A slight sense of normalcy returned to the Pac-12 this past weekend, but fear not -- it's still plenty weird out West. Home teams actually posted a winning record (3-2) this past weekend, improving their season season mark to a still-dismal 7-16.
Stanford, the two-time defending champion, is staggering, so Oregon has established a grip on the Pac-12 North. Meanwhile, let's not pretend we have a bead on the minefield that is the Pac-12 South. Four teams are tied at the top in the loss column, and a fifth -- preseason favorite UCLA -- hovers right behind them with two losses. It's a mess of epic proportions.
With USC visiting Utah this weekend, we will see some moving and shaking in the South. Let the horse race continue around the second bend. Here is Week 9:
The delicious appetizer: Oregon vs. Cal (at Levi's Stadium)
A couple weeks ago, Cal enjoyed its time in sole possession of the Pac-12 North lead, but that stay was as short-lived as most expected it to be. Though Jared Goff has emerged as one of the league's elite passers (9.1 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns, four interceptions), the Bears are hindered by a defense that struggles to tackle in critical situations. That was the story of their 36-34 loss to UCLA, even though a trio of Bruins' turnovers kept that game close. It's also bad news entering a matchup with an Oregon team that is beginning to fire on all cylinders. The Ducks blasted Washington 45-20 behind four touchdowns from true freshman Royce Freeman. He is a six-foot, 230-pound tank -- exactly the type of player who can turn the Bears into falling dominoes.
Goff will need to deliver an epic performance in his duel with Marcus Mariota. Combined numbers for these two: 43 touchdowns, four picks.
Game with the biggest College Football Playoff implications: USC at Utah
Salt Lake City hosts a de facto College Football Playoff elimination game. The Arizona State-Washington battle in Seattle might have shared this designation had the Huskies found a way to get it done at Autzen Stadium, but they were run out of the building. So USC (5-2 overall) and Utah (5-1 overall) square off in the Pac-12's marquee Week 9 game. This one is fun on many levels: The Utes are coming into their own as a rugged defense (allowing 4.7 yards per play), while the Trojans are brimming with offensive confidence following their 56-28 win against Colorado, during which Cody Kessler threw a touchdown pass on 27 percent of his attempts (his seven touchdowns broke Matt Barkley's school record).
This game also features the Pac-12's two most productive running backs: USC's Buck Allen (130 yards per game) and Utah's Devontae Booker (124 yards per game). Buckle up, Rice-Eccles Stadium will be shaking.
The proving grounds game/redemption opportunity: Oregon State at Stanford
Week 8 was bitterly disappointing for these teams. The Beavers lost 29-23 at home in double overtime to a Utah team that managed only 62 passing yards, and Stanford managed less offensive production against Arizona State than Weber State, New Mexico, and Colorado. Talk about a reversal of fortune: The Cardinal's 26-10 loss to the Sun Devils came on the very same field where they dominated offensively and won the Pac-12 championship last season. Judging by margin of victory, that was their worst setback since falling 53-30 to Oregon in 2011.
Unless Stanford figures it out offensively, points will likely be scarce in this game. The Cardinal's defense still leads the nation allowing only 3.8 yards per play, and it has proven to be a rough matchup for the Beavers' offense. Meanwhile, Oregon State's defense has been surprisingly efficient, surrendering 4.9 yards per play (third in the Pac-12), so it's unclear if 13.5 is the spread or the over/under in this one.
Opposing directions bowl: Arizona State at Washington
The Sun Devils delivered a fantastic all-around performance in their 26-10 pounding of Stanford, and the Huskies were on the receiving end of a 45-20 whipping in Eugene. So both clubs are trending in opposite directions here, but they are still a combined 10-3. Washington is desperate to right the ship at home, where its havoc-wreaking defense (nation-best five touchdowns) thrives. Meanwhile, Arizona State has another chance to solidify legitimacy after two straight energizing wins. A week after facing Stanford's anemic attack, the Sun Devils face a Washington offense that is ranked dead last in the Pac-12. That is medicine for a once-struggling ASU defense.
Where great offensive minds meet: Arizona at Washington State
Time to change gears: With Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach squaring off, there should be no shortage of total offense on the Palouse. The Cougars are desperate; they need to win four of their last five just to make a bowl game. Connor Halliday is already on pace to shatter the FBS single season-passing yards record, and Anu Solomon brings less gaudy numbers but a better 5-1 record into this game. Both teams are coming off bye weeks, so both offensive game plans should be beyond polished Saturday afternoon.
The afterthought: UCLA at Colorado
The Bruins overcame severe sloppiness in their 36-34 win at Cal, and Colorado never had a chance in the 56-28 loss at the Coliseum. At 0-4 in conference play, the Buffs are desperate, and it's tough to spot a win on their remaining schedule. The Bruins must iron out their galling turnover issue (quarterback Brett Hundley has been responsible for eight giveaways -- opponents have scored touchdowns off seven of them) and frequent trouble with defensive breakdowns. Folsom Field might be a good place to start that process, because a home showdown with Arizona waits UCLA after this one.