Most Pac-12 teams wrapped up nonconference play in week three. USC and Stanford still have Notre Dame on the schedule and Washington State faces Nevada at home in week four, but outside of those three teams, every other Pac-12 team only has conference games left. There were few marquee non conference games for Pac-12 teams this year, partially because some of the high profile non conference opponents have struggled like Texas. I would argue the Pac-12 really does not have a great non-conference win this year. They Pac-12 has not wins over any ranked non-conference foes. This means we really do not know much about the Pac-12 teams that sit at 3-0 because most have not played any very good teams. USC likely has the best resumé with wins over Western Michigan, Stanford, and Texas, but each of those teams is 1-2 with wins over Idaho, Rice, and San Jose State respectively. The only teams we know much about are the teams that have suffered losses on this young season.
A bad week for the Pac-12
The Pac-12 saw two ranked teams fall on the road to Group of Five teams they were favored against with UCLA falling 48-45 at Memphis and San Diego State handing Stanford their second-straight loss on the season. We will touch more on Stanford in the next point. UCLA had the same issues crop up that caused them to fall behind 44-10 against Texas A&M. The Bruins struggle to run the football and protect quarterback Josh Rosen, who has a bad tendency to force throws. UCLA also has difficulty against misdirection run plays on defense. Arizona State also lost on the road to Texas Tech in a shootout 52-45. A road loss to a Power Five program from one of the bottom teams in the Pac-12 is not disastrous for the conference, but it certainly is not good. There were several Pac-12 teams that won but in less than impressive fashion. While USC did not lose to Texas, they came awfully close. They fell behind 17-14 with less than a minute left and drove down to tie the game that they ultimately won in double overtime. Colorado was only up 31-21 on Northern Colorado heading into the fourth quarter. The Buffaloes scored 10 points in the final quarter of play to win 41-21, but they did not dominate a team they should have defeated handily. When you consider that half the conference either lost or failed to dominate an inferior opponent, it was not a great look for the Pac-12 in week three.
Maybe we were wrong about Stanford
I was a bit hesitant about Stanford before the season started. They returned a ton of guys, but it was the players they lost that gave me pause. The Cardinal had two players drafted in the top 10 of the 2017 NFL Draft, running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. McCaffrey was their offense, while Thomas was a monster on defense. But, I thought, this is Stanford, they have won 10 games or more in every season except 2014 (when they went 8-5) dating back to 2010. The Cardinal have won the Pac-12 three times, more than any other team. It is dangerous to discount the Cardinal because they recruit well, they play football the right way, and they have a great coach in David Shaw. Stanford started the season with a blowout win over Rice. They were typical Stanford, physical up front and dominant on defense. Yes it was against Rice, but they looked great, better than any other Pac-12 team in week 0 or one. I thought Stanford would beat USC because they typically do beat USC and have run all over the Trojans in the last few meetings. USC struggled to stop the run against Western Michigan, so I thought they would really struggle with Stanford running back Bryce Love. Well, they lost and their defense got gashed. I was still willing to give Stanford the benefit of the doubt because it is Stanford, one of the most consistent programs in the conference. It was also hard for me to punish them too much for losing on the road to a top five team. Well, now that they lost to San Diego State on the road, I am starting to question if this Stanford team is more like the 2014 team than the 2010-2013 and 2015 teams that played in BCS/NY6 bowl games. The Stanford rushing attack has averaged better than 6.5 yards per carry in every game this year. The problem is the passing game. In their two losses, Stanford is averaging only 118 yards passing with only two touchdown passes and two interceptions. Stanford hosts UCLA this weekend, a team they have not lost to since falling 23-20 at UCLA in 2008, the last season the Cardinal missed a bowl game. If Stanford falls at home to UCLA, it could signal big problems in Palo Alto.
The middle is still convoluted
While losses by Stanford and UCLA provided a little more clarity to the pecking order of teams in the middle of the Pac-12 (or maybe it did not), the middle is still a convoluted mess right now. Teams like Colorado and Utah have not squared off against a Power Five conference team, and while Cal and Oregon have wins over Power Five teams, they were close wins against teams with big question marks. Cal has two Power Five wins, but they struggled against Weber State. Oregon only beat Nebraska by seven, who lost at home to Northern Illinois last week. The Ducks were up 28 points at halftime in that game as well before failing to score in the second half and allowing 21 points. Colorado has beaten three Group of Five or FCS teams in non-conference play, and yet they are double-digit underdogs in their Pac-12 opener at home. There are currently seven undefeated teams in the Pac-12 (Cal, Colorado, Oregon, USC, Utah, Washington, and Washington State), and that number will drop by the end of Saturday. Cal and USC play each in Berkeley on Saturday afternoon. Colorado plays host to Washington Saturday night, meaning two undefeated teams are guaranteed to fall. We will know if either Cal or Colorado is for real if one or both can pull the upset. Oregon and Utah both have to go on the road to face Arizona State and Arizona respectively. Both the Ducks and Utes are favored (Oregon by 14 and Utah by 3.5), but both games are at night in the desert. WSU hosts Nevada, a team who is winless on the year and fell to Idaho State, an FCS team.
While it is still early in the season, every team in the Pac-12 has played a quarter of their regular season games. With the low level of competition in most of the non-conference games, it will likely take a few weeks of Pac-12 play to really start to find out which teams are could contend for the Pac-12 title and which teams will not (though I think it is safe to say we already know Oregon State will not).