Week 1 Pac-12 Previews & Predictions

This story was originally published at sportspac12.com. Syndicated with permission.

Every Thursday during the football season, our SportsPac12 writers bring you previews and predictions for each of the Conference football games. Eleven teams kick off the season this week in a full spectrum of matchups.

UCLA (0-0) at Cincinnati (0-0)

Thursday, August 29

4:00 p.m., PT, ESPN

Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, OH

Straight-Up : UCLA in a Close Win

Against the Spread: UCLA (+3)

by Andrew Corbett, SportsPac12

What the Bearcats Must Do to Win

Cincinnati enters Year Three of the Luke Fickell Era with plenty of optimism, following a 11-2 season in 2018. The Bearcats return 15 starters, most notably up-and-coming sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder. Cincinnati figures to be among the American Athletic Conference’s top teams once again. The key for Cincinnati will be opening holes for running back Michael Warren II, making life easier for Ridder against UCLA’s solid secondary.

What the Bruins Must Do to Win

Returning UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson must continue to show improvement as a starter, as he did last season behind transfer Wilton Speight, who served as his mentor. If the sophomore signal caller performs as expected, the Bruin offense should be able to move the ball with standout running back Joshua Kelley gobbling up yards in chunks. The biggest key for UCLA could be putting pressure on Ridder. Mounting an effective pass rush was an area of struggle for the Bruins last year.

What Happens on the Field

Both programs come into the opener remarkably healthy, with only one projected starter for either team ruled out due to injury: Bruin inside linebacker Tyree Thompson. (Backup Bruin linebacker Bo Calvert has been ruled ineligible). Given their similarities, the team with the most consistent quarterback play, pass protection, and pass rush seems most likely to prevail. If UCLA’s retooled offensive line holds up, look for the Bruins to win in a close contest over one of the Group of 5’s best teams.

Notes: UCLA and Cincinnati met for the first time last year, with the Bearcats claiming a 26-17 victory in the Rose Bowl. This will be the first road opener for the Bruins since 2016, when they lost in overtime at Texas A&M. UCLA is 65-30-5 all-time in season-openers, and 7-9-0 all-time against teams from the current American Athletic Conference. Bruin quarterback coach Dana Bible is a 1976 Cincinnati graduate who started at cornerback for the Bearcats from 1972-75.

Arizona State (0-0) vs. Kent State (0-0)

Thursday, August 29

7:00 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Network

Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ

Straight-Up: Arizona State in a Blowout Win

Against the Spread: Arizona State (-25)

by Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

What the Golden Flashes Must Do to Win

The Kent State offense will need to create big plays throughout the game to keep afloat against ASU. They are led by quarterback Woody Barrett, who completed 229 passes for 18 touchdowns last year. If he can protect the ball and extend plays with his feet, KSU has a very slim chance to stay in the game and pull off a huge upset on the road. On the defensive side, linebacker Nick Faulkner will need to step up for the Flashes to have any hope of stopping the ASU ground attack.

What the Sun Devils Must Do to Win

The Sun Devils want and need to run the ball down the Golden Flashes throat the entire game, and they have the personnel to do just that. ASU’s offensive line is extremely experienced and talented, and it should open up nearly endless holes for star running back Eno Benjamin. Freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels will make his first collegiate start, and he should have a soft landing against an outmatched Kent State defense that was the worst in the MAC last season.

What Happens on the Field

Arizona State should have no problem getting off to a hot start in their second campaign under Herm Edwards. The Sun Devils will dominate this game from start to finish. The Flashes, coming off a 2-10 season, will be outmatched physically, and may also have to deal with triple-digit temperatures in which they are not accustomed to playing. The Sun Devils win this one in a blowout.

Notes: This is the first meeting between the two schools. ASU finished second in the Pac-12 South last year with a 7-6 record (5-4 in the Pac-12). Kent State finished last in the MAC East with 1-7 Conference record. The Sun Devils have won 20 consecutive home openers. Benjamin rushed for 1,642 yards last season, breaking ASU’s single-season record. Kent State senior Mike Carrigan led the team with 597 receiving yards and five touchdowns. The Golden Flashes offense returns nine starters. 

#14 Utah (0-0) at BYU (0-0)

Thursday, August 29

7:15 p.m. PT, ESPN

LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, UT

Straight-Up Pick: Utah in a Close Win

Against the Spread: Utah (-6.5)

By Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

What the Cougars Must Do to Win

BYU is coming off a solid 7-6 season and a victory in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. For the Cougars to win they need to find a way to move the ball against Utah’s stout defense. Wideout Aleva Hifo will have to create big plays, and the BYU coaching staff may throw in some trick plays to try and steal momentum. Defensively, the Cougars must find a way to stop the Utes dynamic duo of quarterback Tyler Huntley and running Zack Moss, and also control the line of scrimmage to have any chance at pulling out a victory.

What the Utes Must Do to Win

For the Utes the formula is simple: Don’t get overhyped in a cross-state matchup; Stick to the plan of solid defensive execution and an explosive rushing attack. Huntley will need to be running the ball to create more confusion for the Cougars defense, but it’s already in his DNA. His mobility only creates additional running room for Moss to shred BYU, and that’s the expectation, now that he’s healthy again. Defensively, if the Utes stick to their assignments, they will dominate the game.

What Happens on the Field

This Week One renewal of the Holy War should be as intense and entertaining as it gets between these two teams, whose dislike of each other will be plain to see in loud and renovated LaVell Edwards Stadium. If Utah puts aside the preseason hype about winning the Pac-12 and making the college football playoff, it should pull away in the 2nd half and cruise to victory. BYU won’t go down without a fight, to be sure, but they do not have the talent to steal the game from Utah.

Notes: This is the 100th meeting between the two teams, with the Utes leading the all-time series 58-31-4. They have won the last eight matchups dating back to 2010, and 13 of the last 16. Hifo led the Cougars in receiving last year with 358 yards. Isaiah Kaufusi is the leading returning tackler for BYU with 50. Moss rushed for 1096 yards last season for the Utes, despite missing much of the year with an injury. Huntley threw for 1788 yards in 2018-19 in his injury-shortened campaign.

Colorado (0-0) vs. Colorado State (0-0)

Friday, August 30

7:00 p.m. PT, ESPN

Sports Authority Field, Denver, CO

Straight-Up: Colorado in a Comfortable Win

Against the Spread: Colorado (-13.5)

By Ian McCollam, SportsPac12

What the Rams Must Do to Win

The Rams return 12 starters from a 2018 team that averaged just 22.8 points per game. Quarterback Collin Hill took over late in the season, throwing for 1,387 yards and seven touchdowns. After losing his two leading receivers and his top two rushers, he’ll need to play a rock-solid game to find much traction against Mel Tucker’s aggressive defense. The Rams return just two starting defensive linemen, and it will take a combined effort by Emmanuel Jones and Ellison Hubbard in the trenches to slow down Colorado.

What the Buffaloes Must Do to Win

Returning CU quarterback Steven Montez leads an offense that averaged 27.1 points per game last season, thanks in large part to his 2,849 yards and 19 touchdowns passing.  Having leading receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. back, along with four starters on the offensive line, gives the Buffs an advantage Colorado State won’t be able to match. Defensively, Colorado must improve on the 27.3 points it allowed per game last season. But with five starters back, and Tucker’s smash-mouth SEC scheme, that improvement should be apparent right away against the Rams.

What Happens on the Field

Colorado State has too many unanswered questions on both sides of the ball to upset the Buffs, provided this young and inexperienced Colorado team doesn’t make too many mistakes. If CU’s bolstered offensive line—which allowed 2.8 sacks per game last season—does a better job of protecting Montez, the margin of victory could get out of hand. The Buffs win this one comfortably, by two touchdowns or more.

Notes: This is the 91st meeting between the two schools. The Buffaloes lead the series 66-22-2, including a 12-6 edge in games played in Denver. Colorado is 80-44-5 in its 129 season-openers, with a 9-5-1 mark at neutral sites.  CU’s entire roster has just 179 total career starts, the fewest returning starts for any Colorado team since the advent of the 11-game regular season in 1971. In two season openers against CSU, Montez has completed 43-of-54 passes for 540 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions.

Oregon State (0-0) vs. Oklahoma State (0-0)

Friday, August 30

7:30 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Network

Reser Stadium, Corvallis, OR

Straight-Up: Oklahoma State in a Comfortable Win

Against the Spread: Oklahoma State (-14)

By Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

What the Cowboys Must Do to Win

Oklahoma State has a history of explosive offenses under 15th-year head coach Mike Gundy, and the Cowboys should rack up plenty of yards against Oregon State’s rebuilding defense. Tylan Wallace, an 2018 Biletnikoff finalist, is an elite receiver who should be able to make huge plays down field. Running backs Chuba Hubbard and LD Brown need to exploit the spaces in the Beaver defensive line to keep the Cowboys from being a one trick pony.

What the Beavers Must Do to Win

Oregon State has a huge opportunity to revive its program and jump-start the season this week. To upset Oklahoma State, the Beavs must establish their run game with Jermar Jefferson and Artavis Pierce. Jefferson, the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, would boost the entire team’s confidence by reeling off some long runs. Fortunately, the Cowboys have an inexperienced line which should create some running room. Success on the ground would also afford sixth-year senior quarterback Jake Luton more time to make key throws.

What Happens on the Field

This matchup has the potential to evolve into a shootout with Oklahoma State making big plays through the air, and Oregon State answering with explosion plays on the ground. Ultimately, however, the Cowboys will prove too much and pull away. The Beaver defense has been reliably porous the last couple of seasons; It would take tremendous improvement in head coach Jonathan Smith’s second season to stop an offense the caliber of Oklahoma State. The Cowboys win by at least two touchdowns.

Notes: This is the first matchup between the two schools, with a return game due 2020 in Stillwater. Since 2010, Oklahoma State has logged six seasons with at least 10 wins. Oregon State is 9-12 all-time against current teams from the Big XII. The Cowboys were picked to finish fifth in their Conference. Wallace averaged 17.33 yards per reception last season. Jefferson rushed for 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Beavers. Oregon State last played a Big XII team in the 2012 Alamo Bowl vs. Texas.

#13 Washington (0-0) vs.  Eastern Washington (0-0)

Saturday, August 31

12:00 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Network

Husky Stadium, Seattle, WA

Straight-Up: Washington

Against the Spread: Washington (-21)

By Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

What the Eagles Must Do to Win

The Eagles had a solid 2018 season, going 12-2 before losing in the FCS National Title Game. They graduated their three starting cornerbacks, however, and are hoping to fill the void with a pair of three-star recruits in Marlon Jones and Trey Edwards. Up front, Eastern’s defense is solid, but will struggle to match the physicality of the Huskies. On the other side of the ball, the Eagles have a dangerous spread offense led by junior quarterback Eric Barriere. His arm could be EWU’s ticket to an upset, if one were to happen, though the tough Husky defense won’t give them much of a chance.

What the Huskies Must Do to Win

Washington is playing its first game in four years without Jake Browning at quarterback. His replacement, former 5-star recruit Jacob Eason, will benefit from four returning offensive lineman and speedy junior running back Salvon Ahmed. The group should have no problem putting up points against Eastern’s inexperienced  secondary. While the Huskies lost most of their starting defense, defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake is known for developing talent. Several of his new faces, including interior linemen Jacob Bandes and Faatui Tuitele, will have to step up.

What Happens on the Field

Washington has repeatedly shown it can stop spread-style offenses, as evidenced by its six-game winning streak over cross-state rival Washington State. Though the Eagles have been able to put a scare into FBS teams in recent years, they appear too depleted to do much damage in Seattle, having lost more than 20 starters from last year’s NCAA Division I Subdivision runner up team. In short, the Huskies simply have too much speed and talent for the Eagles. Washington will pull away early, giving head coach Chris Petersen an opportunity to begin developing his new backup quarterback.

Notes: Washington leads the all-time series 2-0, having won the last matchup 59-52 in 2014. Ahmed is the leading returning rusher for UW with 608 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Senior defensive back Myles Bryant is the returning team leader in tackles, with 39 solo and 61 total. Eastern’s Barriere passed for 2,450 yards and 24 TD’s last season. EWU Junior linebacker Chris Ojoh is the returning team leader in tackles, with 59 solo and 105 total. Washington has won 14 straight at Husky Stadium.

#25 Stanford (0-0) vs. Northwestern (0-0)

Saturday, August 31

1:00 p.m. PT, FOX

Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, CA

Straight-Up: Stanford

Against the Spread: Northwestern (-6.5)

By Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

What the Wildcats Must Do to Win

Northwestern’s defense needs to make Stanford one dimensional. If they can stop the rush and put pressure on Costello, Stanford could have a long day at the office. Greg Newsome II and Trae Williams lead the Wildcats secondary and they hope to create a few turnovers in the process. Offensively, Northwestern quarterbacks Hunter Johnson and T.J. Green must protect the ball and control the tempo. They do not want to get into a shootout, though they may be able to exploit the Cardinal’s suspect safeties.

What the Cardinal Must Do to Win

For the Cardinal to prevail against the Wildcats, they need to return to their roots and run the ball effectively. Despite losing Bryce Love to the NFL, Stanford seems likely to continue its tradition of fielding elite running backs, with several good candidates in Cameron Scarlett and others. Quarterback K.J. Costello must play well, which is tantamount to him being himself. On defense, the Cardinal secondary must play better after allowing 264 yards passing per game last season. The Cardinal also need to pressure Northwestern’s sack-prone offensive line.

What Happens on the Field

With both tough-minded teams hoping to control the game with defense and rushing, a low-scoring dogfight seems likely. A win here gets the ball rolling in the right direction for either program, but the Cardinal ultimately wins it, though not by much. It may come down to takeaways and a few key third-down stops here and there. Look for Costello to make enough plays down the stretch for Stanford to emerge victorious.

Notes: Stanford leads the all-time series 3-2-2, with Northwestern winning the last matchup 16-6 in 2015. The Cardinal has won 11 straight openers, and have played in ten straight bowl games, the longest current streak in the Pac-12. Costello threw for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns last year. Northwestern returns six starters on defense and five on offense, including six of their top seven tacklers from last season. Wildcats running back Isaiah Bowser rushed for 866 yards and six touchdowns.

California (0-0) vs. UC Davis (0-0)

Saturday, August 31

3:30 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Network

Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, CA

Straight-Up:  Cal

Against the Spread: UC Davis (-13)

By Kamron Azemika, SportsPac12

What the Aggies Must Do to Win

Big Sky champion UC Davis, led by former Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, is coming off of a revitalizing 10-3 season and a narrow loss to Eastern Washington in the FCS Quarterfinals. The Aggies return much of their roster from last year, including senior quarterback Jake Maier, who finished in the top three of the FCS in both passing yards and touchdowns. With last year’s top receiving target gone to the NFL, Maier will need to outfox Cal’s vaunted secondary to have a chance.

What the Bears Must Do to Win

As usual, the Golden Bears will rely on their stingy defense—led by preseason All-America linebacker Evan Weaver—to control the game. That should give Cal’s retooled offense a chance to find its footing. UCLA transfer quarterback Devon Modster isn’t yet eligible, so incumbent starter Chase Garbers will have a long rope with redshirt freshman walk-on Robby Rowell the only backup behind him. The Bears have struggled to string together long drives and minimize turnovers under Justin Wilcox, but should have a chance to establish some stability against an FCS foe.

What Happens on the Field

Cal should win this game easily, on the strength of its dominant defense, though not by a large margin. The Bears have not been known for blowout victories over the past two years. Its largest margin of victory against a non-conference opponent was a 22-point victory over Idaho State in 2018. So while UC Davis will likely struggle to score early, the Aggies should find a way to put up enough points to keep the game from getting out-of-hand.

Notes: This is the 10th meeting between the two schools, and Cal has won all nine of the previous contests. The Bears led the Pac-12 with 28 takeaways last season: Seven fumble recoveries and 21 interceptions. Five of those Conference-leading interceptions were returned for a touchdown. Cal’s pass defense allowed just 175.1 passing yards per game, the best in the Pac-12. The Bear defense also allowed less than 100 yards rushing five times last season. Cal is 12-3 in its last 15 season openers since 2004.

#11 Oregon (0-0) vs. #16 Auburn (0-0)

Saturday, August 31

4:30 p.m. PT, ABC

AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX

Straight-Up: Oregon

Against the Spread: Auburn (-3.5)

By Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

What the Tigers Must Do to Win

Auburn needs to slow the tempo of this game and control the line of scrimmage with their rushing attack. Expect the Tigers to lean on sophomore running back Jatarvious Whitlow, who rushed for 878 yards last season. True freshman quarterback Bo Nix must avoid making the big mistakes and play with confidence for the Tigers to give the Ducks their best game. Defensively, Auburn fields one of the nation’s top front lines, led by 6-foot-5, 318-pound senior tackle Derrick Brown. The line must limit Oregon’s rushing attack, forcing the Ducks into tough passing situations.

What the Ducks Must Do to Win

While this could be a Heisman showcase for senior Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, he probably just needs to manage the game and throw well for the Ducks to win. With one of the nation’s top offensive lines protecting him, he should have time to throw, and get plenty of help from two quality backs in C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye. The Ducks have enough size and speed on the defensive line and at linebacker to intimidate Nix, and a ball-hawking secondary that won’t allow him many easy throws. Above all, Oregon must play like a team with 17 returning starters.

What Happens on the Field

Herbert didn’t pass up millions of dollars to lose games, and this one could could go a long way in determining the outcome of his decision. Oregon and Auburn appear evenly matched at several positions, but not at quarterback. The game will likely be won in the trenches, where UO head coach Mario Cristobal has retooled the Ducks to compete with SEC-caliber teams. Herbert will be the difference-maker, coming through on enough big plays to win a close physical contest. 

Notes: Auburn is 1-0 in the all-time series, having beaten the Ducks 22-19 in the 2011 BCS National Championship game. Oregon has won seven consecutive season openers, with its last loss coming against LSU in 2011. Auburn is 9-3 against current members of the Pac-12 Conference. Nix is the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Tigers since 1946. Linebacker Troy Dye leads all active major conference players with 313 career tackles. Herbert has the nation’s longest streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 28.

#23 Washington State (0-0) vs. New Mexico State (0-0)

Saturday, August 31

7:00 p.m. PT, FOX

Martin Stadium, Pullman, WA

Straight-Up: Washington State in a blowout win

Against the Spread: Washington State (-31.5)

By Jace McKinney, SportsPac12

What the Aggies Must Do to Win

New Mexico State returns a potent passing offense led by sophomore quarterback Josh Atkins, who started 10 games last season as a red-shirt freshman. He returns five of his top six receivers after throwing for 2,563 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. To have any chance, his line must allow him to take aim at Wazzu’s rebuilt secondary. On defense, leading tackler Javahn Ferguson and a solid defensive front will look to pressure new Cougar quarterback Anthony Gordon and create turnovers.

What the Cougars Must Do to Win

The Cougars should be able to get to Atkins almost at will, racking up more sacks after leading the Pac-12 in that category last season. On offense, Gordon can’t go wrong if he simply gets the ball to his wealth of riches at receiver. The unexpected starter after beating out EWU transfer Gage Gubrud, Gordon learned the Air Raid behind Luke Falk and Gardner Minshew, and it’s hard to imagine quarterback Wizard Mike Leach not having him ready. Add running back Max Borghi into the mix, and the rout is on.

What Happens on the Field

New Mexico State’s defense was one of the worst in the FBS last year, and it could be even worse this season. Yet, the Aggies front line is stout enough to hurry Gordon, if he holds the ball too long. That rarely happens in Leach’s offense, and NMS’s defense is more likely to find itself gassed. Wazzu should win this one in a big way, allowing Gubrud and backups at several positions to play early and show their stuff.

Notes: This is the first-ever meeting between the two teams. If the Aggies don’t seem overly intimidated, consider that they visit Alabama next.  WSU is 71-59-5 in season-openers after posting a 41-19 victory at Wyoming last season. Four starters return along the offensive line where the Cougars have produced an All-American each of the last four years. Wazzu had the nations best passing attack last season, producing 373.8 yards per game.

USC (0-0) vs. Fresno State (0-0)

Saturday, August 31

7:30 p.m. PT, ESPN

Los Angeles Memorial Stadium, Los Angeles, CA

Straight-Up: USC

Against the Spread: Fresno State (+13.5)

By Nicholas Bartlett, SportsPac12

What the Bulldogs Must Do to Win

The Bulldogs are coming off an impressive 12-2 season in which they beat two Pac-12 opponents. For Fresno State to beat the Trojans, they must find a way to move the ball against a physically imposing USC defense. Junior running back Ronnie Rivers will need to create big plays on the ground to set up Fresno State’s play-action passing, and keep the Trojans defense off balance. Quarterback Jorge Reyna will be making his first start for the Bulldogs in a hostile environment. He must protect the ball and make some big plays to give Fresno State a legitimate shot.

What the Trojans Must Do to Win

For the Trojans, this game is a winnable opener against a talented and well-coached team. But USC must get their passing attack going early and often against an overmatched Bulldogs secondary. Quarterback JT Daniels needs to give his sensational wideouts Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr., and Tyler Vaughns a chance to shine in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s Air Raid system. The trio is capable of turning short gains into explosion plays with every touch. Defensively, USC’s superior talent should limit what the Bulldogs can do if the Trojans play disciplined.

What Happens on the Field

USC will win this game in a close one, unless the Trojans are able to break down Fresno State’s depleted defense. (The Bulldogs lost half the unit from last season.) If that proves to be the case, Daniels and Company could blow the game open. More likely, the Trojans will need this game to work the kinks out of their new offensive scheme, making just enough plays to prevail against a solid Bulldog secondary.

Notes: USC Leads the all-time series 2-1, not counting a 2005 vacated win. The Trojans won the last matchup 52-13 in 2014. Fresno State’s defense held opponents to just 14.4 points per game last season. USC is 31-1-1 against teams currently in the Mountain West Conference. Rivers rushed for 743 yards and ten touchdowns for the Bulldogs last season. Daniels threw for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Trojans. This will be the first game played in the L.A. Coliseum since its $315 million renovation.

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