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Pac-12 betting preview: Conference might be poised to be football’s best

Anu Solomon

Rick Scuteri / AP

Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon, a Bishop Gorman graduate, throws against California during the first half Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014, in Tucson, Ariz.

Note: Talking Points will run betting previews of all the major conferences leading up to college football’s kickoff. This is part five of the series. Check out the first four parts here.

The Pac-12 Conference quite literally provided college football’s late-night gonzo television option last year.

East Coast viewers needed to stay up past midnight their time to catch a glimpse of the wildest ride in football. The weekly installments featured a violent pace with four of the nation’s seven fastest teams by plays per game.

There were plot twists galore including five of six South division teams still alive to reach the conference championship game with two weeks to go. And, of course, a slew of borderline preposterous endings accentuated by two games concluding on a successful Hail Mary in a span of three weeks.

The conference’s West Coast location ensures it will forever occupy the same time slots. But, in terms of significance, the games belong as primetime programming nationwide.

The Pac-12 may overthrow the establishment and assimilate to the throne as college football’s best conference. It’s been the most successful in bowl games over last two years already, going 12-6 straight-up.

The Pac-12 went only 4-5 against the spread in bowl season a year ago, but the losing mark is less of a detriment when considering its teams were favored in all nine games. That’s something even the SEC can’t say.

The regular season contained similar splits. The Pac-12 went 31-6 straight-up in the nonconference but only 17-20 against the spread.

This could be the year the conference reconciles newfound on-field success with betting profitability.

There’s no clear-cut favorite or college football playoff contender, but it’s not because of a lack of worthy contenders. It’s from too many worthy contenders.

None of the top four teams in the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook’s future odds to win the national championship hail from the Pac-12, but four of the 18 programs listed at 40-to-1 or less call the conference home. Only the SEC, which has two more teams, has more with six.

None of those four Pac-12 teams — USC, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA — have better than a 1-in-4 chance to win the conference, according to the odds. The betting market depicts no other league as unpredictable.

The Pac-12 is the only major conference that’s won just one national title since the start of the BCS era 17 years ago, but given its upward trajectory, that may soon change. The league is transitioning out of the role of cheap after-dark entertainment.

The Pac-12 is now appointment viewing for any true college football devotee. And all the teasers suggest this is the most can’t-miss season yet.

Check below for a team-by-team preview of the Pac-12 including betting odds, analysis and picks at the bottom of the page. Last year, Talking Points went 102-80-2 against the spread in college football picking the 10 biggest games each week and every bowl game. Future prices come from the Superbook, while CG Technology provides win totals.

USC

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Southern California quarterback Cody Kessler, left, passes under pressure from Oregon State defensive tackle Jalen Grimble during the first half of an NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Odds to win the Pac 12: 2-to-1

Win total: 9 (over minus-120, under minus-110)

Week 1 line: USC minus-28.5 vs. Arkansas State

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 19 USC minus-5 vs. Stanford; Sept. 26 USC minus-1 at Arizona State; Oct. 8 USC minus-19 vs. Washington; Oct. 17 USC minus-1 at Notre Dame; Oct. 24 USC minus-8.5 vs. Utah; Nov. 7 USC minus-7.5 vs. Arizona; Nov. 13 USC minus-12 at Colorado; Nov. 21 USC plus-6.5 at Oregon; Nov. 28 USC minus-4.5 vs. UCLA

Overview: Las Vegas remains a Trojans town. USC seems to get action every summer, but this year is the most since 2012 when it came in ranked No. 1 in the preseason. Four point spreads moved in USC’s direction immediately upon Golden Nugget opening the games of the year, and none of the lines moved against the Trojans. The price on their over win total has boosted all around town. Bettors keep coming back to USC despite past disappointment. The program hasn’t posted a profitable against the spread record since 2011, and only managed one in the last six years. It’s been seven years since USC won the Pac-12, something bettors have ensured it’s stayed favored to do by betting it more aggressively than Oregon, which opened practically as a co-favorite. Senior quarterback Cody Kessler, who’s thrown for 59 touchdowns to 12 interceptions in his career, is the unofficial mascot of the 2015 Pac-12. He’s listed as a 12-to-1 fourth choice to win the Heisman Trophy offshore despite losing most other skill players aside from No. 2 receiver JuJu Smith and backup running back Justin Davis. Concerns emerge with the schedule, unanimously one of the nation’s toughest by virtue of drawing both Oregon and Stanford from the North division, and defense, which loses its two most productive players after a merely average showing last year. But the betting market sees USC as a national championship contender anyway with odds as low as 8-to-1 in local casinos.

Oregon

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Oregon running back Byron Marshall (9) leaps over Washington defensive back Sidney Jones (26) during the second quarter in an NCAA college football game in Eugene, Ore., Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

Odds to win the Pac 12: 5-to-2

Win total: 9.5 (over minus-120, under minus-110)

Week 1 line: None yet (vs. Eastern Washington)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 12 Oregon plus-5 at Michigan State; Sept. 26 Oregon minus-13 vs. Utah; Oct. 3 Oregon minus-14.5 at Colorado; Oct. 17 Oregon minus-15 at Washington; Oct. 29 Oregon minus-3 at Arizona State; Nov. 14 Oregon pick’em at Stanford; Nov. 21 Oregon minus-6.5 vs. USC; Nov. 27 Oregon minus-25 vs. Oregon State

Overview: Will this decade’s winningest program both straight-up and against the spread maintain its formidable pace or finally slip backwards? Bettors appear to lean towards the latter. Oregon is currently 30-to-1 to win the national championship, the highest preseason price attached to its name in more than five years. Slight action against the Ducks has come on both their win total and game of the year lines. Forgive gamblers for not taking a bigger stand; Oregon’s been good to them. The Ducks are 16 games above .500 against the spread with a profitable record every year since 2010. They also return virtually every offensive weapon including Royce Freeman and Byron Marshall. With only 12 total returning starters, experience is an issue at almost every other position including most notably quarterback. Heisman winner Marcus Mariota’s uncanny ability to limit turnovers assisted Oregon in posting the nation’s best turnover margin at plus-23 last season. Mariota threw four interceptions all of last year, or half as many as likely 2015 starter Vernon Adams committed in five fewer games in the Football Championship Subdivision at Eastern Washington. A streak of coming in as the favorite in 46 straight games, dating back to the 2011 season, will likely end in week two when Oregon travels to Michigan State.

Stanford

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Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) hands off to running back Barry Sanders (26) against Southern California in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Odds to win the Pac 12: 3-to-1

Win total: 8.5 (over minus-175, under plus-145)

Week 1 line: Stanford minus-12 at Northwestern

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 19 Stanford plus-5 at USC; Oct. 3 Stanford minus-9.5 vs. Arizona; Oct. 15 Stanford minus-4.5 vs. UCLA; Nov. 14 Stanford pick’em vs. Oregon; Nov. 21 Stanford minus-11.5 vs. California; Nov. 28 Stanford minus-4.5 vs. Notre Dame

Overview: No team ended last season hotter than Stanford, which won its final three games and covered by double-digits in all of them. With some better luck earlier in the year, the Cardinal could have potentially finished with their fourth straight season of at least 10 victories. Stanford went 0-3 in games decided by less than a touchdown with three-point losses to USC, Utah and Notre Dame. The Cardinal even outgained the first two. Their retribution could be coming in 2015 based on betting patterns, which has caused Stanford’s odds to win the Pac-12 to trim and its over win total price to rise. The Cardinal return only 13 starters, though that includes the most significant player on both sides of the ball. The late-season improvement coincided with some of the best games of now senior quarterback Kevin Hogan’s career, while senior linebacker Blake Martinez was the team’s leading tackler.

UCLA

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UCLA linebacker Myles Jack (30) celebrates a 41-21 win over Nebraska in an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. At left is UCLA guard Caleb Benenoch (74).

Odds to win the Pac 12: 3-to-1

Win total: 9 (over minus-135, under plus-105)

Week 1 line: UCLA minus-17 vs. Virginia

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 12 UCLA minus-32 vs. UNLV; Sept. 19 UCLA minus-12.5 vs. BYU; Sept. 26 UCLA minus-2.5 at Arizona; Oct. 3 UCLA minus-6 vs. Arizona State; Oct. 15 UCLA plus-4.5 at Stanford; Nov. 21 UCLA minus-1 at Utah; Nov. 28 UCLA plus-4.5 at USC

Overview: It would have never happened, but let’s play hypotheticals for a second and pretend Brett Hundley decided to return for his senior season this year. In that case, UCLA would be the definitive Pac-12 frontrunner and potential national championship favorite. Everyone else returns for the Bruins aside from their quarterback. True freshman Josh Rosen takes the reins from Hundley, who was notably efficient in his own freshman season under center. Rosen inherits Hundley’s top five receivers as well as junior running back Paul Perkins, who led the Pac-12 with 1,575 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry. That’s before getting to a defense that gradually improved as last year progressed with highly regarded NFL prospects at every level in nose tackle Kenny Clark, linebacker Myles Jack and cornerback Fabian Moreau. UCLA projects as an underdog twice in a pair of games, at USC and Stanford, that will likely determine the success of the season. The Bruins are just 2-4 straight-up and against the spread when taking points in a conference game the last two years.

Arizona State

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Arizona State running back D.J. Foster is stopped by llinois defensive back Patrick Nixon-Youman during the first half of an NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, in Tempe, Ariz.

Odds to win the Pac 12: 8-to-1

Win total: 8 (over minus-120, under minus-110)

Week 1 line: Arizona State plus-3 vs. Texas A&M in Houston

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 26 Arizona State plus-1 vs. USC; Oct. 3 Arizona State plus-6 at UCLA; Oct. 17 Arizona State plus-2 at Utah; Oct. 29 Arizona State plus-3 vs. Oregon; Nov. 21 Arizona State minus-4 vs. Arizona

Overview: It speaks to the quality of the Pac-12 South that a team that came within a touchdown of winning the division last year and brings back the most experience, 17 returning starters, has been mostly ignored. The Sundevils opened at 50-to-1 to win the national championship, and have since rose to 200-to-1. They went from 7- to 8-to-1 to win the Pac-12. Arizona State is also the winningest Pac-12 South team since the arrival of Todd Graham, who’s 64-53-1 against the spread in his career as a head coach. Part of bettors’ indifference might have to do with the loss of quarterback Taylor Kelly. But this year’s starter Mike Bercovici filled in for Kelly admirably last season, posting higher yards per attempt and completion percentage. Arizona State will also have a new look offensively with last year’s leading rusher, D.J. Foster, transitioning to receiver.

Arizona

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Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III (33) and linebacker Cody Ippolito (57) close in on UCLA running back Paul Perkins, center, as he rushes during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Odds to win the Pac 12: 18-to-1

Win total: 7.5 (over minus-165, under plus-135)

Week 1 line: Arizona minus-31.5 vs. Texas-San Antonio

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 26 Arizona plus-2.5 vs. UCLA; Oct. 3 Arizona plus-9.5 at Stanford; Nov. 7 Arizona plus-7.5 at USC; Nov. 14 USC minus-3 vs. Utah; Nov. 21 Arizona plus-4 at Arizona State

Overview: The Wildcats had the dubious distinction of representing the South in the Pac-12 championship game last year despite oddsmakers’ power ratings unanimously placing them as the division’s fourth or fifth best team. Arizona went 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including a last-second Hail Mary win over California and a narrow escape from embarrassment against Texas-San Antonio. The Wildcats will have a chance to prove it was no fluke this year, albeit with a team that looks drastically different. Much like Stanford, Arizona brings back 13 starters that luckily includes its two most important players. Former Bishop Gorman quarterback Anu Solomon threw for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns after winning the job as a freshman last year. But his ascent paled in comparison to now junior linebacker Scooby Wright, who won the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and finished ninth in Heisman voting after recording 163 tackles and 14 sacks.

California

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California quarterback Jared Goff, left, tries to pass under pressure from Southern California defensive tackle Antwaun Woods during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Odds to win the Pac 12: 40-to-1

Win total: 5.5 (over minus-130, under Even)

Week 1 line: None yet (vs. Grambling State)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Nov. 21 Cal plus-11.5 at Stanford

Overview: The Golden Bears just missed becoming bowl eligible last season by losing their final two games to finish 5-7 straight-up, but managed to post the program’s first profitable record against the spread in six years at 7-5. The betting market sees them further heading in the right direction in coach Sonny Dykes’ third year, as the shift on their over win total was the second biggest of any team at CG Technologies. Cal returns a conference-high in experience including junior quarterback Jared Goff, who’s thrown for 53 touchdowns to 17 interceptions in two seasons as the starter, and almost all of his weapons. A defense that was among the nation’s bottom 20 in sacrificing 6.3 yards per play must improve for the program to reach its first bowl game in four years.

Utah

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University of Utah running back Devontae Booker (23) breaks away from Oregon State defender Larry Scott (15) during an NCAA college football game in Corvallis, Ore., Thursday, Oct.. 16, 2014. The University of Utah beat Oregon State 29-23 in overtime. (AP Photo/Troy Wayrynen)

Odds to win the Pac 12: 50-to-1

Win total: 7.5 (over Even, under minus-130)

Week 1 line: Utah minus-6 vs. Michigan

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 26 Utah plus-13 at Oregon; Oct. 17 Utah minus-2 vs. Stanford; Oct. 24 Utah plus-8.5 at USC; Oct. 31 Utah minus-16 vs. Oregon State; Nov. 14 Utah plus-3 at Arizona; Nov. 21 Utah plus-1 vs. UCLA; Nov. 28 Utah minus-10.5 vs. Colorado

Overview: Utah tied Oregon as the best team to bet on last season with a 9-4 against the spread record. A strong year for the Utes, where they went 5-4 straight-up in conference, had to be a relief after struggling their first three years in the Pac-12 with losing records both straight-up and against the spread. They relied heavily on running back Devontae Booker, who had 40 more carries than anyone else in the conference. With Booker and all but one offensive linemen back, expect a similar plan in 2015. The strategy led to nine of Utah’s 13 games going under the point total. Gamblers apparently either don’t know what to make of the Utes or agree with bookmakers, as all their odds have stayed almost completely stationary.

Washington

Odds to win the Pac 12: 200-to-1

Win total: 4.5 (over minus-155, under plus-125)

Week 1 line: Washington plus-10.5 at Boise State

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Oct. 8 Washington plus-19 at USC; Oct. 17 Washington plus-15 vs. Oregon; Nov. 27 Washington minus-4.5 vs. Washington State

Overview: Biohazard signs may as well have hung by the Huskies’ odds on tote boards around town. Bettors are staying away at all costs. Washington opened at 40-to-1 to win the conference before exploding to five times that number. The same happened with its national championship futures, going from 100- to 500-to-1. The only way anyone will breach the containment area, it seems, is to bet against the Huskies. But in order for Washington to go under its win total, coach Chris Petersen will have to endure the worst season of the career and win nearly three times less than his career average of 11 victories per season. The Huskies have the least amount of experience in the conference after producing four of the top 50 picks in the 2015 NFL Draft. Petersen has rallied with the odds against him before, however, with a career 63-51 against the spread record that includes 11-7 as an underdog.

Washington State

Odds to win the Pac 12: 200-to-1

Win total: 5 (over plus-110, under minus-140)

Week 1 line: None yet (vs. Portland State)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Nov. 27 Washington State plus-4.5 at Washington

Overview: They might want to rename the rivalry the Rotten Apple Cup for this season only, based on the betting market’s opinion. Just like sworn enemy Washington, Washington State isn’t getting much action to do anything other than fail in Las Vegas. One of the Pac-12’s biggest shifts has occurred on Washington State’s under 5 wins at CG Technologies. The odds call for a strong likelihood of a return to the stretch from 2004-2009 when neither of the major Evergreen State schools reached a bowl game. The Cougars might have more factors in their favor than the Huskies, though. They get back 14 starters from a team that was better than a paltry 3-9 straight-up record last season. Washington State actually outgained opponents in conference play, but couldn’t overcome a Pac-12-worst minus-17 turnover margin. It was the Cougars second losing season against the spread, 4-8, in three years under coach Mike Leach, something bettors may find difficult to ignore.

Colorado

Odds to win the Pac 12: 200-to-1

Win total: 5 (over minus-165, under plus-135)

Week 1 line: Colorado minus-8 at Hawaii

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 19 Colorado minus-7.5 vs. Colorado State in Denver; Oct. 3 Colorado plus-14.5 vs. Oregon; Nov. 13 Colorado plus-12 vs. USC; Nov. 28 Colorado plus-10.5 at Utah

Overview: Colorado’s schedule sets up extremely interestingly. The Buffaloes will lay points in four consecutive games, something that hasn’t happened in a decade, to start the season. Then it’s quite possible they won’t be favored in another contest for the rest of the season. In other words, Colorado must pull off a minimum three upsets — it plays 13 games because of the trip to Hawaii — to reach bowl eligibility for the first time in eight years. There’s probably more hype on this team than there has been since that 2007 edition. Colorado saw the biggest move in the Pac-12 on its over win total after the opening price was listed at plus-110. Although the Buffaloes labored defensively in giving up 6.4 yards per play a year ago, they were at least respectable on offense. All the skill players are back including quarterback Sefo Liufau, running back Christian Powell and star receiver Nelson Spruce.

Oregon State

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In this Nov. 29, 2014, file photo, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen watches during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Minnesota in Madison, Wis. Andersen is leaving Wisconsin to take head coaching job at Oregon State.

Odds to win the Pac 12: 300-to-1

Win total: 4 (plus-120, under minus-150)

Week 1 line: None yet (vs. Weber State)

Golden Nugget games of the year lines: Sept. 12 Oregon State plus-15.5 at Michigan; Oct. 31 Oregon State plus-16 at Utah; Nov. 27 Oregon State plus-25 at Oregon

Overview: New hire Gary Andersen has gone down as one of the most profitable coaches to bet on over the last six years, as he’s 45-31 against the spread since landing a head-coaching gig. The Beavers will need every bit of Andersen’s direction after being the polar opposite last season — one of the nation’s worst teams to bet on at 2-10 against the spread. Bettors have come in against them so far, and may continue to with news of Andersen planning the always-unpopular two-quarterback system. Freshmen Seth Collins and Marcus McMaryion will split time behind center. The duo should at least have protection and firepower around them. Guard Isaac Seumalo has an NFL future as long as he can stay healthy. Oregon State also returns its top rusher, Storm Woods, and receiver, Victor Bolden, to help. The defense is completely untested with only two returning starters, but that side of the ball is Andersen’s forte. It’s time to find out if he’s as strong of a coach as the point spreads paint him.

Six pack of picks: Stanford to win Pac-12 North at plus-200, UCLA to win Pac-12 South at plus-300, Oregon State over 4 wins at plus-120, Cal under 5.5 wins at Even money, Nov. 21 Arizona State minus-4 vs. Arizona, Nov. 27 Washington State plus-4.5 at Washington

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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