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December 18, 2014

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College football by the Vegas odds: Sports book preview of the Pac-12

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Mark J. Terrill

UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley passes during the first half of the Bruins’ game against California on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, in Pasadena, Calif.

Note: Talking Points will preview a college football conference every week leading up to the Aug. 28 kickoff of the season. Check out part one here, part two here, and part three here. Scroll to the bottom of the page for already-released Pac-12 game lines.

Odds to win the Pac-12

  • Oregon: 5-to-7
  • UCLA: 5-to-2
  • USC: 9-to-2
  • Stanford: 12-to-1
  • Washington: 12-to-1
  • Arizona State 15-to-1
  • Arizona: 30-to-1
  • Utah: 50-to-1
  • Oregon State: 60-to-1
  • Washington State: 200-to-1
  • California: 200-to-1
  • Colorado: 200-to-1
  • Numbers from the Westgate Superbook

Pac-12 win totals

  • Oregon: 10.5 (over minus-160, under plus-140)
  • UCLA: 9.5 (over minus-110, under minus-110)
  • USC: 8.5 (over minus-175, under plus-155)
  • Stanford: 8.5 (over minus-125, under plus-105)
  • Washington: 9 (over minus-110, under minus-110)
  • Arizona State: 7.5 (over minus-130, under plus-110)
  • Numbers from Westgate Superbook

Gold has resurfaced as a trademark commodity of the West Coast.

These days, it comes in college football form. The Western United States’ only major conference finally extracted what it had spent years mining for in 2013: a breakthrough season.

The Pac-12 was a gilded juggernaut a year ago after a lengthy passage of time when the overall talent was considered dried-up and second-rate. For the first time in a decade or more, East Coast settlers had to keep their televisions on late into Saturday night or Sunday morning to uncover some of the most halcyon displays of football.

The conference crept up on the SEC in the conversation for toughest league in most advanced statistical measures and even surpassed it according to Football Outsiders’ F/+ ratings.

Now the richest conference in terms of revenue for two years straight, the Pac-12 is also beginning to play like it. The dozen teams posted a 31-6 straight-up, 22-15 against-the-spread record in nonconference play despite a tougher strength of schedule than their cross-country contemporaries, which more regularly bully Football Championship Subdivision opponents.

The Pac-12 didn’t tail off during bowl season either, posting a reputable 6-3 straight-up and against-the-spread record in the postseason.

The proudest moment of this preview series probably came last year when the Pac-12 installment called for that level of success. It’s far less bold to predict a repeat in 2014 because the Pac-12 landscape is suddenly ripe with potent teams.

Many of them are bunched together near the top to create coveted parity. When the Golden Nugget released its annual Games of the Year lines — listed at the bottom of the page — in June, 19 Pac-12 contests had a point spread of a touchdown or less.

That’s second to only the SEC, which enters the season with 21 such games, but the Pac-12 has two fewer teams. The Pac-12 also boasts five teams with odds of less than 100-to-1 to win the national championship at the Westgate Superbook, trailing only the SEC with seven.

The Pac-12 would have a sixth, but Arizona State’s price jumped from 50- to 100-to-1 after a lack of action since the numbers opened. The boost wasn’t uncommon for Pac-12 teams.

In fact, all but three teams in the conference have seen their odds rise to prevail in college football’s inaugural playoff — even perennial public favorite Oregon, which has gone from the nation’s second-best 5-to-1 to a third-best 7-to-1. Betting slips on UCLA, USC and Washington are the jewels gamblers have rushed toward.

Washington’s minor downturn from 100- to 75-to-1 isn’t surprising considering new coach Chris Petersen’s sterling reputation. The action on USC and UCLA, on the other hand, is yet another reminder on the drawing power of Los Angeles teams in Las Vegas.

The City of Angels rivals are among the biggest movers in the preseason, with UCLA’s title odds trimming in half from 20- to 10-to-1 and USC’s coming close from 50- to 30-to-1.

The Bruins are enjoying their highest preseason expectations of the new millennium. They’ve earned the respect with coach Jim Mora Jr. racking up more wins in his first two seasons than any coach in UCLA history at 19-8 straight up and 17-10 against the spread.

Returning an iconic player on both sides of the ball, junior quarterback Brett Hundley and sophomore linebacker Myles Jack, also helps. UCLA is attracting money on every avenue, from its over 9.5 wins to three game lines moving in their favor and none against.

The Trojans have seen three game lines shift against them, but support in every other betting option including their heavily-juiced over 8.5 wins. That could perhaps signal sharper bettors who make up the Games of the Year pools not being sold on USC in coach Steve Sarkisian’s first year in conflict with fans more likely to fire on the futures.

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USC safeties Josh Shaw and Dion Bailey celebrate Shaw's interception of a Fresno State pass during the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013 at Sam Boyd Stadium. USC won the game 45-20.

There’s plenty to like about USC. Defense keyed year’s turnaround, in which the Trojans went 6-1 straight up and 5-2 against the spread down the stretch, and the top three players are back in junior lineman Leonard Williams, senior linebacker Hayes Pullard and senior cornerback Josh Shaw.

On offense, junior quarterback Cody Kessler returns with his top two running backs in juniors Javorius Allen and Tre Madden. USC may have an easier schedule than UCLA as it avoids Oregon in the cross-divisional games.

But the Trojans must travel to Stanford, where they’ve played every other year for decades and haven’t covered since 2006 or won since 2008.

With USC and UCLA far and away the top power-rated teams in the South Division — offshore betting odds give the two nearly a 75 percent combined chance of making the Pac-12 title game — their Nov. 22 showdown looms large. After upsetting USC two years in a row, this year’s home team UCLA projects as a favorite for the first time in the series since 2001.

This season is the first time in several years in which Oregon vs. Stanford isn’t automatically the Pac-12 game to circle at the beginning of the season. The clash between the North Division stalwarts has ultimately decided the Pac-12 champion in each of the past three seasons.

The Ducks are again listed at minus-10 for the moment, the same number as last season when the Cardinal upset them for the second straight year, but they might have a tougher game three weeks earlier.

Oregon is just minus-3 for an Oct. 11 trip to UCLA. If UCLA proves as formidable as the betting market forecasts and Oregon falters at all, the Ducks' current streak of being favored in 30 straight games could end.

Don’t count on it. The knee injury to quarterback Marcus Mariota that derailed Oregon last season could end up as a blessing for this year as it likely played a role in the junior’s decision to come back to school.

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Stanford's Ty Montgomery catches a punt against Washington State in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, in Seattle.

Mariota starts 2014 as college football’s second most-prolific player behind defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and gets eight other starters back for his offense. Betting against Oregon has proved to be a faulty method anyway, as the Ducks have now posted winning records against the spread in an astounding 11 straight seasons.

The numbers, however, did start to catch up to Oregon last season as it failed to cover in its final four games of the regular season. Stanford started Oregon’s slide, and even though the Cardinal have their highest preseason national championship odds in four years at 50-to-1, their style should again test the Ducks.

The physical approach of Stanford, which runs the ball on nearly two-thirds of its plays, has been the one antidote to Oregon’s fast-paced chaos. The Cardinal lose running back Tyler Gaffney, who had more carries than the team had passes, but return quarterback Kevin Hogan and the left side of their line, which includes first-round NFL Draft tackle prospect Andrus Peat.

Additionally listed at plus-5 for a road game at UCLA, Stanford should be an underdog at least twice for the third straight year. Coach David Shaw won’t mind, as he’s gone 4-2 straight up and 5-0-1 against the spread when taking points.

Stanford also has a pick ’em game lined up Sept. 27 at Washington between two teams given an identical 5.8 percent chance to win the Pac-12 by the oddsmakers when adjusting for the house’s hold.

The Huskies have visions of building the Pac-12’s best defense with seven returning starters including their two best players in junior linebacker Shaq Thompson — who may also gets snaps on offense — and junior cornerback Marcus Peters.

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Boise State football coach Chris Petersen answers questions during The Maaco Bowl Las Vegas press conference at The Sporting House inside the New York, New York on December 6, 2012.

They may already have the best coach. Before penning Washington for third or worst in the North Division, consider Petersen has never finished worse than second in an entire conference.

Going the past three years without posting a winning against-the-spread record at Boise State has hurt Petersen’s once divine gambling numbers, but the Pac-12’s highest-paid coach is still an easily profitable 56-45 versus the number lifetime. More important to Washington fans, he’s 92-12 straight up.

With Washington joining the ranks of bet-on teams this summer, there must be a few midtier Pac-12 teams getting ignored to produce a balance. The Copper State provides.

Neither Arizona State nor Arizona is inciting migration to the betting window. Arizona, 200-to-1 to win the national championship, may have burned gamblers too many times before.

The Wildcats haven’t finished with a winning record against the spread since 2008, making them the conference’s biggest Vegas loser in the span. Despite two straight bowl games under coach Rich Rodriguez, Arizona is an underdog in five contests in early lines.

Arizona State, meanwhile, brings back a paltry eight starters. It’s reason for concern, though coach Todd Graham faced the same adversity two years ago and responded with an 8-5 straight-up and against-the-spread record.

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Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly celebrates his touchdown with offensive linesmen Jamil Douglas, Tyler Sulka and Vi Teofilo as UCLA cornerback Fabian Moreau watches during the first half of an NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in Pasadena, Calif.

He didn’t have a core like this year’s — quarterback Taylor Kelly, wide receiver Jaelen Strong and running back D.J. Foster — either. The Sun Devils ended last season in disaster, failing to cover by 27 points in a Pac-12 Championship Game loss to Stanford before missing by 28 in a stunning Holiday Bowl setback against Texas Tech.

Another team that suffered a memorable bowl breakdown was the Pac-12’s best to bet on in 2013. Washington State allowed Colorado State to score 18 points in the final three minutes of the New Mexico Bowl to ruin its first postseason appearance in a decade, falling 48-45 as 5-point favorites.

But the Cougars finished the year 9-4 against the spread behind a streaky offense that has eight returning starters this season.

They may battle for fourth in the North with Oregon State, whose quarterback Sean Mannion will probably set school and conference records for passing yardage early in the year. The Beavers are listed as underdogs in three of their four Pac-12 road games — at USC, Stanford and Washington — but have covered in seven straight taking points as visitors.

At 50-to-1, Utah has better odds than both Washington State and Oregon State to win the Pac-12. The Utes have gone 9-18 straight up and 10-17 against the spread since joining the conference but led in the fourth quarter in four of their seven losses a season ago.

Downtrodden California and Colorado — the Superbook bothered to list neither in its national championship future book — might be the only teams not competitive in the Pac-12 this season. The other 10 Pac-12 teams should attract their share of neophytes to football in the West.

The promise of the conference is suddenly too lucrative to ignore.

Golden Nugget Games of the Year lines

Aug. 28: Washington State minus-9 vs. Rutgers

Aug. 29: Arizona minus-23.5 vs. UNLV

Aug. 30: UCLA minus-21.5 at Virginia

Aug. 30: Colorado minus-4 vs. Colorado State in Denver

Aug. 30: Washington minus-15.5 at Hawaii

Aug. 30: California plus-11 at Northwestern

Sept. 6: Oregon minus-13 vs. Michigan State

Sept. 6: USC plus-3.5 at Stanford

Sept. 13: UCLA minus-8 vs. Texas in Arlington, Texas

Sept. 13: USC minus-23 at Boston College

Sept. 20: Oregon State minus-13 vs. San Diego State

Sept. 20: Oregon minus-23 at Washington State

Sept. 25: UCLA plus-7 at Arizona State

Sept. 27: Oregon State plus-17 at USC

Oct. 2: Arizona plus-25 at Oregon

Oct. 4: Arizona State plus-11 at USC

Oct. 4: Stanford minus-6 at Notre Dame

Oct. 11: Oregon minus-3 at UCLA

Oct. 11: USC minus-7.5 at Arizona

Oct. 18: Washington plus-20 at Oregon

Oct. 18: UCLA minus-22 at California

Oct. 18: Stanford minus-6.5 at Arizona State

Oct. 24: Oregon minus-34 at California

Oct. 25: Oregon State plus-13 at Stanford

Oct. 25: USC minus-10 at Utah

Oct. 25: Arizona State plus-6 at Washington

Nov. 1: Stanford plus-10 at Oregon

Nov. 1: Arizona plus-14 at UCLA

Nov. 8: Oregon minus-20 at Utah

Nov. 8: UCLA minus-3.5 at Washington

Nov. 8: Arizona State minus-4.5 vs. Notre Dame

Nov. 13: California plus-34 at USC

Nov. 15: Arizona State minus-2 at Oregon State

Nov. 15: Utah plus-14 at Stanford

Nov. 15: Washington plus-5 at Arizona

Nov. 22: Oregon State plus-7.5 at Washington

Nov. 22: USC plus-4.5 at UCLA

Nov. 22: Stanford minus-17 at California

Nov. 22: Arizona plus-2 at Utah

Nov. 28: Stanford plus-3 at UCLA

Nov. 28: Arizona State minus-1 at Arizona

Nov. 29: Oregon minus-13 at Oregon State

Nov. 29: USC minus-10 vs. Notre Dame

Nov. 29: Washington minus-4.5 at Washington State

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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