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College Hotline - Pac-12 football: Four questions for Week Four

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    * Please note: The Hotline will have a new home, and new url, starting Monday. The address will be posted here. Thanks in advance for your understanding // …

    Welcome to a new feature here on the Hotline, pegged to the start of conference play en masse.

    Still to be determined is whether the number of questions matches the number of the week. (The thought of 11 questions for Week 11 seems a tad daunting, but that’s for another day.)

    Starting with the Sam Darnold Experience on Friday night in Salt Lake City, I’ll be watching for answers to these questions:

    Are the LA schools tough enough?

    On the surface, that might seem ridiculous. USC and UCLA, with their tradition and recruiting base, shouldn’t have a toughness issue. (If managed to maximum efficiency, they should not have any deep, structural issues relative to their Pac-12 competition.)

    But they do have a toughness issue, and their opponents this weekend, Stanford and Utah, are the most physical teams in the conference.




    The Trojans’ defensive line isn’t what it should be, even without Kenny Bigelow — recruiting has simply not been up to USC’s standard (moreso on the DL than anywhere else). The Trojans couldn’t stop Stanford in obvious running situations, which was every time quarterback Ryan Burns lined up under center.

    Nor is their offensive line the dominant force many expected this season with all those talented recruits from the Sarkisian era finally experienced upperclassmen. Utah’s front, meanwhile, is relentless, one of the best in the conference.

    UCLA veered away from physical play when it transitioned to the spread offense years ago and has lost eight in a row to Stanford, many in lopsided fashion.

    Coach Jim Mora seems intent on reclaiming the line of scrimmage. Personnel doesn’t seem to be an issue: The Bruins have a talented defensive front and a veteran offensive line.

    But do they have the mentality needed to stand up to Stanford? Or is this simply a re-packaged version of their soft selves?

    Is Colorado ready to compete?

    The Buffs could not have been more impressive through three games — winning in Ann Arbor wasn’t a reasonable expectation — and now they open conference play not just on the road, but in Eugene.

    Scores of the past five games against Oregon:

    Oregon 45, CU 2
    Oregon 70, CU 14
    Oregon 57, CU 16
    Oregon 44, CU 10
    Oregon 41, CU 24

    But the programs seem to be on opposing trajectories, with CU rising and Oregon declining (compared to where it was three or four years ago).

    The Buffs could be without quarterback Sefo Liufau, who has a sprained ankle, and that would change the dynamic, of course. But if Liufau is healthy, expect CU to push Oregon, which itself has injury issues, deep into the fourth quarter.

    Another blowout with Liufau in the lineup would be a surprise, and a step back for the Buffs.

    How will the first-time quarterbacks perform?

    Enough quarterbacks are encountering new situations for this to be an issue worth tracking:

    * USC’s Sam Darnold is making his first start.

    Expect the redshirt freshman to provide a spark for USC’s incomprehensibly stagnant offense. His mobility will be essential to counter Utah’s hard-charging front seven.

    * Stanford’s Ryan Burns is making his first road start.

    If all goes well for the Cardinal, Burns will remain in his comfort zone as a complement to the running game. If all goes well for the Bruins, Burns will be forced out of that zone.

    * Utah’s Troy Williams is making his first conference start, at least for the Utes.

    He started once for Washington two years ago, a backup forced into the lineup by injury. But this is different: He’s the No. 1 and the opponent is USC under the Friday night lights.

    * Oregon’s Dakota Prukup is making his first Pac-12 start.

    The circumstances are hardly ideal: Receiver Devon Allen and left tackle Tyrell Crosby are out, leaving the Ducks without a stretch-the-field option in the passing game and one of their most experienced linemen. (Their front five is loaded with rookies.) If Royce Freeman can’t play, the challenge facing Prukop rises to another level.

    * Arizona State redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins has thrown 95 passes already this season, but none in the crucible of conference play.

    Look for the Sun Devils to make his task easier by establishing the run against a Cal defense allowing 296.3 yards per game on the ground.

    * Cal’s Davis Webb is making his first Pac-12 start, although his experience as a starter for Texas Tech would seem to render the circumstances in Tempe on Saturday night a non-issue.

    * Injuries to quarterbacks at Colorado and Arizona could make those situations worth watching, as well.

    Is Washington as good as advertised?

    It’s late September, and we cannot draw any conclusions about the Huskies.

    They sure look good, but three blowouts — all of them at home, all against second-rate foes — are hardly satisfactory evidence.

    If the Huskies are truly the favorite in the North and a playoff contender, they will not only beat the Wildcats but throttle them.

    Elite teams make statements when there are statements to be made, such as the conference opener … on the road … against a vulnerable opponent that you beat by 46 points a year ago.

    *** Follow me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline

    *** Episode 1 of the College Hotline podcast, with ESPN’s Ted Miller as guest (we discussed Washington’s rise, UCLA’s transformation to power football, USC’s issues, Utah’s life in the shadows, the Pac-12’s position in the playoff race and loads more):


    The post Pac-12 football: Four questions for Week Four appeared first on College Hotline.

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    by Jon Wilner
     

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