Canzano: Zero pressure on Oregon Ducks in season opener vs. Georgia
A look at some big Pac-12 non-conference games.
I heard an SEC media honk claim earlier this week that the Oregon Ducks’ season opener against Georgia is more important to the Ducks than it is to the Bulldogs.
Georgia is coming off a national championship and sitting as a 17-point favorite in most sports books. Coach Kirby Smart is finalizing a long-term contract and will be coaching his first game under what’s expected to be a $9-million-a-year deal.
Game time: 12:30 p.m. PT on ABC.
Lose to Oregon in the opener and Georgia is playing from behind in the eyes of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. Also, losing to a Pac-12 opponent would be a massive blow to the SEC propaganda machine.
The Sept. 3 opener is Vol. I, No. I for the Dan Lanning era at Oregon. I’m as curious as the next person to see Lanning’s team, assess its identity and observe. But is any rational person seriously expecting UO to be a playoff team? Flirting with it would be a nice first-year goal, but there’s zero pressure on Lanning.
All the heat is on Georgia. Same as it was for Ohio State in Week 2 last season when the Ducks went to Columbus and upset the Buckeyes as a double-digit underdog.
Lanning is likable, humble, hard-working and smart. The more I see and hear, the more I like. He’s been entertaining position groups of his players at his home, connecting with former players, and you can feel the roots of his program growing. He’ll have some key playmakers on defense, a transfer quarterback (Bo Nix) with SEC experience, and a healthy knowledge of the state secrets at Georgia.
It’s a big-time college football game, sure. But let’s not pretend that Oregon has more at stake here. The expectations for the Ducks? Compete for one of the top-two spots in the Pac-12 and play in the conference title game. That’s it. Period. End stop.
I suspect Oregon will be sufficiently nauseated with the pro-Georgia/SEC national discussion by kickoff. I wonder if that might factor emotionally and how teed-off the Ducks will be in a “neutral site” game. Also, it’s Week 1, where weird things sometimes happen. Anyone in their right mind picks Georgia to win, but I think Oregon sticks around.
Should Oregon upset Georgia in Atlanta it would be as big as Mike Bellotti winning at Michigan in 2007 and Mario Cristobal winning at Ohio State in 2021. But there’s no pressure on Lanning right now.
My way-too-early pick: Oregon +17.
UTAH… has it cooking. Coach Kyle Whittingham’s success is a case-study that athletic directors nationally should examine. The Utes stuck with the head coach through a transition period and some clunky results a few years ago and they’re now reaping rewards.
Utah plays at Florida on Sept. 3 at 4 p.m. PT on ESPN. The Utes are a 1.5-point favorite and I think they’ll cover. In fact, I expect that line will push toward Utah -3 points as kickoff approaches.
Winning the Pac-12 Conference and getting to the Rose Bowl was a big-time breakthrough in 2021. I believe you have to sniff around success before attaining it. Utah did just that last season, disposing of Oregon twice in impressive fashion, then playing Ohio State punch-for-punch in a disappointing bowl-game loss.
College football is a quarterback-centric game. Utah has a great one in Cameron Rising. I’m a big Andy Ludwig fan and he returns as the play caller. It’s lined up beautifully for Whittingham, with plenty of continuity on both sides of the ball.
Utah isn’t just going to beat Florida in the opener, I think the Utes are the pick to repeat as Pac-12 champions. Don’t be surprised if they challenge to be the first conference team to make the playoff since Washington in 2017.
My way-too-early pick: Utah -1.5 points.
OREGON STATE… hosts Boise State in Week 1 of the season (7:30 p.m. PT on ESPN) in what I think is a sneaky-important game for the Pac-12 Conference. It’s a home game for the Beavers, who were 6-0 last season at Reser Stadium.
In a lot of years, this would set up nicely for Boise State, which travels well and has a great program. But I think OSU, which is a 2.5-point favorite, wins this game. It's a big opener and season for coach Jonathan Smith. A Beavers’ victory in Week 1 won’t make national news, but it would help the Pac-12 avoid the stumble out of the gates that plagued the conference last season.
In Week 2-3 the Beavers go to Fresno State and play Montana State at Providence Park in Portland. A 3-0 start out there for OSU, but getting the first one is important for both the conference and the program.
My way-too-early pick: OSU -2.5 points.
Some of the rest of the biggest non-conference games for the Pac-12 in 2022:
ASU at Oklahoma State (Week 2) - 2:30 p.m. PT on ESPN2: Herm Edwards has endured a firestorm of criticism and calls for his job — justifiably so. I’ve waited a while for ASU to have a breakthrough moment that helps elevate the conference. A win over the Cowboys in Week 2 would be just that. A bad loss, though, could signal the beginning of the end of Edwards. It feels like the kind of game that will frame not just the early season, but the future of ASU’s football program.
• WSU at Wisconsin (Week 2) - 12:30 p.m. PT on FOX: I really like the look and feel of Washington State this season. Coach Jake Dickert has stabilized the program and is bringing back the Air Raid. Maybe I’m drinking the Kool-Aid but I won’t be surprised if the Cougars go to Camp Randall Stadium and win. Nobody nationally is talking about this game, but keep an eye on Washington State. If the Cougars are as dangerous as I think they are, they’ll be trouble for the Badgers here.
• Cal at Notre Dame (Week 3) - 11:30 a.m. PT on NBC: It’s been 55 years since the Bears traveled to South Bend for a football game. When I asked some Pac-12 coaches which opposing coach does the most with the least they mostly pointed to Cal coach Justin Wilcox. He’s given fits to more talented opponents. I don’t think Cal wins this game, but I like that they’ve scheduled it and I think it’s fortunate the Bears are catching the Irish in the first month of the season. It’s all upside for the Pac-12.
• BYU at Oregon (Week 3) - 12:30 p.m. PT on FOX: The Cougars owned the Pac-12 last season, going 5-0. Think about how damaging that was as the conference narrative was discussed nationally. In fact, I think the CFP selection committee members probably weighed this heavily in discussing their view of the Pac-12 teams all last season. How could they not? The Ducks play BYU at home. The Cougars will be coming off a big game vs. Baylor, but I don’t expect a letdown. This is a very dangerous — and interesting — game for Oregon and the Pac-12.
• Washington vs. Michigan State (Week 3) - 4:30 p.m. PT on ABC: The Spartans will travel to Seattle for this game. First-year Huskies’ coach Kalen DeBoer was the right hire by UW. It didn’t get as much run as Lincoln Riley to USC, but the move was a substance-play by athletic director Jennifer Cohen. Michigan State is dreaming about a Big Ten title and a possible playoff run. The Spartans won 11 games last season. This is a case of two programs in very different places finding themselves sharing early-season space. Good test for DeBoer and Company. Interesting matchup. But it could be ugly.
• USC vs. Notre Dame (Week 13), TBD: I expect some hiccups for Trojans’ first-year coach Lincoln Riley. I’m not with those who expect 10-plus wins in 2022. The expectations are sky high and unrealistic given how deficient USC was in the trenches last season. But I like that this game is coming late in the year for Riley. By the time it’s played, I suspect he’ll have the offense humming, have addressed some issues and have the advantage of seeing Notre Dame vs. multiple opponents. For now, I like USC in this one. Regardless, it’s an important game for the Pac-12.
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