The most anticipated game on the 2013 Pac-12 docket is just around the corner. Oregon travels to Stanford Thursday to kick off what should be an outstanding start to the final stretch of the regular season.
So much more than the Pac-12 North rests on Thursday's decision. Oregon is playing for BCS Championship life. A win likely elevates the Ducks back into the second spot, perhaps to stay, against current No. 2 Florida State.
A loss probably eliminates them from the equation, much as it did a season ago. Conversely, Stanford can force its way back into the national title conversation with a win. The Cardinal are the highest ranked squad with a loss at No. 5.
The Pac-12's championship chase should come into much clearer focus by Week 11's end. Aside from Oregon and Stanford jockeying for the lead in the North, Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA face challenges to their contenders' credentials.
Strap in. The next few weeks are going to provide a wild ride.
All lines are courtesy of VegasInsider.com.
Record Last Week: 3-1 (1-3 against the spread)
Record This Season: 58-9 (39-28 against the spread)
Thursday, Nov. 5, 9 p.m. ET
Stanford head coach David Shaw quipped he was surprised undefeated Oregon is just a 10-point favorite. Las Vegas' point spread is close to the total amount of points Stanford yielded to the Ducks a season ago, 14.
The Cardinal defense is no less effective than it was a year ago. On the contrary, it might actually be better with another 12 months of experience for veteran stars Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds, A.J. Tarpley...let's stop there, or this list will get really long.
No, Oregon defeating Stanford on Thursday isn't dependent on the Cardinal defense regressing, but rather the Ducks improving.
It seems like every year, those who pay attention to the Pac-12 need to remind the nation of how underrated the Oregon defense truly is. That's especially the case this season.
Despite losing Dion Jordan, Michael Clay and likely NFL Rookie of the Year Kiko Alonso, Oregon is actually better. Conversely, the Stanford offense has struggled over the past month.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan will be under regular duress from Tony Washington and Boseko Lokombo, which should stymie Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney. That, in turn, should allow the Ducks to wear down the Cardinal in the second half, a la Oregon's wins over Washington and UCLA.
Prediction: Oregon 35, Stanford 17
Saturday, Nov. 9, 3 p.m. ET
For the last two weeks, this picks column has incorrectly gone against the injury-and-sanction-depleted USC roster. And twice, the Trojans won by double digits.
Perhaps to the chagrin of superstitious USC fans seeing a correlation, there's no picking against the Trojans this week. USC is hitting its stride, despite numerous hurdles.
A key is the diversified running look offensive coordinator Clay Helton has offered. Buck Allen is the latest Trojans running back to have a breakout performance. Despite Tre Madden's lingering injury issues, Allen and Silas Redd should keep Cal's No. 89-ranked rush defense on its heels.
Saturday is Cal's final home game and one of the fleeting opportunities it has to avoid a winless Pac-12 season. A win might come—last week was the best Cal looked on either side of the ball since beginning conference play—but it won't be against USC.
Prediction: USC 34, Cal 10
Saturday, Nov. 9, 4 p.m. ET
No other program has been quite as unkind to Utah in its arrival to the Pac-12 as Arizona State. The Sun Devils blasted the Utes by 21 and 30 in their first two seasons as a member.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said on Tuesday's Pac-12 teleconference call that last year's loss in Sun Devil Stadium left him with "horrible memories."
Since upsetting Stanford, the Utes suffered through some offensive anemia that quarterback Travis Wilson's return to 100 percent should offset. However, Arizona State's familiarity with Utah co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson's system could pose some problems.
Arizona State is scoring virtually at will in conference play. For the Utes' struggles, none are on the defensive side. Trevor Reilly and Co. will keep Utah in this one, but the Sun Devils begin to reverse their November curse with a hard-fought road win to stay out front in the South.
Prediction: Arizona State 28, Utah 24
Saturday, Nov. 9, 8 p.m. ET
Washington came back strong from a three-game losing streak, blasting Cal two weeks ago. Chief to the Huskies' rejuvenation was running back Bishop Sankey regaining his stride in the running game.
Sankey is coming off the best performance of his stellar career, going for 241 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Let the good times roll once again, with Sankey paired opposite a Colorado rush defense allowing just shy of 200 yards per game.
The Buffs' improvement over a year ago is evident, and never more so than last week. Colorado accrued 381 yards and converted 26 first downs against UCLA's stout defense. Quarterback Sefo Liufau has a bright future ahead of him, but there are rocky patches.
Saturday at one of the most hostile venues in the Pac-12 should be one such patch.
Prediction: Washington 49, Colorado 17
Saturday, Nov. 9, 10 p.m. ET
"What went wrong? Everything," Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said Tuesday of his team's performance at UCLA a year ago.
Last November, Arizona harbored faint aspirations of winning the Pac-12 South when it visited the Rose Bowl. Those were dashed in a 66-10 beatdown that, frankly, was more lopsided than the final score.
Good news for Arizona: It can't get much worse. But it needs to be a lot better for the Wildcats to have a chance.
The late kickoff time—it will be 8 p.m. locally by the time this one gets underway—combined with the Homecoming atmosphere should make for electric Arizona Stadium.
Continued maturation along a young offensive line is critical to UCLA's offensive success. A season ago, the Bruins rolled off over 600 yards on the Arizona defense. A repeat is unlikely, but the Bruins do need a performance from quarterback Brett Hundley similar to his effort last week against Colorado.
This one could come down to the final possession.
Prediction: UCLA 34, Arizona 31