Posted on December 3, 2020
Fortunately, that situation improved somewhat this week with the addition of the Armed Forces Bowl, which will feature a matchup between the Pac-12 and the SEC in 2020.
Yet, with all the canceled games and missed practices due to COVID-19, every coach and player is happy to be playing at all—even if it means living on the road for the next two weeks, as Stanford must do to escape Santa Clara County restrictions on contact sports.
And for at least two teams, there’s still plenty to play for, including a possible Pac-12 Championship, with the winner going to the Alamo Bowl or Fiesta Bowl. Among them, USC controls its own destiny in the South, as do Oregon and Washington in the North. Colorado needs some help.
Best of all, as of this writing, all six Week 5 games remain on the schedule. I preview each contest below, and as always, the picks of our senior writers appear at the bottom of the page.
Stanford at Washington
Saturday, December 5th
1:00 pm PT, Fox
The vaunted UW defense forced two interceptions and three sacks against the Utes. Moreover, the Cardinal front line has surrendered five sacks in Mills’ two appearances. The Tree average just 370 yards per game, and might struggle to reach that mark against the Huskies.
For Jimmy Lake’s offense, Dylan Morris looks to bounce back after tossing three interceptions last weekend. Cade Otton dominated the Utah secondary and could have an even bigger game against the porous Stanford defense. And the Dawgs three-pronged rushing attack projects to have a field day against the Cardinal, as David Shaw’s crew surrendered 241 yards on the ground to Cal.
However, Stanford did manage to block a field goal and an extra point attempt against their rival, and UW has already had a punt blocked this season. The special team edge favors the Tree, but normally that would only come into play in a tight contest.
Based on each team’s performances through four weeks, a Washington win is more than expected. A Pac-12 North Division title is within reach, and the Huskies should play like it.
Oregon at California
Saturday, December 5th
4:00 pm PT, ESPN
But the Ducks must guard against becoming complacent and taking Shough’s performances for granted, especially with their defense struggling. It’s going to take a complete game from both sides of the ball to win in Berkeley, regardless of the play of Justin Wilcox’s players up to this point.
CJ Verdell left the OSU game with an apparent injury, but Mario Cristobal indicated earlier this week that he expects his first-team running back to be ready to go. If not, Travis Dye is a more-than-adequate backup, though he has yet to see more than 12 carries in a game this year, and hasn’t eclipsed the 100-yard mark.
Regardless, the Ducks are a good bet to reach their average of 202.3 rushing yards per game and 38.5 points per game, as Shough is an additional rushing threat, and his accuracy through the air will keep the Bear defense from focusing on the run.
As for Cal, for reasons beyond their control, this season feels like a total loss, one that has fallen off the figurative cliff. A slow start against the Ducks would all but extinguish any flickering hope for salvaging the year.
Colorado at Arizona
Saturday, December 5th
4:00 pm PT, FS1
Kevin Sumlin’s defense hasn’t proven capable of slowing down any offensive system in the Conference, and CU’s one-two punch of Sam Noyer and Jarek Broussard should prove too much to handle. Though the matchup will be UA’s second home game of season, and the first 2020 night contest at Arizona Stadium, there are not many reasons to think the Cats can pull off the upset.
Sumlin’s rushing attack has been feckless through the first three games, managing to score just two touchdowns on the ground while averaging only 125.7 yards per contest. Gary Brightwell gets 74.7 yards per game, but that pales in comparison to Broussard’s 144. The two rushing units will be juxtaposed on Saturday night, pitching the nine-touchdown CU run game against Brightwell and the Cats.
The lone X-Factor could be the play of freshman quarterback Will Plummer. With a week to prepare for CU, the willing runner and capable passer could find his confidence early in the night, if the opening drive or two result in touchdowns. Any hint of confidence by Arizona will be seized on by a group desperate for a win, making the Cats dangerous.
When cornered, teams tend to either give in or come out swinging. And with history on its side, UA likely holds nothing back.
Oregon State at Utah
Saturday, December 5th
7:30 pm PT, ESPN
The arguable front runner for the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, Jefferson is averaging 168.8 yards per contest to go along with seven touchdowns on the ground. The Beaver rushing attack has boosted Jonathan Smith’s squad to a 2-2 record, even with Tristan Gebbia’s negligible three touchdown passes in four games.
However, after suffering an injury on one of the last plays of the Oregon game, Gebbia might not be healthy enough to play. That could mean Chance Nolan leads OSU in Salt Lake City, throwing a curveball at Kyle Whittingham. Nolan is an unproven commodity and there is no film on him to study.
If the backup quarterback passes the ball more efficiently than Gebbia, the Utah defense could have its hands full with a legitimately balanced attack.
As for Whittingham’s offense, the game plan is simple: Don’t turn the ball over. Utah has a shocking nine turnovers through two games, and that’s why the Utes are 0-2. Taking care of the ball and limiting Jefferson—no easy task—would likely be enough to garner the first win of the year.
UCLA at Arizona State
Saturday, December 5th
7:30 pm PT, FS1
But based on the examples of other Pac-12’s schools in similar situations, it doesn’t bode well for Arizona State. At the same time, UCLA is coming off a win and star quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson could be returning after missing two games. Even without DTR, Demetric Felton has been running wild on defenses. The Conference’s second-leading rusher has 373 yards on the ground over the past two games alone.
Finding a way to contain Felton and DTR projects as a major challenge for Edwards’ defense. And the only game action the Sun Devils have seen was against a struggling Air Raid that is nothing like this year’s version of the Chip Kelly offense.
On top of that, the Bruin defense has finally begun to turn the page. Or so it appears. Jerry Azzinaro’s unit did give up 42 points to CU and 35 to UO, but also held Arizona and California to just 10 points each.
Whichever version of the UCLA defense shows up in Tempe could determine the game. And with Jayden Daniels likely to show some rust, it’s probably the latter that comes to play in the desert.
Washington State at USC
Sunday, December 6th
6:00 pm PT, FS1
The two quarterbacks might find themselves in a duel as both offenses are designed to put up points by passing the ball. Slovis has already thrown for 970 yards in just three games, connecting at a 70.7% clip. And de Laura has passed for 548 yards in only two games and has five total touchdowns to his credit.
With all the focus on the quarterbacks, the supporting run game for both could be the difference. The Cougars’ Deon McIntosh has shined in Max Borghi’s absence, and reports out of Pullman are that Borghi has returned to practice. If the Preseason All-Conference runner does finally see the field for the first time this season, de Laura will have a deadly one-two bunch behind him.
On the other hand, USC gets it done by committee. Markese Stepp, Stephen Carr, and Vavae Malepeai have combined for six touchdowns and each averages under 100 yards a game.
But the winner on Sunday night could end up being the team that plays the best defense. Heading into the Coliseum, Washington State allows 35.5 points per game while USC surrenders 24.6. To pull off the upset, WSU must find ways to get stops.
Picks from our SportsPac12 Senior Football Writers
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