Washington State and Colorado lead the Pac-12 North and South divisions. They have identical 8-2 records yet the 12th-ranked Buffaloes are favored by 5 ½ points in Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. kickoff from Boulder.
I think the betting line has a lot to do with the game being more important to Colorado than it is to WSU. Win or lose, the Cougars still need to beat the Huskies in the Apple Cup to win the Pac-12 North. At 6-1 in conference play, Colorado is trying to hold off USC (6-2) and Utah (5-2) to win the Pac-12 South.
I’ve mentioned that a loss to Colorado wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for another reason – on the off-chance that the Cougs lose to the Huskies, too, it would hurt the Dawgs’ strength of schedule. A win over, say the 15th-ranked Cougars, if we beat Colorado, would be better than a win over the 25th-ranked Cougars if we lose to the Buffs.
It’s a shallow thing to bring this up, but that’s the end of the pool I swim in, factoring in impertinent stuff when handicapping games like this one.
When you consider most of the tangible factors such as stats, the Cougars have a good chance to beat Colorado and post their ninth consecutive win. If that happens, there’s a small chance Washington State could clinch the Pac-12 North if Washington loses to Arizona State. Check that, it’s not a small chance, it’s a microscopic chance – the Huskies are favored by 27 points over Todd Graham’s Sun Devils.
As much as everyone’s been talking about the Dawgs’ hopes of being in the national championship playoff, the Cougs have an outside shot if they win their last three games against three highly ranked teams: Colorado, Washington and either Colorado again or USC – perhaps even Utah.
WSU is currently ranked 22nd in the College Football Playoff rankings. A jump of 18 spots isn’t inconceivable if the Cougars win out, especially with weird things happening like Louisville losing to Houston on Thursday night, but it’s still unlikely.
Colorado’s two losses to Michigan and USC are better than Washington State’s to Eastern Washington and Boise State. It looks to me like Colorado’s defense is slightly better than Washington State’s while the Cougs’ offense has an advantage over the Buffs’ offense.
Colorado’s defense will be the difference. The Buffaloes are ranked ninth in the country, allowing only 17.9 points a game, and opponents convert just 31 percent of their third downs. They are No. 2 in the nation in yards allowed per pass attempt and sixth in opponent completion percentage, according to Jacob Thorpe, who covers the Cougs for the Spokesman-Review.
Jimmie Gilbert will put pressure on Luke Falk – the Colorado defensive end has recorded nine sacks this year. Gilbert has helped Colorado allow only 177 passing yards a game, tops in the Pac-12.
Falk leads the Pac-12 with 361 passing yards a game, but I’m guessing the combination of Colorado’s defense and the loss of slot receiver River Cracraft to an ACL injury last week against Cal will hold him below his average.
The biggest factor is going to be the incentive difference – the Buffaloes NEED to win; for the Cougars, it would be nice if we won, but in the bigger picture, it won’t matter if we don’t. The Pac-12 Championship Game and Rose Bowl are still possible regardless.
It will be hard-fought and close for a while, but I’m guessing Colorado will win by double digits in the end.
Line: Colorado by 5 ½.
Prediction: Buffaloes 38, Cougars 21
The Go 2 Guy also writes for SeattlePI.com and KitsapSun.com. You can reach Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cougsgo.