Pac-12, Oregon have something to prove in marquee matchup
Here are some things to watch in the Pac-12 Conference this week:
GAME OF THE WEEK: This couldn’t be more obvious. Eleventh-ranked Oregon faces No. 16 Auburn on Saturday in Texas and there’s so much going on. It’s the Pac-12 against the SEC and a rematch of the 2011 national championship game. The Ducks also have a chance to do what Washington couldn’t in its loss to the Tigers last season. And the pressure’s on Oregon to make a statement for a conference that’s been left out of the playoffs for the last two seasons. Still, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal was downplaying the hype. “I think anytime you play a game you’re representing your conference, as well as your university, your community. But we don’t try to make it anything outside of us preparing as our program as we face a great opponent,” he said. Amid the hoopla there are some intriguing matchups. How will senior QB Justin Herbert and Oregon’s offense fare against a tough Auburn defense that includes the likes of Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe. Oh, and Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix makes his debut.
MATCHUP OF THE WEEK: Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin against Kent State’s defense. Last season, Benjamin ran for a school-record 1,642 yards to lead the Pac-12 and rank fifth nationally. The Sun Devils will likely rely on the ground game while they break in freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels. At the same time, Benjamin will be looking to raise his profile on the national stage. He’ll be a handful for Kent State, which went 2-10 last season and ranked last for total defense in the MAC, allowing opponents an average of 467.2 yards a game. So expect lots of yards on Thursday night from Benjamin, unless coach Herm Edwards pulls him early.
NUMBERS GAME: Speaking of Benjamin, the Pac-12 has six returning running backs that rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season. Joining him are Arizona’s J.J. Taylor (1,434), Utah’s Zack Moss (1,096), Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson (1,380), UCLA’s Joshua Kelley (1,243) and Oregon’s CJ Verdell (1,018). ... There are three Thursday night games involving Pac-12 teams. UCLA is at Cincinnati, No. 14 Utah — picked to win the Pac-12 this season — is at BYU for a season-opening Holy War, and Arizona State hosts Kent State. ... The Pac-12 has five teams in the AP Top 25: No. 11 Oregon, No. 13 Washington, No. 14 Utah, No. 23 Washington State and No. 25 Stanford. ... Arizona kicked off the season early with a 45-38 loss to Hawaii last weekend.
UPSET WATCH: Keep an eye on BYU against the Utes. Sure, Utah has won eight straight in the series, but BYU has won five straight season openers. And yes, Utah has veteran quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss (who were both injured for last season’s Holy War), but the Cougars have emerging quarterback Zach Wilson, who threw for 12 touchdowns last year as a freshman. Plus, the game is in Provo. The Cougars would like nothing more than to topple their rival in the season opener. “I don’t know if we’ve ever felt this strongly about an opening game,” Cougars coach Kalani Sitake said.
IMPACT PERFORMER: Quarterback Anthony Gordon is finally getting his chance at Washington State, and look for him to make the most of it. Gordon toiled behind Luke Falk and then Gardner Minshew, but he won the starting job going into the Cougs’ opener against New Mexico State. He’s got a group of four receivers who each caught at least 50 passes last season, including Tay Martin, who had 69 catches for 685 yards and eight touchdowns.