Week 1 Will Be Huge for Pac-12
It’s here. Finally.
Our favorite time of the year has arrived. College football 2018 is upon us, and the games are about to begin.
Real games. Unlike the NFL, every game in college football actually counts. Every game has an impact on the post-season. There are no exhibition games, no starters benched after the first series, no astronomical ticket prices for meaningless contests.
And with the advent of neutral site “kickoff classics” and the College Football Playoff—which puts a premium on strength of non-league schedule—there are some high quality matchups in Week 1.
All of which makes this a crucial week for the Pac-12 Conference.
You’ll remember that last year was not a highlight reel for the Pac-12. No teams in the playoff. A 1-8 record in the post-season. And a bunch of off-the-field embarrassments related to national TV exposure (remember the infamous truck race that bumped Stanford vs. Washington?), the conference network, and coach/player behavior.
As the headline read in the Chronicle this morning, “Pac-12 Needs Rebound Season.”
That’s putting it mildly.
Most pundits rate Washington as the Pac-12 team with the best chance to restore Pac-12 pride and crack the CFP this year. The Huskies were in the Final Four two years ago, but were outclassed by Alabama. Both the AP and coaches’ pre-season polls have them slotted at No. 6, and quite a few prognosticators have included them in their playoff crystal balls.
Which leads us to this weekend’s matchups:
Washington-Auburn: This is the most meaningful game in college football in Week 1. To put it bluntly, Washington must win this game to have a chance to get into the playoff. In my mind, a loss to a team that is probably only third best in the SEC, combined with the likelihood of Alabama (and possibly Georgia) making the playoff, means that a loss to Auburn would disqualify the Huskies, even if they should run the table.
Despite its No. 6 ranking, Washington is a 1½ point underdog to No. 9 Auburn. Why? The game, known as the Chick fil-A Kickoff (thank you, Gary Stokan) is being played in Atlanta, and it’ll resemble an Auburn home game. In what promises to be an intense, close, dogfight, the outcome will likely rest on the shoulders of Washington QB Jake Browning.
Browning was outstanding in 2016, throwing 43 touchdown passes and putting himself in the Heisman conversation, but fell off dramatically in ’17 with only 19 scoring tosses. Auburn has a great defensive line, but a suspect secondary. If the 2016 Browning shows up, the Huskies will win.
Stanford-San Diego State: With nonpareil running back Bryce Love returning, and QB KJ Costello having another year under his belt, Stanford is ranked No. 13 and considered a dark horse playoff contender. Last year, Coach Rocky Long’s Aztecs upset the Cardinal in San Diego, dashing any CFP hopes. Stanford is at home this time, favored by 14 points, and Coach David Shaw will have his team ready for Long’s smash mouth variety of football. “They’re going to try to run it down our throats,” he says.
Unfortunately, Stanford has lost defensive studs Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips to the NFL first round the past two years, and the D-line may be the team’s weak point. Expect the Aztecs to move the ball and keep it close, but Stanford to prevail.
Cal-North Carolina: The Bears, in their second season under Justin Wilcox, have an excellent defense and a solid attack led by running back Patrick Laird and QB Ross Bowers. They should beat North Carolina en route to three straight non-league wins.
BYU-Arizona: First-year coach Kevin Sumlin will get his Tucson tenure off to a great start as the Wildcats—led by Heisman candidate Khalil Tate—smoke BYU.
Ohio State-Oregon State: Even without Urban Liar (excuse me, Meyer), the Buckeyes will win in a cakewalk and keep the scoreboard operator very busy.
There are some interesting non-Pac-12 games, including Miami-LSU, Florida State-Va. Tech, and the most important…
Notre Dame-Michigan: A huge matchup in South Bend for two teams harboring playoff hopes. Notre Dame is rated No. 12 and Michigan No. 14. The Irish are favored by 1 point.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has gone 10-3, 10-3 and 8-5 in his three seasons in Ann Arbor—without a Big Ten title—which wasn’t what the Michigan brass had in mind when they hired him. But this year, for the first time, Harbaugh has a real quarterback in Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson. I look for Patterson to lead the Wolverines to an upset victory in a thriller that goes down to the wire.