This weekend is not a referendum on USC and Oregon, barring an upset of major proportions. This weekend is not a referendum on the Pac-12, despite having six games against opponents from the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, and ACC. This weekend is a referendum on whether or not there is a viable challenger to the Ducks or Trojans in their midst.
Can Washington protect the quarterback sufficiently to survive the gauntlet ahead? Can Utah get enough production from its passing game to keep pace with the opposition? Can Stanford? Can UCLA, Arizona, and Arizona State keep buying into what their new coaches have to offer? Can Cal get out of its own way long enough to let its talent emerge? Can Washington State and Colorado bounce back? Can Oregon State come out of the gate quickly after having its opener washed out?
Some answers should come into focus.
Last week: 8-3 straight up, 6-5 against the spread
Season to date: 8-3 straight up, 6-5 against the spread
Utah 27, Utah State 17 – With the final installment of the Holy War for the foreseeable future set for next week, this could have the making of a trap game for the Utes. Tough running by John White and a strong defense will ensure that doesn’t happen. Still, it would be nice to get a better sense of quarterback Jordan Wynn’s shoulder, after not completing a pass longer than 23 yards and his first deep ball fluttered and hung up before being intercepted.
Cal 44, Southern Utah 10 – The Thunderbirds are a perfect get-well opponent for the Golden Bears after their opening-day thud. The offensive line needs to get nasty ahead of the trip to Ohio State and establish the ground game, albeit without right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin (out with a left MCL injury).
Washington State 48, Eastern Washington 31 – The Pirates of Palouse get on track in coach Mike Leach’s first home game, at least on offense. For an FCS team, Eastern Washington is no slouch, led by SMU transfer Kyle Pardon at quarterback. Given the Cougars’ defensive limitations, EWU should keep it interesting for at least a half.
Colorado 38, Sacramento State 7 – So much for hopes of riding a soft non-conference schedule to a 3-0 start. Now the Buffs have to regroup, especially on offense after averaging a conference-worst 3.5 yards per play against rival Colorado State, while the offensive line allowed five sacks.
USC 52, Syracuse 14 – Matt Barkley gets a chance to impress the New York media against a defense that allowed 42 points to Northwestern? This won’t end well for the Orange.
Wisconsin 31, Oregon State 23 – If not for Hurricane Isaac, everything would set up perfectly for a Beavers’ upset. They have an offense that should make great strides in quarterback Sean Mannion’s second season, and Corvallis can get plenty loud. But without a chance for the defense to gel and work out the kinks, Montee Ball will carry Wisconsin past much-improved Oregon State.
Oregon 55, Fresno State 20 – Ho hum, another dress rehearsal for quarterback Marcus Mariota, another few touchdowns for De’Anthony Thomas.
LSU 35, Washington 17 – Huskies quarterback Keith Price was sacked three times. By San Diego State. Considering the prowess of the LSU pass rush and noise of a night game in Death Valley, it might be safer for Price to jump in Mike the Tiger’s cage.
UCLA 23, Nebraska 20 – The Bruins struggle to fill the Rose Bowl and create a home-field advantage as it is, and that’s without the inevitable influx of red-clad Nebraska fans. But Brett Hundley showed more ability as a passer in one game than Taylor Martinez has in his career, Southern Miss game be damned, and will lift the Bruins past an overrated Blackshirts defense to a surprising 2-0 start.
Oklahoma State 42, Arizona 31 – There might not be a more frenetically paced contest this side of MAC-tion. Quarterback Matt Scott proved to be a perfect fit for Rich Rodriguez’s spread option offense – accounting for 461 yards against Toledo – but unless he also plans to double at safety, the Cowboys will score 30 or more points for the 28th straight game.
Stanford 30, Duke 20 – Andrew Luck, David DeCastro, and Jonathan Martin aren’t walking through that door, but the bigger concern is a defense that was pushed around in the second and third quarters by San Jose State. The look ahead factor will be high ahead of the conference opener with USC, but the Cardinal will settle in and feel a little better about themselves, for a week anyway.
Arizona State 23, Illinois 17 – The push for discipline by new coach Todd Graham seems to have had an effect on the unruly Sun Devils, who had only four penalties for 30 yards in their opener. With Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (ankle) a question mark, expect the absolute opposite of the game down in Tucson, a low-scoring, defensive battle.
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and covers the Pac-12 for Fox Sports/Scout.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.