Ah, conference play. Also known as the weekend when I finally get to pick some games with spreads that are less than 35 points in favor of the home team.
The Pac is looking at a relatively light slate of games this weekend, with Arizona, Cal, Colorado and Utah each sitting idle for week four of the 2018 season. Outside of Washington vs. Arizona State — in which the Dawgs are favored by 17 — each upcoming Pac-12 matchup is projected to be a one-score game, which should make for more exciting viewing than the FCS ritualistic sacrifices we’ve been forced to watch to this point. Most importantly, it’s a chance for me to make up some ground on my incredibly dreadful 1–5 showing against the spread last week. (Thanks for kicking Bruin butt, Fresno!)
Ryan’s 2018 record straight up / against the spread: 26–8 / 9–14–2
Stanford -2.5, o/u 58.0
Stanford versus Oregon has been appointment viewing virtually every year since the Pac-10 expanded to the Pac-12 in 2011, with the Cardinal holding a 4–3 advantage in those games. Furthermore, from 2011 to 2014, the winner of each year’s Oregon/Stanford contest went on to win the conference championship. This week’s game is no less of a high-stakes affair, as the Ducks and Cardinal are considered by most observers to be Washington’s chief competition for the Pac-12 North division title.
Both the Cardinal and Ducks have shown themselves to be talented but flawed teams to this point. Oregon’s defense is allowing just 4.3 yards per play, 14th in the nation, but that might be a function of the team’s lackluster opponents more than a projection of its ability going forward, and the Oregon ground game posted an anemic 2.7 yards per rush last week against San Jose State. Meanwhile, the Cardinal has forged an impressive passing game so far in the connection between K.J. Costello and JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who is on pace to haul in a ridiculous 20 touchdowns this year. Ultimately, I trust the Cardinal defense to make more stops and create more turnovers than the Ducks’ D, which is why I’m projecting Stanford to leave Autzen with a narrow victory. Stanford 27, Oregon 24.
Washington State vs. USC (7:30 p.m., ESPN)
USC -3.5, o/u 53.0
The Trojans have scored all of 24 points in their last three games against Power Five opponents, meaning that Clay Helton is now on a borderline hot seat just four games after winning USC’s first conference championship in nine years. A loss to the Cougs this weekend won’t necessarily spell doom for Helton, but it could certainly serve as the catalyst for his eventual departure, especially considering that USC athletic director Lynn Swann would surely like to install a candidate of his own choosing as head coach at some point.
While JT Daniels will almost assuredly have the Trojan offense rocking and rolling at some point this season, it’s hard to think that happens Saturday against Wazzu, who have collected five interceptions versus just three touchdown passes allowed. Running back Aca’Cedric Ware averages just 3.0 yards against Power Five competition this year, and the WSU rushing defense has been surprisingly stout in yielding 3.1 yards per carry. On the other hand, the USC secondary will be the first real test that Cougar quarterback Gardner Minshew II has faced since transferring from ECU, and it’s far from evident that he’ll be up to the challenge.
My best guess for this one is that quarters one through three are sloppy, turnover-filled affairs that will have both fanbases pulling their hair out with every self-inflicted shot in the foot that is on display. Eventually, USC’s athletic advantage will assert itself and win the day, albeit in a manner that Trojans fans will find wholly dissatisfying. USC 35, Washington State 28.
Arizona vs. Oregon State (1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
Arizona -6.0, o/u 75.0
It seems premature to already declare any one game as the matchup between the conference’s two worst teams, but here we are. Arizona has absolutely imploded relative to preseason expectations, having been embarrassed two weeks ago on the road at Houston, although their 23-28 loss to BYU suddenly looks a lot more forgivable after the Cougars took down then-No. 6 Wisconsin in Madison. Oregon State, on the other hand, has shown an encouragingly potent offense, having scored an average of 38.0 points per game, relative to their 20.7 average in 2017. However, the Beavers defense has been the stuff of nightmares, yielding a mind-boggling 46.3 points per game and 6.5 yards per play. (Those figures both rank last in the Pac-12, and 129th and 116th nationally, respectively.)
The Arizona defense isn’t exactly a unit of world-beaters, so it’s likely that the Beavers will land more than a few punches, particularly if Jermar Jefferson is able to ring up his third consecutive 100-yard game. That being said, my gut tells me that this is the week we see Khalil Tate fall back into his 2017 rhythm that’s been so conspicuously absent in 2018. He’ll be the difference maker in what I expect to be a high-scoring affair that brings shame to both defensive coordinators. Arizona 45, Oregon State 35.