One week after dropping a heartbreaker to San Diego State, the Cal football team responded with a statement 50-43 upset over powerhouse then-No.11 Texas on Saturday night in front of an electric crowd at Memorial Stadium. Heading into week four, several Bears have already stood out among college football’s best. Senior quarterback Davis Webb is second in the nation with 1,359 passing yards, while sophomore wide receiver Chad Hansen leads the nation with 546 receiving yards, 103 more than anybody else.
Yet, the defense has surrendered an average of nearly 40 points per game, a statistic that will have to improve if the Bears want to remain competitive in the Pac-12 North and keep their hopes for a bowl game alive. With an overall 2-1 record and a little momentum, the Bears will refocus and head to Tempe, Arizona, to take on Arizona State on Saturday, the first of nine Pac-12 opponents they’ll face over the next couple of months. Although upsets tend to distort standings on a weekly basis, it’s never too early to take a guess at how Cal will fare against its remaining opponents by organizing them in ranks. Let’s line them up!
9) Oregon State Beavers (1-1, 0-0 Pac-12)
The Bears will host the Beavers and junior quarterback Darrell Garretson in week six, just before their second bye week of the year. Expected by many to finish last in the Pac-12 North, Oregon State started quickly but ran out of steam in a close 30-23 loss to Minnesota in its opening game, giving up 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Keep an eye on senior receiver Victor Bolden Jr., a fast playmaker who rattled off 111 rushing yards during week two against Idaho State, including a 92-yard touchdown off a jet sweep. Bolden is the type of player who can single-handedly keep the Beavers in a close game against Cal, who are in a seemingly constant state of trying to figure out how to slow down opposing running tactics.
8) Washington State Cougars (1-2, 0-0 Pac-12)
The Cougars sport an impressive amount of offensive firepower and are expected to improve upon last season’s 9-4 record, which included a victory in the 2015 Sun Bowl over Miami. This season, though, the Cougars were shocked by Eastern Washington, 45-42, in their home opener. After falling to Boise State, 31-28, the following week, Washington State finally found the win column with a 56-6 rout over Idaho this past weekend, utilizing the powerful arm of junior quarterback Luke Falk and playmaking skills of lauded receiver Gabe Marks. Falk, a second-year starter who has received comparisons to former Cal quarterback Jared Goff, passed for 4,561 yards last year, good for second on Washington State’s all-time single season record board. In their first three games, the Cougars have attempted 167 passes while running the ball only 80 times under Mike Leach’s air-dependent offensive scheme. Currently seventh in all-time passing yards in Cougar history, Falk is determined to bring his team back from its slow start.
7) USC Trojans (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12)
Although one may justify USC’s 1-2 start to its tough strength of schedule, having faced Alabama and Stanford on the road already, Clay Helton’s Trojans have looked flat and have been thoroughly beaten on both sides of the ball. Aside from an expected 45-7 showing at home against Utah State, the Trojans have struggled to find the end zone, totaling only six offensive touchdowns through three games. Neither junior quarterback Max Browne nor freshman quarterback Sam Darnold have managed to seize the full-time starting quarterback job, as the two have combined for an ugly 4:3 touchdown to interception ratio. Despite the slow start, USC is still a dangerous team with receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers on the field and a defense led by All-American candidate Adoree Jackson. The Trojan defense limited Stanford to just 17 first downs, keeping the game close for a while until Michael Rector’s 56-yard touchdown run gave the Cardinal a large enough cushion against USC’s sputtering offense. Although deficiencies have been exposed, the Trojans began the year ranked in the top 20 and have too much talent from top to bottom to not right the ship eventually.
6) Arizona State Sun Devils (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12)
The Sun Devils haven’t had an easy road to their undefeated start in non-conference play. After a blowout over Northern Arizona, the Sun Devils won a 68-55 shootout over Davis Webb’s former school, Texas Tech, a game in which it surrendered 652 yards. Last week, ASU entered a week three matchup with UTSA the heavy favorite but needed 20 unanswered second-half points to escape with a 32-28 win. The team may not have escaped if not for senior kicker Zane Gonzalez, who nailed not one but two 54-yard field goals in a game, when he set the Pac-12 record for most career points with 424. While the strong leg of Gonzalez and the tailback duo of juniors Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard should put up points against Cal’s defense, the Sun Devils have struggled to keep opponents off the scoreboard as well. It should be an exciting trading of scores between two fast offenses when the Bears and Sun Devils collide next week in Tempe.
5) Oregon Ducks (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12)
A team that prefers going for two rather than just kicking the extra point after finding the end zone, the Ducks have fallen off from where they stood just five seasons ago. While they continue to put up points in Mark Helfrich’s fast-paced, run-focused offense, the defense crumbled under pressure last weekend against unranked Nebraska. With the loss, the Ducks will head into Pac-12 play under pressure to perform against a Colorado team that started fast against a formidable No. 5 Michigan team. To make things worse, the Ducks suffered what they hope will be an ephemeral loss of leading tailback Royce Freeman to a knee injury, putting even more responsibility on freshman quarterback Dakota Prukop to build upon a stellar early 6:0 touchdown to interception ratio. Cal hasn’t beaten Oregon since a 26-16 victory in 2008, but with the Ducks trending downward and this year’s matchup at Memorial Stadium, the slide may come to an end soon.
4) UCLA Bruins (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12)
This team puzzles me. At the beginning of the year, the Bruins appeared poised to challenge Stanford and Washington for the top spot in the Pac-12, but an opening 31-24 loss to Texas A&M in overtime forced questions regarding star sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen’s ability to stay consistent. Rosen’s three interceptions during week one and struggles late in last week’s narrow 17-14 win over BYU are a sign that he’s still developing, but defenses such as those of Stanford, Utah and Colorado will be quick to capitalize on mistakes. That being said, Jim Mora’s Bruins still have a number of weapons on the offensive side, including seven receivers with at least 60 receiving yards, led by junior Darren Andrews and senior Kenneth Walker III. And last week, the defense stepped up in a huge way, holding Taysom Hill and BYU to just 23 yards on the ground and zero points through nearly three quarters of play. They stand as a tough final matchup for the Bears before potential postseason play, and this game may mean the difference between a vacation spent bowling or watching from home.
3) Utah Utes (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12)
If your name is Troy and you go to Utah, you’re probably a pretty good football player too. In his first year starting for the Utes, junior quarterback Troy Williams hasn’t been overly impressive but has done his job in getting Utah to 3-0 and a deserved No. 24 national ranking. Meanwhile, junior running back Troy McCormick has filled the hole in the offense left by former back Devontae Booker with a 6.1 yard-per-rush average and two touchdowns thus far. The Ute to really watch out for, however, is senior receiver Tim Patrick, who has accounted for 285 receiving yards and all four of Williams’ passing touchdowns on the year. Utah defeated a ranked Cal team that was 5-0 at the time last season, picking off Jared Goff five times, but will first take on USC this weekend in a matchup that could have huge implications in next week’s Pac-12 rankings. After defeating San Jose State 34-17 on the road, the Utes better be prepared for a USC squad that can’t afford another early conference loss.
2) Stanford Cardinal (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12)
Surprise! Before I get into why the Cardinal don’t hold the current top spot in these rankings, let me say that Stanford is really, really good. Ever heard of that McCaffrey guy? According to ESPN’s David Lombardi, Christian McCaffrey had 107 rushing yards before contact, almost as many as USC’s game total of 117. After being snubbed for the Heisman trophy last year, the junior has sprinted out of the gates without missing a beat from last season, leading the Cardinal in rushing yards, receiving yards and nearly every other offensive category from receptions to all-purpose yards. Ever heard of Ryan Burns? Maybe not. The senior quarterback beat out junior Keller Chryst for the starting job not long before the season opener but has played well through two starts so far. The Cardinal defense remains as solid as ever, giving up only 23 points total in victories over Kansas State and USC. It’s been dominant for years, but is it good enough to crack the College Football Playoff this year? Burns is a first-year starter, and while home victories to start the year against power conference opponents is impressive, both wins haven’t been as dominating as they perhaps should have been (26-13 over KSU, 27-10 over USC). The Cardinal face UCLA and Washington on the road in a span of six days and will also travel to South Bend to face a Notre Dame team desperate for revenge and then Cal for the Big Game late in the season. Will a healthy McCaffrey and a still-developing Burns be enough for the Cardinal to keep up with the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Louisville, Ohio State and others?
1) Washington Huskies (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12)
Yes, it’s still early, and the Huskies have faced teams (Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State) that they were supposed to handle with ease. But if we take a closer look, Folsom-native quarterback Jake Browning has flat out dominated in more ways than one. He leads all of college football with a 206.9 QB rating and holds an impressive 12:1 touchdown to interception ratio. Eight different receivers have caught a touchdown pass this season, including speedsters Chico McClatcher and John Ross. If sophomore running back Myles Gaskin and the running game can get going, this offense will be as dangerous as it’s perhaps ever been. The team has one turnover on the season. One. While teams like Utah and ASU have struggled at times to put away teams that they were heavily favored against, the Huskies have blown away their opponents with a confidence that the team hasn’t shown since its last conference title in 2000. While Browning isn’t a big name like McCaffrey just yet, the Huskies hold a slight advantage in the scheduling of their matchup — 6 p.m., Sept. 30, vs. Stanford — at home. Washington has the benefit of hosting the Cardinal and Trojans, and it won’t face UCLA this year at all. If the Huskies can get past road tests at Oregon, Utah and their Nov. 5 visit to Strawberry Canyon, they ought to receive the national attention that Browning and head coach Chris Petersen deserve.
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