Each week, The Los Angeles Times’ national college sports reporter J. Brady McCollough will pick the week’s eight best games — that have a combination of big-brand intrigue and a spread within a touchdown — plus the USC and UCLA games. Through seven weeks, McCollough is 36-34.
No. 10 Oregon at UCLA
I grew up wanting to be the next Lee Corso (this was before Kirk Herbstreit had joined ESPN’s "College GameDay," and Corso, even in the show’s wild old-guy role, was more appealing than Craig James). This week, ESPN rightfully chose Westwood as its destination Saturday to preview the Chip Kelly Bowl between Oregon and UCLA and draw rare attention to West Coast football. While Corso’s “headgear pick” will be far more anticipated — making memories for the (hopefully) hundreds of students who get up before dawn to attend the show — I am honored to make a pick for the Pac-12’s game of the year. Although, as you can see from my record thus far in 2021, this won’t be any more reliable than Corso’s call.
Las Vegas oddsmakers have UCLA, 5-2 and 3-1 in the Pac-12, set as about a one-point favorite over No. 10 Oregon, 5-1 and 2-1. Given that the Rose Bowl atmosphere doesn’t exactly strike fear into the heart of opponents — Fresno State and Arizona State have already won there this season — Vegas must be viewing these teams as basically even. And I think that’s accurate.
Oregon is not the same team that upset Ohio State in Columbus on Sept. 11. The Ducks lost star tailback C.J. Verdell to a season-ending injury and, given their inability to score more than 24 points against Stanford and California, there is less confidence in quarterback Anthony Brown to get the offense moving. Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had a masterful plan for Ohio State, and their success running the ball put Brown in advantageous situations. Moorhead will have to work the same kind of magic, but UCLA’s rushing defense is ninth nationally, giving up just 91 yards per game.
The Bruins have not faced a defense like Oregon’s or a player like defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, who can be a one-man wrecking crew when healthy. Do you think he left Southern California to play college football only to come back here and have his final season in college ruined? No, I don’t either. But challenges like this are why Kelly was hired. It’s up to him to find ways to negate Thibodeaux’s impact and then up to his players to execute. UCLA is 5-0 when it rushes for 200 yards or more, and it will need to hit that number again Saturday. The Bruins should aim to pass in traditional running down-and-distance scenarios to keep Thibodeaux from seeing many third and longs. Dorian Thompson-Robinson has to be efficient, take what’s there for him and avoid holding the ball too long in search of a big play.
This game is going to come down to which team can run the ball more consistently and which quarterback can avoid the big mistake. I like Thompson-Robinson and the Bruins. UCLA 24, Oregon 20
USC at No. 13 Notre Dame
Despite USC’s uneven performance this season, Notre Dame is only a touchdown favorite. The Trojans have played their best thus far away from the negativity of the Coliseum, winning easily at Washington State and Colorado. Both teams had a bye week to prepare, and I’ll put more trust in Brian Kelly than USC interim head coach Donte Williams to make the most of the extra time. Notre Dame 35, USC 23
Utah at Oregon State
The Beavers got a week off to lick their wounds after a tough loss at Washington State, while Utah played into the wee hours Saturday morning to knock off Arizona State. Oregon State will be ready to beat the Utes in Corvallis and throw the Pac-12 race into upheaval. Oregon State 28, Utah 26
Brigham Young at Washington State
BYU has lost two in a row and needs a win badly. Nobody knows what to expect from a resilient Washington State team that has won three in a row but just lost head coach Nick Rolovich, who was fired by the school for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine. In a match of angry Cougars, the team with a coach prevails. BYU 34, Washington State 27
No. 8 Oklahoma State at Iowa State
Mike Gundy’s Cowboys are unbeaten and ranked in the top 10 yet find themselves a touchdown underdog at Iowa State? That is true disrespect for Oklahoma State and a measure of just how much respect the Cyclones have gained during Matt Campbell’s time in Ames. Oklahoma State’s defense seems legitimately good. Oklahoma State 27, Iowa State 24
Wisconsin at No. 25 Purdue
The Badgers are the favorites by about a field goal, which is a demonstration of faith in the dependability Paul Chryst’s program has shown, especially against Big Ten West bottom-feeders. But Purdue seems better than that and hopefully didn’t get too high on itself after a win over then-No. 2 Iowa. Purdue 19, Wisconsin 14
Clemson at No. 23 Pittsburgh
Every week, even when it wins, Clemson hangs on for dear life. Pitt is a balanced team with an emerging Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Kenny Pickett. The Tigers’ broken offense is going to have a tough time keeping up. Pitt 24, Clemson 16
No. 16 Wake Forest at Army
The Demon Deacons are still unbeaten and have ACC championship aspirations, but there’s nothing like a trip to a service academy to interrupt the flow. This doesn’t appear to be a great Army team, and Wake Forest had a bye week to get extra preparation for the Army's triple-option offense. Wake Forest 31, Army 25
No. 18 North Carolina State at Miami
The Wolfpack need a win to keep pace with Wake Forest in the ACC Atlantic Division, and they’re coming off a convincing rout at Boston College. N.C. State certainly won’t overlook “The U” and should have enough competency to escape the Hurricanes. N.C. State 20, Miami 14
Georgia Tech at Virginia
As of now, Virginia sits behind Pitt in the ACC Coastal standings. The Cavaliers are a very flawed team, though, and Georgia Tech will figure out a way to pull the upset with quarterback Jeff Sims leading the way. Georgia Tech 35, Virginia 31
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.