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August 26, 2013

13th Annual Pac-12 Preview

The 13th Annual 'Picking the Winners' Pac-12 Preview

After the debacle that was the initial Pac-12 championship game two seasons ago, I'm guessing Larry Scott and his friends up in the Bay Area were much more pleased with the 2012 Pac-12 campaign and a fantastic - if unexpected - title tilt.

With USC and Oregon as the consensus pre-season picks to face off last December, the conference season took a big series of twists and turns, finally churning out a Stanford team from the North that had done what most thought impossible - holding a Chip Kelly-coached Oregon squad to just 14 points on its home field - and a feisty UCLA squad that blossomed under new coach Jim Mora, winning the South Division title by whipping a USC team that had defeated the Bruins 50-0 just a year before.

When Stanford scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to wrest the game from UCLA, 27-24, the Cardinal were on the way to their first Rose Bowl in 13 years (which they would win, 20-14, over Wisconsin). And the Bruins - accidental participants in the 2011 championship thanks to USC's 2010-11 post-season ban - could hold their heads high at the best season in Westwood since 2005.

Across town, though, USC remained the big story in L.A. - but not in a good way. The Trojans became the first pre-season AP No. 1 to finish a season unranked since Mississippi in 1964. After finishing 7-6 - including the aforementioned loss to UCLA, a 22-13 beating by rival Notre Dame and a wholly embarrassing performance (pre-game festivities and all) at the Sun Bowl in El Paso - USC was clearly 2012's biggest disappointment, not only in the conference but also across the nation.

However, surprising 2012 efforts by Oregon State (a shocking 9-3 record), Arizona and Arizona State - both of which won bowl games and finished 8-5 - make the 2013 Pac-12 season rather intriguing. In each division, you can make a case for up to four teams having a shot to play in the conference title game on Dec. 6.

Of course, the positive surprises of UCLA, ASU and Arizona, coupled with the troubling falls of USC and Cal (the latter of which cost Coach Jeff Tedford his job after 11 seasons in Berkeley), made for a rough year for most folks trying to do what I've done for the past 12 seasons - sit down with the conference's composite schedule and make preseason picks of each and every game played by a conference club this year.

In the many years of writing this piece - three times for PigskinPost.com, once for CollegeFootballNews.com and, the past eight seasons, for USCFootball.com - my 2013 mark of 59-32 (.641) was the worst winning percentage I've ever recorded (the previous low was .671 in 2006 - something about those years where SC implodes against the Bruins).

And, yes, that mark does include a "loss" in the Pac-12 championship game, since I had USC over Oregon (like just about every other man, woman and child did last August). Still, I've put together a record I am pretty proud of over the years: 688 wins, 243 losses - a .739 winning percentage.
As always, I invite you to grab an adult beverage and settle in. Here it comes once again: odd scores, blowouts, nail-biters, upsets and all - the 2013 Pac-12 game-by-game preview.

Week One - August 29-September 1
Game of the Week
Washington vs. Boise State
Washington's debut in revamped Husky Stadium won't be a gimme, as No. 19 Boise State comes to town. While the Broncos have been reliable BCS busters and a handful for just about anyone - home or away - in recent years, the Huskies will be ready to rock in their new digs. Coach Steve Sarkisian needs to get UW past that seven-win plateau its been stuck on recently. It won't happen without a good start here. Washington 27, Boise State 20

Game of the Weak
Oregon vs. Nicholls State
If you're expecting me to get off my "no FBS school should ever play an FCS school" high horse anytime soon, guess again. Once again, I will note all 2013 contests where a Pac-12 school lowers itself well below the bar of acceptability. Yes, I know some teams get left in the lurch by cancellations, but that's simply not a good enough excuse in this day and age. Embarrassingly enough, nine of 12 conference schools will waste a week on their schedules this year, starting in Week 1 with Arizona and both Oregon schools. The most egregious of this week's lot is Oregon facing a Nicholls State team that's gone 2-20 the past two seasons, including a 77-3 beatdown at the hands of Oregon State last season. Oregon 70, Nicholls State 0

The Rest
Northwestern 42, California 38
The Sonny Dykes Era gets an intriguing start in Berkeley, as No. 22 Northwestern visits. Don't expect a whole lot of defense in this one, and though the Wildcats are likely overrated, the Golden Bears just miss pulling off the upset.

Auburn 34, Washington State 10
Mike Leach has never been one to shy away from challenges, but in year two of a brutal rebuilding effort in Pullman, visiting even a down Auburn team isn't that great of an idea.

Arizona 48, Northern Arizona 17 (Fri., August 30 - FCS opponent)
Colorado 21, Colorado State 20 (Sun., September 1 - At Denver)
Oregon State 38, Eastern Washington 19 (FCS opponent)
UCLA 41, Nevada 17
USC 35, Hawaii 17 (Thurs., August 29)
Utah 19, Utah State 16 (OT) ( Thurs., August 29)

Week Two - September 5-7
Game of the Week
Washington State @ USC
With a generally uninspiring non-conference slate in Week 2, the first conference game of 2013 gets the nod here. The Trojans and Cougars haven't faced each other since 2010 (and since 2009 in Los Angeles). Leach's bunch should be more rambunctious than some of the recent Wazzu teams USC has seen, but unless the death knell of the Lane Kiffin Era is even closer than most expect, the Trojans should handle the Cougs. USC 42, Washington State 14

Game of the Weak
Utah vs. Weber State
The Utes are the "winner" of this week's "Who scheduled the worst FCS opponent?" Weber State finished 2-9 in the Big Sky conference last season, defeating only 5-6 Southern Utah and 1-10 Idaho State - both of whom, incredibly, also will face Pac-12 foes in 2013. Utah 49, Weber State 7

The Rest
Stanford 31, San Jose State 13
The No. 4-ranked Cardinal kick off a week later than most of their conference brethren, facing a SJSU squad that finished 2012 on quite a roll after starting with a tough three-point road loss to - Stanford. Of course, since then, the Spartans have lost their head coach to Colorado, and the Cardinal have found a steady QB presence in Kevin Hogan.

Oregon 55, Virginia 14
The Ducks visit Charlottesville in the Pac-12's best non-conference matchup of the week. Of course, a Virginia team coming off a 4-8 season in 2012 shouldn't put up much of a fight. But, hey, a BCS conference foe is light years better than what most of the conference is lining up against this week.

Arizona State 45, Sacramento State 17 (Thurs., September 5)
This one only gets more than a single line in the preview because I'd like to salute the FCS-level Hornets. Sac State is 10-12 the past two seasons overall - 2-0 against the Pac-12 (Oregon State in 2011; Colorado in 2012), and 8-12 against everyone else. It says here that ASU stops the embarrassment. (And, yes, looking below, I know I am missing out on a Scottie Pippen joke by talking about this FCS game, rather than Colorado-Central Arkansas).

Arizona 34, UNLV 24
California 45, Portland State 24 (FCS opponent)
Colorado 35, Central Arkansas 17 (FCS opponent)
Oregon State 42, Hawaii 10

Week Three - September 14
Game of the Week
UCLA @ Nebraska
The Bruins haven't had to deal with this level of expectation heading into a season since most of their current players were taking afternoon naps in pre-school or kindergarten. Could Jim Mora be leading a budding power? QB Brett Hundley and a hungry and capable defensive front seven say its possible. Question marks at running back, in the secondary and about who will be Hundley's top red-zone target create doubt. UCLA's history in Lincoln, and a talented Husker team out for revenge, will leave those questions unanswered for another week, at least. Nebraska 38, UCLA 31

Game of the Weak
Washington State vs. Southern Utah
There's just one FCS matchup this week. Thank goodness. Washington State 44, Southern Utah 13

The Rest
Oregon State 30, Utah 20
If the Beavers are to build on last season's 9-4 campaign, this is the kind of game they have to win early - an inter-divisional road game against one of the South's weaker teams.

Arizona State 27, Wisconsin 14
The Sun Devils' 2010 visit to Madison was the most heartbreaking of ASU's recent BCS-conference road losses. In the past four seasons, Arizona State has lost road games at Georgia, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri by a total of 11 points, including a 20-19 defeat to the Badgers that was decided by a blocked extra point after the Devils had scored to close within that single point. In Tempe, it will be a different story.

Arizona 48, Texas-San Antonio 12
Ohio State 41, California 17
Fresno State 28, Colorado 20
Oregon 45, Tennessee 10
Stanford 42, Army 6
USC 31, Boston College 16
Washington 30, Illinois 17 (At Chicago)

Week Four - September 21
Game of the Week
Arizona State @ Stanford
The second week of the Sun Devils' ridiculous early season stretch hits the road on the Farm. While Stanford is likely to be favored fairly heavily, ASU's defensive strengths match up well with Stanford's offensive power. Can ASU get enough done against the stingy Cardinal D to pull the upset? Stanford 24, Arizona State 21

Game of the Weak
Washington vs. Idaho State
The Huskies wrap the FCS portion of the Pac-12 slate against the Bengals, who were a stirring 1-10 in 2012. I'm sure this one will draw a massive throng to the shores of Lake Washington. Washington 52, Idaho State 0

The Rest
BYU 35, Utah 20
How many times can the BYU students rush the field at the end of this one?

USC 31, Utah State 21
If there's a "trap" game on the Trojans' schedule before they get into the conference season in earnest, it's this one. Yes, I know, Gary Andersen - who led the Aggies to an 11-2 mark in 2012 - is gone to Wisconsin, but plenty of the talent he used is still around. If the Trojans are looking ahead to next week's game at Arizona State, things could get a little hairy in the Coliseum.

Oregon State 38, San Diego State 28
UCLA 51, New Mexico State 10
Washington State 34, Idaho 17

Week Five - September 28
Game of the Week
USC @ Arizona State
Since UCLA is expected to win the Pac-12 South by the media, this game would appear to decide their key "challenger." While I'm not sure any of that previous statement will hold up to scrutiny as the season goes along, the Sun Devils will take the first step forward. For many Trojan fans, this is likely to give the "Fire Kiffin" mob even more ammo. Arizona State 31, USC 21

Game of the Weak
Colorado @ Oregon State
Talk about a cushy start to the conference schedule - the Beavers ease into things with South doormats Utah and Colorado, the second in Corvallis. Oregon State 44, Colorado 14

The Rest
Washington 35, Arizona 31
A matchup of two teams seen finishing in the middle of their respective divisions, both the Wildcats and the Huskies have the firepower to shock the better teams in the conference. Who gets the jump here, then? With the home team winning the past five in this series, I'll stick with UW.

Oregon 61, California 21
Stanford 30, Washington State 14 (At Seattle)

Week Six - October 3-5
Game of the Week
Washington @ Stanford
A season ago, the Huskies stunned the Cardinal on a Thursday night in Seattle, mainly thanks to a stellar effort by an up-and-coming defense. Yes, Stanford has this one circled on its calendar - and the Cardinal will once again make it tough for the Huskies to score. But this weekend is also the first time where Stanford's lack of playmakers in the pass catching department will hurt badly. A strong Husky secondary makes it possible for UW's improving front seven to again lock down the Cardinal offense, and a late Travis Coons field goal is the difference. Washington 23, Stanford 20

Game of the Weak
Washington State @ California
Which pass-happy, no-defense team wants to finish last in the Pac-12 North? California 38, Washington State 37

The Rest
Notre Dame 24, Arizona State 16 (At Arlington, Texas)
Oh, can you imagine the nation's headline writers working up their headline puns for this one? "ND Finds Devil in the Details"? "Irish Exorcise Devils"? "ASU Pays for Original Sin"? I could go on. I'm sure the copy desks will.

UCLA 38, Utah 24 (Thurs., October 3)
Oregon 59, Colorado 14

Week Seven - October 10-12
Game of the Week
Oregon @ Washington
The Huskies' nine-game losing streak to the Ducks burns UW fans to the core. If this game were anywhere else on the schedule - other than after physically bruising Stanford on the road - I'd give the Huskies their best chance in years to upset the Ducks. But it's not, and that means 10 in a row for Oregon. Oregon 38, Washington 20

Game of the Weak
Colorado @ Arizona State
After the four-week stretch of Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame, the Sun Devils have to be thankful to see the Buffaloes. Arizona State 49, Colorado 13

The Rest
USC 42, Arizona 27 (Thurs., October 10)
The first non-Thanksgiving Thursday home game in USC history is also a payback game for the Trojans after their embarrassing giveaway in Tucson a season ago.

UCLA 45, California 28
Oregon State 34, Washington State 24
Stanford 31, Utah 7

Week Eight - October 19
Game of the Week
UCLA @ Stanford
UCLA is the second team during the conference season to face a dreaded Stanford-Oregon back-to-back. At least UW got the second game at home, but the Bruins have to go on the road for both. UCLA has more than enough offensive firepower to knock off the Cardinal in Palo Alto, but can they get over a five-game losing streak to Stanford, including the heartbreaker in last November's Pac-12 title game? Stanford 28, UCLA 23

Game of the Weak
Washington State @ Oregon
The Cougs hung around for a half last season on the Palouse. In Eugene, they won't be so lucky. Oregon 51, Washington State 17

The Rest
Notre Dame 24, USC 20 Thurs., October 18
The last Irish win over USC in South Bend? 2001. Since then, three USC quarterbacks in their first year starting games for the Trojans - Matt Leinart in 2003, Mark Sanchez (as an injury replacement for John David Booty) in 2007, and Matt Barkley in 2009 - have led USC to road wins against the Irish. Whomever Kiffin eventually picks in 2013 won't be able to keep either streak alive.

Arizona State 31, Washington 24
The Huskies wrap a tough three-game stretch in the desert. It's an awful lot to expect them to step up against ASU after the emotional expenditure of the Stanford and Oregon games.

Oregon State 38, California 20
Arizona 35, Utah 15

Week Nine - October 26
Game of the Week
Stanford @ Oregon State
The Beavers lost a late 23-14 lead on the Farm a season ago, in a game that eventually allowed the Cardinal to win the Pac-12 North after upsetting Oregon. This year, OSU will flip the script on Stanford. Oregon State 24, Stanford 17

Game of the Weak
Utah @ USC
Utah winless in conference? Check. USC fans ready to throttle Kiffin the week after a third loss in four seasons to Notre Dame? Check. Should be a festive atmosphere at the Coliseum. USC 28, Utah 10

The Rest
Oregon 47, UCLA 27 Thurs., October 18
This may be the worst back-to-back style combination any team can face - plodding, physical Stanford followed by the lightning speed of Oregon. The Bruins will hang around for a bit thanks to Hundley, but eventually the Ducks will pull away.

Arizona 40, Colorado 24
Washington 42, California 23

Week 10 - October 31-November 2
Game of the Week
USC @ Oregon State Fri., November 1
Three times in Corvallis, Oregon State has upset a highly ranked USC team with visions of greatness - 1967, 2006, 2008. Can USC return the favor on what promises to be a chilly Friday night? Outside of the Trojans' 2011 upset of Oregon, USC's record in the state of Oregon has been abysmal of late. In front of a revved up Beaver crowd, it will be a tall order for the Trojans to get the job done. Oregon State 30, USC 21

Game of the Weak
Colorado @ UCLA
Things will get better under Mike MacIntyre, Buffs fans. It's just going to take a little more than one season. UCLA 42, Colorado 20

The Rest
Arizona State 37, Washington State 24 Thurs., October 31
Two years ago, the Cougars stunned the Sun Devils in Pullman. I doubt a Halloween trick is in store this season.

Arizona 41, California 35

Week 11 - November 7-9
Week 11
Game of the Week
Oregon @ Stanford Thurs., November 7
It's the near-consensus "Game of the Year" in the Pac-12. Do the Cardinal have enough offense? Will the Ducks navigate Stanford's swarming defense more effectively? The answers: no and yes. Oregon 38, Stanford 17

Game of the Weak
Colorado @ Washington
The Huskies are the latest to chew up the Buffs. Washington 45, Colorado 7

The Rest
Arizona 37, UCLA 33
The winner remains a factor down the stretch in the Pac-12 South. The last time the teams played here, the Bruins melted down in the final throes of the Neuheisel Era. Mora and Hundley make a difference this time around, but the Wildcats win one of their patented Tucson thrillers. One more thing about UCLA: I'm not really down on the Bruins. I'm down on their schedule and the glaring holes on the team that need fixing as I see it before the season. There is a chance that Mora is building something special, and if he is, UCLA will overcome the questions at RB, on the offensive line and, most seriously, in the secondary. More importantly, though, UCLA's schedule has turned around so drastically from 2012 that if the Bruins do have a similarly good year in 2013, they will actually have a great year.

Arizona State 34, Utah 21
USC 31, California 19

Week 12 - November 15-16
Week 12
Game of the Week
Stanford @ USC
The Trojans stifle Stanford's offense, force a series of turnovers, and do enough against a Cardinal defense wearying of carrying a struggling offense. USC 23, Stanford 14

Game of the Weak
California @ Colorado
A pair of struggling squads meet in Boulder. The Buffs' home-field advantage in the game is enough to bring them their first Pac-12 victory of the season. Colorado 31, California 28

The Rest
Arizona State 27, Oregon State 20
Are the Devils on the march to the Pac-12 title game? After upending the Beavers in Tempe, they certainly have to feel good about their chances.

UCLA 34, Washington 30 Fri., November 15
Oregon 63, Utah 13
Arizona 43, Washington State 20

Week 13 - November 23
Game of the Week
Arizona State @ UCLA
In a last gasp to remain relevant in the Pac-12 South race, the Bruins take advantage of Sun Devil mistakes and roll up an impressive win. UCLA 34, Arizona State 24

Game of the Weak
Utah @ Washington State
It's the last two winless clubs in the Pac-12, facing off in Pullman. Can you feel the excitement? I'm sure the 20,000 or so who will be on hand will. Washington State 26, Utah 16

The Rest
Oregon 49, Arizona 28
What could be a barnburner turns into another speed bump for the Ducks on the way to the Pac-12 title game- and possibly beyond. Not only is Oregon good, but also the schedule in 2013 is incredibly friendly. In what appear to be the Ducks' toughest games - at Washington, home vs. UCLA, at Stanford, at Arizona and home vs. Oregon State - four out of five Oregon opponents also will be coming off of very difficult games the week before. (UW at Stanford; UCLA at Stanford; Stanford at Oregon State; Arizona vs. Washington State; Oregon State vs. Washington). It's great to be good, especially when you toss in a little schedule luck.

Stanford 27, California 17
USC 37, Colorado 16
Oregon State 28, Washington 24

Week 14 - November 29-30
Game of the Week
Oregon State at Oregon Fri., November 29
Once again, the Beavers have a shot to wreck another Oregon dream season and - this time - put themselves in the Pac-12 championship game to boot. Once again, they come up short. Oregon 41, Oregon State 28

Game of the Weak
Colorado @ Utah Fri., November 23
The road team has won both matchups since the teams joined the conference in 2011. With the Utes trying to avoid going winless in the conference, that changes this year. Utah 27, Colorado 20

The Rest
USC 28, UCLA 24
The Bruins haven't won in the Coliseum since 1997. In the interim, games between the two teams here have essentially turned into USC home games, with Trojan fans making up 90 percent of the crowd. Can UCLA get more support from its fans, and, in turn, a second straight win over what is likely to be a motivated Trojan team? With USC advancing to the Pac-12 title game with a win and an Arizona State loss, the Trojans hold on.

Arizona State 35, Arizona 31
The road team has won four straight in the Territorial Cup. By breaking that streak, the Sun Devils go to the Pac-12 title game.

Stanford 17, Notre Dame 14
In a bruising display of football more akin to 1963 than 2013, the Cardinal get a little home cooking from the officials to gain a measure of revenge for last year's controversial finish in South Bend.

Washington 38, Washington State 17 (Fri., November 29)
The Huskies extract revenge for last season's Apple Cup giveaway, and get to the eight-win mark for the first time in 12 years.

Week 15 - Pac-12 Championship Game
Saturday, Dec. 6
Arizona State at Oregon
This is a great accomplishment for Coach Todd Graham in his second year in Tempe, and comes solely due to the Devils holding the tiebreaker on USC since their win in September. Though the Devils defense, keyed by Will Sutton, has played well throughout the season, they've yet to see anything like the speed of the Ducks. And Oregon's secondary will force ASU to rely on the run more than they'd like. It's just not a good mix for Arizona State. The Ducks will throw their name in the hat for a spot in the final BCS championship game with an undefeated regular season. Oregon 45, Arizona State 21

Predicted Pac-12 Standings 2013
North Division
Oregon 13-0, 9-0
Oregon State, 10-2, 7-2
Washington 8-4, 5-4
Stanford 8-4, 5-4
California 2-10, 1-8
Washington State 3-9, 1-8

South Division
Arizona State 9-4, 7-2
USC 10-3, 7-2
Arizona 8-4, 5-4
UCLA 7-5, 5-4
Utah 3-9, 1-8
Colorado 3-9, 1-8

Going Bowling: Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona State, USC, Washington, Stanford, Arizona, UCLA

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami - and points beyond - to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)




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