For some, the build-up to the start of the college football season is as fun a time as any in the calendar year. Off-season coaching changes, high profile recruiting classes, and high expectations for the coming year all mix together during the long summer months to create an eagerness and anticipation that piques as those final weeks leading up to the opening game near.
As we approach the start of the 2012 season InsideTheUtes will break down the top games in the Pac-12 conference for each of the 13 weeks of the 2012 season letting you know what you need to watch for every Saturday this fall.
Game of the Week – Week 6
USC @ Utah
Although it's still over a month away, the release of the AP Preseason Top-25 has many Utah fans looking ahead to one game on their schedule. Not the opener, not BYU, but October 4th against USC. That's the day the #1 team in the country is scheduled to play in Rice-Eccles stadium – or at least that's what Ute fans are hoping for. USC's early season schedule isn't easy by any stretch, but barring any unexpected losses Ute fans should get their wish.
Everybody knows who and what USC is this season. They won't fool anybody with surprise players, trick plays, or fancy formations. They're going to line up in their pro-style offense and with Matt Barkley, Silas Redd, and Robert Woods (among MANY others) they'll run and throw as good or better than any other team in the country – and they'll dare you to stop them.
Utah, more than any other team on USC's schedule up to that point, may be best equipped on defense to slow the Trojans down. Utah is expected to have one of the better defensive units in the Pac-12 and the players will be ready for this game.
Let's flash back to 2011. Utah had just trudged their way through their opener against Montana State. They got the win, but didn't look pretty in doing it. Jordan Wynn's arm looked questionable at best. And the Utah defense was filled with talented but inexperienced starters at multiple positions. Despite all of their shortcomings the Utes played USC as well as any team would that season and had they got their final field goal attempt away unblocked who knows what could have happened in overtime.
This year is different, sure, but USC isn't the only team that got better. Utah has added and returns many quality offensive and defensive players that should allow them to give their home crowd a good show. Are they good enough to beat USC? Sure. Would it make for dramatic Thursday night must-watch TV? Absolutely. Do I think it will happen? Unfortunately not (but ask me again on October 3rd).
Prediction: USC 27 Utah 26
Game of the Week – Week 5
This week's matchup features two of the top teams in the North battling it out for what will be a very important win this early in the season. Conference wins are important, but division wins are critical and while everyone expects the North will be dominated by Oregon, Stanford and Washington are the two schools on that ‘next tier' ready to take the Duck's place should they stumble.
Stanford @ Washington
With Husky Stadium currently undergoing massive renovations, Washington (much like Cal last year) has been displaced for the 2012 season. The Huskies, however, have found a much better landing place in CenturyLink Field – home of the Seattle Seahawks – and unlike Cal won't be forced to play their home games in a baseball stadium.
Washington's offense is the focus of this year's team as they return quarterback Keith Price who unexpectedly blew much of the conference away last season. His play has helped Husky fans quickly forget about Jake Locker and have them raising their expectations for the team over next two seasons.
The major question for this UW team is the defense and whether or not they can improve their play from a season ago. The Huskies do return defensive end Josh Shirley and cornerbacks Sean Parker and Desmond Trufant, core pieces to what could be a much improved group; but until they prove that they can consistently hold teams to under 30 points it's going to be hard for them to improve on last season's record.
Stanford, on the other hand, has to say goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks to ever play college football and welcome in a fresh, young face. Whoever the Cardinal name as their starter will have a lot of help in the backfield as returning all-conference running back Stepfan Taylor is expected to carry much of the offensive load this season. His durability and production will go a long way in helping ease their new quarterback into an offense that hopes to continue to be a force in this conference as it has been these past few seasons.
The Stanford defense should be great again as all-conference linebacker Shane Skov returns from injury and joins Chase Thomas in what is probably the strongest linebacking corps in the Pac-12. These players alone have the ability to keep Stanford in games but mixed with the rest of the Cardinal defense they'll make them a formidable group to play against.
Husky Stadium is one-of-a-kind when it comes to on-field atmosphere. The intensity of the fans and the noise volume that it can create is rivaled by very few home fields in college football. CenturyLink Field gives Washington a home field advantage as near to or better than Husky Stadium that no other displaced team in the country could hope to find. The fans will be there, the intensity will be there, and whoever gets the nod at QB for Stanford is going to have a tough time consistently generating offense in that environment. I expect the Huskies to win this game by at least two scores.
Prediction: Washington 32 Stanford 16
Game of the Week – Week 4
Week 4 means the end of out-of-conference games for the majority of conference teams and the beginning of the Pac-12 grind. Two months and 9 conference games are the only things that sit between each conference member and a shot at the Rose Bowl. Teams dive in head first this week, so let's get started with our Week 4 choice.
Cal @ USC
Thanks to their annual matchup with Notre Dame at the end of each season USC is forced to open conference play week 3 at Stanford after likely dismantling both Hawaii and Syracuse to open their 2012 campaign. Their early season showdown with one of the best teams in the North Division will be a big help in their preparation for their week 4 matchup with Cal. The Bears on the other hand have the wonderful opportunity of traveling to the Coliseum for their conference opener one week after a cross-country trip to Columbus, Ohio and a showdown with Urban Meyer's Ohio State Buckeyes.
One team has an advantage here, the other does not. I'll let you decide which is which.
Despite the scheduling advantage I expect this to be a good game. Cal returns the bulk of one of the best defenses in the conference and pits them against one of the most powerful offensive attacks in the country. As Coach Lane Kiffin has pointed out USC's offensive weakness is its run game, and unless it's addressed in the transfer market they'll likely enter the 2012 season with Curtis McNeal their starter. Cal's front four should be strong enough to contain this run game which means they'll have more opportunities to drop defenders to defend Matt Barkley and his pass attack. The problem is USC is full of weapons through the air and although Cal's secondary is full of upperclassmen I doubt it will be enough to slow down the Trojans.
On offense I expect Cal will be a surprise to a lot of teams as they'll throw out weapons at each of the pivotal offensive positions. Quarterback Zach Maynard is a dual-threat quarterback who now has a year of experience in Tedford's system. He should be much better than he was a season ago and he'll team up with all-conference receiver Keenan Allen early and often. Running back Isi Sofele is good in space and has the ability to punish a defense with his speed but he isn't afraid to run between the tackles either. USC, though, isn't just any defense. They'll pressure Maynard despite losing defensive end Devon Kennard to a season-ending injury while DB's Nickell Robey and TJ McDonald will have their eyes on Allen hoping to keep the damage that he can deal to a minimum.
In the end Matt Barkley and the USC Trojans will prove to Cal and the rest of the North why they're the favorite to win the Pac-12 Championship this year.
Prediction: USC 35 Cal 17
Game of the Week – Week 3
Week 3 really turns up the heat on the Pac-12 as we start to see some of the best games so far in this young season. An argument can be made for a number of the available games which made this my most difficult choice yet. With an early season rivalry to consider (Utah/BYU), a North/South conference showdown (USC/Stanford), and a high-profile matchup between the Pac-12 and Big Ten (Cal/Ohio State) along with a list of other good matchups, which game would you choose?
BYU @ Utah
Okay so this game might not be the biggest conference game this week, but to most Utah fans it's definitely the biggest game of the week. Some will argue this choice because of their feelings toward the rivalry, but those who have been around the series know the types of games it typically produces and the level of excitement they can expect.
Remember last year? 54-10? I can promise you the BYU players and coaches do. Utah will face a much different team than the one they saw in Provo last year and they'll be ready to play this time around. Utah better be ready as well.
On offense Utah will run out many of the same players it did last season. Sophomore wide receiver Dres Anderson now has a year of experience under his belt as does tight end Jake Murphy, two players who scored for the Utes in last year's contest. Overall Utah's offense should be much stronger and will likely enter the game with a load of confidence, something it didn't seem to have before last year's game. The BYU defense returns 8 starters, some of whom are the best players on the team. BYU's strength is at linebacker where Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Ogletree, and Uona Kaveinga will look to limit John White's rushing attack hoping to force Utah to throw the ball if it wants to have success.
Utah didn't get to face BYU quarterback Riley Nelson last season so their defensive scheme may vary slightly from last year. Nelson's mobility gave many of BYU's opponent's heartburn last season but a year's worth of game film could help in that regard. The loss of running back Josh Quezada for the Cougars means Utah can expect to see a lot of Michael Alisa on the ground. Alisa is a big back who punishes defenders with his downhill running style. He saw limited playing time last season but averaged a whopping 5.4 yards per carry. At wideout the Cougars will start two of the best the Utes will face all season. Ross Apo and Cody Hoffman will give the young Utah secondary as much trouble as they can handle.
Prediction: Coming Soon
Other Notable Week 3 Matchups: Cal @ Ohio State, USC @ Stanford
Game of the Week – Week 2
Pac-12 teams turn up the intensity week 2 of the season as 7 of the 12 teams will face off against a BCS-conference opponent (compared to week 1 when none of the teams played a BCS foe). Picking the game of the week this time around was easy, but not for a lack of interesting matchups.
Washington @ LSU
Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge is easily one of the most difficult places to play in all of college football, so it goes without saying that the Huskies will have their work cut out for them. Washington returns Maxwell and O'Brien Trophy pre-season candidate Keith Price at quarterback along with some fantastic offensive weapons like tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins – but the LSU defense is as good as they come as Price will be staring down 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu along with one of the best defensive lines in the country.
LSU will likely enter the game as the nation's #1 team making this an even tougher test for the Huskies. But is it an impossible task for Washington? Not necessarily. The weakness of this LSU team is its offense, which plays favorably for the Huskies as it's the UW defense this season that carries the team's question marks. In my opinion this game will be won or lost when Washington has the ball, and if Keith Price can live up to the billing, which I believe he will, then it will make for one heck of an ESPN showdown.
How will the LSU crowd affect a team that is very familiar with a raucous home environment? What tricks will Les Miles the ‘Mad Hatter' himself unveil? Can Washington earn the Pac-12 an early-season national attention-grabbing win? Close, Huskies, but no cigar. LSU's dominant offensive line and power rushing attack will help break in new quarterback Zach Mettenberger and the Tiger defense will contain Price and the rest of the Huskies just enough for the Bayou Bengals to earn a nail-biting win.
Prediction: LSU 19 Washington 17
Other Notable Week 2 Matchups: Nebraska @ UCLA, Oklahoma State @ Arizona, Wisconsin @ Oregon State
Game of the Week – Week 1
Washington State at BYU
Scheduling a ‘warm-up game' early in the season seems to be the custom of many teams in college football these days. Rather than jumping right in to a high-profile game which could ultimately derail a season before it even begins, many teams opt to tune up their games against inferior foes before raising their level of difficulty. Not every team takes this approach (see Oregon-LSU 2011, Michigan-Alabama 2012 etc.), but it's a trend that has been growing over the past decade.
What this means to the fans is a small number of intriguing week one matchups surrounded by a much larger number of snoozers.
But fear not Pac-12 fans, not all of your conference-mates chose the easy road to start their 2012 campaign. While games like Nevada at Cal and Colorado vs Colorado State offer some intrigue, no opening week matchup is more interesting than the Thursday night battle between the Cougars (Washington State) and the Cougars (BYU).
Fresh off their national headline-stealing hiring of ex-Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, the Washington State Cougars are hoping his high-octane pass-centric offense will inject some quick energy into their under-achieving program. With players like WR Marquess Wilson and QB Jeff Tuel the potential is certainly there for Wazzu to have a breakout year. BYU on the other hand is looking to maintain their multi-year run of 10-win seasons and bowl game appearances while once again showcasing the blue and white at home on ESPN where they are always difficult to beat.
This game is interesting for many reasons. How will Mike Leach do in his first game? A win over a quality opponent like BYU on national television could go a long way in the growth of the Washington State program and could set the tone for a potential bowl-birth season. But the Cougars will provide a very difficult opening-game test for Leach. BYU rarely loses home-openers and this year's Cougar squad is as good as they've been in recent memory. How will QB Jeff Tuel play under Leach post-injury? Tuel lost much of last season after a fantastic 2010 and has the potential to be a breakout player in the Pac-12 in Leach's new offense - as long as he can stay healthy. Does a Wazzu loss spoil their 2012 season? Losing this game shouldn't be a quick end to Washington State's hopes for the year but it would immediately bring out the ‘you're still Washington State' comments and could potentially set the team back.
In the end the result here will go a long way in telling us whether or not Washington State will be a player in the Pac-12 North this season which is why I've pegged this as the most interesting Pac-12 matchup of week 1.
Prediction: BYU 32 Washington State 31
Other Notable Week 1 Games: Nevada at Cal, Colorado vs Colorado State (Invesco Field – Neutral)
Pac-12 Game of the Week - Week 6
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