The 14th Annual ‘Picking the Winners’ Pac-12 Preview
Seeking to build on a 2013 campaign that saw nine member schools play in bowl games – with six winning – the Pac-12 Conference is riding an upswing that has many comparing it to college football’s long-time power broker, the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Led by two-time defending champion Stanford, consensus pre-season top-five pick Oregon and an intriguing UCLA squad featuring junior quarterback – and Heisman candidate – Brett Hundley, the Pac-12 has multiple teams vying for a spot in the new College Football Playoff.
When you throw in the potent offensive capabilities of defending South Division winner Arizona State, the addition of former Boise State leader Chris Petersen at Washington (replacing Steve Sarkisian, who returns to his coaching roots to take over a 10-win USC team), and the continuing growth of Arizona (under Rich Rodriguez) and Washington State (under Mike Leach) – the conference looks as strong from top to bottom as it has in years.
Stanford, which routed the South-winning Sun Devils twice in 2013 – at home during the regular season and in Tempe in the conference title tilt – faces a tall task in 2014, trying to knock off Oregon in the North for a third season in a row, while facing a brutal slate of road games. The Ducks, meanwhile, face an early non-conference test as the defending Rose Bowl and Big Ten champs, Michigan State, visit. And, while many think Washington is ready to challenge for a top-two spot in the North, it’s hard to know what to expect from a team that still doesn’t know who its quarterback will be.
Down south, ASU must replace 14 starters (including nine on defense) while also facing a four-week stretch from late September through October that features home games vs. UCLA and Stanford and road trips to USC and Washington. The Bruins, who are the division favorite, still have some questions about their front seven on defense and face road trips to face Texas (in Dallas), Arizona State and Washington. The good news for UCLA is that games against Oregon, USC and Stanford are all in Pasadena. And what of USC? The Trojans, with a new coaching staff but the same solid talent (and sanctions-imposed depth issues), seem to be flying below the radar, but could become a factor as early as the season’s second week when they visit Stanford.
Yes, the depth of the conference is stunning – I didn’t even get into Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State, each of whom played in bowls a season ago and competed strongly against those top six mentioned above. Once again, you can make a case for a number of teams in each division having a shot to play in the conference title game on Dec. 5 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
This, of course, makes trying to do what I’ve done for the past 13 seasons – sit down with the conference’s composite schedule and make preseason picks of each and every game this season – fairly imposing.
In the many years of writing this piece – three times for PigskinPost.com, once for CollegeFootballNews.com and, the past nine seasons, for USCFootball.com – my 2014 mark of 74-17 (.813) was the second-best winning percentage I’ve recorded (58-13, .817 in 2004). It was also a great bounce back from my lowest winning percentage ever in 2013 (.641).
And, yes, that mark does include a “loss” in the Pac-12 championship game, since I had Oregon over Arizona State – hmm, should I get a half-win since I had ASU getting blown out, just by the wrong team? Still, I’ve selected winners correctly in nearly three-quarters of the games over the years: 762 wins, 260 losses – a .746 winning percentage.
As always, I invite you to grab an adult beverage and settle in. Here it comes once again: odd scores, blowouts, nail-biters, upsets and all – the 2014 Pac-12 game-by-game preview.
Week One: August 28-30
Game of the Week: Washington at Hawaii
With the conference’s opening week schedule being – shall we say – less than imposing, Petersen’s inaugural game as headman in Seattle gets the nod. Since the Huskies will open without the services of presumed starting QB Cyler Miles due to some legal and disciplinary issues, sophomore Jeff Lundquist will get the start. Hawaii isn’t the most imposing foe, but the island does have its distractions and it’s a good bet the Warriors will be geared up at home. Still, expect UW to get the job done. Washington 38, Hawaii 17
Game of the Weak: Arizona State vs. Weber State (Thurs., August 28)
Well, I guess we have a minor step in the right direction as the number of conference schools facing a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly Division I-AA) school drops to from nine a year ago to eight in 2014 (congrats, Arizona and Colorado, for doing it right in 2014; negative points to Stanford for backtracking to include an FCS opponent after avoiding one in 2013). If you’ve read in this space for any period of time, you know how I feel about Pac-12 members scheduling FCS foes. Once again, I will note all 2014 contests where a Pac-12 school lowers itself well below the bar of acceptability. All six teams in the Pac-12 North – seriously and sadly – have dipped below it in 2014. Fortunately, five of the eight FCS contests happen in this first week, with the most egregious clearly being the Sun Devils’ “battle” with a Weber State team that finished 2-10 in 2013, including a 70-7 loss at Utah. Arizona State 63, Weber State 14
Colorado 34, Colorado State 24 (Fri., August 29 – At Denver)
Mike MacIntyre’s second campaign in Boulder gets off to a solid beginning as the Buffs upend their in-state rivals once again.
USC 31, Fresno State 17
USC hasn’t faced the same opponent in consecutive games since facing Arizona to close out the 1916 season and then again to open the 1917 campaign. Ninety-seven years later, the Trojans will meet the Bulldogs fresh off delivering them a 45-20 whipping in last December’s Las Vegas Bowl. Much has changed on both sides and though the outcome will likely be closer, the victor and the vanquished will remain the same.
Utah 56, Idaho State 10 (Thurs., August 28 – FCS opponent)
Washington State 45, Rutgers 27 (Thurs., August 28 – At Seattle)
Arizona 42, UNLV 13 (Fri., August 29)
Oregon 77, South Dakota 3 (FCS opponent)
Oregon State 65, Portland State 17 (FCS opponent)
Stanford 42, UC Davis 3 (FCS opponent)
UCLA 38, Virginia 16
Week Two: September 4-6
Game of the Week: USC at Stanford
The Pac-12’s conference slate opens here, featuring a match-up of top-15 teams that have played a series of tight and memorable games in recent years. It should be an interesting test for both. Sarkisian’s recent UW squads gave the Cardinal all they could handle, and this group of USC players finally figured out how to get over the hump against the Cardinal a season ago. Stanford’s question marks – how will a reconstructed offensive line and its bevy of options at running back perform; can the Cardinal defense maintain its same high level after losing some key players – make this one even more intriguing. However, with the Trojans still learning Sarkisian’s new up-tempo system and a motivated Cardinal team looking to avenge that 2013 loss, I’ll take Stanford in another squeaker. Stanford 27, USC 24
Game of the Weak: California vs. Sacramento State (FCS opponent)
Maybe I should relax my “no FCS” standard for the Bears, whose only win since the end of 2012 came in a squeaker last September against FCS Portland State. Here’s hoping Cal doesn’t embarrass the conference. California 40, Sacramento State 20
Oregon 38, Michigan State 21
If this week’s slate didn’t offer a conference battle the likes of USC-Stanford, this game would be the Game of the Week by a mile. In the Spartans, the Ducks will face a team very similar to the Stanford squads that have troubled them so much of late. In fact, it’s a team that out-Stanforded the Cardinal in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. But, at Autzen and with a healthy Marcus Mariota, the Ducks eventually put this one away.
Washington 41, Eastern Washington 28 (FCS opponent)
So, if anyone’s going to get less guff for facing an FCS team, it’s UW in this one. Eastern Washington is ranked No. 2 in the FCS heading into 2014, and finished 12-3 a year ago. In each of the past three seasons, EWU has faced a Pac-12 foe, defeating Oregon State in 2013, losing to Washington State by four points in 2012, and losing at UW by three in 2011. This is as good of an FCS opponent anyone will face in 2014. The Huskies best be prepared.
Arizona 34, Texas-San Antonio 23 (Thurs., September 4)
Washington State 35, Nevada 31 (Fri., September 5)
Arizona State 47, New Mexico 20
Colorado 33, Massachusetts 17 (At Foxboro, Mass.)
Oregon State 41, Hawaii 24
UCLA 55, Memphis 13
Utah 27, Fresno State 20
Week Three: September 13
Game of the Week: UCLA vs. Texas (At Arlington, Texas)
UCLA’s 19 wins in the past two seasons (its best two-year total in 15 years) have put the spotlight back on Westwood. Meanwhile, Charlie Strong’s new reign down at Texas has seen a lot of transition. This game is intriguing mainly because the Longhorns still have a bevy of talent and the game is about 1,000 miles closer to Texas’ campus than UCLA’s. However, the Bruins performed admirably in their biggest road test of the Jim Mora era a season ago at Nebraska. I expect another solid performance here. UCLA 31, Texas 19
Game of the Weak: Washington State vs. Portland State (FCS opponent)
Here it is, the final FCS matchup of the Pac-12 schedule. Thank goodness. Washington State 44, Portland State 13
Arizona State 38, Colorado 24
The Sun Devils get off on the right foot in their quest to repeat as Pac-12 South champs.
USC 35, Boston College 16
The Trojans make the cross-country trip to Beantown for the first time since 1988 (a 34-7 victory for Rodney Peete-led USC). And while the Eagles will be a tougher mark at home than they were in the Coliseum a season ago, USC should leave Chestnut Hill with a much-needed win.
Arizona 44, Nevada 21
Oregon 59, Wyoming 10
Stanford 37, Army 6
Washington 34, Illinois 13
Week Four: September 20
Game of the Week: Utah at Michigan
Credit to the Utes for getting the Wolverines to agree to a home-and-home series that will bring Michigan to Salt Lake City in 2015. This one, though, will be too tough a test for Kyle Whittingham’s squad. Michigan 35, Utah 23
Game of the Weak: Washington vs. Georgia State
Georgia State’s football program is entering its fifth season – ever. Not only that, 2014 marks the Panthers’ first season of eligibility for bowl consideration after they made the move from FCS to FBS a year ago. They shouldn’t have to worry much about that, though, as they’re coming off an 0-12 season in 2013. Suffice it to say, FCS Eastern Washington, which played the Huskies in Week 2, would probably be a heavy favorite over Georgia State. Washington 56, Georgia State 0.
Oregon 52, Washington State 35
I don’t think the scoreboard operator in Pullman will get bored with this one. The down-and-distance operator might need a lot of Red Bull just to keep pace, though.
Arizona 40, California 28
Things get a lot tougher for the Wildcats from here, but a cushy opening schedule leaves Arizona two wins shy of bowl eligibility.
Colorado 44, Hawaii 10
Oregon State 45, San Diego State 21
Week Five: September 25-27
Game of the Week: Arizona State vs. UCLA (Thurs., September 25)
A season ago, the Sun Devils marched into Pasadena in late November and beat the Bruins to win the Pac-12 South. Motivation will not be at a minimum for UCLA. But the Devils have become adept in hosting these early season showcase games in recent years – just ask USC and Lane Kiffin how their late September visit went a season ago. Pass defense becomes the difference in this one, though, as the Bruins’ solid secondary outplays their ASU counterparts, keeping Taylor Kelly in check, while Hundley enjoys the Thursday night spotlight. UCLA 38, Arizona State 31
Game of the Weak: California vs. Colorado
The recent divisional doormats square off in Berkeley in what looks like it might be Cal’s best shot at a Pac-12 victory in 2014. It’s not going to be pretty either way, but let’s give the nod to Sonny Dykes for his first conference win. California 37, Colorado 34 (OT)
Stanford 20, Washington 16
The Cardinal stumbled on their last trip to Seattle in 2012. UW also gave Stanford all it could handle on the Farm in 2013. This trip begins Stanford’s 2014 road gauntlet. Can Washington’s line play on both sides – something that appears to be a strength heading into the season – make the difference? The in recent years: if you’re picking a Stanford game and you think it will come down to line play, go with the Cardinal.
USC 45, Oregon State 23
Washington State 38, Utah 35
Week Six: October 2-4
Game of the Week: USC vs. Arizona State
You don’t want the Sun Devils’ schedule at this moment. But I’ll tell you one team that wants to face Arizona State quite a bit: this USC team that was embarrassed in what turned out to be Kiffin’s final game last September. The Trojans will be ready for this one, and though the Devils will put up points, too, USC’s rushing attack will gash ASU early and often. USC 42, Arizona State 31
Game of the Weak: Washington State vs. California
Wait? October 4, and the Cougars are just one win from bowl eligibility? Yes, it’s October 4 and Leach’s Pullman Pirates are five wins deep after this one. Washington State 52, California 24
Oregon 51, Arizona 21 (Thurs., October 2)
With the revenge factor ratcheted up in Eugene, this is one the Wildcats will want to forget midway through the flight home.
Stanford 27, Notre Dame 17
Though the Irish will likely be 4-0 heading into this one in South Bend, Stanford is far and away the best opponent they will have seen to date.
Oregon State 41, Colorado 14
UCLA 47, Utah 16
Week Seven: October 10-11
Game of the Week: UCLA vs. Oregon
This may be the game of the year in the conference. It also may be the first of two meetings between the favorites to win their respective divisions. It most certainly will be the biggest marquee QB matchup in the nation this year. The problem for the Bruins, though, is not just that Oregon has won five in a row over UCLA – the last three by an average of 31 points. It’s that Oregon’s strength as a running team matches up directly with the Bruin defense’s biggest issue. In a shootout, the Ducks are able to control the clock and the action just a little bit more capably than UCLA. Oregon 44, UCLA 35
Game of the Weak: California vs. Washington
The Huskies move to a very solid 5-1. Washington 55, California 20
USC 34, Arizona 23
Didn’t I tell you the Wildcats schedule was going to get a lot tougher? Though this one’s in Tucson, USC’s Buck Allen runs roughshod through the Arizona front seven and the Trojan defense does enough to keep a handle on RichRod’s offense.
Stanford 41, Washington State 24 (Fri., October 10)
Week Eight: October 16-18
Game of the Week: Oregon vs. Washington
This might be the biggest thing to hit the Northwest in a long while – 6-0 Oregon facing off with 5-1 Washington in the nastiest non-local rivalry in the conference. After decades of domination, the Huskies have been hammered 10 straight times by the Ducks. Despite the hoopla heading leading up to this edition, Oregon’s streak – thanks, Nigel Tufnel – will “go to 11.” Oregon 38, Washington 23
Game of the Weak: USC vs. Colorado
After a solid start to the 2014 campaign, the Buffs are – unfortunately – finding their level. USC 49, Colorado 10
Stanford 36, Arizona State 28
After a week off, this Tempe showdown is a do-or-die game for the Sun Devils if they want to have any chance to return to the Pac-12 title game. The problem is that ASU simply matches up poorly against Stanford’s power run game.
Oregon State 38, Utah 24 (Thurs., October 16)
UCLA 44, California 17
Week Nine: October 24-25
Game of the Week: Washington vs. Arizona State
It’s just an ugly month for the Devils – two bad matchups at home and two tough foes on the road. The Huskies bounce back from last week’s crusher to outlast ASU in Seattle. Washington 31, Arizona State 27
Game of the Weak: California vs. Oregon (Fri., October 24 – At Santa Clara, Calif.)
The only thing really worth mentioning here is that this gives the conference a nice opportunity for a run-through at Levi’s Stadium in advance of the Pac-12 championship game. Oregon 53, California 15
Stanford 28, Oregon State 17
Quietly, the Beavers have built a 5-1 mark coming into this one. Coming out of it, can they avoid yet another late-season swoon?
UCLA 48, Colorado 22
USC 31, Utah 20
Washington State 44, Arizona 38
Week 10: November 1
Game of the Week: Oregon vs. Stanford
The Ducks’ high-powered offense has ground to a halt the past two seasons against Stanford. Many believe last season’s struggles came mainly due to Mariota’s knee issue. Can Stanford pull off their defensive wizardry a third consecutive time against Oregon? This battle might finally be the one where the Cardinal miss those key defensive leaders that moved on after the 2013 season. Oregon 38, Stanford 24
Game of the Weak: Oregon State vs. California
One way for the Beavers to avoid a big late season swoon? Get a November home game against Cal on the schedule! Oregon State 51, California 27
USC 37, Washington State 27
Maybe even more surprising than the Cougars’ 2013 upset win at USC was the final score – 10-7. There might be more points in the first 10 minutes of this one. QB Cody Kessler has his biggest day of the season to lead USC in frigid Pullman.
Arizona State 42, Utah 22
Washington 38, Colorado 33
UCLA 40, Arizona 17
Week 11: November 8
Game of the Week: Washington vs. UCLA
This battle in Seattle should decide whether or not UCLA stays in the national playoff conversation to the season’s end. Will Jim Mora have second thoughts about turning down that UW job last December? Can Petersen finally get his first signature win as Husky coach? Yes – and yes. Washington 35, UCLA 34
Game of the Weak: Arizona vs. Colorado
After four consecutive losses, a home game against the Buffs is a nice salve for the Wildcats’ wounds. Arizona 42, Colorado 19
Arizona State 35, Notre Dame 20
I’m simply not sold on Notre Dame in 2014. At home, the Devils flip the script on the Irish from 2013’s emotional defeat.
Oregon State 38, Washington State 34
Oregon 49, Utah 24
Week 12: November 13-15
Game of the Week: Oregon State vs. Arizona State
This is a very intriguing late-season matchup, especially in Corvallis. While the Beavers have the better record, the Devils still may be the more talented squad – and OSU’s rush defense doesn’t inspire confidence. Arizona State 38, Oregon State 31
Game of the Weak: USC vs. California (Thurs., November 13)
Should any Cal students actually make the L.A. trip this year, let’s assume they’re going to have to resort to their feeble attempts at outdated academic “smack” early on. USC 52, California 14
Arizona 38, Washington 34
The Wildcats have a long history of pulling off late-season upsets in Tucson. The Huskies are the latest to find out how that happens.
Stanford 41, Utah 10
Week 13: November 22
Game of the Week: UCLA vs. USC
The Pac-12 South is on the line here for the Trojans. For the Bruins, it’s a chance to tie for the division lead and hold the tiebreaker over USC heading into their regular season finale against Stanford. UCLA has won the past two games against USC, after the Trojans ran off 12 of 13. The difference has been Hundley. And he remains the difference today in Pasadena. UCLA 31, USC 24
Game of the Weak: Utah vs. Arizona
Letdown city for the Wildcats as struggling Utah finally gets a Pac-12 win in Salt Lake City. Utah 29, Arizona 22
Washington 28, Oregon State 20
The Huskies can taste their first 10-win season since 2000, when UW won 11, including the Rose Bowl.
Arizona State 44, Washington State 37
Stanford 35, California 10
Oregon 65, Colorado 21
Week 14: November 28-29
Game of the Week: UCLA vs. Stanford (Fri., November 28)
Stanford is able to control the line of scrimmage on offense, but the Bruins’ quick-strike ability finally hits in the second half. It’s a back and forth affair to the end, but the Cardinal wear down the Bruins’ defense late – and put USC in the Pac-12 title tilt. Stanford 30, UCLA 24
Game of the Weak: Colorado vs. Utah
The two worst teams in the South Division put on a display befitting that tag. It’s the Buffs who come out on top and avoid going winless in conference play. Colorado 16, Utah 14
Arizona State 41, Arizona 30 (Fri., November 28)
The Devils have won three of the past four in Tucson and have been hot throughout November. Arizona’s defense has no answer for Kelly, who tosses two TD passes and runs for two more.
Oregon 45, Oregon State 24
The Beavers, so close in Eugene a season ago, will mourn that loss even more as the Ducks pull away in the second half of this one.
USC 34, Notre Dame 17
After dropping two in a row to the Irish, USC’s pace is too much for Notre Dame in this one as Sarkisian salvages one of the Trojans’ two rivalry games.
Washington State 28, Washington 27
Petersen vs. Leach could be a fun Apple Cup rivalry for years to come. The first version does not disappoint as the Cougs’ rally late to upset the Dawgs.
BYU 48, California 28
Week 15: December 5
Pac-12 Championship Game
USC (10-2, 7-2) vs. Oregon (12-0, 9-0) – Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
A berth in the first College Football Playoff is on the line for the Ducks in their first meeting with the Trojans since winning in L.A. in 2012. These are two very different teams from those days, with Kiffin and Chip Kelly both having moved on. But the Trojans’ challenge is still the same – try to slow the Ducks’ harried attack while mounting enough offense to keep pace. With Mariota at the helm, Oregon just has a little too much. Oregon 42, USC 30
1. Oregon (13-0, 9-0)
2. Stanford (11-1, 8-1)
3. Washington (9-4, 5-4)
4. Oregon State (7-5, 4-5)
5. Washington State (7-5, 4-5)
6. California (2-10, 1-8)
1. USC (10-2, 7-2)
2. UCLA (9-3, 6-3)
3. Arizona State (8-4, 5-4)
4. Arizona (6-6, 3-6)
5. Colorado (4-8, 1-8)
6. Utah (3-9, 1-8)
Going Bowling: Oregon, Stanford, USC, UCLA, Washington, Arizona State, Oregon State, Washington State, Arizona
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum (‘94). He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami – and points beyond – to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)