The Pac-12 was arguably the most interesting power conference in all of college football last year.
Colorado came out of nowhere to win the South and challenge for its first league title since 2001, when it won the Big 12. Meanwhile, Washington upended Stanford to win the North, then claimed its first conference crown in 16 years and advanced to the College Football Playoff.
After a topsy-turvy 2016, however, things are expected to be a bit more predictable this year. USC is the clear early favorite to win the Pac-12, paying slightly better than even money at BetOnline (+120). The Trojans’ opponent in the conference championship game is expected to be Washington, with the Huskies ranked second on BetOnline’s Pac-12 title odds at +250.
Let’s take a closer look at the main contenders in the Pac-12, then decide which is the best bet to win the conference.
Only 3 other teams in college football – Alabama, Ohio State and Washington – have higher season win totals than the Trojans, who are -175 favorites at Bovada to win more than 9.5 games.
It’s not really hard to figure out why. The Trojans feature a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in returning quarterback Sam Darnold (9-1 as a starter with 31 touchdowns and just 9 picks) and they also return 6 veterans from a defense that ranked third in the Pac-12 last year.
USC has a few tough games in September, hosting Stanford and Texas while visiting Washington State, but it should be pretty smooth sailing after that. The Trojans basically look like a lock to win the South, with Colorado their only likely challenger.
That means you’re basically getting +120 odds on USC to beat the North Division champion in the Pac-12 title game. If the Trojans get to the final, they’ll almost certainly be favorites, so taking them on the futures lines can get you a bit of value.
The Huskies come off a nice breakthrough season in 2016, even putting up a nice fight against Alabama in the national semifinals.
The downside to all that, however, is that Washington won’t sneak up on anyone this year. They also lost a lot of talent to the NFL draft on both sides of the ball, and there’s some concern about the status of QB Jake Browning, who had shoulder surgery after the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
If Browning recovers well (he was limited in spring drills), there’s always the possibility that he’s even better this year. He threw 43 touchdown passes and just 9 interceptions while playing through shoulder pain last year, and the 24 – 7 semifinal loss to Alabama motivated him to get “bigger, stronger, faster” in 2017.
Washington opens its season with some easy non-conference games before settling into a Pac-12 schedule that includes road games in Colorado and Stanford. Those are the biggest challenges on the Huskies’ slate.
The Cardinal has been a constant in the Pac-12 championship picture for the better part of a decade. Stanford has won 3 of the 6 conference title games since the playoff format changed in 2011, and had won 3 of 5 Pac-12 titles previous to that.
So after the Cardinal failed to win the North last year, combined with uncertainty at quarterback and the losses of stud running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive end Solomon Thomas to the NFL draft, many are writing off Stanford’s chances this season.
That’d be a huge mistake, in my opinion. Bryce Love isn’t McCaffrey, but he’s a very capable replacement, which he showed by rushing for 115 yards in Stanford’s win over North Carolina in last year’s Sun Bowl (which McCaffrey sat out). The Cardinal defense is always strong and features a lot of returning players.
They have to figure out their quarterback situation (Sun Bowl starter Keller Chryst is coming off knee surgery) but I have faith in David Shaw. The Stanford coach has won 10+ games in 5 of his 6 seasons.
Stanford’s only real tough road game is at USC early in the season (they also visit Utah in early October). If the Cardinal can get through to a November 10 home game versus Washington with just 1 loss, the result of that clash with the Huskies might just determine the North representative in the Pac-12 title game.
The Bruins offense should be fun to watch this year with junior quarterback Josh Rosen, especially now that he gets to work with QB guru Jedd Fisch, who left Michigan to become UCLA’s offensive co-ordinator.
But the UCLA defense will likely keep them from being a serious contender in the South. You can’t forget the Bruins were 4-8 last year, and they have to visit Stanford in the opening month, then also have road games in Washington, Utah and USC.
A 6-3 conference record would probably be considered a successful season for the Bruins. That’ll get them into a nice bowl game, but won’t be enough to challenge for Pac-12 supremacy.
Washington State (+1200)
With returning senior QB Luke Falk (76 passing TDs and 19 interceptions the last 2 seasons) and a lot of returning players on defense, the Cougars seem like an attractive darkhorse pick at first glance.
Then you look at their schedule.
Washington State has to play road games in Oregon, Washington and Utah, and it also has USC and Stanford on its conference slate. That alone is enough to make me pass on them as a +1200 longshot to win the Pac-12.
There’s no questioning the pedigree of this program. The Ducks have won 6 of the last 14 Pac-12 championships, tying Stanford for the most titles since 2008.
I fully expect Oregon to be back atop the North soon enough, but not this season. The Ducks have road games scheduled at Stanford and Washington, while a Week 2 visit from Nebraska will be a big test early for a defense that was awful last year and is adjusting to a new coordinator.
The Utes always seem to be underrated so a +1600 price isn’t that surprising here, even for a team that is 28-11 in conference play in the last 3 years.
Like Washington State, the biggest challenge facing Utah is its schedule. The Utes’ road slate includes visits to BYU, USC, Oregon and Washington. Their early-season calendar is also not friendly for a team with a new offensive co-ordinator and massive turnover on defense. Utah’s first four North Division opponents are Stanford, Oregon, Washington and Washington State.
It was a magical 2016 in Boulder, where the Buffaloes flipped their Pac-12 record from 1-8 in 2015 to 8-1 and finished 10-4 overall.
But as hard as it can be to get to the top (even for those skilled mountain climbers in Colorado), it’s even harder to stay there. Especially after losing a lot on defense, including coordinator Jim Leavitt (left for Oregon).
The Buffaloes still have enough talent on offense to put up some points, and they have a friendly schedule. Following a few relatively easy non-conference foes to open the year, Colorado gets a grudge match at home to Washington on Sept. 23. The Buffaloes also get to host USC in the second-last game of the season.
Colorado won’t be an easy opponent, but I worry that they’ve lost too much veteran talent to win 10 games again this year.
To me, there’s two ways to bet the Pac-12 champion this year – probability and value.
If you want the surest thing, USC at +120 odds looks like a really safe way to go. As mentioned earlier, the Trojans shouldn’t have much difficulty winning the South, with only Colorado projected to win more than 7.5 games this season. That means USC simply needs to win the Pac-12 title game to cash your ticket.
Personally, I’m looking for value, and I don’t think you can get any better value in the Pac-12 this year than with +800 on Stanford.
I think it’s huge that the Cardinal gets to host Washington this year. The winner of that game will probably determine who wins the North. If Stanford faces USC in the Pac-12 final, you could always buy off this future with a bet on the Trojans and pocket a profit.
I’m also going to sprinkle a little bit on Colorado. Yeah, I don’t think they’ll win 10 games, but we’re getting 20:1 odds here on the defending South champion. Motivation and emotion could carry them to an upset of Washington in Week 4, and if the Buffaloes can stay in the race until November, they also get to host USC.
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