Thursday, September 4, 2014

PAC 12: Oregon and Stanford Will Win







Is USC really that good? Not really. Is Oregon really that good? Oh, yes. We'll find out more about both this weekend.

Prediction: SC should lose and Oregon should win.

No.14 USC will be tested Saturday in Palo Alto by No.13 Stanford. The Trojans aren't going to treat Stanford like they did Fresno State last week, winning easily, piling up over 700 yards of offense, buoyed by the flashy stats of QB Cody Kessler. You expect a high level of competition from FS. Well, not last Saturday. They were wretched. This was not the tough, relentless Fresno State we're used to. Their quarterback play was awful. Their big QB last season, Derek Carr, is now in the NFL, starting for the Raiders. Their defensive line was trampled by an SC offensive line anchored by freshmen. SC, under new coach Steve Sarkisian, has installed a warp-speed offense that you have to keep off the field, which FS couldn't do. They kept handing the ball back to SC and got overwhelmed.

Suddenly, in the LA area anyway, SC is the new Oregon, a team that's going to blow away any opposition. Wait a minute. They just won one game, beating a team that's relatively weak. Like SC, Stanford whipped a cream puff, UC Davis, 45-0 last week. So what? That means as much as the SC rout. The Trojans beat Fresno State because they have better players. Matched against Stanford, SC has no such advantage.

Favored by three at home, the Cardinal has the defense, bolstered by its usual strong core of linebackers, the experience, the team speed, the savvy QB play--from Kevin Hogan--to hang with SC. Stanford is used to high-speed offenses, having whipped those race-horse Oregon teams a few times with a grind-it-out style. Stanford QB Hogan isn't spectacular but he can efficiently manage a clock-eating offense that can slowly pile up first downs and keep that SC offense on the bench. Also, something else is working against SC. Both QB Kessler and super defensive lineman Leonard Williams are banged up. They'll play but won't be 100%.

SC has a lot to prove. But so does Michigan State, which has the weight of an entire conference, the Big Ten, on its shoulders. The Big Ten is regarded by some as soft and not worthy of a slot in the four-team championship playoff. Its best team, Ohio State, is much less formidable since losing its best player, QB Braxton Miller, for the season. Another of its elite, Wisconsin, was shot down by LSU last week. If Michigan State, the league's other top team, is wiped out by a powerhouse from another conference, like Oregon, the Big Ten might not recover.

So Michigan State, ranked No.7, has to go into Eugene and beat the No.3 team. Not likely. State has some first-rate players but it's not overflowing with them, like Oregon is. The odds makers don't think MS has much of a chance, making them 11.5-point underdogs. Both teams rolled to easy victories over patsies last week, so those games are no indication of anything. However Michigan State's junior QB Connor Cook is a bit shaky after a leg injury last week. But even when totally healthy he's no match for Oregon's Marcus Mariota, the best QB in the country. When Oregon's spread offense, executed by a horde of quality athletes, is working, it's unstoppable. What can slow it down is strong linebacker play. But the Spartans LBs are inexperienced and not especially high-caliber. Weak LB play could doom State. Looking at that unit on film, you can bet Mariota was licking his chops.

Look for the game to be closer than the odds-makers expect. But Oregon, feeling frisky at home, is likely to jump on the Spartans early and take control of the game by halftime.

After this game, fans throughout the Big Ten will be humming mournful versions of  the wait-til-next-year blues.