With a Rose Bowl berth on the line, No. 8 Stanford and No. 16 UCLA will face off for the first time since...well, Saturday.
The Cardinal beat the then-17th-ranked Bruins 35-17 last weekend, dominating the game from start to finish. The win clinched Stanford the Pac-12 north title, by virtue of its tie-breaking win over the Oregon Ducks.
Last week's result needs to be taken with a grain of salt, however, since the Bruins clinched the Pac-12 South title the week prior. There's a chance they were refusing to show their cards to the Card last week, knowing full well that they could be meeting with much more at stake in the championship.
This isn't an unfamiliar concept—at least not to the professional ranks. In 2009, the Arizona Cardinals played their reserves in Week 17 against the Packers, losing the game 33-7. The following week, in the NFC Wild Card Game, Arizona held back nothing and beat Green Bay 51-45.
UCLA wasn't quite as overt about pulling its punches, but it's very possible that it was—and if that's the case, it might be able to catch the Cardinal by surprise.
Only one good way to find out.
When: Friday, Nov. 30th, 8 p.m. ET
Where: Stanford Stadium, Stanford, Calif.
Listen: AM 570 (UCLA), AM 1050 (Stanford)
Live Stream: Watch ESPN
Spread: Stanford -8 (via Vegas Insider)
Oddsmakers have bet this game down two full points, jumping all over the original line of Stanford minus-10. Still, with more than a touchdown to cover, it's clear Vegas rates Stanford much higher than it rates the Bruins.
A lot of that can be attributed to UCLA's well-documented road struggles. Unlike most conferences, the Pac-12 doesn't play its Championship Game on a neutral field. This will be a true road game for UCLA, who lost by 26 at Cal, and needed a last-second field goal to win at Arizona State.
But Stanford hasn't exactly been a powerhouse on its home turf. Sure, the Cardinal are 6-0 at Stanford Stadium, but only one of those wins—a Week 2 throttling of Duke—came by more than a touchdown. That includes a three-point win over San Jose State and an overtime win over Arizona—a game where they allowed 617 yards and 48 points.
Stanford is a sound, talented football team that deserves to be a heavy favorite. However, it doesn't deserve to lay more than a touchdown when it hasn't proved capable of covering such a line.
Take UCLA and the points.
Over/Under: 44.0 (via Vegas Insider)
At first glance, this line might seem a bit low. The teams average a combined 64.6 points per game, and although Stanford's defense is stout, UCLA's places outside the top-50 nationally.
Add to that the fact that they combined for 52 points last week, and the over seems like easy money.
However, a closer look at Stanford's body of work shows that its closest and highest-profile games have been low scoring. The Cardinal beat USC 21-14, lost to Notre Dame 20-13, and beat high-scoring Oregon 17-14.
Between the nerves, the stakes and the adrenaline, this game could be hard-hitting and sloppy for a long time. Expect to see some offense, but not the type many are expecting.
Stick with the under.
Stanford Injury Report (via USA Today as of Nov. 28)
|DT Terrence Stephens||Personal||Questionable|
|P Daniel Zychlinski||Shouler||Doubtful|
All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention Terrence Stephens is listed as questionable due to a personal issue. His presence would be a huge boost, though, as the Cardinal aim to slow down UCLA workhorse Jonathan Franklin on the ground.
It'll also be interesting to see how Stanford deals with the expected loss of punter Daniel Zychlinski. His absence seems trifling, but these big games often come down to field position and special teams.
UCLA Injury Report (via USA Today – as of Nov. 28)
|S Dalton Hilliard||Shoulder||Questionable|
|DL Ellis McCarthy||Knee||Questionable|
|WR Devin Lucien||Collarbone||Questionable|
|WR Damien Thigpen||Knee||Out For Season|
The status of Dalton Hilliard, who has been using the support of a sling for his shoulder this week, is still up in the air. He missed the Stanford game last weekend and is a crucial cog of the Bruins' defense. The same can be said for situational lineman Ellis McCarthy, a freshman who has been productive when he's seen the field.
Freshman receiver Devin Lucien's career also got off to a nice start this season, but he hasn't played since injuring his collarbone against Colorado on Sept. 29. He's listed as questionable, but his playmaking could be vital following the season-ending ACL injury Damien Thigpen sustained against USC.
Obviously, the winner of this matchup will represent the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl. There they will face the winner of the Big Ten Championship Game between Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Oregon has all but wrapped up a BCS berth, regardless of this game's outcome. Which means that the loser of this game, even if it's Stanford, has little to no chance of making a BCS bowl.
The Sun, Alamo, and Holiday Bowls could all host the potential loser of this game, depending on which team each bowl prefers. If Stanford loses, it could be interesting to see if it gets selected before USC—especially after watching the Trojans falter these past couple weeks.
More importantly, however, a UCLA loss could open a BCS door for Kent State. If the Golden Flashes win the MAC Championship Game (which will be easier said than done against No. 21 Northern Illinois), a UCLA loss could propel them into the BCS Top 16—a spot that guarantees them a BCS bowl berth.
Keys for Stanford Victory
The pressure is already on UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, who starts the biggest game of his young career on Saturday night. If Stanford can augment that figurative pressure with the literal pressure of a relentless pass rush, it will be smelling roses by the end of the night.
The Cardinal made life miserable for UCLA's freshman signal-caller in last week's showdown, sacking him seven times on the day.
But last weekend, Stanford was playing like a team with everything to lose, while UCLA was playing like a team with nothing to win. That is, the Cardinal unleashed everything they had defensively, while the Bruins contently took notes for this week's game.
With all of last weekend's tape to study, UCLA should be much more well-equipped to handle Stanford's pass rush, which means the Cardinal defense will need to be that much more effective.
With four All-Pac-12 first- or second-teamers—Trent Murphy, Chase Thomas, Henry Anderson, Ben Gardner—in their front seven, Stanford certainly has the horses for the job.
Now all they need to do is play up to their potential.
Keys for UCLA Victory
Second team All-Pac-12 running back Jonathan Franklin has carried the Bruins' offense all season, and it will be counting on him to do so again this weekend.
Stanford held Franklin to a season-low 3.1 YPC last weekend, stifling him time and time again throughout the contest. Franklin finished with 65 yards on the ground—his second-lowest total of the season—and only seven yards through the air.
This is harrowing news since Franklin has shone in all of UCLA's signature victories this season:
|@ Arizona State||26||164||2||1||4||0|
That's good for an average of 184.0 yards per game in the Bruins' three-best wins. By contrast, he's averaging 70.7 yards per game in the Bruins' only three losses.
If UCLA is able to spring Franklin a couple of times—especially early in the game—it will be able to move the chains, control the clock, and give itself the best chance at pulling the upset.
If not, the Bruins' hopes will be riding solely on the right arm of a freshman QB.
It's rightfully up for debate, but I'm personally of the mind that last week's result should be tossed aside. As I mentioned earlier, Stanford played like it had everything to lose and UCLA played like it had nothing to win.
The Bruins have a lot of upstart potential. Stanford has been a BCS contender numerous times the past few seasons, while UCLA hasn't. The newness, the import, the gravity of this moment could help push a scrappy bunch of players over the edge.
In the end, though, Stanford is simply the better football team. And when a unit this good—and, more importantly, this well-coached—gets on a stage like this, they rarely disappoint.
Look for the Cardinal to wear UCLA out in the fourth quarter of a close game.
Predicted Score: Stanford 24, UCLA 17