The non-conference schedule winds down in Week 3 for a majority of Pac-12 programs, and the league closes out with some fascinating contests.
Five Pac-12 teams play road out-of-conference games, starting Friday night. Four of those are at Group of Five opponents’ homes. Arizona gets it started at UTEP Friday, UCLA kicks off early Saturday against Memphis, Oregon goes to 7,215 feet to face Wyoming, and Stanford concludes Week 3 with a nightcap at San Diego State.
Arizona at UTEP
The Arizona football team is making the trip to the Sun Bowl via bus, something of a novelty in today’s big-time athletic world, but not all that surprising.
Some context on the proximity of Tucson and El Paso: In 2005, I covered my first NCAA Basketball Tournament while on staff of The Arizona Daily Wildcat. Sixth-seeded Utah (with that season’s National Player of the Year, Andrew Bogut; an Australian who fielded awful questions at media session about crocodiles and koalas) opened with No. 11-seed UTEP.
McKale Center was a sea of orange from all the Miners fans. The Associated Press went so far as to deem it “a road win” for the Utes.
The two were members of the same conferences for most of the 20th Century, first Border and later Western Athletic, but drifted apart over the course of four decades since Arizona joined the Pac-12.
UCLA at Memphis
Memphis took UCLA to the brink at the Rose Bowl in 2014. At the time, the immediate reaction was very much Chicken Little about a Bruins team slotted in the preseason Top 10. However, it was the earliest indicator of the positive direction Justin Fuente had the Memphis football program after suffering through some of the leanest years anywhere in college football for the previous half-decade.
The Tigers are winners of 27 games in the three seasons since, and have the pieces under Mike Norvell to contend for the American Athletic Conference championship. How a somewhat young UCLA secondary, and injury-plagued defense overall contends with wide receiver Anthony Miller and a two-headed rushing attack will dictate the outcome Saturday at the Liberty Bowl.
UCLA has a somewhat track record in marquee, non-conference road games this century. After reaching the Top 25 (more on that later), the Bruins are in prime position for defeat.
Oregon at Wyoming
Wyoming’s a rare Group of Five that frequently attracts Power Five visitors onto campus. In 2013, Nebraska visited Laramie and barely escaped with a win, 37-34. Oregon aims to avoid a similar challenge in just the second-ever matchup between these programs.
The first meeting was in 2014, and functioned as an early stepping stone to Marcus Mariota winning the Heisman Trophy. Leaving Autzen to face the Cowboys at War Memorial Stadium presents a new kind of challenge: college football’s highest elevation.
The air at 7,215 feet gets really thin; I recently visited my parents in Arizona’s Mile High City, Prescott, and walking up a flight of stairs prompted a feeling comparable to a blowtorch being turned onto my lungs.
Then again, I’m not a finely conditioned athlete.
“You really can’t prepare for it, so you’ve just got to prepare to execute your game plan like you normally do,” Oregon head coach Willie Taggart said.
A second opportunity against a Power Five opponent might be exactly what Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen needs after struggling Week 1 against Iowa. Despite an underwhelming start, Taggart sees a star.
“He’s an NFL quarterback if you ask me,” Taggart said. He throws the ball so effortlessly…You watch it on film, it’s like he’s throwing a tennis ball.”
The Oregon secondary got to Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee for four interceptions last weekend. If that level of turnover creation continues, the Ducks may well be back in short order.
Stanford at San Diego State
The most intriguing of the Pac-12 trips to Group of Five Territory for my money is Stanford visiting San Diego State.
Aztecs head coach Rocky Long may be the single most vocal critic of Power Five scheduling college football has to offer. In 2015, he called Power Five teams unwilling to play road dates with Group of Five challengers “afraid.”
“Years ago, we both had an open date and we were both looking for a game. It seemed pretty natural to play a West Coast game,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “In particular with our styles of play, on both sides, it seemed like a natural fit. By no means was it, ‘Hey, let’s find a game against a lesser opponent.’ Not at all. This was, we were looking for competitive games that were good for our guys to experience.”
The similar styles of play make this of particular interest. Bryce Love and Rashaad Penny are two of the best ball-carriers in college football, and Penny’s all-around contributions on Aztecs offense and special teams invite comparisons to Christian McCaffrey.
In that same vein, San Diego State has gone from one elite rusher to another, much as Stanford has. And both teams build from their defense. It’s a perfect measuring stick for a State program that’s on the cusp of being established at the top of the Group of Five. The Open Man will have more on this contest later in the week (TEASE!)
A Pac-12 Promise
In 2008 following an early-season conference loss to Ole Miss, Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow made “The Promise.”
It’s gone down in college football lore. Stanford defensive back Justin Reid’s comments following the Cardinal’s 42-24 loss at USC didn’t seem to cause even a blip on the radar in the past week, but should the Trees come storming back this season, this statement is worth noting:
“Honestly, this could be the best thing that happened to our team. It gives us a chance to lock in, see the details [through] all the preseason hype. It lets us see exactly where we are, and give us the opportunities for [us] to get better and come together closer as a team, and play better for the rest of the season…
“This will be motivation for us for the rest of the year. We’re going to let this feeling sit in our mouth for the rest of the season, because we don’t want to ever want to go through this again. We’re going to take this as motivation, and we’re going to use it to drive us for the rest of the year, so nobody takes a play off, nobody takes a practice off.
“We will be driven, for the rest of the year, to go out and accomplish what we intend to do, so we never have this feeling again.”
The Conference of…Defense?
This early juncture of the season skews statistics dramatically, so many of the marks Pac-12 teams are setting in the first half of September won’t hold up by season’s end. With that understood, it’s still noteworthy the quality of defensive play that a few Pac-12 teams have put out on the field through two weeks.
No one should be surprised Utah has been great on D; that’s always been the Utes’ M.O. under head coach Kyle Whittingham. But Utah’s rush defense through two games has been especially salty, limiting opponents to just 2.27 yards per carry. The secret?
“The defensive front,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got, in my opinion, as good a defensive front as there is in college football. That’s where defense starts: at the line of scrimmage. And we’ve got three seniors up there leading the charge: Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi and Kylie Fitts.”
West Coast Offense is hereby accepting nominations for nicknames for the Utah three-man front. In the meantime, here’s what Whittingham had to say about Lotulelei, who appears ready to follow his brother, Star, as a first-round NFL draft pick.
“He’s just a prototypical defensive tackle: Big and strong, 325 pounds, close to 6-foot-3, tremendous strength,” Whittingham said. “Lowell’s following right in those footprints…though he’s making his own name for himself.
“He’s the whole package.”
Utah’s regional Pac-12 rival, Colorado, rode its way to the South division title in 2016 with a surprisingly stout defense. Despite losing coordinator Jim Leavitt to Oregon, and a host of talented play-makers to the NFL, the Buffs have given up all of six points through two games.
— Colorado Football (@RunRalphieRun) September 12, 2017
Week 2’s performance came against Texas State, the worst rushing team in college football a season ago, so take that for what it’s worth. But shutting down Colorado State’s potent passing attack in Week 1 was impressive.
“They’ve played really sound, so we haven’t busted anything. We haven’t given up anything cheap or easy,” Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre said. “In the red zone, we’ve been in there a few times, and played lights out in the red zone.”
In four red-zone opportunities, Colorado’s opponents have scored just two field goals. That 50 percent conversions-allowed rating is tops among Pac-12 teams behind only…Arizona.
Yes, in one of the more surprising developments of the 2017 season, Arizona’s defense has made measurable strides under Marcel Yates. A Week 1 performance against Northern Arizona is difficult to glean too much, but the Wildcats buckled down nicely against Houston in Week 2, including denying the Cougars scores on two red-zone opportunities.
UCLA breaking into the Associated Press Top 25 at No. 25 gives the Pac-12 five ranked teams heading into Week 3. It very well could have been more, however, with the conference plastered across the top line of “Others Receiving Votes.”
At No. 26 — and, in my opinion, more deserving of a spot than its Pac-12 South counterpart UCLA — is Utah. Colorado came in at 28, and Oregon checked in at 30.
The conference reached a new benchmark for ranked teams in 2013 with six. Depending how Week 3 shakes out, the Pac-12 may well end up with seven in the Top 25 come Week 4.