference rivals.

Instead, the Utes were stunned by the upstart Bruins, who have moved to the top of the conference power rankings and become the darlings of college football in the span of two weeks.

It’s not like a win at Utah wouldn’t be a résumé-padder for the Trojans, even if some of the sizzle is off the steak. If USC can put the clamps on Cam Rising and Co., and Caleb Williams can navigate the football around ballhawk Clark Phillips III, national media will notice.

Likewise, if Williams struggles again and the Utes can find a way to pull this one out, Utah should shoot back up in the AP poll, perhaps somewhere just outside the top 10, with USC falling to 13. That could very well leave the Pac-12 with UCLA at No. 10, Oregon at 11, Utah at 12, and USC at 13, which feels so fitting. Once again, the league would have an uphill climb toward the College Football Playoff.

So, of course, that’s my prediction.

Final verdict: the Utes deal the Trojans their first loss of the season.

Washington State at Oregon State, 6 p.m., Pac-12

Loved this game three weeks ago, love it a little less now.

Cam Ward has been good but not great, Chance Nolan is expected to be sidelined once more, and what could be an exciting matchup putting two of the upstart teams in the league doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Oregon State shut down the USC passing game just a few weeks ago in a 17-14 loss, and Ward better watch out. The Beavers have been plucky this year and seem to have bounced back from a two-game losing streak to the Trojans and Utes. Losing to those two teams is nothing shameful. Losing to Stanford — as the Beavers almost did in Ben Gulbranson’s first start — would’ve been painful. But Oregon State survived with the 28-27 win to move to 4-2. Getting to 5-2 would be a big feat for the Beavers, putting them just one game out of the postseason.

Washington State, meanwhile, is coming off losses to then-No. 15 Oregon and then-No. 6 USC, which sandwiched a 28-9 win over Cal. Even against the Bears, Ward was not at his best, and he’ll have to avoid the interception bug against the Beavers. He had zero picks against the Trojans but seven in his previous four weeks. He was also sacked five times. He’s now been sacked 20 times on the year. If Oregon State is going to stand a chance, it’s going to need to knock him down a few times. I don’t see that happening.

Final verdict: Cougars pull off a key road win.