Pac-12 picks: Utah’s desperate but USC’s better, WSU wins and Arizona covers

The midpoint of the football season’s middle month could be the end of the line for the defending Pac-12 champions.

It’s Week Seven. Welcome to Utah’s last stand.

If the Utes (4-2, 2-1) don’t beat back USC on Saturday evening in a primetime showcase, their prospects for reaching the conference title game will shrivel:

— Lose, and they would be two games back of USC and UCLA in the loss column with head-to-head defeats to both, effectively pushing the Utes three games behind the leaders based on the tiebreaker formula.

— Lose, and they would be two games back of Oregon, as well, with a daunting trip to Eugene next month.

It would take a collapse — multiple collapses, in fact — for Utah to make a return trip to Las Vegas for the conference championship game.

Admittedly, the Hotline didn’t expect the situation in Salt Lake City to become so dire so quickly, with half the season left to play.

But we didn’t expect the undefeated Los Angeles schools to play as well as they have or the Utes to look as fragile as they do.

When does Utah ever look fragile?

Sure, the Utes wobbled in the middle of last season with the 42-34 loss at Oregon State. But from there, they ripped off six consecutive wins and took Ohio State to the brink in the Rose Bowl.

They entered 2022 as the Pac-12 favorites and a playoff contender, but the opener — the three-point loss at Florida —  exposed weakness on the margins, where titles are claimed and relinquished.

They couldn’t stop the Gators when a stop was essential and couldn’t score when a touchdown was crucial.

They were good in The Swamp, but not quite good enough — exactly the position they now face in the Pac-12.

The Utes aren’t dominant on either side of the ball. They aren’t steamrolling opponents with their running game, carving them up with a play-action passing attack or suffocating them with the defensive ferocity we’ve come to expect.

And here comes USC, the highest-ranked team west of Tuscaloosa, threatening to shove the Utes into the back seat.

A victory would level-set Utah’s position relative to other contenders and set up a gargantuan game in Eugene next month.

But if they lose Saturday, the Utes will be riding with the pack, not leading it.

Last week: 4-1 | Season: 21-20 | Five-star special: 4-2

Spreads taken from BetMGM (as of 6:45 a.m. Wednesday). Game totals in parenthesis. All times Pacific

Idle: ASU, Oregon, UCLA

Cal at Colorado

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

Line: Cal -14.5 (total: 48.5)

Comment: The first game for CU interim coach Mike Sanford marks a fresh start for the winless Buffaloes. They had two weeks to adjust to the coaching change, but Cal had the same preparation time. We see no competitive advantage and instead view Cal’s erratic offense, particularly on the road, as the key piece. The Bears don’t have the playmakers to break this open and will become the first team to struggle to put CU away.

Pick: Colorado

Arizona at Washington

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

Line: Washington -14.5 (total: 72.5)

Comment: The Huskies have allowed 85 points in the past two games yet possess the better of the two defenses in this matchup. We’re tempted to grab the Over, which has been the right call for UW all season, but that’s a huge number. Emotions undoubtedly will run hot with Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura returning to the scene of the plant: He rammed Washington State’s flag into the Husky Stadium turf following an Apple Cup win last year. Over/Under on roughing-the-passer penalties: 2.5.

Pick: Arizona

USC at Utah

Kickoff: 5 p.m. on Fox

Line: Utah -3.5 (total: 65)

Comment: The line opened with Utah favored by 3.5 points, moved to 4.5, then settled back. We expect it to drop as late money flows to the Trojans, but a segment of the betting public clearly holds the Utes in high regard, particularly in the din of Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Hotline isn’t convinced the respect is warranted. We see flaws that didn’t exist last season. Meanwhile, USC’s defense is improving by the week — Tuli Tuipulotu is a wrecking ball — and the offense has enough balance to keep the Utes guessing. Showdowns of this nature often have unexpected tipping points. To that end, we’d point out that Utah’s kickoff coverage has been woeful … and that USC returner Raleek Brown can fly.

Pick: USC

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Stanford at Notre Dame

Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. on NBC

Line: Notre Dame -17 (total: 53)

Comment: Ten years ago this week, the Cardinal and Irish played into overtime in Notre Dame Stadium with the visitors eventually heading to a Pac-12 title and the hosts on their way to the BCS championship game. The quality of play Saturday won’t come close to that standard. But we’re not convinced the Irish, who struggled to put away Cal and BYU, have what it takes to blast Stanford off the field. That’s too many points.

Pick: Stanford

Washington State at Oregon State

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

Line: Oregon State -3.5 (total: 52.5)

Comment: Combine WSU’s mastery of the Beavers (eight consecutive wins) with Oregon State’s quarterback issues (Chance Nolan or Ben Gulbranson?), and it’s difficult to justify the hosts giving more than a field goal. We also like the Under, even though the total is on the low end. The Beavers have played stout defense at home while WSU’s offensive production has been poor on the road. If turnovers are limited, this could be a game out of the 1960s.

Pick: Washington State

Straight-up winners: Cal, Washington, USC, Notre Dame and Washington State

Five-star special: Washington State. First team to 20 wins, and that team will be the visitor.

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