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Johnathan Franklin looks to lead UCLA to a win over Houston on Saturday.
by Steven Lassan and Mitch Light
Athlon will be making college football predictions for every game this season. Here are our picks for the first week's games in the PAC-12.
Montana State vs. Utah – Thursday, Sept. 1
This game will be the first for Utah as a member of the Pac-12. With a road trip to USC next week, it’s important for the Utes to get off to a good start against Montana State. The Bobcats finished 9-3 last year and is ranked No. 4 in Athlon’s 2011 preseason FCS poll. Quarterback DeNarius McGhee leads a dynamic offense, but the Bobcats struggled on defense last year. Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn has been limited throughout the offseason, after undergoing shoulder surgery. With a new coordinator (Norm Chow), a new starting running back (JUCO transfer John White) and Wynn looking to knock the rust off, the Utes could struggle early on. However, expect Utah to pull away in the second half.
Utah 41, Montana State 17
UC Davis vs. Arizona State – Thursday, Sept. 1
Is Arizona State ready to breakthrough in the Pac-12? Time will tell if the Sun Devils are ready to claim the Pac-12 South crown, but Thursday night’s opener should be a good confidence-builder for the Sun Devils. UC Davis went 6-5 last year and lost to California 52-3, in its only game against a FBS opponent. Arizona State hosts Missouri next week, so this matchup should be a good tuneup for the Tigers.
Arizona State 55, UC Davis 10
UCLA at Houston – Saturday, Sept. 3
Houston had big plans in 2010, but the Cougars’ season took several wrong turns in Week 3 at UCLA when starting quarterback Case Keenum was lost for the season with a torn ACL en route to a surprisingly lopsided 31–13 loss. Keenum is back for his sixth season on campus, and he would like nothing more than to start the year with a win over a BCS conference foe. To get that done, the Houston defense will have to find a way to slow down UCLA’s rushing attack, which ran for 266 yards and four scores in last year’s meeting. Expect more of the same this time. Much is being made about the UCLA quarterback situation — three QBs may play — but this game is all about Johnathan Franklin, Derrick Coleman and the Bruins’ running attack.
UCLA 30, Houston 24
Minnesota vs. USC – Saturday, Sept. 3
Outside of the Northwestern-Boston College matchup, this game holds the most intrigue for the Big Ten. Jerry Kill was the right hire for Minnesota, but the Gophers will face an uphill battle in the opener against USC. The Trojans return one of the top quarterbacks in college football in Matt Barkley, as well as dynamic sophomore receiver Robert Woods. The offensive line remains a question mark, but Minnesota struggled to generate a pass rush last season. Unless the front four can get pressure on Barkley, the Golden Gophers’ secondary could be in for a long afternoon. Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray could exploit a USC defense that struggled last year, but the Gophers simply don’t have the firepower to pull off the upset.
USC 38, Minnesota 17
Sacramento State vs. Oregon State – Saturday, Sept. 3
The Beavers are coming off a disappointing 5-7 record and replacing running back Jacquizz Rodgers won’t be easy. However, there are reasons for hope in Corvallis. Quarterback Ryan Katz is ready to emerge as a star and receiver Markus Wheaton has All-Pac-12 potential. True freshman Malcolm Agnew will take over for Rodgers at running back and if he can give the offense balance, Oregon State could rebound and earn a bowl bid at season's end. Sacramento State finished 6-5 last year, but lost its only match up against a FBS school last year – 52-17 to Stanford.
Oregon State 44, Sacramento State 10
San Jose State vs. Stanford – Saturday, Sept. 3
The Andrew Luck farewell tour kicks off with what should an easy one for Stanford. This also will be David Shaw’s first game as head coach for the Cardinal, after serving as an assistant under Jim Harbaugh. Luck will look to get his Heisman campaign started off with a bang and with the Cardinal trying to break in some new receivers, the passing attack will be used early and often. The Spartans are improving under Mike MacIntyre, but they won’t have enough offense to hang with Luck and Co.
Stanford 45, San Jose State 17
Idaho State vs. Washington State – Saturday, Sept. 3
When you are on the hot seat, every game is a must-win situation. That’s the position Paul Wulff finds himself in at Washington State this year. Wulff has a 5-32 record in three years in Pullman, but this team showed some improvement at the end of last year. The Cougars have plenty of firepower on offense, led by quarterback Jeff Tuel and sophomore receiver Marquess Wilson. Idaho State went 1-10 last year and ranked near the bottom of FCS teams in total offense and defense.
Washington State 45, Idaho State 7
Fresno State vs. California – Saturday, Sept. 3
California’s Memorial Stadium is undergoing renovations, so the Golden Bears will play all of their home games at AT&T Park in San Francisco this year. Surprisingly, this will be the first matchup between these two teams since 2000. Fresno State has defeated California both times these schools have played. Quarterback play will be under the microscope, as Derek Carr will be making his first start for the Bulldogs, while Zach Maynard is playing in his first game for California, after sitting out last year as a transfer from Buffalo. With two quarterbacks making their debuts, whichever one can settle into the game early on could be the deciding factor. The Golden Bears had a disappointing 2010 season, but can begin to right the ship with a victory over the Bulldogs.
California 31, Fresno State 27
Eastern Washington vs. Washington – Saturday, Sept. 3
Life without Jake Locker for Washington begins with a tricky opener against Eastern Washington. The Eagles are the defending FCS champs and return a potent offense that could give the Huskies fits on defense. Washington could be without running back Chris Polk, after undergoing knee surgery in fall camp. Polk is expected back early in the year, but the coaching staff may hold him out of this one. With Polk likely out, Washington will lean a little more on new quarterback Keith Price. The Huskies defense came on strong at the end of last year and should continue to improve in 2011.
Washington 45, Eastern Washington 20
Northern Arizona vs. Arizona – Saturday, Sept. 3
After suffering through a rash of injuries in fall camp, Arizona coach Mike Stoops has to be glad to see the start of the season. The Wildcats still have enough firepower to contend for a Pac-12 South crown, but injuries to cornerback Jonathan McKnight, safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer will negatively impact the defense. The offense is led by seniors Nick Foles (quarterback) and Juron Criner (receiver), but is breaking in five new starters on the offensive line. Northern Arizona lost 41-20 to Arizona State last year and a similar outcome is likely in store this year.
Arizona 48, Northern Arizona 17
Colorado vs. Hawaii – Saturday, Sept. 3
Finding success on the road has been difficult for Colorado. The Buffaloes’ last road win came in 2007, defeating Texas Tech 31-26. This matchup will feature the first game for Colorado coach Jon Embree and earning a road victory in his debut would be a huge step in the right direction for the Buffaloes. Slowing Hawaii’s passing attack will be difficult for a suspect Colorado secondary. The Buffaloes need to get pressure on Hawaii quarterback Bryant Moniz and limit the yards after the catch for the receivers. The Buffaloes will look to pound the Hawaii defense with their rushing attack, led by senior back Rodney Stewart. If Colorado can establish Stewart and control the clock, the Buffaloes could earn that elusive road victory.
Hawaii 38, Colorado 34
Oregon vs. LSU (at Arlington, Texas)
What drama: Two preseason top-10 teams squaring off on a neutral field on the first Saturday of the college season. Oh, have we mentioned that one team (Oregon) will be without its best defensive player and one of the premier special team threats in the nation (cornerback Cliff Harris is suspended) and the other team (LSU) will be without arguably its most dangerous offensive player (receiver Russell Shepard, suspended for at least the first game due to eligibility issues) and its starting quarterback (Jordan Jefferson, suspended indefinitely after being arrested)? So what about the players who will actually be on the field? Oregon is explosive on offense, but the Ducks have only one starter back on the front seven on defense. Expect LSU to lean heavily on tailback Spencer Ware and its talented offensive line.
LSU 28, Oregon 24