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Athlon previews the coming week of gridiron action in the Pac-12 Conference.
USC and Oregon are still on a collision course for Nov. 3. Yet, both divisions appear to be much improved. And what's more interesting is the hierarchy shift in both the North and South that took place last week. Oregon State and Washington could be the top challengers in the North while Arizona State and UCLA look like the best bets to topple USC in the South. UCLA and Oregon State have must-win games this weekend, while Washington's season could be on the line in Eugene. And the wild and crazy Player of the Year race out West will undoubtedly take another big turn this weekend as well.
Pac-12's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 6:
1. Can the Washington offensive line protect Keith Price?
Three injuries to the Huskies offensive line had Keith Price running for his life last week against Stanford. Luckily, it didn't impact the outcome of the game. But if Washington cannot give its quarterback time to throw this weekend, U of W will be in for a long night. The Ducks posted seven sacks a week ago against Washington State and has returned three interceptions for touchdowns in the last two games. The only score UW allowed last weekend was on a Price INT returned for six points — and it nearly gave Stanford the win. The Dawgs can't afford such mistakes in a game they need to play perfectly to win.
2. Huskies defense must step up for a second straight week
Trying to stop Chip Kelly's offense is an exercise in futility. Pick your poison: Stop one running back and the other goes for 200 yards. Gear up to stop the ground attack and Marcus Mariota will stretch the field with his arm and athleticism. The Washington defense showed massive improvement last week, holding Stanford to 65 yards rushing. But that was at home on a Thursday night against Josh Nunes. This is the three-time defending conference champ. The Ducks have won eight straight over Washington and have scored 45.8 points in the last five meetings. Steve Sarkisian needs another magical performance from his defense to end Oregon's recent dominance in this series. Nothing would be sweeter for Huskies defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who grew up 15 minutes from Eugene and played at Oregon.
3. Great teams win these types of games
Looking at you UCLA (and maybe Oregon State too). If Jim Mora and the Bruins want to be taken seriously on a national level as a Pac-12 contender, this is a game they have to win. Cal is better than its 1-4 mark indicates, but great teams don't lose to teams on the verge of collapse. If Johnathan Franklin and Brett Hundley can't take advantage of the league's worst rushing defense then they likely don't deserve to compete with USC and Arizona State for the South Division title. The Trojans and Sun Devils have defeated the Bears with relative ease over the last two weeks and a loss for UCLA would drop them to 1-2 in the league with four division games still left on the schedule. Great teams simply don't lose these games.
4. Can Josh Nunes bounce back after the loss?
The Stanford quarterback struggled mightily in his first road start. While coach David Shaw called talks of a quarterback switch "asinine," Nunes knows he cannot afford too many more performances like last Thursday night in Seattle. He completed only 48.4 percent of his 37 passes, giving him two straight games in which he failed to complete at least half of his attempts. Arizona's improved offense will be able to score points and Nunes cannot allow the Wildcats to stack the box like Washington did last week. He has to be more accurate if the Cardinal are going to hold serve at home.
5. How does the Arizona line of scrimmage perform?
Stanford might feature the most physical lines, on both side of the ball, in the league. The Cardinal's defensive front seven is downright nasty and will get after Matt Scott and Ka'Deem Carey while the o-line will look to push around the 'Zona defensive line. The match-up is a bad one for the more finesse Wildcats. They don't pressure the quarterback (last in the Pac-12 in sacks) and they don't stop the power running game (11th in rushing defense). If Stanford can get Stepfan Taylor rolling like he was against USC and give Josh Nunes time to throw, it could be a long day for the 'Cats defense. And it will likely put too much pressure on the offense to convert on third down.
6. How many interceptions will Matt Barkley throw?
The struggles of Utah have taken a lot of the luster off of this Thursday night game. But USC is still a national contender playing on the road in primetime against a program accustomed to winning. So while I would love to say 'anything can happen,' the likely storyline coming out of Salt Lake City on Friday morning will be the performance of Matt Barkley. He has four interceptions in his last two games and his pursuit of the Heisman Trophy has slowed to a crawl the last few weeks. Look for Lane Kiffin to get his star quarterback on track against a defense that was torched the last time out — try 326 yards and three touchdowns from first-year Arizona State starter Taylor Kelly. I wouldn't be surprised to see USC roll up a big number on the Utes.
7. Sean Mannion must take care of business at home
Washington State is struggling. Oregon State is unbeaten. This game was a blowout in favor of the Beavers a year ago. All signs point to Mannion and company taking care of business against an over-matched opponent. However, Mike Leach's bunch will likely pull off one upset this season at some point. Mike Riley knows this is the weakest opponent his team has faced all year, so guarding against a major letdown is paramount. Fans can expect big numbers in the passing game from both teams. This match-up features the No. 1 (Oregon St) and No. 3 (Wazzu) passing games in the league as both average more than 333 yards per game. And these are the worst two passing defenses in the Pac-12 (112th and 113th in the nation respectively).
Week 6 Pac-12 Predictions:
|Week 6 Pac-12 Games||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|USC (-14) at Utah||USC, 31-14||USC, 34-13||USC 34-13||USC, 35-13|
|Arizona (+9) at Stanford||Stanford, 24-21||Stanford, 30-27||Stanford 27-24||Arizona, 28-24|
|Washington St (+15.5) at Oregon St||Ore. St, 35-21||Ore. St, 37-20||Ore. St, 34-20||Ore. St, 31-13|
|UCLA (-2.5) at Cal||UCLA, 31-24||UCLA, 27-21||UCLA 34-24||UCLA, 28-10|
|Washington (+24) at Oregon||Oregon, 41-21||Oregon, 38-17||Oregon 45-24||Oregon, 42-21|
Bye: Arizona St., Colorado
by Braden Gall
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