Big Game Hunting: Pac-12 is staggered, but not out of the fight

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SHARE Big Game Hunting: Pac-12 is staggered, but not out of the fight

It would be going overboard — slightly — to categorize September as a disaster for the Pac-12, which generally was considered the nation’s No. 2 conference, behind only the SEC, heading into the season.

But then-No. 15 Arizona State did get blown out by Texas A&M in Week 1. Then-No. 7 Oregon did fall short at Michigan State in Week 2. And then No. 6 USC did indeed get smacked around by once-beaten league rival Stanford in Week 3.

Disaster? Maybe not. But the Pac-12 is nowhere close to the early position it hoped to be in with regard to the College Football Playoff. And this is going to be a damaging Saturday for three of the presumed contenders for the league title.

There are two head-to-head matchups of top 25 teams in college football this weekend, and both are in the Pac-12: No. 9 UCLA at No. 16 Arizona (7 p.m., Ch. 7) and No. 18 Utah at No. 13 Oregon (7:45 p.m., Fox-32). A third contest — No. 19 USC at Arizona State (9:30 p.m., ESPN) — pits the preseason favorites in the South division against each other.

UCLA, Arizona and Utah all are yet unblemished at 3-0. A second defeat by any of the others surely would be fatal in terms of the playoff.

“All the games are big, as I told the team, but you can sense or feel that the big-game feel on campus this week, whether I want to preach or not, is there,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “It is a division game against a highly ranked and undefeated team. Our guys came to Arizona to play in these big games, and they get a chance to do it on Saturday.”

A team in the Wildcats’ position — undefeated, yet with a weaker-than-weak nonconference schedule — probably can’t afford a single loss. The same likely is true of the Utes, who did notch a high-profile victory over Michigan. Both Arizona and Utah are underdogs Saturday, by three and 11½ points, respectively.

UCLA learned this week it’ll be without injured star linebacker Myles Jack for the rest of the season. The Wildcats, meanwhile, are hoping to have linebacker Scooby Wright — their best player throughout a 10-win breakout in 2014 — back on the field. Arizona has the healthier defense, and the Bruins are quarterbacked by a true freshman, Josh Rosen. Add to that the crowd-pumping presence of ESPN’s “GameDay” gang and you may just have enough for an upset. Let’s go with the ’Cats, 38-31.

Utah’s defense is one of the best in the conference, but Oregon seems ready to get on a roll as long as quarterback Vernon Adams can stay healthy. The Ducks — and Stanford — may still be the class of this league. Oregon pulls away late, 34-20.

The pressure on USC to avoid a losing streak — and to get revenge on Arizona State — is huge. A year ago in Los Angeles, Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici led three touchdown drives in the final 3:53 of a 38-34 victory, the last touchdown coming on a Hail Mary pass to stun the Trojans. A sign of trouble for ASU: Bercovici was sacked a ridiculous nine times by Texas A&M. That’s why I like the Trojans to cover the 5½-point spread.

No. 3 TCU at Texas Tech (3:45 p.m.) has a lot of folks thinking upset. The Horned Frogs have yet to perform like national-title contenders this season, and a defense hit extraordinarily hard by injuries lost senior end Mike Tuaua to suspension this week. TCU is favored by only a touchdown in this clash of 3-0 squads, rather incredible considering the score of last year’s meeting was (are you read for this?) 82-27.

“I don’t think you forget losses like that,” said Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury.

If Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes can play on a level with TCU star Trevone Boykin, this could be where the Frogs go down. I’ll roll with Boykin in a shootout, 44-41.

Can Jake Rudock avoid throwing costly interceptions as Michigan hosts No. 22 BYU (11 a.m., Ch. 7)? Rudock already has thrown five of them. BYU’s defense is tied for the FBS lead with seven INTs. It’s going to be tough for the Wolverines to cover the 5½ points. I’ll take the Fightin’ Harbaughs by just a field goal.

My favorite favorite: No. 24 Oklahoma State (-3) at Texas (2:30 p.m., ESPN). The 3-0 Cowboys forced seven turnovers last weekend. Texas has a freshman quarterback, Jerrod Heard. The Longhorns are 1-2 and under a mountain of pressure. Is UT coach Charlie Strong joking when he still talks about winning the Big 12?

My favorite underdog: Mississippi State (+2) at Auburn. Both teams are 2-1. The difference: MSU has a senior star running the offense in Dak Prescott, while Auburn has … a mess.

Last week: 6-2 straight-up, 2-5-1 vs. the spread.

Season: 15-3 straight-up, 7-10-1 vs. the spread.


Northern Illinois at Boston College

The facts: Noon, ESPN3.

The records: Northern Illinois 2-1, Boston College 2-1.

The line: Eagles by 4½.

The story line: Huskies fans no doubt have seen many references to Darius Wade, the starting quarterback who was lost to BC due to a broken ankle sustained last week. Truth is, Wade wasn’t exactly killing it before that point. His likely replacement, Troy Flutie — Doug’s nephew — could develop into a pretty nice story. But what should concern Huskies fans is BC’s defense, ranked No. 1 nationally against both the run and the pass. That doesn’t leave an opposing offense many options. NIU was pretty excellent defensively itself last weekend at Ohio State, but was that real or a mirage?

Greenberg’s pick: BC, 24-14.

Massachusetts at No. 6 Notre Dame

The facts: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 5.

The records: UMass 0-2, Notre Dame 3-0.

The line: Irish by 29½.

The story line: Ladies and gentleman, we give you Irish coach Lou Holtz … sorry, make that Brian Kelly: “These are the games that concern me most, when everyone thinks they’re going to be easy games.” Yes, Kelly said that this week in reference to the upcoming matchup with the mighty Minutemen. Did he really mean it? Was he merely being nice? Either way, it’s a tune-up for the Irish, which is just what they need. Sixty minutes of good health would be just what the doctor ordered for Kelly’s impressive squad.

Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 38-7.

Middle Tennessee State at Illinois

The facts: 3 p.m., ESPNews.

The records: MTSU 2-1, Illinois 2-1.

The line: Illini by 6.

The story line: Illini quarterback Wes Lunt is doing a fine job of getting the ball out fast, and his line has been solid; Lunt has yet to be sacked through three games. But the team’s inability to finish drives in last weekend’s blowout loss at North Carolina has to be concerning. The absence of star receiver Mikey Dudek, who’s still fighting back from an AC injury, was felt big-time in Chapel Hill. MTSU’s explosive, high-scoring attack is led by quarterback Brent Stockstill, whose father, Rick, is the team’s head coach. The Blue Raiders’ only loss came at Alabama, a positive experience that should have them ready to compete with more of a Power 5 lightweight.

Greenberg’s pick: MTSU, 34-31.

Ball State at No. 17 Northwestern

The facts: 7 p.m., BTN.

The records: Ball State 2-1, Northwestern 3-0.

The line: Wildcats by 20.

The story line: Let’s not delay in bowing to Northwestern’s wonderful defense, which Stanford and Duke likely still can’t believe was so punishing and effective. But let’s also be honest: NU would be nowhere without its defense. So look at this as the game in which the Wildcats must make major improvements offensively. “We haven’t played three phases of clean football in our first three games,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to find a way to win. I think we’re far from the team we’re capable of.” It’ll take a while longer to get there.

Greenberg’s pick: Northwestern 30, Ball State 16.

Follow me on twitter @slgreenberg


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