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Athlon previews the coming week of gridiron action in the Pac-12 Conference.
After two weeks of action, it has become clear that the Pac-12 is much better than originally believed. Week 2 featured landmark victories over major powers from the Big Ten (Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois) and Big 12 (Oklahoma State) as well as victories over the ACC (Duke) and Big East (Syracuse). However, the same couldn't be said for Pac-12 contender wanna-be's Washington and Utah — both of whom now need to pick themselves off the mat after crushing defeats.
Pac-12's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Week 3:
1. Can USC clear first real hurdle?
Stanford, under Jim Harbaugh, was a thorn in the side of USC. The Cardinal have won three straight over the Trojans and four of the last five. Harbaugh is now coaching what might be the best football team on the planet across the bay and Andrew Luck is a Colt. Lane Kiffin's group made a long trip East to New Jersey last week and were sluggish at times in the win over Syracuse. Meanwhile, Stanford welcomed back defensive leader Shayne Skov and showed marked improvement from Week 1. But can Josh Nunes play turnover-free, efficient enough football to hang with the SoCal powerhouse? Can the offensive line open up holes for Stepfan Taylor therefore keeping Matt Barkley on the sideline? Can Skov, and the secondary in particular, slow down the dynamic duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee — a tandem who scored five touchdowns last week? The Farm needs to be a factor as well if Stanford expects to pull the upset at home over the nation's preseason No. 1.
2. The Holy War's extra implications
It might be the best-named rivalry game in all of college football and, unfortunately, fans will be without an annual BYU-Utah tilt for the near future. The longtime in-state rivals are scheduled to play in 2013 in Provo, but after that they are not slated to not meet again until 2016. Beyond that, the future of this intense battle is completely up in the air. Will BYU join a conference and how would that impact scheduling? Does the nine-game conference slate of the Pac-12 spoil what is one of the nation's top rivalries? To top it all off, Utah is reeling and needs a win bad while the Cougars have looked very impressive on both sides of the ball in two wins. What is worse, Utah will be without its starting quarterback for the rest of the season.
3. Familiar quarterback concerns at Utah, Washington State
The Utes will battle with BYU this weekend in desperate need of a win and will be doing so without Jordan Wynn. The oft-injured passer who created balance in Week 1 for the Utes announced his retirement from the game after a serious injury to his left shoulder. Jon Hays, who was rather ineffective as a passer but went 6-3 in place of Wynn last season, will likely battle with rising star Travis Wilson for the right to quarterback this team. Hays brings experience and a veteran resume while Wilson has outstanding raw athletic ability and obvious upside. Kyle Whittingham will likely play both, but Wilson is clearly the future of this team. Up in Pullman, another familiar story dotted the boxscore last week: Jeff Tuel left the game with an injury. Tuel had a brace on his knee while watching practice this week and it appears he won't be ready to go for the UNLV game. Expect Connor Halliday — who threw for almost 800 yards in two starts last season — to get the nod in the Cougars' final non-conference tilt of the season.
4. Is Arizona State for real?
A win is a win. But Arizona State's 2-0 record and 108 total points scored will be brought into focus this weekend when the Sun Devils head to Missouri. The 45-14 win over Illinois was impressive, but the Illini were without starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and ASU took advantage. The backfield for Todd Graham has been stellar with two quarterbacks and three runners all playing well to this point. But Mizzou will easily be the toughest test of the year for Arizona State and fans will have a much clearer picture of what this team really is after this weekend. If Graham can lead his team into Columbia and pull off the upset, all bets are off on this team's potential. If the Tigers, who are coming off one of their worst fourth quarters in recent memory against Georgia, roll up another 501 yards of offense and 30 points like they did against ASU last year, the Devils will return to the desert with their first loss of the year.
5. Is this Colorado's last chance for a win in 2012?
The Buffs have gotten off to one of the worst starts in program history and arguably the worst start of any BCS conference team in the nation. A loss to the Mountain West and FCS doesn't bode well for Jon Embree's chances at improvement this fall. Now, Colorado is a two-touchdown underdog to Fresno State — and it might be the best chance it has to get a win in 2012. That's right, CU faces nine Pac-12 opponents the rest of the way and won't be close to being favored in any of them. A road trip to Washington State next week is the only game fans can point to with any confidence at all. The Buffaloes will host UCLA, Arizona State, Stanford, Washington and Utah while visiting USC, Oregon and Arizona. An 0-12 season is a definite possibility.
6. Can Cal's passing attack take advantage of Ohio State's secondary?
The cross-country trip to Columbus has Cal more than a touchdown underdog to Ohio State. But if there is one chance for the Golden Bears to keep the game within reach, it will come on the arm of Zach Maynard. Through two games, the Buckeyes are ranked 96th nationally against the pass (281.0 ypg). Some of that can be attributed to teams trailing in both games, but Maynard has a trio of pass-catchers that will stretch the field vertically. Keenan Allen, Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper are talented and over-looked in a league loaded with receiving talent and they might be Cal's only hope to pull off a miraculous upset over Ohio State.
7. Surging Bruins are looking for revenge
Houston compiled 469 total yards of offense in the 38-34 win over UCLA last fall. Gone is Kevin Sumlin, gone is Case Keenum and gone is the Cougars' competitive edge. This team is 0-2 with ugly losses to Texas State and Louisiana Tech thus far while UCLA has been one of the more improved teams in the nation through two weeks. And even though Jim Mora Jr., his coaching staff and quarterback Brett Hundley weren't a part of last year's season-opening defeat to UH, fans can bet that Johnathan Franklin, the nation's leading rusher at 215.5 yards per game, hasn't forgotten. Look for the Bruins to roll up a big number against the Cougs and continue their early season success.
8. Cupcake City comes at right time
Playing Tennessee Tech really serves no purpose for Chip Kelly and Oregon whatsoever, but Washington and Arizona need the "break" this week. The Huskies returned from Baton Rouge to lick their wounds after LSU dominated the Dawgs 41-3. Keith Price was beaten up and had little time to do anything. Portland State should offer no such trouble and will give Price and company a chance to get right. Meanwhile, Arizona is coming off a big upset over Oklahoma State and is in prime let-down alert position. However, Arizona should have no such issues with South Carolina State this weekend.
9. The Beavers get rare unlucky bye week
After having their first game against Nicholls State postponed until the final week of the regular season, Oregon State won a massive game over a top-15 team in Wisconsin in Week 2. So with an open date this week, Mike Riley's team will enter Week 4 having played one game. It will be interesting to see if it helps or hurts OSU's momentum heading into back-to-back road games against UCLA and Arizona.
10. Heisman Trophy Tracker off the charts in Pac-12
USC has three legitimate Heisman candidates in Barkley, Lee and Woods. Oregon has three legit contenders in Kenjon Barner, De'Anthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota. UCLA has the best new quarterback in the nation in Hundley and the country's top rusher in Franklin. The explosive offensive talent in this league is extraordinary and Heisman voters need to make sure they are staying up late on Saturdays. And I didn't even mention Keith Price, John White, Keenan Allen, Marquess Wilson or Stepfan Taylor. There is a reason five of the top 20 scoring teams in the nation through two weeks hail from the Pac-12.
Week 3 Pac-12 Predictions:
|Week 3 Pac-12 Games||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|Washington St (-8.5) at UNLV||Wazzu, 24-17||Wazzu, 27-13||Wazzu 38-13||Wazzu, 28-14|
|Cal (+17) at Ohio St||Ohio St, 45-24||Ohio St, 28-14||Ohio St 34-20||Ohio St, 28-14|
|Tennessee Tech at Oregon||Oregon, 56-10||Oregon, 54-10||Oregon 62-10||Oregon, 70-7|
|Portland St at Washington||Wash., 45-7||Wash., 41-10||Wash. 45-10||Wash., 42-17|
|Arizona St (+6.5) at Missouri||Mizzou, 34-24||Mizzou, 32-24||Mizzou 34-27||Mizzou, 31-17|
|USC (-7.5) at Stanford||USC, 35-21||USC, 38-24||USC 38-20||USC, 35-21|
|Colorado (+14) at Fresno St||Fresno, 31-20||Fresno, 30-17||Fresno 34-17||Fresno, 21-14|
|BYU (-4) at Utah||Utah, 21-20||BYU, 24-14||BYU 30-17||BYU, 35-21|
|South Carolina St at Arizona||Arizona, 45-13||Arizona, 44-10||Arizona 55-7||Arizona, 56-10|
|Houston (+17) at UCLA||UCLA, 41-17||UCLA, 38-24||UCLA 48-27||UCLA, 38-21|
by Braden Gall
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