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Pac-12 picks: Washington State visits Oregon with the North division at stake (are the Cougars up to the task?)

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

Here’s the question of the week in the Pac-12 that doesn’t involve suspended coaches, dismissed coordinators or rescheduled games: Is Washington State’s success real, or are the Cougars about to get unmasked?

They have won four consecutive conference games, stand one back of Oregon in the loss column and control their division destiny.

If they beat the Ducks this weekend and follow with victories over Arizona and Washington, the Cougars would win the North for the first time.

An acting head coach would be elevated to the permanent position.

A team ignored after its stumbling start would play for a berth in the Rose Bowl.

A university slammed by tumult it didn’t seek would have the last laugh, the final high five and so many blank checks from delighted donors.

Thus far, the Cougars (5-4, 4-2) have been immune to the controversy created by their former coach and his merry band of anti-vaxxers.

Now it gets real: Oregon, in Autzen Stadium, on ESPN, with the stakes as high as any the program has experienced since Minshew Mania in the 2018 season.

Count the Hotline as slightly skeptical of WSU’s prospects for success on Saturday night, for two reasons:

1. Oregon’s big-game persona.

When they don’t sense a challenge (Fresno State, Arizona, Cal, Stanford), the Ducks are vulnerable.

When it matters most, when they feel threatened, they respond with playoff-worthy performances: at Ohio State, at UCLA, at Washington.

In a sense, the Cougars have set a trap for themselves. Their own success and second-place position in the North should evoke a first-rate performance from the Ducks.

2. Washington State’s resume.

There’s nothing fake about the winning streak. But as a foundation to assess WSU’s ability to beat a top-five team on the road, it has some cracks.

Oregon State, which lost in Pullman, has struggled on the road.

Stanford, which lost in Pullman, has struggled everywhere.

And Cal was in the midst of a 1-5 start when it lost to the Cougars.

WSU’s best victory within the four-game streak is the most recent: The 34-21 win at Arizona State, in which the Cougars pounced on a series of ASU mistakes.

That’s the path to success this week, as well:

They need help from the Ducks (turnovers, penalties, breakdowns on special teams) in order to secure a victory that would change the dynamics of the North, knock Oregon out of the playoff race and set WSU on course for a season nobody could have imagined.

Last week: 4-1

Season: 30-30-1

Five-star special: 5-6

All picks against the spread

Lines taken from

Idle: USC and Cal

Utah (-24) at Arizona

Kickoff: 11 a.m. on Pac-12 Networks

Comment: Both teams are peaking, but Utah’s floor and ceiling are both much higher. Difficult to envision Arizona’s front seven holding up against the Utes’ powerhouse running game, which is fresh off a 400-yard showing against a defense (Stanford) comparable to Arizona’s. That said, the massive spread leaves the back door wide open. Our thoughts and prayers are with Wildcats quarterback Will Plummer, for the punishment he’s about to face. Pick: Arizona

Stanford (+12) at Oregon State

Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks

Comment: The desperate Beavers fired defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar this week and should produce an inspired effort against a Cardinal offense that can’t run the ball consistently and could be without quarterback Tanner McKee once again. Meanwhile, OSU’s ground game (No. 10 nationally) should churn for chunks of yards against the worst run defense in the conference. Pick: Oregon State (We’re assuming McKee doesn’t play.)

Arizona State (-6) at Washington

Kickoff: 4 p.m. on FS1

Comment: How will the Huskies respond to the tumult of the past week, which includes the termination of their offensive coordinator and the suspension of their head coach? At the same time, how will the Sun Devils respond to 50 degrees and rain? We expect both teams to handle the circumstances and produce a riveting game. Not sure the winner gets to 30. Something in the 27-24 range sounds about right. Pick: Washington

Colorado (+16) at UCLA

Kickoff: 6 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks

Comment: The Buffaloes have shown life on offense after two months of hibernation and face a UCLA defense that has been overrun repeatedly on its home turf. The Bruins are coming off a bye and have their rival next week, making this a vulnerable spot. (They didn’t respond well with two weeks to prepare for Fresno State.) We envision CU hanging around into the fourth quarter. Pick: Colorado

Washington State (+14) at Oregon

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. on ESPN

Comment: The Pac-12 game of the week features a home team coming off a rivalry win and a visitor coming off a bye. That’s one of several reasons the Cougars are a trendy pick. (Here’s one more: The Ducks are 0-4 at home against the spread.) WSU’s status as a trendy pick makes the Hotline wary. The oddsmakers are pleading for money on the Cougars, so we’ll avoid their trap. Pick: Oregon

Five-star special: Colorado. The 16-point spread is four or five points too high given UCLA’s defense, which has allowed 30.6 points per game in the Rose Bowl.

Straight-up winners: Utah, Oregon State, Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon