The 2013 Pac-12 football season kicks off with a slate of games against non-conference opponents who vary in quality. Only Stanford and Arizona State are idle in Week 1, so fans will have no fewer than ten games to watch from Thursday through Sunday. Here is your guide to how each of them might unfold, arranged in chronological order with predictions and point spreads. Times are PDT.
Utah State at Utah (Thursday, 5 PM, FOX):
Some uncertainty surrounds Utah in 2013 after they lost their best defensive player, Star Lotulelei, to the NFL and their best offensive player, running back John White, to the CFL. Even before Lotulelei and White left, Utah State stunned the Utes last year when they hosted this game. Back in the confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium, always a challenge for visitors, Utah will hope to start the season on a higher note. Bowl eligibility for a team of untested players at many positions should be nip and tuck for most of the season, so Utah cannot afford to let winnable games like these slip away. Nor can the Pac-12 afford to let its members fall to opponents from lesser conferences, such as the MWC to which Utah State belongs. Young but already battle-tested quarterback Travis Wilson leads a transition to a faster tempo as Utah hopes to ignite an offense that scored points far too inconsistently in 2012.
Utah by 10
USC at Hawaii (Thursday, 8 PM, CBS):
Athletic Director Pat Haden continues to profess belief in head coach Lane Kiffin, who presided over a meltdown of historic proportions last year. But the Trojan faithful are neither accustomed to nor content with mediocrity, so Kiffin enters 2013 with one of the smallest margins for error in college football. His father and defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, deservedly bore much of the blame for USC’s collapse. The elder Kiffin’s exit over the offseason allows the Trojans to turn a new leaf on that side of the ball, although the differences will not be fully appreciated until the conference schedule starts. Hawaii has experienced some internal turmoil of its own after head coach Norm Chow fired his offensive coordinator early in fall practices. The Rainbow Warriors mustered little resistance in the first edition of this home-and-home series last year. Their porous defense should give a new USC quarterback plenty of chances to find Heisman candidate Marqise Lee and complementary deep threat Nelson Agholor.
USC by 24
Northern Arizona at Arizona (Friday, 7 PM, Pac-12 Network):
A true “cupcake game,” Arizona’s opener pits them against an FCS opponent that they defeated by more than 50 points last year. Two key questions surround the Wildcats in their second year under Rich Rodriguez, one on offense and one on defense. The first is whether whoever wins the three-way quarterback competition to replace Matt Scott can come close to replacing Scott’s production, so crucial to Arizona’s successes last year. The second is how much one of the worst defenses of any program in a major conference has improved with experience. This mismatch probably will not give clear answers to either of those questions, although it might allow Rodriguez to evaluate which of his three quarterbacks should get the early nod.
Arizona by 30
Nicholls State at Oregon (Saturday, 1 PM, FOX)/Eastern Washington at Oregon State (Saturday, 3 PM, Pac-12 Network):
Not much to see here, except offensive explosions from both Oregon schools as they square off against FCS opponents. The Ducks should rout Nicholls State even more emphatically than the Beavers demolish Eastern Washington, but neither game should be competitive at halftime. Oregon State may use the opportunity to evaluate both of its competing quarterbacks, Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz. Each has clear talents and significant flaws, and they split duties last year as well. Viewers will not learn much of consequence about Oregon in its opener, so they can spend it getting used to the sight of Mark Helfrich—or rather the absence of Chip Kelly. One wonders whether Helfrich will adopt some of Kelly’s signature moves, such as the two-point conversion attempt after the initial touchdown or an apparent allergy to field goals.
Oregon by 55; Oregon State by 38
Washington State at Auburn (Saturday, 4 PM, ESPNU/WatchESPN):
Featuring two of the worst programs in two of the nation’s best conferences, this odd matchup could set the tone for Washington State’s entire season. Lest that sound like hyperbole, think back to their first game last year at BYU. Under a heavily hyped new coach, Mike Leach, the Cougars traveled to Provo with real hopes of victory and a strong expectation that they would be competitive. They were not, failing to score a touchdown despite Leach’s offensive prowess and plummeting in morale once adversity struck. Both of those trends defined most of a disastrous season for Washington State, so the 2013 opener offers Leach and the Cougars a chance to show their improvements in a similar situation. This game pits strength against strength (Washington State offense against Auburn defense) and weakness against weakness (Auburn offense against Washington State defense.) While Auburn won the national title just three years ago, they suffered a 2012 campaign almost as demoralizing as Washington State’s disaster. They should arrive equally eager for redemption, so expect a fierce battle.
Auburn by 6
Nevada at UCLA (Saturday, 7 PM, Pac-12 Network):
Dual-threat quarterback Brett Hundley will shoulder a greater burden in his second year at UCLA, now that elite running back Johnathan Franklin has departed for the NFL. Hundley can make spectacular plays with both his arm and his legs, as long as his offensive line keeps him upright more effectively than they did in 2012. To repeat as South Division champions, UCLA will need a stronger performance in that area and a credible running game to keep opponents guessing. Nevada plays its first game without the guidance of Chris Ault, who served the program in multiple roles for more than four decades. Under Ault, the pioneer of the pistol offense, the Wolf Pack scored plenty of points and allowed plenty of points as well. (At the New Mexico Bowl last season, they lost 49-48 to Arizona.) UCLA shared those traits last year despite coach Jim Mora’s experience as a defensive coordinator. The man who ended Matt Barkley’s college career, linebacker Anthony Barr hopes to spearhead a more seasoned Bruins defense to a higher level of success in 2013. The versatility of Nevada’s offensive weapons will not make it easy, especially if UCLA’s issues with penalties persist.
UCLA by 14
Boise State at Washington (Saturday, 7 PM, FOX):
Normally a firm disciplinarian, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian showed how much this game means to his program by declining to suspend star tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins after a DUI. Seferian-Jenkins lies at the core of Washington’s quest to avenge a loss to Boise State in the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl as they open the new Huskies Stadium. Also vital for their hopes is quarterback Keith Price, who regressed last year from a breakthrough 2011 campaign. Some of Price’s struggles could be traced to a woeful offensive line, but he also made poor decisions on many occasions when he had time. Improvements in the offensive line and the evolving talents of running back Bishop Sankey should take some of the pressure off Price, but the Boise State defense is notoriously stingy. In one of college football’s strongest divisions, the Pac-12 North, Washington needs to make an early statement to prove that it can contend with front-runners Oregon and Stanford. Setting up the Huskies for a 4-0 start, a win also would wipe out the sour taste of how last season ended with a meltdown against lowly Washington State in the Apple Bowl.
Washington by 7
Northwestern at Cal (Saturday, 7:30 PM, ESPN2):
Like Utah, Cal needs to collect some early victories that build confidence ahead of a brutal stretch. One of the conference’s most difficult schedules includes games against three likely top-five teams in Oregon, Stanford, and Ohio State. Before that baptism of fire, this game will hint at how thoroughly a Cal offense that stagnated for much of 2012 has embraced the philosophy of its new mentor. After last year’s train wreck, Athletic Director Sandy Barbour bit the bullet and spurned sentiment. Barbour replaced long-serving, once-beloved head coach Jeff Tedford with the far more aggressive Sonny Dykes. A disciple of Mike Leach, Dykes will bring his Air Raid offense from Louisiana Tech to Strawberry Canyon while deploying promising speedster Brendan Bigelow at running back. To fly smoothly, the Air Raid needs quality play from true freshman quarterback Jared Goff in his college debut. Northwestern is a strong but not spectacular squad, which means that Cal could lose even if they play reasonably well. It also means that the Golden Bears should play without much pressure, since expectations cratered after last year.
Northwestern by 10
Colorado State at Colorado (Sunday, 3 PM, CBS):
This game looks like another of the notorious “cupcakes” at first glance, but it is not. No team that won just one game in 2012 can enter the 2013 season with even a dash of complacency, no matter how unheralded the opponent. In fact, FCS Colorado State shocked Colorado last year in the first of what became an endless series of humiliations for the Pac-12 cellar dweller. The program cannot expect more than three or four victories this year under new coach Mike MacIntyre, and this game must count as one of them. MacIntyre earned a reputation at San Jose State as a fine defensive mind, so he should rise to the challenge of stopping an FCS-level offense. He will hope that his Pac-12 debut unfolds more like those of UCLA’s Jim Mora or Arizona State’s Todd Graham than Washington State’s Mike Leach. Ironically, though, MacIntyre’s raw materials are less impressive than what he had with San Jose State.
Colorado by 13