Picking the Pac-12

For the 15th year in a row, our Thomas Haire breaks down each and every game all of the Pac-12 teams play and gives you his predictions for how it will all turn out.

The 2014 Pac-12 football season represented the league’s coming out party on the national scene. With Oregon reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff – and stomping defending national champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl prior to losing in the championship game to Ohio State — and the conference’s South Division gaining recognition as one of the best divisions in the sport, respect for West Coast football soared to heights not since USC’s seven-year run of BCS bowl success from 2002-2008.

What can the conference do for an encore in 2015? Oregon and USC are among those most often mentioned as College Football Playoff candidates, while UCLA and Arizona State are also receiving dark horse notice. Stanford appears primed to bounce back to national prominence after a slight drop off in 2014, and don’t sleep on defending South champ Arizona or a nine-win Utah team that returns key leaders on both sides of the ball.

Five of the six teams in the South Division are capable of putting together a 10-win season with the right breaks, while Colorado appears to be coming on – even after a winless conference season in 2014 (four losses of five points or less, two in double OT). In the North, after the Ducks and Stanford, Oregon State and the Washington schools appear to have joined the Buffs in rebuilding mode, but California is hoping its maturing Bear Raid offense can push it to bowl eligibility.

With so many contenders, it seems that schedule breaks – or a lack thereof – could play a key role in which teams qualify for the Pac-12 title game on Saturday, Dec. 5, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Oregon’s toughest road test is likely outside the conference – at Michigan State on Sept. 12 – but the Ducks also must go to Arizona State and Stanford. Oregon hosts USC. The Cardinal, meanwhile, catch a break: Stanford’s toughest road test – by far – is a Sept. 19 game at USC. But Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame all visit the Farm. Season tickets, anyone?

USC has its odd-numbered-year roadie to Notre Dame sandwiched between visits to Arizona State, Cal and Oregon. The Trojans do get Stanford, Arizona and UCLA at the Coliseum. Speaking of the Bruins – who are hoping to compete for a CFP berth with true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen helming a talented veteran team – road trips to Arizona, Stanford, Utah, and USC present the likeliest potholes (they avoid the Ducks). The Wildcats hope to defend their division crown despite road trips to Stanford, USC, and Arizona State (they do get UCLA in Tucson and also skip Oregon). And, after opening with a “neutral” site game against Texas A&M in Houston, the Sun Devils get USC, Oregon, and Arizona at home, while avoiding Stanford. The Devils’ toughest Pac-12 road tests are at UCLA and a possibly intriguing season-closing game at Berkeley.

Can Oregon, USC, UCLA or Arizona State get through to Levi’s Stadium with a shot at earning a CFP berth? For the Ducks, it comes down to how effectively they replace Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, as well as some key facets of their back seven on defense. For those South Division squads, it’s more about whether or not the parity chews them all up and spits them out. Each team has big time strengths – USC’s overall talent and senior QB Cody Kessler; UCLA’s 18 returning starters and depth; Arizona State’s continuing growth under Todd Graham – but serious question marks, as well.

This, of course, makes trying to do what I’ve done for the past 14 seasons – sit down with the conference’s composite schedule and make preseason picks of each and every game – fairly imposing.

It’s now been a decade-and-a-half I’ve been writing this piece – at first for PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com, then for more than a decade for USCFootball.com. My 2014 mark of 67-25 (.728) was slightly below average (14-year total: 829-285, .744). However, the mark does include Oregon’s victory in the Pac-12 championship game (over Arizona, rather than the predicted USC – damned “Jael Mary”), as well as my prediction that the Ducks would qualify for the first College Football Playoff.

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 2015 Pac-12 game-by-game preview.

Week One: Sept. 3-5

Game of the Week: Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (at Houston)

Graham’s Sun Devils might be the deepest and most talented team he’s had in Tempe – and ASU has won 10 games each of the past two years. However, opening against the Aggies in a game that’s at a neutral site in name only is a tall task. Yes, the Aggies dipped to 8-5 last season, but they will have a potent offense and feel good about some restructuring on defense. Sun Devil QB Mike Bercovici is confident, but with a bit of a green receiving corps, it might be too much to ask for ASU to win an early shootout in Aggie Country. Texas A&M 38, Arizona State 35

Game of the Weak: Oregon State vs. Weber State (Friday, Sept. 4 – FCS opponent)

As in 2014, the number of conference schools facing a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly Division I-AA) is eight. Special kudos to Stanford, UCLA, USC, and Utah for avoiding this ignominy – though the Trojans were forced to add troubled (but still top-division) Idaho to their schedule after a planned home-and-home with Texas A&M failed to materialize. This week’s most pathetic matchup comes via Corvallis, though, as the rebuilding Beavers – led by new coach Gary Andersen – host the Wildcats. Weber State has finished 2-9, 2-10, and 2-10 the past three seasons, including a 2013 loss to Utah (70-7) and a 2014 drubbing at Arizona State (45-14). Oregon State 44, Weber State 17

The Rest

Utah 24, Michigan 20 (Thursday, Sept. 3)

Why wouldn’t former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh’s return to the college ranks begin with a pair of games against Pac-12 opponents? While the rejuvenated Wolverines make this one closer than 2014’s surprising Ute thumping in Ann Arbor, Devontae Booker is the difference in front of a raucous Salt Lake City crowd.

Boise State 35, Washington 17 (Friday, Sept. 4)

I’m guessing this wasn’t what Chris Petersen had in mind when he left the blue turf for Seattle after the 2013 season.

Stanford 31, Northwestern 20

This so-called “battle of the nerds” takes place in Evanston, Ill., where the Wildcats have a tendency to make games more interesting than, perhaps, they should be. But the Cardinal’s revamped defense has enough to help David Shaw’s team to avoid an opening upset.

Arizona 49, UT-San Antonio 17 (Thursday, Sept. 3)

Colorado 35, Hawaii 24 (Thursday, Sept. 3)

California 56, Grambling State 20 (FCS opponent)

Oregon 46, Eastern Washington 24 (FCS opponent)

UCLA 38, Virginia 14

USC 49, Arkansas State 17

Washington State 45, Portland State 13 (FCS opponent)

Week Two: September 11-12

Game of the Week: Oregon @ Michigan State

This is the toughest Pac-12 non-conference game to get a handle on. The Ducks, with new QB Vernon Adams, face a very strong test from a Spartan team that led them at halftime in Eugene a year ago. No matter how well Adams adjusts to life in the Pac-12 after a stellar career at FCS Eastern Washington, losing Marcus Mariota has to hurt the Ducks in this one, doesn’t it? Is Michigan State’s defense stout enough to hold up for four quarters? Can Connor Cook replicate his big numbers against the Ducks in 2014? It’s tough to pick against Oregon – but the feeling that the Spartans have this one circled and that they will perform very well is hard to shake. Michigan State 38, Oregon 34

Game of the Weak: Washington vs. Sacramento State (FCS opponent)

Tough call this week on the worst FCS opponent, as both Sacramento State and Cal Poly (playing at Arizona State) finished 7-5 last season. However, Cal Poly’s nation-leading triple-option rushing attack gives them a slight edge in degree of difficulty. Either way, UW and ASU continue their recent traditions of scheduling below the fold. Washington 42, Sacramento State 17

The Rest

Utah 20, Utah State 14 (Friday, Sept. 11)

The Utes have a tough task here: rebounding from an emotional home opener against Michigan in time to face what should be a capable Aggie team that will be fully dialed in for this rivalry game. Expect a snug defensive battle, with the Utes using their home field advantage to hold off USU.

Arizona 41, Nevada 31

One year ago, the Wolfpack gave the Wildcats a little more than they expected before falling, 35-28, in Tucson. Though Nevada is breaking in a new QB to replace Cody Fajardo, it is a tough out in its own stadium. Expect Rich Rodriguez’s crew to leave Reno more relieved than anything.

Arizona State 51, Cal Poly 21 (FCS opponent)

California 42, San Diego State 28

Colorado 35, Massachusetts 13

Michigan 31, Oregon State 10

Stanford 35, Central Florida 17

UCLA 37, UNLV 7

USC 56, Idaho 7

Rutgers 34, Washington State 28

Week Three: September 18-19

Game of the Week: Stanford @ USC

The conference schedule kicks off with the latest edition of this traditional matchup. The past five Trojan-Cardinal games have been one-score affairs, with USC winning by a field goal in each of the past two seasons. There’s no reason to think this game will be any less of a grind, as both teams are slated at or near the top of their respective divisions and have complementary strengths and weaknesses. But, after suffering through a four-game losing streak to the Cardinal, it appears that the Trojans have regained the upper hand against their oldest rivals – if just barely. USC 24, Stanford 20

Game of the Weak: Arizona vs. Northern Arizona (FCS opponent)

The Lumberjacks return to the schedule of an in-state foe after missing both Arizona and ASU last year. Though they have a stout pass defense, it’s not enough in Tucson. Arizona 38, Northern Arizona 17

The Rest

Texas 38, California 37

This is an interesting early test for a Golden Bear team with high hopes. Texas’ offense has been anemic enough in recent seasons to think that even Cal’s questionable defense might have enough to pull an upset. However, to believe that the Bears can win in Austin, I’ll have to see it first.

UCLA 38, BYU 24

The Bruins – and freshman Rosen’s – first serious test comes in Pasadena against an intriguing BYU team. But the Cougars are only capable of pulling this upset if QB Taysom Hill is really back at full strength.

Arizona State 43, New Mexico 19 (Friday, Sept. 18)

Colorado 31, Colorado State 21 (at Denver)

Oregon 59, Georgia State 10

Oregon State 28, San Jose State 24

Utah 35, Fresno State 17

Washington 27, Utah State 16

Washington State 41, Wyoming 23

Week Four: September 25-26

Game of the Week: UCLA @ Arizona

It was a tossup between this one and the Trojan-Sun Devil tilt two hours up the road in Tempe. Arizona’s status as defending division champ gives this game gets the nod. The Bruin defense was the lone unit to completely shut down the Wildcats during the 2014 regular season, and RichRod and Co. will be out to prove themselves. How will Rosen react in his first truly hostile environment? While you’d like to call this game a “tone-setter” for the Pac-12 South, the top teams are so evenly matched, a season-long tone will be hard to come by. Arizona 27, UCLA 20

Game of the Weak: Colorado vs. Nicholls State (FCS opponent)

Mercifully, the final Pac-12 vs. FCS matchup. Colorado 47, Nicholls State 13

The Rest

Arizona State 35, USC 28

The Trojans have wilted in their past two trips to Tempe – both in the late-September heat. After a knockdown, grind-out game the week before vs. Stanford, it will be a tall task for them to change that trend. If they do, it will be their defense that shows it’s upgraded compared to the recent past of this series. If not, D.J. Foster will once again terrorize them.

California 39, Washington 28

Some believe this game in Seattle will eventually decide third-place in the Pac-12 North. What a reward!? It says here that Cal is on the way up, and the Huskies are on the way to 2016.

Stanford 31, Oregon State 7 (Friday, Sept. 25)

Oregon 48, Utah 20

Week Five: October 3

Game of the Week: Arizona State @ UCLA

Keep lining up those Pac-12 South battles. The Bruins crushed the Sun Devils in Tempe a year ago. And the visiting team won each of the two seasons prior. Is it time for the home team to take one in this series? Is Rosen ready for his close-up? If the answer to the second question is yes, so it shall be to the first, as well. UCLA 30, Arizona State 28

Game of the Weak: Oregon @ Colorado

Well, after a cushy non-conference schedule, Buffs, say hi to the Ducks! Oregon 54, Colorado 24

The Rest

Stanford 38, Arizona 21

Following a big Pac-12 South win with a road trip to Palo Alto isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. The Wildcats take their first “L” of 2015.

California 60, Washington State 39

I wish I could call for back-to-back 60-59 battles between the Bears and Cougs. I just don’t see Wazzu holding up its end of the bargain.

Week Six: October 8-10

Game of the Week: Washington @ USC (Thursday, Oct. 8)

Sure, it’s Sark vs. Petersen for the first time. Should be interesting, though the Trojans look to have a clear edge. However, ahem, Pac-12 “leaders”: THURSDAY NIGHT GAMES IN LOS ANGELES MAKE NO SENSE. Have you ever seen a Thursday rush hour in L.A.? Have you? USC 44, Washington 24

Game of the Weak: Oregon State @ Arizona

There are times where the Beavers’ rebuild isn’t going to be pretty in 2015. This is one of them. Arizona 45, Oregon State 17

The Rest

Utah 38, California 31

All these tight games look familiar, Ute fans? How long can Utah continue to squeak out tough wins, especially at home?

Arizona State 42, Colorado 27

Oregon 57, Washington State 20

Week Seven: October 15-17

Game of the Week: UCLA @ Stanford (Thursday, Oct. 15)

Can the Bruins finally take a stand against the Cardinal on a Thursday night in Palo Alto? Kind of like my picks in Cal-Texas and USC-ASU, my feelings tend toward, “Prove it.” Stanford 34, UCLA 24

Game of the Weak: Oregon State @ Washington State

This is the worst kind of pick ’em. Washington State 35, Oregon State 27

The Rest

USC 38, Notre Dame 28

“Wonder-hype twin powers: activate!” I’m pretty sure USC will arrive in South Bend ranked. I’m not totally sold that the Irish will. If so, this one likely will be another classic. USC needs a big road win to get back into the national picture, while the Irish will be plenty revved up after last season’s 49-14 drubbing in L.A. Can ND’s secondary keep up with Kessler and his receivers? Is Malik Zaire the physical presence the Irish need to befuddle the Trojan D? Without a little Irish magic, this one should go USC’s way.

Arizona State 33, Utah 27

The Utes’ strong run in tight battles at home finally comes to an end.

Colorado 41, Arizona 38 (OT)

Oregon 43, Washington 13

Week Eight: October 22-24


Game of the Week:
Utah @ USC

The best of a so-so schedule this week, the Utes and Trojans have recently played a series of lighter-weight versions of USC’s battles with Stanford: a lot of defense, some sputtering offense, big hits, and odd twists. In L.A., USC comes out on top. USC 27, Utah 13

Game of the Weak: Colorado @ Oregon State

Sensing a trend with the Beavers, here, yet? Still, I’m looking for a CU road letdown after finally pulling off a home upset after so many close calls in 2014. Oregon State 27, Colorado 23

The Rest

UCLA 41, California 24 (Thursday, Oct. 22)

After the grind of facing Stanford, Cal’s less physical bunch feels like a load off to the Bruins. UCLA wins this Thursday night intra-system battle going away.

Stanford 37, Washington 7

Arizona 40, Washington State 20

Week Nine: October 29-31

Game of the Week: Oregon @ Arizona State (Thursday, Oct. 29)

The Ducks are back on track after the early loss at Michigan State. The Sun Devils are sitting atop the Pac-12 South. It’s likely to be a madhouse in Tempe. But does ASU have the horses on D to stick with Royce Freeman and Byron Marshall? Oregon 44, Arizona State 31

Game of the Weak: Colorado @ UCLA

The Buffs come in two wins short of bowl eligibility. The Buffs head home two wins short of bowl eligibility. UCLA 45, Colorado 17

The Rest

USC 42, California 34

With such a brutal road schedule, if Cal is to become bowl eligible in 2015, pulling off a shocker in this Halloween tilt seems imperative. Unfortunately for the Bears, their defense just isn’t quite up to full Pac-12 speed yet.

Arizona 38, Washington 28

Utah 33, Oregon State 17

Stanford 35, Washington State 13

Week 10: November 7

Game of the Week: Arizona @ USC

A Wildcat road upset would throw the division into a four-way mess. But the Trojans remain focused as Kessler shreds the Arizona secondary. USC 42, Arizona 27

Game of the Weak: UCLA @ Oregon State

The Beavers’ struggles continue as UCLA continues to hang around in the race for a berth in the Pac-12 title game. UCLA 31, Oregon State 14

The Rest

Oregon 57, California 28

The Ducks slice right through the Bears in Eugene, leaving Cal in need of two wins in its final three games to play December football.

Washington 22, Utah 20

This may be the Huskies best home chance for a conference win. The Utes’ propensity to play close ones bites them again.

Arizona State 41, Washington State 31

Stanford 27, Colorado 16

Week 11: November 13-14

Game of the Week: Oregon @ Stanford

After the Cardinal’s off year in 2014, this Pac-12 North showdown is back on the map. The good news for Stanford is that the mid-November scheduling gives its young defense plenty of time to prepare. The bad news is that it’s still Oregon’s offense. Can Kevin Hogan engineer one last defeat of the Ducks? Oregon 30, Stanford 24

Game of the Weak: Washington State @ UCLA

The Bruins really enjoy the Beaver/Cougar stretch of the schedule. UCLA 48, Washington State 22

The Rest

Arizona 38, Utah 17

The Wildcats were the lone South team to throttle the Utes in 2014. There’s no reason to think they won’t handle them in Tucson.

USC 44, Colorado 28 (Friday, Nov. 13)

California 52, Oregon State 31

Arizona State 38, Washington 23

Week 12: November 21

Game of the Week: USC @ Oregon

How big is it that Oregon faced Stanford on the road the week before? Can USC play the same kind of assignment football on defense that allowed it to win its last visit to Autzen (2011)? Does USC have enough weapons to victimize the Ducks’ back seven? The pick comes down to this: how often has any team won consecutive visits to Autzen during Oregon’s recent run? Oregon 45, USC 35

Game of the Weak: Washington @ Oregon State

A candidate for the season’s worst conference game. Oregon State 19, Washington 17

The Rest

Arizona State 41, Arizona 34

The Sun Devils keep the heat on USC in the South by gaining revenge against the Cats in Tempe.

Stanford 42, California 20

The Cardinal maintain their stranglehold on the Axe in Palo Alto.

Utah 26, UCLA 16

Utah defense. November weather. Salt Lake City crowd. Freshman Rosen. Utes bowl eligible.

Colorado 33, Washington State 30

The Buffs remain in play for bowl eligibility for the first time since joining the conference by winning in Pullman.

Week 13: November 27-28

Game of the Week: UCLA @ USC

The Bruins have won three straight over USC but – on the national stage – it’s brought them nothing of import. This week, USC’s the one playing for a second shot at Oregon – and a chance at a Rose Bowl berth. But the best news for USC? Brett Hundley is no longer in a UCLA uniform. USC 31, UCLA 24

Game of the Weak: Washington State @ Washington (Friday, Nov. 27)

Appropriately enough, the teams enter with the same record. Petersen and UW leave with the Apple Cup, once again. Washington 28, Washington State 27

The Rest

Oregon 50, Oregon State 17 (Friday, Nov. 27)

Eight (in a row) is great for the Ducks over the Beavers. On to the Pac-12 title game – and another chance to gain a College Football Playoff berth.

Stanford 28, Notre Dame 17

The Cardinal notches their 10th win by grinding down Zaire and the Irish.

California 45, Arizona State 42

The Bears not only become bowl eligible, but also put USC into the Pac-12 championship game by upsetting the Devils in a Berkeley shootout.

Utah 31, Colorado 19

The Utes crush the Buffs’ bowl dreams in Salt Lake City.

Week 14: Dec. 5

Pac-12 Championship Game

USC (10-2, 7-2) vs. Oregon (11-1, 9-0) – Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.

The Ducks find themselves in a familiar spot: in Santa Clara on the first weekend in December, looking to earn a berth in the College Football Playoff. These Trojans – even with the school’s pedigree – are in unfamiliar territory, playing in the conference championship game for the first time (they were ineligible due to NCAA sanctions when they won the South during the Pac-12’s first season in 2011). After the huge battle in Eugene two weeks before and an emotional rivalry victory over UCLA, does USC have something left in the tank for another meeting with the Ducks? Can Oregon top USC twice in three weeks? It comes down to which coaching staff you believe learned the most from the prior meeting. Oregon 38, USC 31

Predicted Pac-12 Standings 2015

North Division

  1. 1. Oregon (12-1, 9-0)
  2. 2. Stanford (10-2, 7-2)
  3. 3. California (6-6, 4-5)
  4. 4. Oregon State (4-8, 2-7)
  5. 5. Washington (4-8, 2-7)
  6. 6. Washington State (3-9, 1-8)
South Division

  1. 1. USC (10-3, 7-2)
  2. 2. Arizona State (8-4, 6-3)
  3. 3. Arizona (8-4, 5-4)
  4. 4. UCLA (8-4, 5-4)
  5. 5. Utah (7-5, 4-5)
  6. 6. Colorado (6-7, 2-7)

Going Bowling: Oregon, USC, Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona, UCLA, Utah, California

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached A.T. Thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).

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