AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Only one team in the Pac-12 Conference enters this season off of a victory.
That should illustrate plenty about the state of the West’s major college football conference.
Most pundits regarded the Pac-12 as the weakest league throughout last season, and the conference’s teams squandered an opportunity to prove them wrong in the postseason.
Pac-12 teams went 1-8 straight-up, 2-9 against the spread in bowl games, with Utah’s 30-14 victory over West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl the lone bright spot.
The perception of the Pac-12 isn’t strong entering this year, putting the conference at risk of being left out of the College Football Playoff for the third time in four seasons. Luckily for the Pac-12, there might be a team or two that emerge too dominant to ignore.
Check below for Talking Points’ pick on every Pac-12 team’s win total in part six of the blog’s series. Selections are labeled with three separate confidence categories — plays, leans and guesses.
over/under: 6.5 (minus-105, minus-125)
Last Year: 5-7 straight-up, 8-4 against the spread
Coach Justin Wilcox exceeded everyone’s expectations by winning five games in his first season, and on paper, has a lot more going for him this year. California has more production returning than any team in the country, and could see its luck in close games turn around after losing by a field goal or less three times in 2017. On the flip side, the Pac-12 North Division already presents a difficult enough schedule before also adding a pair of challenges in the non-conference — against North Carolina and BYU the first two weeks. The Golden Bears will need both of those wins to go over, and that feels difficult to count on.
Guess: Under 6.5 wins at minus-125
over/under: 8.5 (minus-130, plus-110)
Last Year: 7-6 straight-up, 6-7 against the spread
The optimistic view of Oregon: The Ducks had one of the best offenses in the country when now-junior quarterback Justin Herbert was healthy last year, and turned around their defensive woes under new coordinator Jim Leavitt. The pessimistic view of Oregon: Herbert doesn’t have as many proven skill players around him as a typical Ducks’ roster, and new coach Mario Cristobal remains a question mark. The latter may edge out the former because Oregon’s schedule looks exceedingly manageable as it shouldn’t be an underdog until Oct. 13, when the Ducks get their biggest game of the season at home under ideal circumstances. That’s when they come off of a bye to host Washington, the North division favorite.
Guess: Over 8.5 wins at minus-130
over/under: 2.5 (plus-125, minus-155)
Last Year: 1-11 straight-up, 3-9 against the spread
Oregon State might not only be the least talented team in the Pac-12, but the least talented team in any power conference. The Beavers’ lone victory last year came in a final-minute comeback against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Portland State. They were so uncompetitive that coach Gary Andersen resigned midseason, forfeiting millions of dollars in the process. The only likely win this year is another FCS game — against Southern Utah in week 2 — but the bar is set so low and the asking price is so high that it’s worth gambling that the Beavers surprise with a couple slight upsets. New coach Jonathan Smith was a trusted Chris Petersen assistant, and made a shrewd hire in bringing in Mike Riley, who’s previously worked magic in Corvallis, Ore., as his top assistant.
Guess: Over 2.5 wins at plus-125
over/under: 8.5 (minus-115, minus-105)
Last Year: 9-5 straight-up, 7-6-1 against the spread
With an average of 11 wins per season since 2010, Stanford is seen as a beacon of consistency. But the Cardinal took a step back last year, one much more pronounced than their record indicated. Pac-12 opponents actually outgained Stanford, which took a big step back defensively in allowing an uncharacteristic 5.8 yards per play. With an extremely inexperienced defense stepping in this year, there’s not much indicating that change is imminent. The offense should continue to produce at a high clip, but some regression would be natural after Heisman favorite running back Bryce Love exploded for 8.1 yards per carry last season. Stanford also faces the other two North powers, Washington and Oregon, on the road.
Play: Under 8.5 wins at minus-105
over/under: 10.5 (plus-135, minus-155)
Last Year: 10-3 straight-up, 7-6 against the spread
This is a high asking price, but it’s a high asking price for a reason. Few teams in the nation look more destined for success than the Huskies. An argument could be made that they have the top offensive line, defensive line, linebacking corps and secondary in the conference. Jake Browning is certainly the Pac-12’s highest-regarded quarterback, and running back Myles Gaskin would rank only behind Stanford’s Love. Washington broke through to win the Pac-12 and reach the College Football Playoff two years ago, but this year’s team looks even better going into the season. As long as it stays relatively healthy, it’s hard to imagine Washington possibly going any worse than 10-2.
Play: Over 10.5 wins at plus-135
over/under: 6 (minus-110, minus-110)
Last Year: 9-4 straight-up, 7-6 against the spread
There’s a reason coach Mike Leach heavily flirted with leaving Pullman, Wash., this offseason. Everything for the Cougars was built towards last season, leaving this year as an obvious rebuilding period. They lost almost everyone on offense, but Leach has shown an ability to keep his offenses producing at highly-efficient levels despite turnover in the past. There’s slightly more returners on defense, where Tracey Claeys arrives as the new coordinator. Claeys’ units at Minnesota traditionally outperformed their expectations, and as long as he can find a way to maintain Washington State’s knack for pressure last season, the Cougars should stay competitive.
Guess: Over 6 wins at minus-110
over/under: 7.5 (minus-160, plus-140)
Last Year: 7-6 straight-up, 6-7 against the spread
It’s time to find out if the reputation for underachieving that new coach Kevin Sumlin fostered at Texas A&M is fair or not. Sumlin steps into a job that arguably has more promise than the one he left — at least for the first year. Junior quarterback Khalil Tate averaged an unfathomable 9.2 yards per carry last season and now ranks in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy odds. At 20-to-1, he’s drawing the most tickets of anyone to win the award at William Hill sports book. The Wildcats took their lumps on defense last year, but it was all in the name of youth. Nearly every contributor returns. Most analytic systems pinpoint Arizona’s win total at exactly 7.5, meaning taking a plus-price is the only play.
Guess: Under 7.5 wins at plus-140
over/under: 4.5 (minus-140, plus-110)
Last Year: 7-6 straight-up, 7-6 against the spread
The Wildcats’ in-state rival’s win total looks a little less accurate from a statistical standpoint. Arizona State projects closer to a 5.5-win total, but it’s no secret why sports books wound up a little on the low end. The hire of Herm Edwards was widely panned, as it seems far-fetched that a 64-year-old whose college-coaching experience is limited to filling a defensive assistant role at San Jose State 30 years ago will work out long term. But that doesn’t preclude him from being decent in year one. Arizona State figures to still be strong offensively, with senior quarterback Manny Wilkins and his top six receivers returning. No one disputes Edwards’ credentials as a defensive coach, so some improvement could also be expected on that side of the ball.
Lean: Over 4.5 wins at minus-140
over/under: 4.5 (minus-150, plus-120)
Last Year: 5-7 straight-up, 3-9 against the spread
Five years into coach Mike MacIntyre’s tenure, the Buffaloes have made one bowl game. Granted, that bowl game followed an extremely memorable season where Colorado went 10-3 straight-up and against the spread and reached the Pac-12 Championship Game. But there are few jobs in the country where that track record would be considered a success, and it might be time to start the other four seasons more than the 2016 blip. Colorado doesn’t have a single position group that would sit in the top half of the Pac-12 rankings in their respective categories this season. The Buffaloes currently only project as a favorite in a single conference game — a home date with Oregon State, which they eked out a 3-point win against last season.
Lean: Under 4.5 wins at plus-120
over/under: 5.5 (minus-110, minus-110)
Last Year: 6-7 straight-up, 4-9 against the spread
This is all comes down to referendum on how each gambler feels about incoming coach Chip Kelly. If Kelly picks up where he left off as a perennial championship contender at Oregon five years ago, then he should be able to have UCLA competing in the Pac-12 South Division in short order. If Kelly is playing catch-up with a game that’s passed him by as it often looked during his NFL stint, then it’s hard to imagine the Bruins posting a winning record for the first time in three years. This season’s roster, for one, looks less talented and proven than coach Jim Mora’s final few teams. An extenuating factor, however, comes with injuries as UCLA was beset by them for each of the last two years — a trend that’s unlikely to keep up at such a high rate.
Lean: Over 5.5 wins at minus-110
over/under: 8.5 (minus-120, Even)
Last Year: 11-3 straight-up, 3-10-1 against the spread
For the first time since the middle of the Pete Carroll era, USC has gone over its win total in consecutive seasons. That doesn’t mean last year’s Pac-12 Championship team rated out as strongly as a 10-win regular season would indicate. The Trojans went 4-1 in games decided by less than a touchdown, a fortunate record despite leaning on an experienced core to pull them through in tight contests. That luxury is gone this season, as USC is the youngest team perceived as a College Football Playoff contender. The two-deep is littered with freshmen and sophomores — including at quarterback where 18-year-old J.T. Daniels is the presumed starter — and they won’t have much time to ease into their college careers. USC travels to Stanford and Texas in back-to-back weeks next month.
Play: Under 8.5 wins at Even money
over/under: 7.5 (plus-120, minus-140)
Last Year: 7-6 straight-up, 9-3-1 against the spread
The conference schedule isn’t helpful for Utah, as it draws the triumvirate of Washington, Oregon and Stanford out of the North. For win-total purposes, that’s somewhat offset by a weaker non-conference slate consisting of Weber State, Northern Illinois and BYU. Utah should pull at least one upset anyway, based solely on its prowess for creating havoc. The Utes have an embarrassment of riches in the pass-rushing department with Bradlee Anae, Cody Barton and Chase Hansen. A leap can be expected from already-dangerous junior quarterback Tyler Huntley in the second year of coordinator Troy Taylor’s complex offense. A lot of factors are pointing up for the Utes.
Play: Over 7.5 wins at plus-120