USC Trojans: LaMichael James
Is Oregon-USC about a passing of the guard?
The one absolute history teaches us is there will be change. Nothing lasts forever. Empires fall. In ancient times, no one could conceive a world without Roman domination. Look at Italy now.
USC has 11 national championships. Oregon has none. And it wasn't too long ago that USC under Pete Carroll made a dynastic run that terrorized college football. From 2002 to 2008, USC was college football's pre-eminent power, the lone program that made the SEC quake in fear.
But there is a distinct sense that Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks are headed to the Coliseum on Saturday to grab the Pac-12 sword from Tommy Trojan and take it back to Eugene.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. In the preseason, the overwhelming consensus was USC was ready to reclaim its place atop college football. The Trojans, emerging from a two-year postseason ban courtesy of the NCAA, welcomed back 19 starters from a team that went 10-2 and won at Oregon. They looked like a potentially all-time great team on offense, with a talented defense playing a strong supporting role.
Meanwhile, Oregon was replacing six offensive starters, including a two-year starter at quarterback in Darron Thomas and its all-time leading rusher, LaMichael James. The defense looked stout, but there were plenty of questions. It seemed premature, despite three consecutive Pac-12 titles, to call the Ducks a "reload, not rebuild" outfit.
Oregon has been a well-oiled machine. It has rolled over everyone like an army of steamrollers and sat its starters for large portions of the second half. Sure, the schedule hasn't featured any A-list foes. But Arizona, Arizona State and Washington are a combined 14-10 with wins over Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon State and USC, and the Ducks beat them by a combined count of 144-42.
USC has flashed brilliance at times on both sides of the ball this season, but that only serves to provide a stark contrast for the moments of inexplicable mediocrity and sloppiness. The Trojans are 120th -- last! -- in the nation in penalties and penalty yards per game. And last by a fairly wide margin.
Quarterback Matt Barkley has thrown eight interceptions. He threw seven all of last year.
And to cut to the chase, USC already has two losses, to Stanford and Arizona, that have thrown a blanket of "Neh" over what was supposed to be not only the Pac-12 game of the year, but also perhaps the national game of the year.
So it's fair to ask what it might mean -- big picture -- if Oregon prevails and then goes on to win a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title: Are the Ducks poised to displace USC atop the conference for the long term?
USC fans would rightly counter, "Well, how about the Ducks win a national title first?" That's fair.
Oregon fans probably would admit there's a reasonable -- and nagging -- qualifier here also: "As long as coach Chip Kelly stays in Eugene."
While Oregon probably wouldn't tumble into mediocrity if Kelly bolted for the NFL -- the program is too rich and too Nike'd -- this run of dominance feels like its foundation is built on Kelly's cult of "Win the Day" personality.
But the Pac-12 blog, just like Kelly quashing an interesting question, won't deal in hypotheticals.
So then, if the Ducks roll over the Trojans on Saturday by multiple touchdowns -- an unthinkable idea in the preseason -- and go on to win a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title, that feels like it could be a resonating statement.
Further, USC has two more years of scholarship sanctions. It can sign no more than 15 players for the next two recruiting classes (though there's some backwards-looking wiggle room coach Lane Kiffin has skillfully exploited) and can't exceed more than 75 players on scholarship, instead of the standard 85. All along, the point has been repeatedly made that USC will be most taxed by sanctions over the next two to three years.
Meanwhile, a glance at Oregon's roster, led by redshirt freshman QB Marcus Mariota, and sophomore fancypants De'Anthony Thomas, suggests the Ducks aren't going anywhere. This is almost certainly a preseason top-five team in 2013.
It seems like a potential old-school to new-school transition is at hand. From a program with iconic uniforms and pageantry that is immediately recognizable to college football fans across the country, to a program that changes uniforms every week and isn't afraid to wear lime-green socks.
Of course, the reality is USC won't go easily into the night. It has too much tradition. And let's not forget this: Location, location, location. USC's presence in Southern California's recruiting hotbed means the potential for program greatness is built-in.
And maybe USC pulls the shocker on Saturday and gets to smirk back at all the doubters.
Yet if Oregon takes care of business as most now expect, something might very well change. When someone asks, "Tell me about the Pac-12?" The new response will be, "Well, of course, there's Oregon first. You know about them, right?"
Most of this looks back but, of course, there also is a good dose of projecting forward. A lot of good players, as it happens every year, won't make the preseason list. It is in their hands to make the postseason list.
You can review our 2011 postseason Top 25 here.
No. 22 Curtis McNeal, RB, USC
2011 numbers: Rushed for 1,005 yards and six touchdowns on 145 carries -- boasting an outstanding 6.9 yards per carry. He also caught three balls for 19 yards.
2011 postseason ranking: Unranked.
Making the case for McNeal: Yes, Ted and I formulated this list (after reading tea leaves and backpacking through Greece on our way to consult with the Oracle at Delphi) before Silas Redd decided to join USC. And no, Redd's presence doesn't take away from McNeal being on this list. After being academically ineligible in 2010, McNeal worked his way back on to the team and eventually was starting at the end of last season. There's something to be said for a guy who has everything taken away and then works his tail off to get it back. He didn't buckle -- he buckled down -- and became one of seven Pac-12 running backs to clear 1,000 yards. McNeal is a worker. And his 6.9 yards per carry, second only to LaMichael James' 7.3 yards per last season, is evidence of his talents and explosiveness. Naturally, Redd's presence will take some carries away from McNeal. And he might even be relegated to "change-of-pace" back. But Redd still has to prove himself to his teammates. McNeal has nothing to prove in USC's locker room. Whether it's McNeal or Redd who gets the majority of the carries, neither will be facing eight-man fronts because of who the Trojans have at quarterback and the wide receiver positions. And with four starters returning to the offensive line, McNeal is a good bet to break 1,000 yards again -- especially since he'll have a 13th and possibly 14th game to do it.
No. 23: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 24: Isi Sofele, RB, California
No. 25: Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State
As part of “College Football Live’s” 100 Days Till Kickoff countdown, here’s a look at the top 10 players in the Pac-12.
This list, by the way, may or may not match the Pac-12 blog's preseason top 25, which will be posted later in the summer.
1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC: Best QB in the nation. Would have been a top-10 pick in this past NFL draft. Could go No. 1 overall in 2013. He completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,528 yards, with 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2011.
2. De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon: Thomas is one of the nation's most explosive players and a leading Heisman Trophy candidate. He rushed for 595 yards and seven TDs in 2011, averaging 10.8 yards per carry. He caught 46 passes for 605 yards and nine TDs. He averaged 27.3 yards per kick return with two TDs.
3. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah: Lotulelei may be the nation's best defensive tackle. He likely will be an early first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. The Morris Trophy winner as the Pac-12's best D-lineman, he had 44 total tackles, with nine coming for a loss. He had 1.5 sacks, a pass break-up, forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
4. Robert Woods, WR, USC: Woods, first-team All-Pac-12 in 2011, earned first-team All-American honors from the AP, The Sporting News and was second-team with Walter Camp. He caught 111 passes for 1,292 yards with 15 TDs in 2011.
5. Marqise Lee, WR, USC: Lee might share All-American honors with Woods this season. He stepped up late in 2011 when Woods was hurt, catching seven of his 11 TD passes over the final five games and hauling in 21 passes for 411 yards in the final two -- wins over Oregon and UCLA. For the season, he caught 73 passes for 1,143 yards with 11 touchdowns. He also averaged 28.5 yards on 10 kickoff returns, with an 88-yard TD.
6. Keith Price, QB, Washington: As a first-year, sophomore starter, Price passed for 3,063 yards with 33 touchdown passes, with those numbers ranking second and first all-time for the Huskies. His 66.9 completion percentage and 161.09 passing efficiency rating were both school records.
7. Chase Thomas, OLB, Stanford: Thomas was first-team All-Pac-12 and an All-American for The Sporting News in 2011. He had 52 total tackles and led the Pac-12 with 17.5 tackles for a loss, three more than anyone else. He was also second in the conference with 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles.
8. Keenan Allen, WR, California: Allen earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after ranking second in the Pac-12 in receiving yards. His 103.3 receiving yards per game ranked 10th in the nation and third in the conference. He caught 98 passes for 1,343 yards with six touchdowns and averaged 13.7 yards per reception in 2011.
9. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State: Wilson earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2011 and is an All-American candidate in 2012. He ranked first in the Pac-12 and sixth in the nation with 115.7 yards receiving per game. His 12 touchdown receptions ranked second in the conference. His 16.9 yards per catch ranked third. He caught 82 passes for 1,388 yards with 12 touchdowns.
10. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon: Barner was the nation's best backup running back in 2011 behind LaMichael James. He ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in rushing at 78.2 yards per game. He rushed for 939 yards and 11 TDs in 2011 and caught 17 passes with three other TDs. He has rushed for 1,856 yards and 20 TDs in his career.
Next year? Not so certain.
Of course, if USC quarterback Matt Barkley opts to return for his senior year, he'll instantly become the favorite. But who's betting he'll return? James also could return, but that seems unlikely. The same could be said for Washington running back Chris Polk.
USC receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee? Washington quarterback Keith Price? Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler? Cal wide receiver Keenan Allen? Washington State wide receiver Marquess Wilson? Utah running back John White?
My take: Woods and Oregon's multipurpose threat De'Anthony Thomas are the Pac-12's top candidates, as of today.
But this uncertainty is not just a Pac-12 thing. As the venerable Heisman Pundit points out, it should be a wide open race nationally. It's quite possible that the preseason list of Heisman candidates won't include the eventual winner (and, really, who had Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III in their Heisman pool in August?).
The race for the 2012 Heisman appears to be wide open, especially assuming you can cross the following names off this year’s top 10 in the voting list due to either early entry into the NFL draft or expiration of eligibility:
1. Robert Griffin III
2. Andrew Luck
3. Trent Richardson
4. Montee Ball
5. Tyrann Mathieu
6. Matt Barkley
7. Case Keenum
8. Kellen Moore
9. Russell Wilson
10. LaMichael James
Whereas this past season had five of the top six finishers in the Heisman race returning, it’s very likely that nine of 10 from this season will not return (something that hasn’t happened since 2005). That means the race for the 2012 Heisman is likely to be wide open, with no real front runner in place.
And HP is not a believer in Mathieu coming back and winning next fall.
He does, however, make his own list, which includes Thomas but not Woods. He also includes USC running back Curtis McNeal.
On Thomas: "An electric will o’ the wisp who can score on the ground, in the air or by returning kicks and punts. Should be the star of yet another fine Oregon team."
On McNeal: "The USC running back position is a favorite of Heisman voters. McNeal averaged 120 yards per game and nearly 7 yards per carry in his last six games, which could point to an even bigger season in 2012."
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson likely starts out the 2012 season as the favorite, which probably means he won't win -- see Luck. After that, everyone is just going to list returning offensive players who had good numbers in 2011.
Instead, he opted to return for his redshirt junior year, spent much of the season as the prohibitive Heisman favorite but finished second to Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III on Saturday.
If any of you are worried about Luck being crushed by disappointment, we'd like to reassure you that things will likely be OK for him. Something is sure to come up in terms of career options, we suspect. We hear he's got some real talent as an architect.
Matt Barkley, QB, USC: If Barkley returns for his senior year, he will be on everyone's preseason shortlist. He might even be considered the favorite. He'd have a high-profile team that should win, plenty of name recognition, and a supporting cast that could help him put up big numbers.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon: Most would project James entering the NFL draft. But perhaps this will intrigue him: If he returns for his senior year and produces a fourth consecutive 1,500-yard season, he'd become the conference's all-time leading rusher, easily breaking USC's Charles White's 6,245 mark, set from 1976-79. That also, of course, would probably get him another invitation to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
Robert Woods, WR, USC: Woods will be a consensus preseason All-American. If Barkley comes back, Woods likely would play second fiddle. But if Barkley leaves, Woods still figures to put up good numbers, even with a first-year starter at quarterback. On the downside -- which is really an upside -- fellow receiver, sophomore Marqise Lee, is also an All-American candidate.
De'Anthony Thomas, WR/RB, Oregon: Thomas was just freak-show good in so many different ways in 2011 as a true freshman that he seems almost certain to become a Heisman candidate. In fact, he might be the most likely player on this list to get invited to New York because he's definitely coming back and a lot of folks already know who he is.
Chris Polk, RB, Washington: Polk is likely off to the NFL, but if he opts to return he and quarterback Keith Price would make plenty of preseason Heisman lists. Polk should put up big numbers as a rusher but his ability as a receiver would also give him a chance to put up big numbers. The Huskies will need to take another step in terms of win-loss record, though, for his candidacy to gain any momentum.
Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State: Wilson has been highly productive for two seasons. But what if new coach Mike Leach helps him put up ludicrous numbers and the Cougars start winning? Hey, you never know.
Is QB Matt Barkley going to put on a big show in his final game at USC? Or is this not going to he Barkley's last game at USC? In any event, UCLA's only chance to win this game is if Barkley is off, which he hasn't been of late. And, if Barkley throws another four TD passes or so, does he deserve some Heisman Trophy consideration? Or at least, does he have a chance to steal All-Pac-12 first-team honors from Andrew Luck?
Does Oregon State have any chance in the Civil War? Oregon is a four-TD favorite over Oregon State. The Ducks appear headed to a third consecutive Pac-12 title and BCS bowl game, while the Beavers are headed toward a second-consecutive losing season. That combination has Oregon State fans a tad grumpy. So, can the Beavers come into Autzen Stadium and challenge the Ducks? It will take a perfect game. But Oregon State's beating Washington last weekend showed that the Beavers still have some fight and can't be completely written off.
Does Arizona State have any fight left? Speaking of teams with dubious fight, there's Arizona State. The Sun Devils collapse has been odd because their three consecutive embarrassing losses, nonetheless, haven't stopped this from being true: The Sun Devils are still in the Rose Bowl hunt. If Arizona State wins and UCLA loses and Utah wins this weekend, the Sun Devils win the South Division and play for the Pac-12 title on Dec. 2. But after three consecutive defeats, it doesn't appear the Sun Devils care much. Maybe they will be motivated by the 50-17 humbling they suffered at Cal last season. Or maybe they'll just wake up and play up to their capabilities. Or maybe they'll just stink it up and watch coach Dennis Erickson walk away.
John White, John White, John White: At this moment, you could make an argument that Utah running back John White is the best running back in the Pac-12. Yes, better than Oregon's LaMichael James and better than Washington's Chris Polk. White leads the conference with 1,377 yards rushing and is second with 14 TDs, ahead of both James and Polk. Anyway, suffice it to say, White is really good even though the opposing defense knows White is coming because the Utes don't throw much. Colorado has the worst run defense in the conference. That's trouble. Two hundred rushing yards for White might guarantee him first-team All-Pac-12 status.
Nick Holt vs. Marshall Lobbestael: Washington's defense was supposed to be good this year. It hasn't been. Nick Holt is the Pac-12's highest paid defensive coordinator not named Monte Kiffin. Marshall Lobbestael is Washington State's No. 3 QB. He started the season as Jeff Tuel's backup, played well while Tuel was hurt, then was displaced by talented freshman Connor Halliday. But both Tuel and Halliday are hurt for the game, and the gritty Lobbestael now faces Holt's defense. Who wins?
Arizona reaction on Rodriguez week: Arizona notched a huge win over rival Arizona State last weekend. It was emotional and surely satisfying during a lost season. But now the Wildcats have to get up for another game against Louisiana-Lafayette. How will the Wildcats respond after an emotional win, playing against an opponent that won't inspire much awe, but one that is -- oh, by the way -- 8-3. Will there be any reaction to the hiring of Rich Rodriguez? The Wildcats new coach is watching, and he likely will raise an eyebrow at players who step up. And those who don't.
Utah 33, Colorado 14: The best news for the Buffaloes is a long season will be over. The best news for the Utes is they might win the South Division.
California 28, Arizona State 24: Picking California on the road seems stupid, but how can a person pick Arizona State to win at this point? I did the previous two weeks and see what happened.Yes, I am quitting the Sun Devils.
Oregon 44, Oregon State 20: The Beavers will fight, but midway through the third quarter the Ducks will assert themselves. Calling for a big afternoon from LaMichael James.
Arizona 38, Louisiana-Lafayette 28: It will be interesting to see how the Wildcats play a week after beating the hated Sun Devils and finding out that Rich Rodriguez will be their new coach. The Ragin Cajuns are good by the way, see 8-3 record.
Washington 35, Washington State 32: The Huskies advantage is QB Keith Price, but if he can't play the whole game because of a bothersome knee, the Huskies lose their advantage. Will Nick Holt's defense step up for the Huskies? And would losing to Washington be the end for Cougars coach Paul Wulff?
Stanford 35, Notre Dame 24: Andrew Luck and the Cardinal turn in a strong performance against a ranked team, finish 11-1 and await their postseason fate, which they hope will be Rosy or a Fiesta.
USC 33, UCLA 27: The stakes are huge for the Bruins and coach Rick Neuheisel: Beat their archrivals and they are South Division champions. Lose, and it's probably Neuheisel's last game. But the Trojans are playing as well as any team in the conference at present -- see their win at Oregon.
Matt Barkley. The Trojans had to hang on at the end, but the reason they had such a big cushion to withstand Oregon's assault was the terrific play from Barkley. He ended up hitting 26 of 34 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns. It was a statement win for Barkley at USC and one that cements him as one of the truly elite quarterbacks in the country.
The USC defensive line did a great job for most of the night of controlling the line of scrimmage and not allowing the Ducks offense to get on track. They tired somewhat at the end, but made enough big plays to make the difference in the game. Nick Perry had four tackles – including two for loss – and a forced fumble. George Uko was a presence all night and the freshman is to be commended. He ended the night with three tackles and a forced fumble.
Stat of the Night
Time of possession. USC held the ball for 36:27, which meant that Oregon's powerful offense only had 23:23 with the ball. That kept the Oregon off the field for much of the game and prevented it from reaching its usual production. The Ducks were held 12 points below their 47 points per game average while LaMichael James, with 74 yards, gained less than half of his 150 yards per game total coming in.
What USC learned in this game
The familiar feeling of a big-time win. This was a huge victory on the road against a team that was clicking on all cylinders and playing for a shot at the national title game. When all was said and done, the Trojans found a way to get the job done and come away with the victory.
What Oregon learned in this game
That the Trojans are back as a legitimate contender for the top of the Pac-12 mountain. Give credit to the Ducks for mounting a comeback at the end like championship teams do, but they felt the sting of a huge loss at home with so much at stake for their program.
Matt Barkley. He’s been on fire tonight (15-18 for 186 yards and three touchdowns) with the only misses coming on dropped passes or strange intentional grounding calls. He’s in complete control of the offense and the Ducks haven’t shown any ability to slow him down.
Marqise Lee. Not only did Lee grab three catches for 105 yards – including a 59-yard touchdown catch – but he also returned a kickoff to midfield, which led to the third USC score.
Hayes Pullard. The redshirt freshman leads the Trojans with 11 tackles – including nine solo – and one tackle for loss. His speed is a key example of the improved USC defense, which has held Oregon to a single touchdown.
LaMichael James fumble. George Uko reached in and caused a fumble as the Ducks were driving inside the USC 10-yard line with less than a minute to go in the half. USC recovered to preserve the 21-7 lead. Oregon coach Chip Kelly had been trying to call a timeout before the play, but his players nor the officials saw it.
Barkley's big moment? While much was made of USC quarterback Matt Barkley saying that Oregon didn't seem to be as good this season as the previous two years, a minor tweak won't decide this game. What it did do, however, is brighten the spotlight on Barkley just that much more. He's been the face of the Trojans for three years. This is likely his last college game that will attract national interest. He can secure his legacy by producing a big game on the road in the Pac-12's toughest venue. And even if that isn't enough to produce a victory, it will get the attention of NFL scouts.
Luck rises again: Not much to say here. Just expect Stanford QB Andrew Luck to turn in a tour de force performance in his final Big Game, one that gets him back to the top of Heisman Trophy lists.
Can the Cougs stop John White? Utah is fairly simple on offense: RB John White. The Utes rank last in the Pac-12 in passing and 10th in passing efficiency, while White ranks second in the conference with 119 yards rushing per game. That he averages five yards a carry despite defenses knowing he's coming is pretty darn impressive. The Cougars have been decent against the run this year, yielding 155.8 yards rushing per game. If they hold the Utes to that, they should be in pretty good shape to notch an upset.
Erickson's last stand? Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson looked like a Pac-12 coach-of-the-year candidate a few weeks ago. But after consecutive losses to UCLA and Washington State, he's back on the hot seat. Losing at home to Arizona not only would put a big dent in the Sun Devils South Division title chances, it might end Erickson's chances for survival into 2012.
Neuheisel's last stand? Each time UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel has looked dead this year, he's resurrected himself with a big win. But at some point that stops working and folks simply point at the lack of consistency as being as bad as losing. If the Bruins lose at home to 2-9 Colorado, perhaps blowing their chances to win the South Division and earn bowl eligibility, it's hard to imagine Neuheisel not getting fired, even if he pulls another rabbit out of the hat and beats USC in the season finale.
James makes Heisman statement: USC is tough against the run, ranking second in the Pac-12 in run defense, but Oregon RB LaMichael James did just fine against the conference's No. 1 rushing defense: Stanford. The Trojans are faster on defense than Stanford, but the home crowd should give James some extra juice. If he produces another 150-yard, multiple-touchdown evening, he should sew up another trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Halliday encore? What is Washington State QB Connor Halliday to do after throwing for 494 yards -- a conference freshman record -- and four touchdowns in an upset victory over Arizona State? Even the confident Halliday admitted it might be impossible to duplicate those numbers. And Utah's defense is a different animal than the Sun Devils'. The key for Halliday is to keep playing within the system and let the game come to him. Don't force throws. Don't hold the ball too long. Don't look for the bomb when the short out is open. The Utes don't have a high-scoring offense. This game doesn't figure to be a shootout. It will be about field position and not making mistakes.
Maynard needs to match up: California's formula for success during a modest two-game winning streak has been run the ball and play good defense, thereby taking pressure off struggling QB Zach Maynard. That might work against Washington State and Oregon State at home, but the Bears will be hard-pressed to make it work against Stanford on the road. Maynard will have to make plays in the passing game and he will have to avoid stupid mistakes. When he gets flustered, his accuracy goes south. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinal can fluster him.
Of course, Oregon State and California fans should be sending me cookies.
Stanford 38, USC 24: USC will hang around but eventually Stanford -- as it is wont to do -- will wear down the Trojans.
Oregon 48, Washington State 17: Ducks, with or without running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas, just have too much for the Cougars.
Arizona State 45, Colorado 10: Arizona State is getting healthy. Colorado is not. This could get ugly.
California 31, UCLA 20: Will the Bruins rally for coach Rick Neuheisel? There hasn't been any evidence they will so far. And Cal QB Zach Maynard seemed to find his rhythm last week in a win over Utah.
Utah 24, Oregon State 21: This isn't because we're using the transitive property -- Utah crushed BYU; Oregon State lost to BYU -- it's because we believe the Utes will rally at home.
Washington 42, Arizona 31: The Wildcats showed fight while beating UCLA last Thursday, but those four suspensions really hit the depth in the secondary, where the Huskies and QB Keith Price should feast.
Barkley vs. Luck: Stanford Andrew Luck is the best quarterback in college football, the Heisman Trophy favorite and is almost certain to go No. 1 overall in this spring's NFL draft. USC's Matt Barkley is pretty good, too, and could be picked in the first round. He certainly could help his stock -- and his team -- by outplaying Luck on Saturday. For USC to notch the upset, Barkley almost certainly will need to match or, more likely, exceed Luck's numbers. Last year, these two combined for six TDs and no interceptions as Stanford won 37-35 with a field goal in the waning moments.
Return of Onyeali: Arizona State appears poised to dash to the Pac-12 South Division title, and a visit from 1-7 Colorado doesn't figure to slow the Sun Devils down. But the return of defensive end Junior Onyeali from a knee injury is big news. Onyeali, the conference's defensive freshman of the year in 2010, was hurt Sept. 17 at Illinois. The Sun Devils defense has mostly played well in his absence, with Greg Smith and Davon Coleman stepping up opposite Jamaar Jarrett. But four good DEs is a good thing. A really good thing.
Maynard sharp II? California QB Zach Maynard had perhaps his best game in the Bears' 34-10 victory over Utah, passing for 255 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 36 yards and a score. He rolled out and moved around in the pocket and seemed to be sharper, more confident and, most important, more accurate with his throws. Was the win over the Utes a turning point game for him, and therefore the Bears offense? If so, the Bears should roll over UCLA, which is awful on defense.
Where's the O, Utah? Speaking of the Utah-Cal game, the Utes offense didn't show up. It turned the ball over four times -- three interceptions from QB Jon Hays -- and gained just 178 total yards, including just 13 yards rushing. It's certain that the Utes won't have a juggernaut offense anytime soon. They didn't have one approaching that even when Jordan Wynn was playing quarterback. But if the season is to be salvaged, they are going to need to figure out ways to get a few points on the board. A solid defense can keep things close, but it's hard to win if you can't score.
Price vs the Arizona secondary: Four Arizona players are suspended from Saturday's game at Washington for their role in a brawl with UCLA just before halftime last week. All four are from a secondary that has already lost two starters to injury. Cornerback Shaquille Richardson and nickelback Jourdon Grandon are suspended for the entire game; cornerback Lyle Brown and strong safety Mark Watley are suspended for the first half. While Richardson is the only starter, things are still going to be tough against a Huskies passing offense led by quarterback Keith Price and a deep crew of receivers. Price leads the Pac-12 with 22 touchdown passes and ranks sixth in the nation in passing efficiency. Even before the suspensions, the Wildcats ranked last in the conference in pass efficiency defense, with opponents completing 71 percent of their throws.
Other than Woods? Before showing balance at Notre Dame, USC's offense was all about Barkley throwing to receiver Robert Woods. Stanford's defense, which got gashed by Barkley-to-Woods last year, figures to be all over Woods with bracket coverages with safeties helping cornerbacks on just about every play. Woods still figures to have his moments. It's not like he's a secret, yet he still ranks second in the nation with 129 receiving yards per game. But the Trojans need other receivers to step up and help Barkley. Or, even better, what if the running game, which piled up 219 yards against the Fighting Irish, comes through again?
Price vs. Luck: Think back to your college football brain in August. Now look that bolded intro. Who would've thunk it, right? Well, turns out that Andrew Luck is a heck of a quarterback, but at present not only is Washington's Keith Price nipping at his heels in terms of passing efficiency, but he's also got more touchdown passes than the leading Heisman Trophy contender -- 21 vs. 18. Luck is almost certain to play well at home against a fair-to-middling Huskies defense. To lead the upset for Washington, Price will need to match -- if not exceed -- Luck's numbers.
Who starts at QB, RB for Oregon? Not much to this one: Do Darron Thomas (knee) and LaMichael James (elbow) start for the Ducks at Colorado? Or do their backups: Bryan Bennett and Kenjon Barner? This pretty much is the only expected intrigue in Boulder on Saturday.
Hays or Maynard? While there's no single reason Utah and California are both 0-3 in Pac-12 play, the biggest is inconsistent play at QB. Utes QB Jon Hays replaced injured starter Jordan Wynn for the second half against Washington and has mostly improved in two starts. Cal's Zach Maynard started the season well but has struggled since the conference slate began, bottoming out last Thursday with three interceptions against USC. With two good defenses at AT&T Park, it's unlikely either offense will be able to run the ball 40 times and win. The team that is more efficient passing the ball likely ends up smiling.
Wildcats set free? There's a feeling that Arizona's players were playing tight -- more worried more about mistakes than focused on making plays -- in recent weeks as the losses piled up and coach Mike Stoops got more frenzied on the sidelines. We'll get a better feel for that Thursday night. The Wildcats have started slowly all season. If they get off to a quick, enthusiastic start against UCLA, you'd have to think a lot of players have loosened up since Stoops was fired. That shouldn't be over-construed as an indictment of Stoops, by the way. After all that losing and a coach firing, sometimes it becomes easier to play when you have nothing to lose.
Tuel time: Washington State QB Jeff Tuel didn't pick a great team for his first start since a fractured clavicle forced him to miss the Cougars' first five games: Stanford. While Tuel had his moments, he looked a little out of sorts against an A-list defense. But after getting his game legs back, Oregon State's defense offers a much softer landing. Tuel is the Cougars unquestioned leader. This is a must-win game for the Cougs' bowl hopes and for coach Paul Wulff — and in such games, unquestioned leaders step up, lead and make plays that turn must-wins into victories.
Hogs on the Farm: While the rise of Stanford football is not unreasonably connected to Luck, more than a few folks will tell you a culture shift was more important. A program that was seen as soft, one populated by smart young men with aspirations other than pro football -- because they wanted to make more money than the NFL could pay them -- transformed into an edgy, physical and, yes, maybe slightly dirty unit that played until the very echo of the whistle. Washington coach Steve Sarkisian has been talking about the Huskies playing physical football since he was hired to take over a team that went soft under Tyrone Willingham. The Huskies have taken some big steps forward -- see the dominant victory over Nebraska in the 2010 Holiday Bowl. But they aren't there yet on either line. Or are they? We'll see Saturday in the trenches.
Prince wears the crown: Kevin Prince is (again) UCLA's quarterback. While this has many Bruins fans slapping their foreheads, Prince was a capable passer in 2009 and ran the pistol offense well in 2010. He's just never been consistent and, most important, never stayed healthy. Well, Richard Brehaut is out for the year, so the QB job is (again) Prince's. At least as long as he can stay healthy, and barring any horrible play -- see Prince against Texas -- that forces embattled coach Rick Neuheisel to turn to true freshman Brett Hundley. Yet there is a potential positive spin here. What if Prince rises to the occasion? A UCLA win at Arizona would set the Bruins up nicely for a second-half run.
Oregon State fans: Look, I know it's my fault. I am more than willing to save the season and pick against your team in every game, but can you get the word out so I don't get angry email about how I always disrespect the Beavers?
Thanks for you consideration.
Arizona 35, UCLA 30: Is this about the Wildcats playing looser now that volatile coach Mike Stoops is gone? No. Probably would have picked the same score with Stoops still madly gesticulating and grimacing on the sidelines. It's more about Wildcats QB Nick Foles being the best player on the field.
Stanford 42, Washington 24: I expect this to play to the pattern for most of Stanford's games thus far: Close at the half, then BOOM! Andrew Luck and a tough Cardinal defense assert themselves.
Notre Dame 28, USC 24: The Trojans are much better on offense, while Notre Dame is much better on defense. The tipping point is the Fighting Irish playing at home under the lights.
Oregon 48, Colorado 17: Whether the Ducks have quarterback Darron Thomas and/or running back LaMichael James doesn't really matter. The Buffaloes are injury-ravaged and might have lost what little confidence they had.
Utah 24, California 21: This pick is based in large part in the belief that the Bears will be missing two starting linebackers, most painfully leading tackler Mychal Kendricks (shoulder). That will help the Utes establish the run, which in turn will make life easier for QB Jon Hays.
Washington State 38, Oregon State 30: The Cougars will get it done in a must-win game for their bowl hopes. Home-field advantage helps, but there's also the expectation we'll see QB Jeff Tuel far less rusty after making his first start of the season since a shoulder injury last weekend against Stanford.
Thomas takes over: With RB LaMichael James out, QB Darron Thomas becomes the veteran presence inside a young Ducks offensive huddle. He's the guy everyone will look to. Arizona State's defense has rattled some pretty good QBs, most notably USC's Matt Barkley. Thomas hasn't put up big numbers this year, but he's thrown 15 TD passes and just two interceptions. It's likely strong passing numbers from Thomas will be a key in this game.
Barkley-Woods: Last year against California, Barkley threw five first-half TD passes, tying a USC -- full-game -- record. Robert Woods might be the best receiver in the nation in terms of pure talent. If you wonder what Cal needs to be concerned with tonight, it's Barkley-Woods, Barkley-Woods, particularly with starting CB Marc Anthony out.
Price increases Buffs' secondary costs: Washington QB Keith Price ranks second in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and first in TD passes. Colorado's patchwork secondary, which has been riddled by injuries and suspensions, ranks 10th in the conference in passing efficiency defense and has yielded 14 TD passes, most in the conference. Not a good matchup for the Buffs. Colorado's solution to a struggling secondary is to attack with blitzes -- see 17 sacks, tied for most in the conference. The Huskies have yielded 11 sacks. If Price gets time to throw, he can make Colorado pay. But will he?
Utes up front: Utah's strength is its lines, and it needs to lean on that strength at Pittsburgh. The Panthers on offense are mostly one guy: RB Ray Graham, the nation's second leading rusher. The Panthers aren't good if they have to pass. They yield 4.67 sacks per game, most in the nation, and rank 96th in the nation in passing efficiency. So it's obvious: Make Pitt throw. On the other side, the Utes probably will faces that same strategy. The Panthers will try to make new Utes starting QB Jon Hays beat them. But RB John White and a solid offensive line might be good enough to still win that battle in the trenches.
Beavers fall: Every year is a new year, so past trends don't always matter. Until they do. This year started out particularly bad for Oregon State, but losing Septembers are -- sorry -- standard in Corvallis. That's the bad news. The good news is the Beavers typically seem to get better. They have entered October with losing records eight consecutive years. But since 2004, they are 38-15 in October, November and December. After an 0-4 start, they are now 1-0 in October. Can they maintain their trend of mid-to-late-season improvement?
The 6-8 QB: Inside Autzen Stadium, everything starts with the opposing QB. How well can he handle the noise? Can he maintain focus and make plays and avoid miscues. Arizona State's Brock Osweiler, who it will be noted at least once on Saturday is 6-foot-8, made his first career start at Autzen in 2009 as a true freshman. That evening started badly and ended quickly when he was knocked out of the game. Suffice it to say, he's a different guy these days: Skilled, confident, knowledgeable. It's also impossible to believe the Sun Devils can record an upset without him playing lights out -- as he did against Missouri and USC.
Cougs up front: While Andrew Luck gets all the publicity, Stanford is as much about being physical up front on both lines as it is about Luck. Luck will stress the Washington State secondary, but the real measure of the Cougars' ability to hang with Stanford will be on both lines. Can the Cougs slow down the Stanford running game and force Luck to throw? That doesn't sound like a great thing, but it's critical in terms of slowing down Stanford. And, on the other side of the ball, will the Cougs be able to run well enough that the Cardinal doesn't load up with blitzes on Lobbestael? Playing at home will help. But Washington State's only chance is not getting exploited at the line of scrimmage.
2:00 PM ET Washington State Colorado State 3:30 PM ET 20 Fresno State 25 USC 5:30 PM ET Buffalo San Diego State 9:00 PM ET Tulane Louisiana-Lafayette
6:00 PM ET Pittsburgh Bowling Green 9:30 PM ET Utah State 23 Northern Illinois
2:30 PM ET Marshall Maryland 6:00 PM ET Syracuse Minnesota 9:30 PM ET Brigham Young Washington
12:00 PM ET Rutgers Notre Dame 3:20 PM ET Cincinnati North Carolina 6:45 PM ET Miami (FL) 18 Louisville 10:15 PM ET Michigan Kansas State
11:45 AM ET Middle Tennessee Navy 3:15 PM ET Ole Miss Georgia Tech 6:45 PM ET 10 Oregon Texas 10:15 PM ET 14 Arizona State Texas Tech
12:30 PM ET Arizona Boston College 2:00 PM ET Virginia Tech 17 UCLA 4:00 PM ET Rice Mississippi State 8:00 PM ET 24 Duke 21 Texas A&M
12:00 PM ET Nebraska 22 Georgia 12:00 PM ET UNLV North Texas 1:00 PM ET Iowa 16 LSU 1:00 PM ET 19 Wisconsin 9 South Carolina 5:00 PM ET 5 Stanford 4 Michigan State 8:30 PM ET 15 UCF 6 Baylor
7:30 PM ET 13 Oklahoma State 8 Missouri 8:30 PM ET 12 Clemson 7 Ohio State