Posted on September 28, 2023
The Pac-12 enters Week Five with four of its teams ranked in the Top 10 of the AP Poll.
All eyes will be on No. 8 USC when they take on Colorado, but the Matchup of the Week is the Friday night showdown between No. 10 Utah and No. 19 Oregon State.
The result of that game, in particular, will shape the race for the Conference Championship and a potential bid to the College Football Playoff.
I preview all five games across the league here and the picks of our writers and broadcasters appear at the bottom.
No. 10 Utah at No. 19 Oregon State
Friday, September 29
6:00 pm PT, FS1
With three wins over Power 5 teams, all without star quarterback Cam Rising, it seems foolish to doubt Kyle Whittingham’s team. But, the road contest against No. 19 Oregon State is arguably Utah’s greatest challenge to date.
Jonathan Smith’s Beavers run a time of possession offense predicated on a traditional ground game and playaction passing. It’s an old-school style of offense that is difficult to stop.
Combined with arguably the top offensive line in the Pac-12 and the top running back in Damien Martinez, the offense that the Beavs run ranks among the top half of the league.
And, unlike last week, Morgan Scalley’s defense isn’t facing a true freshman quarterback overwhelmed by the circumstances. DJ Uiagalelei is a veteran under center that can consistently execute the playaction throws over the top.
Still, the keys to beating OSU are jumping out to an early lead and forcing them away from their running tendencies. Smith’s offense is dramatically less effective when it attempts more than 25 passes per game.
That could be a problem for Utah, though, with the issues it has an offense. Rising’s availability could swing the analysis. But without him, it’s hard to envision Nate Johnson leading the Utes on enough scoring drives to secure the win in Corvallis.
Even so, if Utah’s elite defense is able to contain Oregon State’s running backs, Whittingham’s team could sneak out the win late in the game.
No. 8 USC at Colorado
Saturday, September 30
9:00 am PT, Fox
The perception of Lincoln Riley’s team was damaged by the poor performance on the road against Arizona State. All that can be forgotten, though, with a dominant victory on Fox.
Colorado has driven the television numbers through the roof and the matchup for Big Noon Kickoff is the primary game in the time slot. The contest could legitimately have 10 million viewers, most of whom are probably seeing USC play for the first time this season.
The primary storyline, then, becomes the efficiency of the Trojan defense. Everyone knows the quality of offense that Riley puts on the field and the Heisman-caliber numbers Caleb Williams is posting.
The factor that holds the program back is the perception of its defense.
The Ducks embarrassed CU last weekend in Eugene and the game provides an apples-to-apples comparison for Alex Grinch’s unit.
In particular, the focus will be on USC’s defensive line. The Buffs have been unable to block anyone this season, entering the game second-to-last in the country in sacks allowed per game.
The problems pass protecting have carried over to the run game, too, with CU entering the showdown dead-last nationally in rushing yards per game and third-to-last in tackles for loss allowed per game.
If Grinch’s defense doesn’t have a field day, the chances of USC receiving an invitation to the Playoff fall dramatically. It’s still early in the year, but that’s what’s on the line in Boulder.
Perception matters. The spotlight is on.
Arizona State at California
Saturday, September 30
Noon PT, Pac-12 Network
The Sun Devils are reinvigorated after their closer-than-expected performance against USC while the Bears are slightly down after the 2-2 start to the year.
The winner of the game has a chance to turn their season around. The loser, on the other hand, could be condemned into the depths of College Football.
With so much riding on the line, several key factors stand out. First, will Arizona State be able to stop California’s rushing attack? The Bears have one of the top running offenses in the nation and quality depth at running back.
Second, will California’s quarterback be able to have an efficient game through the air? The Sun Devil secondary is laden with veteran weapons, but the unit as a whole is 99th nationally in passing efficiency defense.
And third, what will ASU quarterback Trenton Bourguet be able to get going on offense? Kenny Dillingham’s team is decimated by injuries to its offensive line and down to its third-string quarterback.
The Bear defense is 34th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game and the Sun Devil offense is reliant on an effective ground attack.
As long as Justin Wilcox’s unit is able to handle Dillingham’s aggressive playcalling and gadget plays, California should walk away with the win.
No. 9 Oregon at Stanford
Saturday, September 30
3:30 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
Just because Stanford has struggled to start the year doesn’t mean Oregon can look past this game in Palo Alto.
That shouldn’t be a problem considering Oregon is 3-3 at Stanford Stadium since the Conference expanded in 2011 and 6-6 overall against the Tree during the same stretch.
But putting the history and motivation aside, the game figures to be won and lost in the trenches.
Stanford has an underrated defensive line that has the weapons to create havoc. Its linebackers are probably undervalued, too, although there isn’t a defined star in the unit.
The UO offensive line has been elite so far this season, though.
The Ducks are tied for eighth nationally in sacks allowed per game and tied for 29th in tackles for loss allowed. The ability of the O-Line to withstand the Tree’s front seven is a storyline to watch.
On the other side of the ball, Oregon’s competence in handling the two-quarterback system Troy Taylor uses will be key. The offensive scheme itself is like a run-based cousin of Kalen DeBoer’s system in Seattle.
There’s plenty of eye candy, pre-snap movement, somewhat unusual route trees, and creative runs that share some characteristics with the power style. It’s innovative and should bode well for Stanford over the next few years.
But this season the Cardinal don’t exactly have the pieces to make it work as efficiently as they need.
Look for the Ducks to pull away early and hold Taylor’s offense in check.
No. 7 Washington at Arizona
Saturday, September 30
7:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
The matchup is a necessary hurdle on the path to the CFP and one of those matchups that the Dawgs will take a win in any form whatsoever. No matter how it gets done.
Washington is 5-5 in Tucson since 2000 and two of the last three matchups at Arizona Stadium have been decided by a touchdown or less.
But, Arizona runs a 4-2-5 scheme that is poor at defending the pass. The Wildcats are 76th nationally in passing efficiency defense and 62nd in passing yards allowed per game. The UA defensive line is strong, though, slotting in 33rd in sacks per game.
Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen’s system is far better at defending the run. Arizona enters the game No. 27 in rushing yards allowed per contest and No. 16 in tackles for loss per game.
The play-calling against Michael Penix Jr. figures to be key. If Nansen decides to only rush three and sell out to defend the pass, Penix figures to carve Arizona to pieces. The Cats might instead roll the dice and blitz the Heisman front-runner all game.
Washington’s third down conversion rate figures to be telling. If the Huskies are around or above 50 percent, there’s very little chance Arizona pulls off the upset.
On the other side of the ball, the writing seems to be on the wall for backup quarterback Noah Fifita to get the first start of his career. The redshirt freshman ran the offense effectively against Stanford and might surprise the UW defense with his competency.
If the Wildcats establish the ground game and create explosive plays through the air, UA might make it a game in the second half.
Game Picks from Our Senior Writers and Broadcasters
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