Welcome to the fifth week of football in The Conference of Champions — or at least the conference of name-brand neurotics.
It was a rather triumphant week for teams from the conference Larry Scott built (or destroyed, depending on your worldview), with Pac-12 teams going 8-4, including an intra-conference loss by Oregon State to Washington State.
The conference hasn’t seen a lot of marquis victories so far, with the most notable wins coming against the likes of Colorado State (CU), UNC and Ole Miss (Cal), Boise State (Wazzu), BYU (Utah) and, of course, Texas (USC).
We’ve also seen several head-scratching L’s, such as Arizona’s late-game brain-cramps against Houston, ASU’s downright squalid performances against SDSU, New Mexico State and Texas Tech, and Oregon State’s embarrassment of a season as a whole.
It’s clear through the quarter-point of the season that it’s a two-team race out west, with USC and Washington lapping the field right now.
The question rests in whether USC will avoid another sloppy performance — the likes of what they turned in against the now rudder-less Western Michigan Broncos and Herman’s Heroes Longhorns — to become a true championship contender.
There’s also the question of how good Washington really is, given its Charmin-soft non-conference schedule of Idaho, Fresno State and Rutgers.
With all that useless info rattling around, let’s jump into this week’s speculative Best of the West ranking, which surely will change in a week’s time…
1. Washington Huskies (3-0 overall) — As stated in my preface, the only realistic contenders for the game kids call “The Natty” are Coach Pete’s Huskies and the team from Boys from Los Angeles (not you, Mora).
The Huskies have cruised through what many dub the worst non-conference schedule in major college football, outscoring its first three opponents by a combined score of 141-37.
What’s odd to me is how one-sided the Huskies’ offensive attack has been so far, with junior quarterback Jake Browning tossing for 798 yards and eight touchdowns, while stud back Myles Gaskin is averaging a mere 51 yards per game so far, after running for more than 1,300 yards in each of his first two campaigns. The Huskies are one of seven (!) Pac-12 teams that stand at 3-0 so far, but seem to have the best shot at making the Playoff, a year after losing in the title game to that school from Tuscaloosa. We’ll have a much better idea of where this team stands after watching them battle another one of those unbeaten heavyweights, Colorado, in Boulder on Saturday night.
2. USC Trojans (3-0 overall) — Woo baby, who among us didn’t sweat bullets watching Clay Helton and company trot out walk-on freshman Chase McGrath — who looked like a 15-year-old that somehow snuck his way underneath the barbed-wire fence of the Coliseum — for the game-tying and game-winning field goals on Saturday night? I certainly did not expect much from the wiry young fella, but was pleasantly surprised by the powerful blasts that split the uprights and left thousands of burnt-orange Texas fans in a state of barbeque-coated shock.
USC has not looked like the juggernaut of old quite yet, needing an extra shot in the arm to beat Western Michigan and Texas, who will struggle to finish above .500 this year in their respective leagues, but showed enough grit and other clichés to hang on to the number two spot on this list.
The one red flag for me is the number of dumb mistakes made by Andy Dalton doppelganger Sam Darnold, who has tossed six picks in three games, including two head-scratchers against the Longhorns.
The Trojans face a brutal gauntlet this fall, with 12 games in a row, including back-to-back road games against Cal and Washington State, so mistakes may derail their quest for another championship. I’m interested in seeing if the Bears’ newfound defensive mettle under first-year coach Justin Wilcox holds up on Saturday, with USC entering Monday as a 16.5 point favorite over the Bears.
3. Washington State Cougars (3-0 overall) — Now’s where we enter the funhouse mirrors and late-night cocktail portion of the list. The Cougars, behind 17th-year senior Luke Falk, have somehow managed to survive its typical early season slump, thanks to somehow storming back from a 21-point deficit to beat Boise State, 47-44, two weeks ago.
That game, combined with two laughers against woebegone Montana State and Oregon State have guided the Cougars to prime territory in the race for conference supremacy, ahead of its final non-conference tune-up against Nevada on Saturday.
The Cougs should cruise against the Wolfpack on the Palouse, with Vegas tabbing them as a 28-point favorite on Monday. The real test for Falk and company comes next week, when Darnold and the Trojans storm into Pullman for the first time since 2014, when the Trojans spanked the Cougs, 44-17.
I’m riding high on the Wazzu bandwagon right now, but have no problem dropping Mike Leach and company like a hot potato if they get derailed by the Trojans.
4. Utah Utes (3-0 overall) — Optimism among Ute faithful is at a dangerously-high level right now, with its best win coming two weeks ago in the game I call the “Holier-Than-Thou War” against BYU, 19-13, last Saturday.
The Utes, behind do-it-all quarterback Tyler Huntley, have stormed out of the gates, outscoring North Dakota, the aforementioned Cougars and San Jose State, 110-45. Huntley, who is the Utes leading passer (868 yards) and leading rusher (212 yards), has melded well with former Oregon receiver Darren Carrington II, with Carrington hauling in 26 catches for 409 yards and four scores this year (he had 606, 609 and 704 yards in his first three seasons, respectively).
The Utes’ newfound offensive firepower should be on full display Friday in Tucson, against a Wildcats defense that allows 387.7 yards per game. Utah’s schedule, like everyone else in the conference, takes a sizeable leap going forward, with games against Stanford, USC, ASU and Oregon coming up.
We’ll see rather quickly whether Kyle Willingham’s team is legit or not soon, but I’m high on their prospects as of now.
5. Oregon Ducks (3-0 overall) — The Ducks, just like the Utes (and Cougars, and Huskies, etc.) have played a weak non-conference schedule, but have looked good so far.
First-year coach Willie Taggart’s team has cruised through three games, beating Southern Utah, Nebraska and Wyoming, while averaging a whopping a league-high 56 points per game.
Sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert may be the most surprising player in the country so far, as the 6-foot-6 inch Eugene native has thrown for 897 yards and five touchdowns, while adding another touchdown on the ground as well for the Ducks.
Do-it-all back Royce Freeman, who ran for more than 3,100 yards in his first two seasons in the Willamette Valley, seems to have regained his mojo, with 460 rushing yards and nine scores this season.
Oregon gets a glorified scrimmage this Saturday against the Sun Devils, before hosting Cal next Saturday. I’m counting the hours until they host the Washington State on Oct. 7, in a game that could whittle down the race for Pac-12 North supremacy.
6. Colorado Buffaloes (3-0 overall) — The Buffs, much to my dismay as a proud CSU alum, have kept their momentum from last year’s surprise 10-win season, beating the Rams, as well as Texas State and Northern Colorado so far.
That schedule, while devoid of flash, shows that Mike McIntyre and company has something cooking on the Front Range, ahead of a brutal conference opener against seventh-ranked Washington at Folsom Field on Saturday night.
Quarterback Steven Montez has looked solid under center so far, after starting three games for the Buffs last fall, passing for 858 yards and six touchdowns so far. Montez, in combo with senior back Phillip Lindsay, have been a tour de force so far, with Lindsay bowling over defenders galore, posting 378 rushing yards and three scores on 71 carries thus far.
The Buffs are a legit team, but will struggle to finish ahead of the Utes in the south, thanks to having to play them at Rice-Eccles in the season’s final weekend.
7. Stanford Cardinal (1-2 overall) — The Cardinal are like the woman who stomped all over your heart in college that you still came back to time and time again. They have all the beauty and intelligence you crave in your team de jour, but stomp on your heart when you invest too much time and attention on them.
This year’s squad fits that definition to a T, squashing poor Rice 62-7 in a game some 7,400 miles from the friendly confines of Stanford Stadium, before rotting like a month-old pumpkin against USC and San Diego State. The team’s inexplicable loss to the Aztecs at the mold-infested hellscape that is Qualcomm Stadium on Saturday night, blowing a seven-point lead after the power at the Q died on the Aztecs’ final drive.
The Cardinal are only this high on my list because of the lack of other bonafide candidates, and because I have a soft spot for David Shaw and his old-school style of boring-ass football. Running back Bryce Love is the team’s lone redeemable quantity, rushing for 524 yards and four touchdowns, while showing flashes of Christian McCaffrey talent along the way.
I fully expect this year’s Stanford team to post the worst record in Shaw’s tenure, which previously belonged to his 2014 squad that finished 8-5.
8. California Golden Bears (3-0 overall) — My decision to slot the Bears behind their Bay Area buddies from Palo Alto is sure to stir controversy, but hear me out friends. While I’m impressed by the effort shown on both sides of the ball so far by the Osos, who have beat two Power-Five teams (UNC and Ole Miss), the bottom line remains that their road ahead is too brutal to overcome.
A cursory glance at what lies ahead for the Boys from Berkeley reveals a myriad of headaches, with games against USC, Oregon, Washington and Washington State in successive weeks. That’s a tough pill for any team to swallow, let alone one that’s undergoing the type of radical culture-shift that Cal is undertaking.
The only winnable games for Cal going forward appear to be their home games against Arizona and Oregon State, with a toss-up road game against UCLA in late November possibly being the difference between a bowl game and another cold winter in the East Bay.
I’m definitely high on the effort so far from sophomore signal-caller Ross Bowers, who’s thrown for 799 yards and five touchdowns so far, including a gutsy effort against Ole Miss on Saturday. Who knows, maybe the Bears will shock the world and pull off an upset or two along the way, which would set them up for a nice bowl opportunity in a few months.
9. UCLA Bruins (2-1 overall) — What a difference a week makes, eh? The Bruins, who laid claim to an early “comeback of the year” contender in week one’s win over Texas A&M, managed to puke up Saturday’s game in the city that the blues, barbeque and Elvis built (Memphis), on a short passing score in the game’s waning minutes.
The “Rosen One” has looked the part so far, putting up video game-like numbers for the Bruins (1,283 passing yards and 13 touchdowns), but even the demigod-like QB can only do so much.
The bottom line is that UCLA needs a coach that understands how to put together a functional defensive scheme, as they rank second-to-last in the conference in points per game surrendered (38.3) and last in yards per game allowed (515.3) this season.
The Bruins head to Palo Alto in a game that pits two teams in desperate need of a win against each other, before UCLA hosts Colorado at the Rose Bowl next Saturday. The only winnable games left for the Bruins are the road game against Arizona, as well as its home game against ASU, with the Cal game at home on Nov. 24 and road game against Utah being complete toss-ups.
There’s still plenty of time left in the season, but a loss to Stanford might prompt Bruins fans to start jabbing at the “Fire Jim Mora” button hard enough to dislocate a digit or two.
10. Arizona Wildcats (2-1 overall) — At long last, we’ve reached the prodigal sons of Tucson, who are fresh off a 63-16 thrashing of poor UTEP on Friday night.
The Wildcats, behind the oft-streaky Brandon Dawkins, smashed the poor Miners into a copper-like dust in El Paso, outgaining UTEP 501-218. The Wildcats looked like a halfway functional passing team for once as well, which must have been a welcome sight for Rich Rodriguez, who’s right up there with fellow Grand Canyon State ballcoach Todd Graham and Mora on the “Whose Seat is Hottest” chart.
The Wildcats welcome Utah to Tucson for a Friday night throw-down under the LED lights of Arizona Stadium, in a game that could determine the team’s fate. The team’s next five weeks are brutal, with games against Colorado (in Boulder), UCLA (home), Cal (in Berkeley), Wazzu (home) and USC (in LA) in successive weeks.
The new administration at the University, including President Robert C. Robbins and Athletic Director Dave Heeke have made it clear that they expect Rodriguez and company to post a winning season in the Sonoran Desert this fall, so a win against the Utes is a must if the Cats are going to get to six or seven wins by season’s end.
11. Arizona State Sun Devils (1-2 overall) — If you’re still reading this list you’re either really bored or more dedicated to the intricacies of college football than most, so congrats on that. Let’s be honest, both ASU and Oregon State are god awful, so there’s really no separation between them.
I’ll give ASU the nod here, as they seem to have some semblance of a pulse, with a win against New Mexico State and a single-digit loss to Texas Tech in the wasteland that is Lubbock. The Devils, much like the Wildcats and Beavers, will be lucky to string together five wins this fall, with games against Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Utah, USC and Colorado in succession.
The positive is that quarterback Manny Wilkins has looked solid so far, with 924 passing yards, seven touchdowns and zero picks this season. The bad news is that ASU’s defense, which lost to Arizona last year, despite the Wildcats not throwing for a single passing yard in the game’s second half, is still repugnant, surrendering 37.7 points per game and 412 yards per game this season. Grab a beer (or 12) Sun Devil fans, it’s going to be a long, cold fall.
12. Oregon State Beavers (1-3 overall) — The only positive thing I can possibly dig up in defense of Gary Andersen’s toxic waste dump of a football team is that they somehow found a way to not collapse against Portland State two weeks ago. That’s about the only positive for the Beavers, who have been outscored in its three losses to Colorado State, Minnesota and Washington State by a combined score of 158-61.
The Beavers are a figurative tire-fire this year, posting the fewest points per game of any Pac-12 team offensively (24.8), while allowing the most points defensively (47.5), and the third-most offensive yards per game to boot (485.5). Their anemic offensive attack ranks 10th in the conference in both passing and rushing yards per game, with 220.8 and 198.8 yards per game in each category.
Quite simply, these are dire times for the fine folks in Corvallis, and there does not appear to be any good news on the horizon, with games against Washington, USC, Colorado, Stanford and Cal coming up. To top it all off, starting quarterback Jake Luton damn near had his back shattered on a frightening hit against Washington State on Saturday, leaving him motionless on the field for what seemed to be an eternity.
Luckily, Luton was released from a Pullman hospital Saturday night and had movement in his extremities, but maybe its time to waive the white flag on the football season in Corvallis…
Follow Christopher Boan on Twitter at @cgboan