It's. Finally. Here. The wait is over and now we can move past Depth Chart Tea Leaves, Stories of Drinking, Meds, Arrests, previews, predictions, etc., etc. It's game time, and the Conference of Champions opens play with arguably the most impressive slate of opening games of any of the Power 5 conferences. No less than four Pac-12 schools open with Power 5 opponents (Utah, Arizona State, Stanford, and UCLA). Intrigue abounds as five schools (Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, and UCLA) debut new quarterbacks and seven of the 12 schools have multiple legitimate candidates for the Heisman. The talent from top to bottom roster to roster is the nuts. It's talent for days. And the coaching depth may even match what's on the field.
So let's get to it. Here on the maiden voyage of this season's Pac-12 Whiparound, let's take a look at opening week from the union that started 100 years ago in the Great Northwest as the Pacific Coast Conference that has now become the best football conference in the country.
Michigan at Utah Thurs. 9/3 4 PM Fox Sports One-In one of the least publicized moves of the offseason, Michigan replaced its head football coach. Utah, on the other hand returns Kyle Whittingham and a typically rugged group of Utes back onto the turf at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Aside from the fact that Whittingham looks like he could win a UFC fight vs. the rest of the conference at once (not the rest of the coaches, but the conference. Like, the mountains, the rugby teams, the mascots, etc.), this is a big game for the conference as it will have the national spotlight all to itself in the form of the Utes. Utah has a solid defense, a great runner in Devontae Booker and really only needs decent play from quarterback Travis Wilson to be a dark horse contender in the Pac-12 South. Despite its formidable reputation at Rice-Eccles, Utah actually lost three times at home last year, including a defeat at the hands of The Pirate. The Utes are going to have to be much better at home to even hope of surviving their schedule this year.
UTSA at #22 Arizona Thurs. 9/3 7 PM Pac 12 Networks-Rich Rod eases his way into 2015 with what should be an easy home win. As Jason Scheer pointed out in our Arizona preview, the Wildcats primary issue is depth heading into this year. Don't expect that to come into play Thursday night. UTSA did take Arizona down to the wire last year, but that game was played in San Antonio and was the first road game of quarterback Anu Solomon's career. He's not likely to be anywhere near as jittery this time around. True Freshman Sammy Morrison and converted receiver Davonte Neal get their first starts in Arizona's secondary, a group one would expect UTSA to test so long as they can keep All-Galaxy Linebacker Scooby Wright blocked from play-to-play.
Colorado at Hawaii Thurs. 9/3 10 PM CBSSN-You're going to have to really want it to hang through this one, played at Aloha Stadium and finishing the first night of play for the conference. There's nothing to indicate that Colorado is gonna have problems with Hawaii. The only intrigue may be in Colorado's status as a favorite, a mentality with which they have very little familiarity. Aside from that, there's a reason they're favored, and it's probably connected to being bigger, stronger, and faster than Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors can be feisty for stretches, but the Buffs are gonna be desperate to start strong this year, and it seems likely Hawaii will unwillingly acquiesce to Colorado's desperation.
Weber State at Oregon State University Fri 9/4 5 PM Pac 12 Networks- If its good enough for Urban Meyer, Beavers Coach Gary Anderson feels it's good enough for Oregon State. Meyer has decided not to decide on a starting quarterback and apparently that's the route the Beavs are taking as well. True Freshman Seth Collins and Redshirt Freshman Marcus McMaryion will platoon under center, and as of Thursday it had not been announced publicly who would actually be the first to take the field. All we know is that both will see ample playing time, and both should experience ample success playing Weber State. Of moderate interest to Cardinal fans: Oregon State will get a dress rehearsal for its Friday night game against Stanford. That's not likely to translate into much of an advantage, but it can't hurt the Beavs, either.
Washington at #23 Boise State Fri 9/4 7:15 PM ESPN- The Chris Petersen Catharsis Bowl happens Friday night. By all accounts, Petersen is really not looking forward to deal with what will be an undeniably emotional homecoming for him. Though he's downplayed it all summer, this game is not your average opener for either squad. Washington has decided to hold out on naming its starting quarterback publicly, but it's sounding like Freshman Jake Browning is going to be the guy for the UW. On the road against a ranked team is a tough way to get your start in college football, but the Huskies are in a clear rebuild mode and if it's indeed Browning, at the very least he won't be carrying the hopes of a senior-laden team. Only 18 upperclassmen appear on Washington's roster. This would be a very surprising feather in both Petersen's and the Pac-12's cap, but it's more likely to be a tough night on the Blue Turf for the Dawgs.
#21 Stanford at Northwestern Sat 9/5 9 AM (Good God) ESPN-There is no telling how bright the eyes or bushy the tails will be when the Cardinal get it cracking Saturday morning, but the team has been practicing in the morning all week to prepare for the start. This time slot has not brought out the best in the Cardinal historically, but presuming Kevin Hogan and the Cardinal offense are properly caffeinated Northwestern should have to scratch and claw just to keep up with Stanford. Redshirt Freshman Clayton Thorson gets his first start for the 'Cats, and there will be curiosity on both sides of the ball when Northwestern possesses it as a still largely undetermined Stanford secondary gets its first game action. The depth chart was nothing if not inclusive for Stanford, and with seven of the 11 defensive backfield spots going to underclassmen, expect the Wildcats to get after the Stanford secondary early and often. Northwestern plays the up tempo game, so Stanford will be dependent on its front seven to create enough chaos to take the burden off a young and inexperienced secondary.
Portland State at Washington State Sat. 9/5 11 AM (Seriously?) Pac 12 Networks- It's one thing to play an AM game in a different time zone, but this is the rare Pac-12 game on conference soil starting before noon. The lesson as always, is TV controls everything. Look for The Pirate to hang half a hundred on Portland State and look for some early positive results from The Grinch's (new D coordinator Alex) retooled Cougar defense. Leach has decided that Sophomore Luke Falk will start at quarterback for the Cougars, though the Pirate left the door open for Freshman Peyton Bender to see time during the opener. Martin Stadium should see some smooth sailing in the opener for Washington State, but the real issue is whether the Cougar defense shows any signs of improvement in year one of The Grinch Era.
Virginia at. #13 UCLA Sat. 12:30 PM Fox- The Chosen Rosen makes his much-anticipated debut at the Rosen Bowl against an opponent that seemed like it would be noteworthy back when the game was scheduled. Freshman QB or not, don't expect the Cavaliers to put up much of a fight against a loaded UCLA squad returning 17 starters including its entire offensive line. Rumors that P Diddy will be performing his latest hit "Kettlebell" with the UCLA Marching Band are probably dubious, especially since I made them up just now. It would be fun, though, right? The Bruins will be without indefinitely suspended defensive back Ishmael Adams, whose career in crime got off to a rocky start with his arrest for attempting to rob and Uber driver of his phone (did Adams not understand how Uber works?). In all seriousness, don't expect Matt Johns to "expose" the UCLA secondary in Adams' absence, but Virginia has nothing to lose by going after whoever the Bruins send out to replace him. Turnovers kept Virginia in this game last year, and it's going to take a number of Bruin miscues for the Hoos to hang around in this one.
Grambling State at Cal Sat. 2 PM Pac 12-Networks- There will be an inverse relationship between the bands and the teams in this one. Expect Grambling's marching band to tear up Kaboom!! Field at the half, and expect Cal to put a serious hurt on the Tigers before and after. The media has almost unilaterally convinced themselves that this is the year a Sonny Dykes team defends. With Junior Jared Goff controlling the Golden Bears offense, the Cal defense doesn't need to do much to support the Bear Raid, and it won't need to do much in this game, either. However, like WSU, the promise of the Bears ascent is based on the expectation that both will at some point make the opponent feel like it's playing an actual football game and not participating in a full-dress 7 on 7 drill. Cal may indeed have a defense this year, but this isn't the week we find out if that's the case.
#15 Arizona State at Texas A&M 4 PM ESPN- Coach Todd Graham and his Scholar Ballers roll into Houston to take on the former Fighting Manziells. A&M is unranked but is the only SEC team to play a Pac-12 school this year, so there is huge pressure on ASU to represent the Conference of Champions. Arizona State returns Quarterback Mike Bercovici, Running Back D.J. Foster, and potential two-way star Kalen Ballage. The Aggies are coming off an 8-5 season and their FEI ratings give us a glimpse into how they succeeded. Texas A&M was the 24th rated offense in college football last year, and they got there by being explosive and eschewing long drives, which would account for their low ME (% of 10+ play drives) and VA (Drives that start in Aggie territory and at least make the opponents 30). Defensively, the Aggies struggled, checking in as the 86th rated defensive per FEI. Of particular issue was the Aggie's propensity for giving up big plays. Given its rugged league schedule, a loss here wouldn't absolutely end the Sun Devils' playoff hopes, but it would put a conspicuous dent in the perception of the league especially if A&M ends up a middling SEC team this year. Everybody in the conference needs ASU to win this game. Even in Tucson.
Eastern Washington at Oregon Sat. 9/5 5 PM Pac-12 Networks- Vernon Adams and Chris Petersen make for very strange empathizers, but the Oregon QB will have some idea of what Washington's coach is facing this week as he takes on his former team right out of the chute. In a fortnight, Adams surpassed Jeff Lockie, who's been in Eugene long enough to have his master's degree. All eyes will be on the new Ducks QB, but the real story will be the Oregon defense. The Ducks have major inexperience in the secondary. Oregon was an outstanding defensive team last year, their thrashing at the hands of Ohio State notwithstanding. FEI put the Ducks at 14th in the nation on D last year, and a strong defense would go a long way in easing any rocky ground Adams may encounter as a new FBS QB. EWU won't have enough to really test the Oregon defense, but the Ducks Week 2 opponent certainly will.
The Arkansas State University @ #8 USC Sat. 9/5 8 PM Pac-12 Networks-The opportunity here to make jokes about the implications behind a start time this late are really tempting, considering that there's really not much to talk about football wise. Sigh, I'll choose discretion here, and just say that this game will not be very interesting except to the extent that Coach Sarkisian chooses to roll up big numbers for The Bako Bandit vs. letting Max Browne get some live reps. That goes for most of the SC first string, who should not be needed by the fourth quarter.
This is a big opening week for the Pac-12. There are so, so many storylines. Can the conference hold its own against Power 5 schools? It's crazy to think just how much of the postseason can be influenced in the very first 72 hours. Certainly that's the case for Arizona State. Then there are the galaxy of individual stars with two-way potential. Bellage, Charles Nelson of the Ducks, Myles Jack of UCLA, USC's Adoree Jackson, to name four off the top of my head, will all be cut loose for first looks this year. All the new quarterbacks will finally meet people allowed (encouraged, even) to hit them. How will they handle it? Finally, we start to get the answers after a summer and spring of questions.
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