This weekend features the first game between two ranked teams in the Pac-12 when Arizona State visits Stanford. But one-third of the conference looks ahead to a bye week, while the rest should improve the Pac-12’s non-conference record against generally straightforward opponents.
Stating their case: USC has spent much of the early season in the role of Hamlet, wavering between whether or not to reach their full potential. Confidence in whether or not they can contend for the South Division has waxed and waned in proportion. To be fair, those dramatic oscillations in quality mostly apply to the offense. The defense has shone from start to finish in all three of USC’s games, not allowing a touchdown in any of them until the fourth quarter and not allowing a touchdown at all in their loss. This unit must adapt to the multifaceted weapons of Chuckie Keeton, one of the nation’s best quarterbacks outside the major conferences. As Utah learned in their nail-biting win over Utah State, Keeton can catch lightning in a bottle at any moment. For their part, the Trojans finally started to catch lightning in a bottle offensively against Boston College, and the Aggies defense should have few answers to the athleticism of USC playmakers if aggressively and relentlessly deployed. Utah State at USC, 12:30 PM, ABC/ESPN2
They’ve done the hard part…: Washington and UCLA both traveled east to face teams from major conferences last week, and both of them won decisively. The Bruins especially impressed in demolishing No. 23 Nebraska while overcoming off-field adversity. That win ranked as the second-most impressive in the Pac-12 so far this year after Washington’s dominance over Boise State in its opener. Both of these promising squads look to reach 3-0 by overwhelming a pair of overmatched opponents in their home stadiums. Few people expect FCS Idaho State to threaten Washington or 0-3 New Mexico State to dazzle in the Rose Bowl, for neither team This weekend mostly offers a chance for both Pac-12 teams to earn some style points in their last tune-ups before conference play. Idaho State vs. Washington, 3 PM, Pac-12 Network; New Mexico State vs. UCLA, 7:30 PM, Pac-12 Network
Preview of December attractions? Arizona State’s visit to Stanford this week might offer a preview of the Pac-12 championship game, since each team is either the favorite or co-favorite to win its division. (People in Eugene, Westwood, and maybe Seattle would disagree with that assessment.) The Sun Devils likely will face no opponent more challenging in the regular season, while the Cardinal will find that this foe poses their sternest test on both sides of the ball until Oregon on November 7. Todd Graham runs an up-tempo spread offense with plenty of versatile playmakers, the type of scheme that has troubled Stanford’s defense before. Meanwhile, Arizona State’s fearsome defensive line anchored by Will Sutton will battle perhaps the best offensive line in the nation at the line of scrimmage.
Both teams arrive 2-0, Arizona State with the more impressive victory (over No. 20 Wisconsin) and Stanford with the more emphatic wins. Arizona State’s experience in playing a very close game against Wisconsin might serve them well, but this team has fallen flat in recent years when opportunity knocks for a major statement. First-down yardage and third-down efficiency will loom large as Arizona State runs approximately twice as many plays as Stanford. Arizona State at Stanford, 4 PM, FOX
More dominance, less drama: Most teams start their season in uneventful fashion, building in slow steps toward marquee games later in the season. Not so Oregon State, which lost a thriller to an FCS team in its opener and won an overtime thriller from Utah in its road opener. Even its second game lay tied 14-14 at halftime, so the Beavers have felt more than their share of stress in these early stages. In theory, they should not encounter much resistance from what appears to be one of the worst teams in the FBS. If Oregon State looked bad by losing to an elite FCS team in the final minute of its opener, San Diego State looked much, much worse by losing to an ordinary FCS team by three touchdowns in its opener. Sean Mannion’s five-touchdown, no-turnover night at Utah marked the best performance of his career and a strong reason for optimism moving forward. In fact, anything less than a rout should give Beavers fans cause for concern. The absence of a concussed Storm Woods should not be felt this week. Oregon State at San Diego State, 4:30 PM, CBS Sports Network
The battle for Utah, Part II: Having asserted their supremacy over Utah State, the Utes now travel to Provo for the last edition of the Holy War against BYU until 2017. Last year’s game ended in bizarre fashion when the BYU kicker missed multiple field-goal attempts in the final seconds, granted him by repeated penalties for Utah fans rushing the field too soon. After an encouraging start to the season, Travis Wilson and his unexpectedly explosive offense fell short in overtime to an even more explosive effort by Oregon State. BYU’s stiffer defense should slow a Utah team that reeled off 118 points in its last two games. That unit kept ACC and Big 12 offenses in check during the first two games against Virginia and Texas, although BYU lost the first of those. The Utes face their only road game in the first half of the season, so their performance away from Rice-Eccles Stadium could foreshadow how they will fare down the stretch. Utah at BYU, 7:15 PM, ESPN2
Half a bowl? After this weekend, Washington State should have its first three-game winning streak under Mike Leach and stand halfway to bowl eligibility. That position would mark a giant step forward for a program that rivaled Colorado for the worst of the conference last year. Three more wins may be hard to compile in a North Division where WSU will enter every game as heavy underdogs. Still, Cougars fans can be forgiven for scanning their calendars in search of those wins even ahead of Saturday. During Idaho’s 0-3 start to 2013 came a 40-6 rout by North Texas, hardly a powerhouse. But a tight loss to NIU, a conference champion and Orange Bowl team last year, may signal a rise in their fortunes. A team that collapsed against Colorado at home last year still has something to prove before it can slip into cruise control against anyone, the USC upset notwithstanding. Idaho at Washington State, 7:30 PM, Pac-12 Network