At face value, the Week 12 slate in the Pac-12 isn't sexy, particularly when compared to the doozies the conference has enjoyed in recent weeks. Four clubs again have byes, and there's no truly marquee matchup that stands out from the bunch.
The conference has consistently been giving us "are you not entertained?!" moments, so this initial look at this week's docket may trigger some feelings of withdrawal. But we'll stick with the "Gladiator" theme in our search for some perspective. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (the real guy, not the one featured in the movie), might have been a hidden fan of this Week 12 about 1,800 years ago.
"Look beneath the surface; let not the several quality of a thing nor its worth escape thee," he said.
And that's exactly what we're going to do. Because while this cluster of games hasn't made the massive initial splash of its predecessors, there's enough material to make for another engaging weekend.
A Tasty Appetizer: California at USC
At 5-4, the Bears are one win away from bowl eligibility. This trip to Los Angeles and home dates against Stanford and BYU remain on the schedule. Conventional wisdom says that final game against the Cougars will be Cal's best chance to notch win No. 6, but since when does conventional wisdom mean anything in college football? The Bears are averaging 42 points per game this season. They trail only Oregon in the Pac-12, and that explosiveness makes them dangerous on a weekly basis. Jared Goff receives the majority of adulation in Berkeley, but he's enjoyed some critical support on the ground: Only two conference running backs have averaged over five yards per carry while rushing for at least 10 touchdowns. Oregon stud Royce Freeman is one, while Cal's Daniel Lasco is the other.
The Bears must maintain this offensive balance to close out the season, because their Pac-12 worst defense simply isn't at the necessary level yet. That's why Cody Kessler (25 touchdowns, two interceptions) is licking his chops this weekend, and that's why this matchup has some potential Thursday night insanity in it. The Trojans have been good against the run defensively, but if Lasco finds some room to work, there'll be a shootout in the Coliseum (the Pac-12 really is built for Gladiator references).
Saturday's first course: Washington at Arizona
Following the dismissal of cornerback Marcus Peters and a number of injuries on the defensive side of the ball, the Huskies are reeling. Washington has been able to find some success on offense by using Shaq Thompson's top-flight talents at running back, but it was clear during the 44-30 home loss to UCLA that this is a football team struggling with limited resources. Still, there are plenty of intriguing pieces to watch in action here. It sounds as if dinged up national sack leader Hau'oli Kikaha (nation-leading 16.5 sacks) will play this weekend, and that sets the table for a potentially explosive matchup against young quarterback Anu Solomon. The Wildcats, who are coming off a 38-20 win against Colorado, have a strong set of receiving options, and they may pose big problems for a Washington secondary in flux. That'll put even more pressure on Kikaha and the Huskies' pass rush, and considering that unit's ferocity in getting after the quarterback, that's not a bad thing for entertainment purposes.
Don't forget that we'll also have a chance to see Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright work against a sputtering offense. The man's also been a statistical machine, so this game is a chance to watch some of the Pac-12's defensive stars.
Desperation Bowl: Utah at Stanford
In many ways, the 2014 Utes are built like the 2012 Cardinal -- a team that fans in Palo Alto really miss right about now. I wrote about the similarities earlier today while elaborating on the importance of this game for both of these teams. Two consecutive losses (that 51-27 setback to Oregon was brutal, considering how things shook out after Kaelin Clay's infamous mistake) have sent Utah into a slump after a sensational start to the season, while previously mighty Stanford is now in a fight just to attain bowl eligibility.
It feels that both clubs need this game to avoid "total free fall" mode, so this may end up being an entertaining watch, especially if you're a fan of players who love to get after the quarterback. Utah leads the nation with 43 sacks, while Stanford still has some healthy and monstrous pass-rushing talent -- Henry Anderson and Peter Kalambayi come to mind. Expect some violent takedowns in this one.
Game with biggest College Football Playoff implications: Arizona State at Oregon State
Our Ted Miller astutely noted that the Sun Devils' 55-31 win against Notre Dame was actually a three-game series: ASU won Game 1, 34-3, dropped Game 2, 28-0, and sealed the rubber match, 21-0. By the time the desert dust had settled, Todd Graham's team had fully overcome its 62-27 September debacle against UCLA.
The Sun Devils obviously aren't perfect, but their two excellent surges against the Irish proved that there's been a whole heck of a lot of improvement going on in Tempe. At this point, the Sun Devils should strive to continue their steady build heading into the Nov. 28 Territorial Cup. Oregon State's slide has reached severe levels with last week's 39-32 home loss to Connor Halliday-less Washington State, and ASU gets those same Cougars at home after this contest in Corvallis. Of course, the Sun Devils must be wary of a letdown, but the stars seem to be aligning for that match-up against the hated Wildcats with everything on the line.
Then again, conventional wisdom doesn't apply to Pac-12 football, so make sure to watch without making any prior assumptions.