There is no marquee top-five showdown out West like last weekend, but Week 12 features critical survival games for much of the league’s contenders. Oregon must survive against upset-minded Utah with their star quarterback’s health in question. UCLA must hold serve at home against a very talented Huskies squad. The same for both Arizona and Arizona State in the desert against two excellent passing attacks.
But the Stanford Cardinal will have the toughest task of the week now as the top team in the league. One loss will send Oregon to the Pac-12 title game and a road trip to USC is the final Pac-12 test for David Shaw’s squad (no disrespect to Cal).
Pac-12 Week 12 Game Power Rankings
1. Stanford (-3.5) at USC (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
Ed Orgeron has done some great things with USC since taking over for Lane Kiffin, but this will be by far his toughest challenge to date. His offense has been scoring nearly 40 points per game in four Pac-12 wins but must face the hottest defense in the nation. The Cardinal have posted 15.0 sacks and forced five turnovers against UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon over the last three weeks. Cody Kessler has shown marked improvement but will need to distribute the football quickly to a host of talented weapons because he won’t have much time to throw — USC ranks ninth in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed (23.0). Without Jim Harbaugh or Pete Carroll here to spark the rivalry, this matchup has lost some luster, but Orgeron is making sure the Trojans go down swinging this year. An upset win over Stanford puts USC right in the heart of the Pac-12 South race at 5-2. Look for another heavy dose of Tyler Gaffney from Stanford, who posted a school-record 45 carries last week in the upset of Oregon.
2. Washington (+3) at UCLA (Fri., 9 p.m., ESPN2)
The Rick Neuheisel Bowl carries some serious weight for both coaching staffs. Jim Mora still has eyes on the Pac-12 South title as games with Arizona State and USC loom large in the final two weeks. And Steve Sarkisian needs to prove he can do better than 7-6. Both teams found out the hard way how good Stanford and Oregon were but both have bounced back nicely with back-to-back conference wins. Two red-hot quarterbacks will go head-to-head and should steal the headlines Friday night. Washington’s Keith Price has two consecutive 300-yard passing games and hasn’t thrown a pick in three games, while UCLA’s Brett Hundley has seven total touchdowns in his last two games. Both defenses have star power, both teams play physical football and both teams desperately need a win. Sounds like a recipe for a primetime thriller.
3. Oregon State (+13.5) at Arizona State (9:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network)
Strangely enough, Mike Riley’s team might actually be excited about playing on the road this weekend. The Beavers are 4-0 on the road and just 2-3 in Corvallis in 2013. However, OSU should be careful what it wishes for as Arizona State is one of the best home teams in the nation. The Sun Devils are averaging 51.2 points and 544 yards of offense in five home games as opposed to 34.3 points and 423.5 yards per game away from Sun Devils Stadium. Oregon State has won four out of five in this matchup but lost its last trip to Tempe, 35-20 in 2011. Quarterback play will be the difference. Sean Mannion, the nation’s leading passer, has struggled of late, failing to reach 300 yards each of the last two games. Taylor Kelly, meanwhile, has scored two rushing touchdowns in three straight games and has a 10:2 TD:INT ratio during the four-game winning steak. More importantly, he led his team on two long, fourth-quarter scoring drives to come from behind last weekend in Salt Lake City. With an extra week, expect the Beavers to be ready to play, but Mannion will have to be flawless to pull the upset.
4. Utah (+25) at Oregon (4 p.m., FS1)
Want to know how important Marcus Mariota is to the Ducks? Oregon is a 25-point favorite if he plays and a seven-point favorite if he doesn’t. The star quarterback is worth roughly three touchdowns and his partially torn left MCL is all anyone is talking about in Eugene. Mariota claims he is “for sure” ready to go against Utah but he clearly wasn’t the same player against Stanford as he had been all season. He posted a career-low minus-16 yards on the ground in the loss. The Ducks still have a very real shot at the Pac-12 title should Stanford slip up this weekend on a tough road trip to USC. Utah is fighting for its postseason life and continues to come up short. Last week's 20-19 defeat at the hands of Arizona State was the Utes' third Pac-12 loss by one score or less. Travis Wilson will have to play the best game of his young career to have a chance to upset Oregon — Mariota or not.
5. Washington State (+13) at Arizona (2 p.m., Pac-12 Network)
After three straight wins, the Wildcats came up five points short of entering the Pac-12 South championship mix last week against UCLA. A win over Wazzu this weekend is a must if Rich Rodriguez wants to post a winning record in 2013 — Arizona gets Oregon and Arizona State in the final two weeks. His dynamic backfield of B.J. Denker and Ka’Deem Carey will be on full display against a Cougars defense that has allowed 665 yards rushing in its last two games. The bye week won’t be enough time for Mike Leach to stop Washington State’s three-game losing streak.
6. Cal (+3) at Colorado (5:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network)
Someone has to win, right? The Buffs and Bears are a combined 0-13 in Pac-12 play this season under first-year head coaches thus far. Neither team has really challenged anyone in the league but both Mike MacIntyre and Sonny Dykes are well-respected offensive minds. This is likely the only chance for either to get a conference win.
Pac-12 Week 12 Pivotal Players:
Listen to Athlon Sports writers Braden Gall and David Fox preview discuss where Stanford should be ranked and Marcus Mariota's Heisman hopes on this week's Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast.
USC’s offensive line
The Trojans haven’t been able to protect the quarter
back this year, ranking 83rd nationally in sacks allowed per game (2.3 spg). Stanford’s loaded front seven is surging right now, ranking fourth nationally in sacks per game (3.3 spg). Stanford has allowed just 153 combined rushing yards to UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon the last three weeks, so the Trojans' offensive line will have to play its best game of the season to 1) protect the quarterback and 2) run the football effectively.
2. Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
The forgotten man on the Stanford offense will be called upon to make plays against a USC defense that has been excellent this season, particularly at home. USC is seventh nationally with 30.0 sacks on the season and is giving up just 86 yards rushing per game at home. So if the Men of Troy are geared up to stop workhorse Tyler Gaffney, it becomes Hogan’s responsibility to make plays through the air — something he hasn’t needed to do of late. Hogan has just 15 completions over the last two games.
3. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
One of the hottest names in college football could be in for yet another big performance against Washington. Jack is a star freshman linebacker with 63 total tackles this season but Mora has decided to give him a look on offense with his depleted depth chart. Jack answered the call with 120 yards rushing and a key TD last week in Arizona. The freshman two-way star has elite athletic ability, so keep an eye on No. 30 all night.
4. Washington’s linebackers
Shaq Thompson, Princeton Fuimaono and John Timu are the top three tacklers for the Huskies this season. They have faced Marcus Mariota, Taylor Kelly, Nathan Scheelhaase, B.J. Denker and Kevin Hogan already and UCLA’s Brett Hundley is as good as any of them. Reading run-pass quickly and effectively will be huge for U of W this weekend against a team lacking in skill position talent.
5. Will Sutton, DL, Arizona State
If the Sun Devils can stop the run and get pressure on quarterback Sean Mannion, they will win going away at home against the Beavers. Oregon State has lost two straight due in large part to ineffective pass protection and a lack of any balance. The Beavers have allowed 10.0 sacks and rushed for 109 combined yards in two straight losses. Sutton is coming off one the best games of his season after 9.0 tackles, 1.0 for a loss and a critical interception in the one-point win over Utah.
Pac-12 Week 12 Predictions:
Stanford (-3.5) at USC
Washington (+3) at UCLA
Oregon St (+13.5) at Arizona St
Arizona St, 45-21
Arizona St, 28-20
Arizona St, 41-31
Arizona St, 42-31
Utah (+25) at Oregon
Washington St (+13) at Arizona
Cal (+3) at Colorado