This weekend, the Pac-12 gets the prime-time spot for its match between rivals No. 20 Oregon and No. 7 Stanford. Besides being very meaningful for the Pac-12 North race, it could also be critical for the conference’s chances to reach the College Football Playoff. Though No. 10 Washington was an early pick to conquer the Pac-12 and claim a spot in the CFP, its season-opening loss to now-No. 9 Auburn sets the stage for Stanford to take the spotlight, at least for now.
Since Chip Kelly (now-UCLA head coach) revamped a middling Oregon program in 2007, the Ducks-Cardinal matchup has been a football allegory for past vs. present, old-school smash-mouth vs. high-octane scoring accented by radically bright uniforms. Stanford’s classic, don’t-rock-the-boat, monochrome jerseys are representative of its football style — all about running the ball, controlling time of possession and playing the field-position game.
Meanwhile, the Ducks’ disdain for convention has, in the last 10 years, sparked a major shift across the college football landscape toward the spread offense, along with a flashy uniform revolution. Ever since Kelly busted out the play-call cards, it was clear that Oregon football was going to be different. As only one of two Pac-12 teams that have reached the playoff since its inception in the 2014-15 season, the Ducks have been a force to be reckoned with in the conference.
The biggest headline coming into Oregon’s hosting of Stanford is the return of Cardinal superstar running back Bryce Love after he missed the last game and a quarter. Love reportedly took “a lot of shots” against USC two weeks ago and was given a “chance to recover” against FCS opponent UC Davis last week, according to Stanford head coach David Shaw.
Though he entered the season as a Heisman candidate for his 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017, Love hasn’t performed all that spectacularly in the two games he has played this season, totaling only 165 yards on 40 carries to go with a touchdown.
According to Shaw, Love is now “ready to go and fired up for this weekend” under the national spotlight.
Stanford has won the two last meetings by a combined score of 67 points and is allowing the least number of points per game in the country (7.7). Oregon’s quarterback Justin Herbert had some amazing flashes while the team struggled last season, but his performance last weekend against San Jose State, in which he threw two interceptions, is concerning for the Ducks — especially against a much more stingy defense in Stanford.
Oregon will be in the comfortable confines of Autzen Stadium, however. The Ducks have also shown great promise with their run defense, allowing only 77 rushing yards per game so far this season, good for ninth-best in the country.
While the Ducks and the Cardinal battle it out, a good portion of the conference will be resting, as four Pac-12 teams (Cal, UCLA, Colorado and Utah) have byes this week.
USC hosts Washington State, which has some interesting implications. USC (1-2) is coming off a crumbling at Texas, in which it succumbed to 34 unanswered points to cap off a final score of 37-14. Clay Helton, the Trojans head coach, is facing what looks like a must-win game at home if he wants to keep his job. USC has shown no bashfulness about letting coaches go, as evidenced by its infamous firing of Lane Kiffin at 3:14 a.m. while at LAX in 2013 after an untimely loss to ASU.
Last season, No. 5-ranked USC lost in Pullman, Washington, and was knocked out of the CFP discussion. The Trojans were ranked eighth in the nation and 11-2 while CFP selections were being made, and without the Washington State loss could have easily ended up in the semifinal.
The Cougars (3-0) have taken care of business with ease in their first three weeks, but beating up on Wyoming, San Jose State and Eastern Washington is not much of a metric for competitiveness in the Pac-12.