The hottest story in college football faces one of the coolest programs in the sport Saturday when Colorado visits Oregon in the conference opener for both teams.
The showdown is oozing storylines:
Will coach Deion Sanders and the Buffaloes produce another massive TV audience?
Will Oregon coach Dan Lanning’s offseason quip about Colorado’s lack of success in the Pac-12 provide an emotional edge for the visitors?
Which quarterback, Oregon’s Bo Nix or Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders, merits serious Heisman Trophy consideration?
Are the Buffaloes a legitimate Pac-12 contender?
Is Oregon a candidate for the playoff?
The hype train, it seems, has co-conductors: pomp and circumstance.
We prefer to focus on an issue that has received little attention but will determine the course of the game: Are the Buffaloes capable of holding their own at the line of scrimmage?
If not, they’re doomed.
If so, the on-field drama could match the pregame hype.
Using the starting offensive and defensive lines last week (as listed in the game participation section of the official statistics), we examined the personnel with an eye on two items: body size and recruiting stars.
When Colorado has the ball:
•CU’s offensive linemen average 300 pounds per man, while Oregon’s defensive linemen average 306 pounds. Yes, the Ducks are bigger.
•CU’s offensive line features four players who earned three-star recognition from the 247Sports recruiting analysts and one who received two stars. Oregon’s defensive line features two four-star talents and two three-star prospects. (That group doesn’t include a key reserve, freshman edge rusher Matayo Uiagalelei, the top-rated defensive recruit in California last winter.)
Meanwhile, when the Ducks have the ball:
•Oregon’s offensive linemen average 320 pounds per man, while CU’s defensive linemen average 270. The biggest of the Buffaloes is 300-pounder Leonard Payne Jr. Every Oregon starter is bigger than Payne, and three of them are at least 20 pounds bigger.
•Oregon’s offensive line features one five-star recruit (tackle Josh Conerly Jr.), three four-star recruits and one three-star recruit. Colorado’s defensive line is all three-star prospects.
Granted, body size and recruiting stars don’t always correlate to performance. Speed, cohesiveness, fundamentals and tactics are critical, of course.
But as we assess the matchup in Eugene, it’s clear the Ducks possess a significant advantage at the line of scrimmage in areas vital to success.
If that translates to an effective running game and manageable third-down distances for Nix, the Ducks will be exceedingly difficult to stop.
And if Oregon’s defensive front generates consistent pressure on Sanders without a need for extra rushers, then big plays and sustained drives will be equally scarce for CU.
Where it matters most, at the line of scrimmage, Oregon represents the most difficult challenge to date for the Buffaloes by an order of magnitude.
To the picks …
Last week: 3-3
Five-star special: 2-1
All picks against the spread
Lines taken from BetMGM (via VegasInsider.com)
Colorado at Oregon
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. on ABC
Line: Oregon -21 (total: 71.5)
Comment: Notably, the Ducks were 17-point favorites early Sunday morning, with the line jumping to 21.5 by Monday afternoon. (Some sports books are offering 21.) Clearly, the public wasn’t impressed with CU’s narrow home escape against Colorado State, and for good reason: The Rams are a midlevel Mountain West team, while Oregon is one of the best teams in arguably the toughest conference in the land. We don’t foresee a tight finish, but that’s a few too many points given Shedeur Sanders’ playmaking skills. The Over, on the other hand, looks enticing.
UCLA at Utah
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. on Fox 28
Line: Utah -4.5 (total: 51.5)
Comment: Utah represents a massive jump in competition for the Bruins, whereas the Utes have already faced two teams (Baylor and Florida) that resemble the Bruins in size and speed. There’s plenty of chatter that Utah quarterback Cam Rising will make his season debut, and his presence would add to the Rice-Eccles frenzy. But Rising’s timing and rhythm are worth watching. Will he make the mistakes typically seen in season openers? And if he can’t play, is Nate Johnson capable of replicating the fourth-quarter efficiency he showed at Baylor? Don’t be a bit surprised if the Bruins win outright.
Arizona at Stanford
Kickoff: 4 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks
Line: Arizona -11.5 (total: 58.5)
Comment: The Wildcats are road favorites in a conference game for the first time since the 2018 season, according to the Hotline’s crack research team, and for good reason. Stanford’s last two performances have been dreadful: the wipeout at USC and the come-from-ahead loss to Sacramento State. The Cardinal are short on playmakers, have issues on the line of scrimmage and are scrambling at quarterback. Meanwhile, Arizona’s defense has been fairly stout. If the Wildcats limit turnovers, they should win handily. But the ball security issue gives us pause.
Oregon State at Washington State
Kickoff: 4 p.m. on Fox 28
Line: Oregon State -2.5 (total: 56.5)
Comment: The on-field competition is inseparable from the off-field drama as the two remaining Pac-12 schools collide with significant stakes: Both are 3-0 with designs on contending for the conference title as they plot a future together. The Cougars have been more impressive thus far (in particular, the victory over Wisconsin), and we expect their pass rush to cause timing trouble for OSU quarterback DJ Uiagalelei. For the Beavers, everything hinges on the running game, especially first-down efficiency. Second-and-long is big trouble against Ron Stone Jr. and WSU’s defense.
Pick: Washington State
USC at Arizona State
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. on Fox 28
Line: USC -34.5 (total: 61.5)
Comment: Let’s start with context: We went back 25 years to identify the last time ASU was an underdog of 30 points (or more) – and found nothing. In fact, the Sun Devils haven’t been a 20-point home dog in that timeframe. Not against the USC dynasty of the 2000s. Not against the Oregon powerhouses of the early 2010s. And yet, the line makes perfect sense considering the state of the Devils off the field (postseason ban) and on (quarterback injuries), not to mention USC’s ability to score quickly and frequently. The Trojans have also had two weeks to prepare.
Cal at Washington
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
Line: Washington -21.5 (total: 60.5)
Comment: The past three weeks suggest the betting line is, in fact, too low. Cal’s offense is wobbly and its defense, while solid, isn’t nearly talented enough to contain UW’s high-octane offense. But the previous four series meetings paint a far different picture: The Bears won close affairs in 2018-19 – who can forget the 12-10 classic – while the Huskies were merely a touchdown better in the 2021-22 matchups. Our hunch is Cal’s quarterback play struggles against UW’s edge pressure, turnovers follow, and it turns lopsided.
Straight-up winners: Oregon, UCLA, Arizona, Washington State, USC and Washington
Five-star special: Washington State. The more impressive team to date is at home and getting points? Tough to turn down that combination.