Saturday, 28 September 2013

The Saturday Slate Week 5: Arizona finally plays someone, USC and ASU meet at a crossroads, and Oregon and Cal want to break the scoreboard

The insufferable week four schedule is finally buried behind us and with that comes a loaded week five setup. There are plenty of intriguing games taking place all over the nation but especially out on the west coast. The Pac-12 season gets started in earnest as for the first time since last November, every game involving a Pac-12 team today will be a conference game. I've been saying for awhile that although there are clearly higher and lower tiers in the Pac-12, there are no truly terrible teams in the conference. Thanks to that great depth it's almost impossible to have a boring match up in the Pac-12 and true to form, week five delivers five very interesting games. We have a big college football feast ahead of us, so lets dig in.

All times are Pacific

Bye Weeks: UCLA and Utah

Two teams are sitting out the fun and festivities of the first full week of Pac-12 play and not coincidentally they will play each other next week. Both the Bruins and the Utes have the week off as they prepare to kickoff the week six schedule next Thursday in Salt Lake City. The bye might be coming at a perfect time for Utah as the Utes are no doubt bruised and battered following a very physical game against Brigham Young last week. Meanwhile, UCLA has caught a terrible stroke of bad luck on its schedule as it get its second of two bye weeks just five weeks into the season. The first bye was set up nicely as the Bruins had two weeks to prepare to face Nebraska on the road with a 9:00 AM start time. This one is less fortuitous as UCLA is coming off a breezy win over new Mexico State and was well rested anyway.

Colorado at Oregon State (-11.5), 12:00 PM on Pac-12 Network

Most people will probably be spending the noon time slot watching LSU-Georgia and/or Oklahoma-Notre Dame and since you are probably like most people, you likely won't see too much of this game. I won't blame you for watching those two games with huge national title implications but during commercials, feel free to flip over to the Pac-12 Network and get drunk on receiving yards.

The marque for this game is not hard to create as the nation's top two receivers in terms of receptions, yards, and touchdowns per game go head to head with Oregon State's Brandin Cooks and Colorado's Paul Richardson. Making matters even more explosive for those star receivers are the presense of two very good quarterbacks and two less than stellar defenses. Oregon State's Sean Mannion is the national leader in just about every relevant passing category while Colorado's Connor Wood is quietly sixth in the nation in total offense per game.

As for the defenses, the reason why I think both will get shredded is different for each team. The Beavers have been atrocious on defense this season. They were ripped up and down the field by Eastern Washington and Utah surrendering 1174 yards and 97 points in those two games. Hawaii and San Diego State will likely be among the 10 worst offenses in college football at the end of the year but the Beavers struggled against those two teams as well. Parts of the box scores from those two games pass the smell test but the eye test sure didn't as the Beavers couldn't tackle to save their lives. Colorado on the other hand has actually put up solid numbers defensively so far this year. The Buffs are allowing 317.5 yards per game which puts them 29th in the nation, ahead of Oregon, Stanford, and UCLA.

So why shouldn't you be impressed by Colorado's defense? Well it's based on a ridiculously small sample size of only two games and those performances were against middling Colorado State and FCS program Central Arkansas. Secondly, although this team looks a heck of lot better (dare I say competent) this is still basically the same cast of characters who ranked 121st in the nation in total defense last year. The players on the Buffs' defense may be better coached and more fundamentally sound but after just one recruiting class there is no way they have the talent or depth to slow down an elite offense.

Colorado could be rusty seeing the field for the first time in three weeks but that might work both for and against them. Colorado's offense will probably suffer early because their timing and rhythm will probably be off. However, three weeks to rest and game plan should help the defense get some early stops. I expect to see a very fun shootout and one the Beavers should win and more accurately need to win. OSU is the better team and they should come out on top but 11.5 points is too much for a bad defense against an explosive passing attack. I am going to take the points but pick the Beavers to win 45-38.

Arizona at #16 Washington (-9.5), 4:00 PM on Fox

If Colorado-Oregon State is all about two superstar receivers, then this game is built around arguably the two best tailbacks in college football. Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey was the leading rusher in the nation last year at 148.4 yards per game and has actually increased that number to 149.5 this year. Washington's Bishop Sankey meanwhile was 19th in the nation in rushing yards last year but finds himself second in the nation at 148.7 this year. Most eyes will be fixed on the tailbacks but unfortunately for Arizona, there's a lot more to this game than talent in the backfield.

Washington seems to have finally turned the corner from perennial seven win program to potential top 10 team as the Huskies have dominated in all three of their games this year including big wins over Boise State and Illinois. The Huskies are moving the ball with ease both by land and by air and doing it at an exceptionally fast tempo while their defense has put the clamps on a pair of highly productive offenses. Arizona has also looked very good but it's almost impossible to draw any conclusions about the Wildcats. Arizona has faced one of the easiest schedules in the country so far and has looked solid and put up good numbers. Through four weeks of college football, Arizona matches the statistical profile of a top 10 team by almost any computer metric. The Wildcats might be that good but, it's more likely that they aren't.

Arizona's defensive numbers have gotten a lot better and unlike Colorado, I think Arizona's defense is legitimately decent now. Arizona surrendered more yards than all but three teams in college football last year and although like Colorado, Arizona is still using largely the same players who struggled last year I think there is greater reason for optimism. For one, Arizona is unquestionably deeper and more talented than Colorado especially in the secondary. More importantly, last year's struggles were primarily due to transitioning from Mike Stoops' 4-3 system to Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 alignment. The Wildcats' are still woefully undersized and have struggled to rush the passer even against bad offensive lines. However, most of Arizona's breakdowns defensively came from poor alignments, communication breakdowns, and abysmal tackling. The jury is still out on the tackling aspect but the Wildcats' mental problems have all but disappeared as you would expect in year two under Casteel.

Can Arizona's improved defense handle Washington? It would be surprising if they did. The only way to knock Washington QB Keith Price off his game is to pressure him and I don't see how Arizona can do that effectively. As mentioned before, the Wildcats' front struggles to penetrate and that likely won't improve on the road where they won't have their crowd discombobulating the offensive line's communication. I like the Wildcats' overall speed and play making ability on defense but I think Washington will be able to get physical with them on the ground and Price will be able to pick the Cats apart after standing clean in the pocket all night.

Arizona's problems extend to the offense where they will labor to get big plays. Carey will get his but he won't run for eight yards a pop either. That leaves B.J. Denker to throw the ball and and convert on third down which he hasn't been able to do this year. Denker has a pop gun arm and the Wildcats' wide receivers are middling at best. Because of that, Washington will be able to load up the box on Carey and force Denker to beat them, something he will struggle to do.

Rich Rodriguez is an offensive genius and I bet he can script the first part of the game well enough to score some points early despite the faulty parts in his offense. By the end of the night I think Justin Wilcox's defense will be able to adjust and dictate the game while Washington's offense remains balanced and explosive. I will pick Washington to win and cover 42-28.

#5 Stanford (-9.5) at Washington State (in Seattle), 7:00 PM on ESPN

Raise your hand if you thought this game would be for first place in the Pac-12 North back in the summer. If you put your hand up, you're a liar. Stanford has been as advertised this year bashing teams with its power run game and physical defense and riding home to three easy wins. Washington State's season is a little harder to explain. Washington State was supposed to turn into an offensive power under noted Air Raid guru Mike Leach but so far this year the Cougars have developed one of the nation's best defenses. The Cougars are allowing only 12 points per game and rank second in the nation in pass defense and have not allowed a passing touchdown. The Cougars have used lights out defense and just enough offense to jump out to a 3-1 record and would be undefeated if not for a couple bad decisions by QB Connor Halliday in the opener against Auburn.

The Cougars recovered from that disheartening loss to Auburn by winning three in a row for the first time since 2006. Starting 3-1 isn't quite as rare seeing as Wazzou was 3-1 in 2011 but proceeded to lose seven of its next eight games to finish 4-8. But, don't use that 2011 season as a barometer for the Cougars' destiny in 2013. A lot of people keep expecting the Cougars to regress and turn back into a struggling defense but I actually think the Cougars' performance is sustainable over the course of the season. Their interception rate will probably fall off at some point but the Cougars have built a very stout and physical defensive line led by emerging stars like like Ioane Guata, Kalafitoni Pole, and Xavier Cooper. I have questions about Wazzou's linebackers, particularly in the middle, but that is mitigated by having physical and aggressive defensive backs like Deone Bucannon and Damante Horton in the back end.

There is a strong case to make for Washington State having a shot in this game. Stanford is in a weird place in its schedule having won a big game over Arizona State last week but having a huge game versus Washington next Saturday. The combination of a letdown from the ASU game and a look ahead to UW could lead to a lack of focus and mistakes for the Cardinal. Also, Stanford is playing without All-American left guard David Yankey who has temporarily left the team due to a family matter. Yankey's absence is particularly bad news against the Cougars whose best asset is their interior defensive line led by Guata and Pole. Stanford could struggle to run the ball and that could lead to Kevin Hogan having problems. Hogan is at his best on play action but he has been erratic at times as a drop back passer. If Stanford gets stuck in 3rd and long all night, Hogan could get caught throwing some wayward passes to Wazzou's ball hawks.

I can see this game unfolding many different ways but they all result in Stanford winning and that is because of the match up between Stanford's defense and Wazzou's offense. Stanford should be able to overwhelm Wazzou's offensive line and that is going to put Connor Halliday in positions to make some disastrous mistakes. Halliday has already thrown 11 interceptions in four games and almost all of them have been his fault. His long throwing motion and poor footwork tends to telegraph passes and cause balls to sail on him leading to inaccurate throws and easy interceptions. Halliday has had problems finding his mark with a good pocket around him, what's going to happen when he's throwing with traffic in his face? If I were a betting man I would take the under in this game but I think Stanford can hold Wazzou under more than Wazzou can hold down Stanford. Stanford won't look pretty and they'll be happy when the game is over but I expect them to ultimately ride points off turnovers to a 27-17 victory that barely covers the spread.

USC at Arizona State (-4), 7:30 PM on ESPN2

It's hard to over sell just how important this game is for the Trojans and Sun Devils. Both teams still have aspirations of winning the Pac-12 South but are currently 0-1 in conference and had major flaws exposed in their respective Pac-12 openers. USC was wholly inept at quarterback against Washington State while Arizona State was pushed around on both lines by Stanford. So which team's warts will show up tonight? Truthfully this game might come down to which offensive line can block.

USC wants this game to be ugly and low scoring. The Trojans have one of the best defenses in the nation led by arguably the most talented defensive line in college football that loves to wreak havoc in the backfield. The Trojans dominance up front has led to 38 tackles for loss (most in college football entering the week) and 16 sacks (second nationally) in only four games. Arizona State wants a high scoring game where they can run upwards of 90 plays and put together long, sustained drives and balanced play calling. But, consistently productive offense might be an arduous task based on what we saw from ASU last week. Facing a similarly physical and athletic 3-4 defense, the Sun Devils wilted up front against Stanford and could not run the ball or give Taylor Kelly time and space to throw.

It might behoove ASU to search out a close, low scoring game where they can get a few opportunistic scores and wait for USC's offense to implode. The Trojans have been disastrous offensively this year particularly in the passing game where Cody Kessler has been erratic and the offensive line has been miserable. ASU didn't get much of a chance to show their athletic pass rushing ability against Wisconsin and Stanford's great lines but ASU monsters like Will Sutton and Carl Bradford should be awoken for this game. Both teams bare a lot of similarities with struggling offensive lines, athletic defensive fronts, talented wide receivers who struggle with drops, and skilled secondaries. The difference is at quarterback where ASU's Kelly is good enough to rise above pressure and make accurate throws if not good decisions. USC's Kessler has been terrible under pressure and has been wildly inaccurate even when he has had time to stand in the pocket.

In the end, USC might be bailed out by an ASU injury. The Sun Devils will be without their best run stopper in DT Jaxon Hood and that just might be enough for USC's leaky O-line to open up some holes and run the ball all night. I have no doubt USC will run the ball any time they can and they just might find yards but at some point this game is going to fall on Kessler and the Trojans' pass protection and that's where things could all fall apart for USC. As great as USC has been defensively, they still haven't faced a good up tempo offense that can test their depth. The Sun Devils will run a lot of plays and force USC to substitute and that will lead to a few good drives. Eventually, USC will have to throw the ball to keep up and I don't know how they are going to do it. I'm going to hedge a little bit and take USC to keep this one close but I like ASU to ride their defensive line and enough big plays on offense to a big win at home 24-21.

California at #2 Oregon (-37), 7:30 PM on Pac-12 Network

The Bears and Ducks return from their bye weeks and will try to run as many plays as possible under the lights (and the rain) at Autzen Stadium. Oregon will try to keep humming along on offense and they probably won't find much resistance from Cal's atrocious defense. The Bears have been utterly helpless on defense in three games this year and facing the number two scoring offense in college football is hardly a good remedy for fixing your problems. I don't need to tell you much about the match up of Oregon's offense versus Cal's defense. Oregon will move the ball with the run game and pass game and generate big plays with multiple elite athletes. Good defenses can't stop the Ducks, bad defenses like Cal don't stand a chance.

The competition here is the point spread and it's a big one. Considering how good Cal has been on offense I did not think the Bears would ever be more than a 28 point underdog but the book makers in Vegas might be seeing some parallels between this game and last year's Arizona-Oregon game. In 2012, Arizona was in its first year under noted offensive mastermind Rich Rodriguez and was putting up huge numbers heading into a match up at Oregon that served as the Pac-12 opener for both teams. Most people expected a high scoring game but the Ducks smothered Arizona's spread attack and held the Wildcats to 0/6 on red zone opportunities and won 49-0.

Now Cal is coming in for the Ducks Pac-12 opener at Autzen Stadium with a new offensive genius in Sonny Dykes and a ridiculously productive offense. I think drawing connections from that Arizona game last year and this game is a little lazy. The obvious thought is that Oregon will be ready for Cal's tempo and spread formations and shut them down because they see the same stuff in practice every day. While that is true, the Bear Raid is an entirely different animal compared to Oregon's offense or Arizona's for that matter. Oregon will score at will and think Cal will find some answers but not enough to keep this one close. Ultimately though, 37 points is way too much against a premier offense like Cal even for a great team like Oregon. I'll take the Bears to cover but the Ducks to win 56-31.

Last Week Against the Spread: 6-1

Last Week Straight Up: 7-0

This Season Against the Spread: 24-12

This Season Straight up: 31-5

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