Pac-12 tests await Ducks, Beavers
The Ducks and Beavers kick off their Pac-12 football schedule at the same time Saturday, but some distance apart.
Since Oregon State's 7:30 p.m. game on FS1 is at USC, the Beavers are about 900 miles from Oregon's 7:30 p.m. home game on ESPN against Arizona.
It's also a safe bet that OSU (2-1, above .500 for the first time under Jonathan Smith) will have a more challenging night than will UO. That's because Arizona is so woeful that Oregon should be able to stroll to victory, while Oregon State will need to play at a high level to open conference play on a winning note.
As conference play begins, here's a look at what's ahead for the teams in the Willamette Valley:
First, the Ducks, who climbed to No. 3 in the AP poll this week, figure to remain in the national spotlight until they lose twice in the Pac-12. That is the significance of that win at Ohio State: The Ducks can (and likely will) lose one game and still be a strong contender for a College Football Playoff slot should they win the Pac-12 championship game.
A pause here for a reminder: Never since the conference expanded from 10 to 12 teams has a Pac-12 team gone through the conference unbeaten (USC was 5-0 last season, but that was a South Division-only schedule because of COVID-19).
The nine-game conference schedule, travel, unpredictable kickoff times and better parity than most conferences all help to explain why no team has gone 9-0 since Oregon did it in 2010 —Â the final season of the Pac-10 Conference.
This is the 10th season of the two-division format, under which each team misses two from the opposite division.
Missing USC and Arizona State is a pretty nice draw for a Ducks team with national championship dreams. But the Ducks' toughest games are all away from Autzen Stadium.
Oregon could be tested as soon as an Oct. 2 trip to Stanford. Not that the Cardinal can match the Ducks for talent right now, but they did beat a USC team that looked pretty good once it got momentum at Washington State. And, The Farm has more than once been the site of disappointment for the Ducks. Also, David Shaw remains a really good coach whose teams limit mistakes.
If Oregon isn't tripped up there, it should be 6-0 heading to UCLA for an Oct. 23 reunion with Chip Kelly, who appears to have the Bruins ready to challenge for the South Division title — despite a wild Sept. 18 loss to Fresno State, the same Bulldogs who pushed the Ducks a few weeks ago.
The trip to face UCLA at the Rose Bowl begins a challenging second half of the season for the Ducks, who close the season with home games against Colorado, Washington State and Oregon State and travel to Washington and Utah. If Oregon really is a College Football Playoff caliber team, it will win those games.
If these Ducks avoid an emotional letdown, a turnover-plagued day and significant injuries, Oregon just might have what it takes to go 9-0. But, history says they won't.
The Beavers' schedule offers a different challenge in that their games that seem most winnable are mostly away from Reser Stadium: at Washington State, at Cal and at Colorado. The conference home games for OSU are against Washington, Utah, Stanford and Arizona State. The last two of those are Nov. 13 and Nov. 20. Getting the Sun Devils at home in late November is a plus. OSU misses UCLA (good) and Arizona (bad).
In 2019, Jonathan Smith's second season, the Beavers went 4-5 in conference play and were in all but one Pac-12 game (a 52-7 home loss to Utah).
In the strange 2020 season, OSU was 2-5. But one win was the comeback against Oregon in the middle of the schedule. Two of the three games after that were one-score losses.
So, there is every reason to believe that in Smith's fourth season the Beavers will find a way to win more of the one-possession games. Heck, based on what we've seen so far, the Beavs just might be the best team in the North Division other than the Ducks.
PSU slate — The Big Sky Conference has three teams ranked in the FCS top-10 and five in the top-25, including the Viks' Saturday opponent at Hillsboro Stadium, Montana State. Portland State's other conference home games are against Idaho State (Oct. 16), Cal Poly (Oct. 30) and Eastern Washington, currently in the top 10 (Nov. 20).
PSU does not play fourth-ranked Montana, but visits top-10 Weber State (Nov. 6).
Week 4 games
Arizona at Oregon, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25 (ESPN) — Trib's take: The Ducks get to ease into Pac-12 play against a team that has dropped 15 in a row and just lost to Northern Arizona at home, 21-19. Figure Oregon will come out more focused than last weekend and be able to rest players by the third quarter. Oregon 55, Arizona 10.
Oregon State at USC, 7:30 p.m. (FS1) — Trib's take: A win here could launch the Beavers to a memorable Pac-12 run. Two questions that stand out: Will OSU limit big plays and deny USC the momentum it generated last weekend at WSU? Who will be quarterback for the Trojans in their second game under interim coach Donte Williams? The pick: USC rides emotion to a shootout win. USC 38, Oregon State 31.
Montana State at Portland State, 2 p.m. (ESPN+). Trib's take: It's a tough opener for the Vikings against a confident bunch of Bobcats who won the last two weeks over Drake and San Diego by a 97-17 margin. Montana State 34, Portland State 24.
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