Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Post That Takes Your Money: Week 12

Due to my post-Stanford stupor, I didn't get around to finishing the Pac-12 Journey this week. I completed a few but I didn't get around to Oregon State-Arizona State or Cal-Colorado so rather than post an incomplete bunch, I am posting none at all. As for my picks, I was 4-1 last week but had a couple bad beats against the spread and went 2-3 in the picks that really matter. However, after nailing UCLA -3 last night I'm feeling good heading into a big Saturday slate in the Pac-12

Arizona (-11) over Washington State

Too much Ka'Deem Carey and too much team speed from Arizona for Washington State to handle and seriously challenge in this game. The Wildcats have an athletic, ball hawking defense that will cause problems for Connor Halliday adn the Cougars' offense. Look for turnovers to loom very large once again for Wazzou.

The Pick: Arizona 38, Washington State 24

Oregon (-28) over Utah

Oregon is back at home following an embarrassing loss and looks ready and refocused after getting an extra two days off to prepare for this game. Utah on the other hand looks emotionally spent after a one point loss to Arizona State and is banged up again as QB Travis Wilson did not make the trip to Eugene due to a concussion. Former walk-on sophomore Adam Schulz will get his first career start and he has been less than inspiring completing 19/40 passes against Arizona and USC. So if your keeping track at home, you have a team that is mostly terrible outside its own state lines playing a struggling walk on at QB against a top five team in the loudest stadium in the conference and that top five team is angry and looking to make a statement to get back on track. Ducks roll, big.

The Pick: Oregon 52, Utah 17

Colorado (-1) over California

This game is sad, just so sad. Give me the Buffs and lets move on.

The Pick: Colorado 26, California 22

USC (+3.5) outright over Stanford

My upset special and no it's not just because I'm an Oregon fan and Stanford has to lose in order for Oregon to win the Pac-12, how dare you try to assail my character. I actually have legitimate reasons for taking the Trojans. Stanford can't possibly work themselves up as high emotionally as they did against Oregon and they are bound for some sort of let down after playing essentially a perfect game against the Ducks. USC has a great defensive front that can handle Stanford's power run game. The Trojans have surrendered more yards per carry than the Ducks this season but most of what they have allowed has come against spread offenses. Against conventional power running teams, the Trojans have been pretty much lights out.

I think USC plays out of its mind on defense in front of the first and probably only sellout of the season at the Coliseum and leads the way to a season defining victory.

The Pick: USC 23, Stanford 20

Arizona State (-14.5) over Oregon State

I'm sure it was nice for Oregon State to get last week off and take a break from how much they had been struggling but its not going to matter in Tempe. The Beavers offense clearly cannot succeed against defenses that can rush the passer without blitzing. That is Arizona State's primary M.O. as a defense as Will Sutton and Carl Bradford help forma  fierce front four and players like Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor form a lock down secondary. When the Sun Devils are on offense, I think Marion Grice will put up huge numbers. The Beavers have been okay on defense in the past month or so but were really exposed on the ground against USC two weeks ago.

The Pick: Arizona State 41, Oregon State 17

Last Week Against the Spread:  2-3

Last Week Straight Up: 4-1

This Season Against the Spread: 41-37 (includes Friday)

This Season Straight up: 62-16

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Pac-12 Journey Game 77: The Sneaky Awesome Game

Who is playing?

The Washington Huskies and the UCLA Bruins.

Where is the game being played?

The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

What time does the game start and where can I find it on my television?

6:00 PM (PT) on ESPN2

What is the point spread in this game?

UCLA is favored by three points (-3). The line opened at -3. 

What should I watch for when Washington has the ball?

Washington's commitment to its identity will be key tonight. The Huskies are built from their running back out with Bishop Sankey being one of the best runners in college football. UCLA has been very strong on defense this year but teams have had success running on them. In particular, the Bruins have looked less than stellar defending the run against spread offenses as Oregon ripped them for 325 yards and five touchdowns on the ground while Arizona had success to the tune of five yards per carry last week.

UCLA is dangerous when teams are stuck in obvious passing situations and the Bruins can unleash their athletic group of pass rushers. The Huskies have really struggled on the offensive line this season and will have a very tough time accounting for UCLA's stud outside linebacker Anthony Barr. Washington could win this game without a great rushing performance as Keith Price is finally healthy and throwing the ball really well. However, it's probably for the best if the Huskies don't need to find out if Price is capable of converting on third and long.

What should I watch for when UCLA has the ball?

For as much as UCLA has struggled against spread running teams, Washington has been worse allowing 5.3 yards per carry and three touchdowns against Oregon and 314 yards and four touchdowns against Arizona State. Prior to last week it seemed as though UCLA was ill equipped to exploit the Huskies despite running a spread offense with a running identity. The Bruins have gone through major upheaval on the offensive line due to injuries and lost their very productive tailback Jordan James to an ankle injury. Recently though, UCLA's luck has come around as left tackle Simon Goines is healthy and back in the lineup and true freshmen Alex Redmond and Scott Quessenberry have steadily improved with each game since looking lost against Stanford.

The Bruins appear to have also found a replacement for the ailing James, one that came from a most unlikely source. The Bruins tried out true freshman linebacker Myles Jack at running back and he went of for one of the highlights of the year as he broke four tackles en route to a 66 yard touchdown run against Arizona. Jack is still a starter on defense and will not have his role minimized in UCLA's effort to stop Bishop Sankey but, he will remain a part of the offense going forward. What will Jack's role be tonight and can he make a similar impact as he did last week? It's not so much that Jack ran for 120 yards on only six carries (although that was awesome) but his biggest impact was in the energy he brought. UCLA looked stagnant before Jack got in the game on offense and the plays he made with the ball really lit up the entire UCLA offense and pushed them to another level. Was the Myles Jack Show a one-night only event or is it a lasting craze? The answer may very well determine this game.

Which team should I bet on and which team will win?

Washington's run game and a healthy Keith Price will present a lot of problems for UCLA's defense but the Bruins are just a better and more talented team and they are playing at home. Lay the points, and roll with the Myles Jack Show.

The Pick: UCLA 35, Washington 31

2013 Pac-2 Power Rankings: Week 11

1. Stanford (Overall: 8-1, Conference: 6-1, Last Week: 2)
What else is there to say about the Stanford Cardinal after their huge win over Oregon? The Cardinal have defined their season and won the biggest game of the Pac-12 season. With only two conference games remaining on its schedule, Stanford controls its own destiny to win the Pac-12 North and reach the Rose Bowl for a second consecutive year. Now about that Utah game...

2. Oregon (8-1, 5-1, LW: 1)
The Ducks were finally slowed down last Thursday as Stanford, for a second year in a row, showed how to beat the Ducks. The red flags may have been there all along as teams have been able to run the ball on the Ducks defense for most of the season and Oregon's offensive line, particularly the entire of its line had lost physical battles even against lesser opponents. Oregon may have a "Stanford problem" but that is being way to over simplistic. There are 120 teams in college football that have a Stanford problem and it's not like Oregon hasn't beaten string physical teams before either (Stanford in 2010 and 2011, Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl). This is still a top five team and even the most staunch Oregon hater has to kid himself to believe that Oregon could lose to any of its remaining opponents.

3. UCLA (7-2, 4-2, LW: 3)

4. Arizona State (7-2, 5-1, LW: 4)
I worry that last week's game against Utah was "that game" the one performance that happens every year with the Sun Devils where they put together a month or more of great performances and then flush it away with one terrible effort against an inferior team. ASU did everything they could to give that game away but, they pulled out a one point win and the Pac-12 South title still remains very much in play.

5. USC (7-3, 4-2, LW: 6)
Once left for dead, the Trojans are back in a big way behind the best baby sitter ever, Ed Orgeron. Orgeron gives the USC players really delicious food and lets them watch movies and exchange, the USC players have played immeasurably harder than they ever did for Lane Kiffin. USC still hasn't lost a conference game since Kiffin and although they do need ASU to lose twice, the Pac-12 South division title isn't a pipe dream at this point.

6. Washington (6-3, 3-3, LW: 5)
I thought Colorado would give Washington some trouble in hang around with the Huskies last week but Washington snuffed that out in a hurry. The Huskies, especially QB Keith Price, looked like they were having fun out there for the first time since the beginning of October and the defense had its best performance all season.

7. Arizona (6-3, 3-3, LW: 7)
Arizona looked really good in hanging with UCLA and making a bit of a come back to at least get a shot at the win late but they were done in by the same thing that has killed them all year, they just can't throw the ball. God bless B.J. Denker, he has a lot of heart and you can't question his work ethic. While he does bring a lot to the table to his legs, he takes most of it away with his arm. The Wildcats might get some help soon as star WR Austin Hill began practicing this week for the first time all season after suffering a torn ACL back in March but, he probably won't be enough to change Arizona's fortunes through the air.

8. Oregon State (6-3, 4-2, LW: 8)
9. Washington State (4-5, 2-4, LW: 9)
You might as well lump the Beavers and Cougars together. After playing the easy portions of their schedules in the first half of the season, the Beavers were 6-1 and the Cougars were 4-5. Now OSU and WSU are on a combined five game losing streak. Both of these teams were looking great at one point as Washington State looked like a safe bet to qualify for a bowl game for the first time in over a decade and the Beavers looked like a strong dark horse in the Pac-12 North. Now that these two teams have come unraveled, it's hard to find another win on either teams' remaining schedule.

10. Utah (4-5, 1-5, LW: 10)
Is there any team that has suffered more heart crushing home losses in college football than the Utes? Utah controlled the game from start to finish against Arizona State and at this point are two plays away from having three home wins over ranked opponents. You could make a convincing argument that Utah is the best team with a losing record in college long as your making the case with Utah playing at home. The Utes have been truly awful when traveling outside state lines and they probably have another thorough road shellacking coming their way on Saturday as they face Oregon at Autzen Stadium without starting QB Travis Wilson.

11. Colorado (3-6, 0-6, LW: 11)
Colorado's run of improving and being feisty came to an abrupt end against the Huskies, further reinforcing just how little Pac-12 caliber talent is currently available on Colorado's roster.

12. California (1-9, 0-7, LW: 12)
California's solid effort to stay competitive with Arizona was nothing more than a tease. The Bears were wiped off the field by the Trojans and now get their one shot at a conference win as they head to Boulder for the ultimate Pac-12 pillow fight with the Buffs.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Post That Takes Your Money: Week 11

This really has become a post that takes your money in recent weeks as I have gone ice cold following a nice start to the year. I apologize for once again neglecting the Pac-12 journey articles this Saturday as the Oregon-Stanford game and the return of college basketball sapped most of my emotion and work ethic. I promise I'll make up for it with full recaps and I will get back on track with the Pac-12 Journey next week. I'm off to a bad start with my picks this week after taking Oregon -10 over Stanford and even said they would cover if the lien was -17. Oops. Here's to getting back on track today.

USC (-17) over California

USC is confident, flying high, and playing its best football of the season. Marqise Lee is back healthy and making explosive plays and USC's offensive line has reached a point of actually looking competent. USC's offensive line should eat up Cal's banged up front and force a lot of mistakes from Jared Goff while Cal's depleted, paper thin secondary has no realistic way of stopping Lee and Nelson Agholor.

The Pick: USC 38, California 10

Arizona State (-7) over Utah

This could be one of those games. ASU has looked like a borderline top 10 team for the past three weeks and is beginning to build the aura of a team that could challenge for a spot in the Rose Bowl. The Sun Devils have been in this type of position before and it usually ends with a face plant on the road against a far less talented team. Well enter Utah, the dreadful road team that plays exceptionally well at home and already sprung a monumental upset over Stanford earlier this year.

I regret doing this already because I can just see ASU committing four turnovers and 100 yards in penalties today and me feeling like an idiot for not seeing this coming. That being said, Utah's patchwork secondary is a huge problem against Taylor Kelly and friends and Utah just can;t run the ball consistently well on offense so they can't exploit ASU's greatest weakness barring an out of body experience from their running backs and offensive line. I can already feel this going sideways on me, but I feel confident enough in the Sun Devils to ride them for one more week.

The Pick: Arizona State 31, Utah 21

Colorado (+28) over Washington

Washington has recovered from its three game losing streak that exposed them but this pick is more about the Buffs than the Huskies. Colorado has shown really impressive fight in recent weeks and won't let Washington have anything easy. I like the match up of Paul Richardson against the Washington secondary and young QB Sefo Liufau has gotten better with each passing week. Keith Price will play without any protection on his injured right thumb for the first time since Oct.5 but I'm still not convinced that he is 100% healthy. I also know this Washington team is not mentally strong and is prone to looking ahead. The Huskies have a huge game with Oregon State next week that will seperate the middle of the Pac-12 North and could potentially swing Washington's bowl destiny from as high as the Holiday Bowl to as low as the New Mexico Bowl. All things considered, the line is a little high so take the points.

The Pick: Washington 45, Colorado 24

UCLA (+2.5) over Arizona

Arizona State leads the Pac-12 South as the only team in the division with only two conference losses but amazingly, both of these teams control their own destiny to win the South as well. While all the attention going into the week was focused on Oregon-Stanford, this game tonight could have an equally great impact on the Pac-12 title race. UCLA hasn't looked the same on offense since Stanford beat them up and Oregon piled on a week later but the Bruins should be rested and refocused after slogging through a win over Colorado last week. Arizona has recovered nicely from an 0-2 start in conference to win three in a row but the Wildcats have hardly looked like world beaters. Arizona is probably due for a correction, especially after putting out such a mediocre performance against Cal last week.

Teams can run on UCLA effectively as we have seen in recent weeks and that is something Arizona wants to here. However, Arizona's inability to play-action off that run game and hit deep passes will hurt them in the end. UCLA is still young and banged up on the offensive line but Arizona does not have the type of physical athletes necessary to exploit that.

The Pick: UCLA 35, Arizona 31

Last Week Against the Spread:  1-3

Last Week Straight Up: 3-1

This Season Against the Spread: 38-35 (includes Thursday)

This Season Straight up: 57-16

Friday, 8 November 2013

And Now For Something Completely Different...College Basketball Returns Tonight!

College basketball has such a soft and under hyped tip-off to the season every year but wouldn't you know it, the regular season starts tonight! The first games have already tipped off out on the East Coast but the first Pac-12 games get under way in less than one hour with 10 teams in action including a pair of marquee games. It's a little harder to cover Pac-12 basketball than it is with football because there are so many more games and it is hard to keep track of it all outside of the team you really care about (for me Oregon) and the central contenders in the conference (Arizona, Colorado, UCLA, and the Ducks). Basketball coverage will be a little loose and spotty for now because football is still going on and that obviously takes precedent.

Hoops coverage will pick up in January but until then I'll have at least a little weekly content to stay in the loop and will try my best to take a break from football to give the big non-conference match ups the attention they deserve. Night one in the Pac-12 is mostly occupied by the dregs of Evergreen State, Coppin State, Drexel, and CS Bakersfield but two teams are venturing out into headline games. The preseason #19 Oregon Ducks are in the first significant national showcase game of the year as they battle Georgetown in the Armed Forces Classic from Camp Humphreys Army Base in South Korea. Colorado, another Pac-12 contender is also eating the big meat of its non-conference schedule early with a "neutral" floor game against #25 Baylor in Dallas, TX. These two games are staggered nicely as well as you can catch the Ducks at 5:00 PM (PT) followed by the Buffs at 7:00. Because of the attention devoted to football and the Pac-12 game of the year being last night, I was unable to prepare previews for these two games but I'll have full wraps tomorrow about all 10 games.

The Pac-12 is deeper and stronger than it has been in years and will make for one of the most exciting hoops seasons on the west coast in some time. Enjoy Ducks-Hoyas and Buffs-Bears and spare a little time from your football gluttony to take in a little hard court ball.

And Now a Few Words From an Oregon Fan Who Hates Everything Right Now

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Allow me to break down the fourth wall and talk in first person for a change. Last night sucked. It sucked to watch a team full of guys I care about wearing my beloved colors get bullied and pushed around on national television. It sucked to invest two and a half months of energy and passion to get to a point where I let my guard down and allowed myself to believe this Oregon team could finally win a national championship only to watch those dreams burn under the weight of a team that belongs in the 1960's. I spent the night trying to escape the moment where I said Oregon would win by 25 points and doing everything I could to block out memories of the 2007 Arizona game, 2011 USC game, and of course last year's Stanford game. I have far too many emotions and feelings going through me to form a truly coherent column about last night's game but I do have a few thoughts and angles that I need to share.

1. I stand by everything I said in my preview of this game that now makes me look like a moron. Ben Gardner's injury should have been crippling and may still be at some point, the Stanford offense had been stale, unimaginative, and unproductive all season, and the Ducks had gotten better since last season's meeting from a personnel standpoint. I had sound reasons for believing Oregon could win and win big and I regret none of the things I said before this game.

2. This is going to sound stupid but bare with me. Oregon is a better team than Stanford. Oregon is better built to beat any random team, the Ducks are built to take on anyone anywhere and beat them decisively. Stanford is specifically built to beat Oregon. Oregon hasn't lost to an unranked opponent since 2009 yet Stanford has suffered such a defeat in consecutive seasons. The Stanford program as it is currently constructed is built ideally for countering Oregon but not necessarily for beating anyone under any circumstances. That doesn't mean Stanford can't show up and beat anyone because they certainly can but their assembly and mindset as far as Oregon goes has made them vulnerable against other teams that normally should not have any chance at beating them (see Washington, Utah).

3. Stanford was playing possum offensively all year and a lot of people including myself fell for it. Stanford's lack of creativity and unwillingness to allow Kevin Hogan to use his legs has been maddening but it's clear now that David Shaw and Mike Bloomgren were saving all the good stuff for last night's game. In addition to Stanford's power with eight and sometimes nine offensive linemen on the field, we also saw effective zone reads, options, counter draws, and creative screen passes among other effective play calls.

To add on to my second point, Stanford had all this stuff ready and waiting in its play book all year but chose to wait it out until the Oregon game. It's funny because this strategy both worked beautifully and failed disastrously. Stanford sprung a great offensive game plan on Oregon and churned out first down after first down with ease and won the biggest game of the year. It also failed because the Utah game happened when Stanford flailed around aimlessly with a vanilla offense for three quarters and lost to an inferior opponent. Was it worth it? Sure, Stanford beat the Ducks and now control their own destiny to win the Pac-12 but if they had not had such a singular focus on beating Oregon, they would have beaten Utah and could be controlling their destiny for a national title.

4. Oregon is still a great team, is not soft and easily pushed around, and has a body of work that outweighs one bad performance. This comes up every time Oregon loses and it is so frustrating to hear but if Oregon were so soft and easy to manhandle then why do they beat everyone else by historic margins? If Stanford exposed the Ducks and gave a blue print to easily beat them then why does Oregon beat every other team they face by five touchdowns? Oregon is still one of the top five or six teams in college football and while Stanford has certainly shown a blueprint for stopping the Ducks, exactly how many teams in college football are properly equipped on both offense and defense to pull it off? The list ends after about three teams with Alabama and Florida State joining Stanford. Oregon can and will beat anyone else by three touchdowns or more.

This is still a great team and they will run the table and compete in a high profile bowl game with an 11-1 record. People laughed and said Oregon's house of cards had fallen after losing to Stanford last year but what happened after that? Oregon pummeled a ranked Oregon State team on the road 48-24 the next week and then beat a top five ranked Kansas State team by 18 points in the Fiesta Bowl despite hardly looking interested in being there. I'm sure voters and pundits will overreact and try to build a case for Oregon falling out of the top 10 but if you would honestly take Missouri, Clemson, Miami, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, etc. over Oregon on a neutral field then you are plain and simply a dumb ass and deserve to lose all your money.

5. This suddenly dawned on me late in the 3rd quarter last night, but instead of looking forward to contending for titles for the next however many years, Oregon as it is currently constructed may have missed its window to win a national championship. Stanford always had the right idea on how to stop Oregon but up until last season they never had the right athletes to execute that vision. Nothing has changed in Stanford's scheme and mentality towards Oregon in between 2010 and last night but Stanford's caliber of athletes certainly has. Oregon had a brief shot in 2010 and 2011 while Stanford was recruiting and developing those athletes to run almost uncontested toward a national title shot. They got to the title game after the 2011 season and blew it thanks to a terrible offensive game plan from then head coach Chip Kelly and a few really dumb uncharacteristic mistakes. Then in 2011, Oregon scheduled its way out of a title shot by cancelling a series with Kansas State to take on LSU in Arlington, Texas with three new starters on both lines in a game they never had a shot in.

The question is, can Oregon reverse what Stanford has done, perhaps sacrifice a few match ups in its other games and build a team specifically designed to beat the Cardinal? I don't know exactly how it can be done because if I did I would be working a far more lucrative job than the one I have right now. But just consider this, in 2010 and 2011 Oregon was the only team to beat Stanford in the regular season and therefore became the only road block between Stanford and a national title bid two years in a row. In 2012 and 2013, that has flipped and become the exact opposite. Every team has weaknesses and as Stanford proved, a program can be reshaped and modified to contend with a certain team without sacrificing the overall vision of the program. In the next two years, we will find out exactly what Mark Helfrich is made of, not as a coach but as the molder of a program. Can Helfrich figure out a way to get stronger and more physical, particularly along the lines, without sacrificing Oregon's trademark speed and tempo?

But, even if my intuition is right and Oregon's window closed after 2011, the landscape in college football is changing drastically next year. Under the current system, it is almost impossible to qualify for the national championship with one loss from outside the SEC. Getting back into the top two with one loss is darn near impossible for a Pac-12 team like Oregon or Stanford for that matter in today's climate. But with college football adopting a four team playoff, suddenly running the table is less of a necessity. Remember that Oregon face planted against Stanford last year and still ended up fourth in the final BCS rankings which would have given them a chance at the national title under next year's system. Don't forget that Stanford got blown out by Oregon in 2010 and worked their way back up to fourth at the end of the season and would have had a chance at a title shot under the future system.

6. For the love of God, will some program outside the Pac-12 please hire Derek Mason as a head coach? This is actually something Oregon fans can take comfort in for the future. There is a good chance that Stanford may never be this dominant again defensively. Obviously it depends on whether Mason wants to be a head coach right now or wants to sit and wait for the perfect job but he will get offers this off season and could be gone. Stanford is going to lose the heart beat of its defense this off season when their three best defenders Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, and Gardner all graduate. They will also lose their superb defensive tackle Josh Mauro to graduation and stand to lose any number of Ed Reynolds, Henry Anderson, A.J. Tarpley, and James Vaughters to early entry into the NFL Draft. It's easy to forget that despite Stanford's current run of success being sustained over the last five years, they've only been on a high level defensively for the last two. If they lose Mason and all that talent, Stanford might be in for a massive regression. Stanford has recruited at a high level and has replacements ready to go but they have not yet had a chance to prove themselves to be a "plug and play" program that can lose any number of good players, no matter how good they are, and replace them with ease.

7. Stanford was simply a better football team last night. This isn't a case like last year when Oregon could explain the night away about lack of focus and being blindsided by a team they weren't ready for. The Ducks were ready for this one but got out-manned by a superior football team. You can play the what if game for Oregon about getting just a few bounces to go their way and I'll entertain that for a moment. Yes Oregon scores a touchdown on its first drive if Marcus Mariota could lay the ball out one yard further to Josh Huff and yes getting zero points on three positions inside the Stanford 30 yard line is incredibly rare but you can play that game with Stanford too. What if the Cardinal hadn't settled for five field goal attempts? This game could have been an epic blowout.

In the end, both teams and its fans will look back on this season partly with joy and good memories but a lot of melancholy and doubts about what could have been. Stanford will probably be 12-1 and playing in the Rose Bowl and Oregon will likely be 11-1 and off to either the Sugar Bowl or Orange Bowl. I don't care if you think it's "National Championship or Bust," a one loss season ending in a BCS bowl berth is a successful season by any standard. But both teams will have to wonder regretfully about what could have been.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The 2013 Pac-12 Journey Game 71: The Game of the Year(s)

What teams are playing?

The Oregon Ducks and the Stanford Cardinal

Where is this game being played?

Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California

What time does the game start and where can I find it on my television?

6:00 PM (PT) on ESPN.

What is the point spread?

Oregon is favored by 10 points (-10). The line opened at -7.

What should I watch for when Oregon has the ball?

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

A lot of hoopla has come from De'Anthony Thomas promising that the Ducks should score at least 40 points on Stanford's immovable defense but far more attention should be paid to his right ankle and the role he will play in this game. Thomas returned from his ankle injury against UCLA following a four game absence but had a mostly down performance with only 31 yards on 10 carries. He then asked out of the game after halftime because his ankle didn't feel right. The Ducks did not miss him at all though as Byron Marshall (averaging 6.76 yards per carry, the most among Pac-12 runners with at least 60 carries) produced his fifth straight game of at least 100 rushing yards and scored multiple touchdowns for the fourth time in the past five games (the stretch of time Thomas missed). Marshall has been better as a feature tailback than Thomas was not to mention the emergence of true freshman Thomas Tyner who has accounted for 6.43 yards per carry for the season.

Duck fans have clamored for Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost to copy the Ducks' 2011 offense that had LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner controlling the offense as feature backs with a younger Thomas as an accessory play maker at both running back and slot receiver. Will Helfrich lean on Marshall with Thomas healthy? Or will he go back to his original game plan with Thomas as a feature back? Will it even matter considering what just happened to Stanford's defense?

Stanford's task of shutting down the high flying Ducks for a second year in a row took what could be a fatal hit last week when senior All-American defensive lineman Ben Gardner tore a pectoral muscle and was pronounced out for the year. 2012 second team All-Pac-12 selection Henry Anderson will make his season debut in an attempt to replace Gardner but there is absolutely no guarantee that Anderson is either a) actually healthy or b) not prone to re-aggravating his injury in the first quarter. Even if Anderson is 100% and a full go for tonight, there is absolutely no depth behind him. Oregon will of course go up tempo like they always do and force Stanford to substitute and that could create irreparable problems for the Stanford defense.

Despite how great Gardner was, the Cardinal still have loads of talent at other levels of its defense. Outside linebacker Trent Murphy might be the best defensive player in the Pac-12 and his partner at the other OLB spot James Vaughters is a star in his own right. Ed Reynolds hasn't had the same production that he had last year but is still the most talented safety in the nation. The Cardinal are violently physical, smart, and athletic and that makes them capable of shutting down anyone. But, these Ducks aren't just anyone.

Oregon has gotten a lot better on offense since last year and yes, that is possible. The Ducks possess the single best player in all of college football in QB Marcus Mariota. The Ducks have become more physical and versatile at the running back position with the emergence of Marshall and Tyner, they have their best tandem of wide receivers since 2001 with Josh Huff and Bralon Addison, and a veteran offensive line that has learned a lot and gotten much better since being eaten up by the Cardinal last year. In terms of units, as in one offense versus one defense, this may be the best match up a college football fan could dream up other than perhaps Oregon or Baylor facing Alabama. It's ironic though, that this game will probably come down to the other offense versus defense match up.

What should I watch for when Stanford has the ball?

All the hype surrounding this game has been paid to deciphering Oregon's offense against Stanford's defense and to a degree that is rightfully so. However, the most important question to be asked about this game has nothing to do with either of those units. The most important question in this particular game is, "Where are Stanford's points going to come from?" This game has been circled since it was announced back in July but Stanford may have lost its shot in this one back in January when then offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton left his post to accept the OC gig with the Indianapolis Colts. New offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren and head coach David Shaw (a former OC in his own right) have left a lot to be desired in picking up Hamilton's slack.

The problem isn't so much that Stanford is boring and conservative as many fans lament but it has more to do with the Cardinal being incredibly predictable. A formation with eight or sometimes nine offensive linemen sounds cool in theory but it doesn't work in practice because there is no threat of a pass at all. The one inherit advantage that offenses have over defenses is the ability to dictate the play. They know what is being run and the defense doesn't and sometimes a defense can be exploited because they are left guessing and play a base defense against a particular offensive play and/or formation that is designed to exploit them. Not only do opposing defenses know that Stanford is going to run the ball but they also know where the run is going.

Stanford has not threatened the edges with the run this season and has been woefully uncreative with its play calling. The Cardinal have a great tailback in Tyler Gaffney and a gifted running quarterback with Kevin Hogan but both are running plays that aren't suited to their abilities. Hogan in particular has been hampered this year without Hamilton. Last year, Hamilton got creative with Hogan by allowing him to use his best asset, his legs, to his advantage. Stanford's bread and butter was still the inside running game but Hamilton mixed it up with outside runs, read options, creative multiple option screens, speed options, and designed roll outs with multiple run/pass options. All of that creativity has been starkly missing this year as Bloomgren and Shaw have inexplicably tried to force Hogan into the box of a conventional QB like his predecessor Andrew Luck. Unfortunately for Hogan, it's a box he is simply not built to succeed in.

Making matters much worse for Hogan is the infirmary report both for his Cardinal and the opposing Ducks. Hogan's second best receiver Devin Cajuste will miss a second straight game with a knee injury leaving him with Ty Montgomery and little else to throw to. The Ducks possess perhaps the most talented secondary in all of college football lead by the nation's best corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Ekpre-Olomu is more than capable of holding Montgomery down so if Ekpre-Olomu plays the way he normally does and puts a blanket on Montgomery, where else will Hogan find completions? You might remember last year that Oregon was really banged up on defense late in the season. All-American pass rusher Dion Jordan was out with a shoulder injury, Arik Armstead and premier linebacker Kiko Alonso both had a huge cast on one hand, true freshman Alex Balducci's redshirt was burned to cover for ailing nose tackles Wade Keli'ikipi and Ricky Heimuli, and steady safety Avery Patterson, the quarterback of the defense, blew out his knee the week before the Stanford game. It's all hands on deck for the Ducks defense this year as no significant defensive players are out and none have been playing with noticeable pain in recent weeks.

Which team should I bet on and which team will win?

To answer the most important question of where will Stanford's points come from? They won't. The Ducks played their best defensive ball of the season last time out against UCLA and should eat up a predictable Stanford offense with an average passer at QB and a depleted receiver core. The Ducks will make good on Thomas' promise of 40 points as well as Mariota makes a bold Heisman statement and the Ducks' receivers and offensive linemen play at a much higher level than last year. Oregon has not lost consecutive games to the same opponent or lost a true road game since 2009. That means that literally not a single player on Oregon's roster knows what it's like to lose twice to the same team or lose a road game. Athletes in Space would feel comfortable laying the points even if the line were a full touchdown higher and thus expects the game of the year to fall into a blowout. The Ducks take this one big, 42-17.