Washington (4-1, 0-1 in Pac-12) at California (4-1, 2-1)
3 p.m. Saturday, California Memorial Stadium
The line: California by 4
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: 1000 AM/97.7 FM
When the week began, the point spread on this game favored California by anywhere from 1-2 points. Some even favored the Huskies. After a few days of betting, the line we typically use -- from VegasInsider.com -- has moved to Cal -4, meaning significantly more money is being put on the Golden Bears than on the Huskies.
And considering the way these teams have played recently, that makes at least some sense. Cal's offense has been one of the most dangerous and efficient in the country. In their last three games, the Golden Bears have scored a combined 164 points (though they've also allowed exactly that many points, too), and sophomore quarterback Jared Goff looks like a star in the making. Washington, meanwhile, scored 13 points and gained only 179 yards in a loss to Stanford two weeks ago. Cyler Miles' early struggles at quarterback have raised concerns about whether the Huskies can score enough points to keep up with Pac-12 competition.
So, the biggest questions facing UW on Saturday: has the Huskies' young secondary improved enough to offer more resistance to Cal's passing game than the Bears' last three opponents (Arizona, Colorado, Washington State)? And did UW fine-tune its offense well enough during its bye week -- Chris Petersen has a pretty good record after byes, by the way -- to take advantage of what appears to be a pretty awful Cal defense?
We wrote earlier in the week that UW's pass rush has to be stout in order to disrupt Goff and Cal's passing game, but don't underestimate the importance of the Huskies' defensive front plugging up Daniel Lasco and the Bears' revitalized ground attack. Prior to last week's game against WSU, Cal had attempted more rushes this season than passes, so this isn't a throw-it-all-the-time offense, even if the Bears are really good at it (they average 398.2 yards passing per game, which is ridiculous for how few pass attempts they have, relative to how often they run the ball).
Anyway, point is that if Lasco is gashing UW's defense for five or six yards a pop on those draw plays and inside runs the Bears use so effectively, that's going to make it a lot harder for the Huskies to clamp down against a bunch of really talented receivers -- Bryce Treggs, Chris Harper, Trevor Davis, Kenny Lawler -- in the passing game.
All that said, I do think this is the best defense Cal has seen so far this season, and certainly the best pass rush (the Huskies have 20 sacks through five games, and their 4.0-per-game average is tied for third-best in the country). And Washington has shown that it can impose its will, at least in the running game, against an overmatched defense, as it did while scoring 59 points in a victory over Eastern Washington.
Of course, even as bad as the Bears' defensive numbers have been, they're probably still a little more athletic and skilled on the defensive side of the ball than EWU is, so this isn't likely to be a cakewalk offensively. And Cal has actually been pretty decent against the run, allowing a pretty OK 3.6 yards per carry, which ranks 47th nationally, per CFBstats.com. But if the Huskies can get something going on the ground early, mixing in Lavon Coleman and Dwayne Washington and keeping the Bears on their heels, that should help Miles be a little more comfortable in the pocket and allow him to settle in and make the proper reads and throws against a weak pass defense.
Before the season began, this was a game the Huskies probably would have been embarrassed to lose. That's obviously changed, and instead it's just another really tough Pac-12 matchup against a team with a really dynamic offense. But I think the Huskies' defense will be up the challenge, and I think a bye week and the accompanying tweaks to the offense should be enough to lift UW to what would be a pretty big road win.
The pick: Washington 34, California 31.
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple