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June 16, 2012
By Joe Nelson
Oregon has won three straight championships in this conference, but the Ducks won’t be favored this season with USC back in the mix after two years of probation. The odds suggest it will be a two-team race, but a few other teams are capable of strong seasons and would be an upset away from making a run. Here is an early look at the Pac-12 North division and the odds for each of the six teams to capture the conference title.
California (+1000): After a pair of 10-win seasons in 2004 and 2006, it has been a disappointing run of mediocrity for the Bears, including three straight seasons with at least four conference losses. Last season, California finished just 4-5 in league play, but keep in mind they did not have a true home game all season with stadium renovation. This year, the Bears return just eleven starters, but there is decent depth on this squad and plenty of experience on in the key positions on offense. The schedule lines up with great difficulty as the two teams they miss will be Arizona and Colorado, likely two of the weaker teams from the South division and they will play on the road against USC, and Utah. They do get the big division games with Stanford, Washington, and Oregon at home and this is a squad capable of winning at least one of those games. The non-conference schedule features games with Nevada and Ohio State, but this Bears squad should be good enough to get back into the bowl picture and even show an improved record.
Oregon (+200): Losing Darron Thomas and LaMichael James from the incredibly productive Ducks attack leaves some question marks for this team, but Chip Kelly is 34-6 in his three years as head coach and he finally delivered a big win a the end of the year, taking out Wisconsin in a memorable Rose Bowl. Losing to LSU early in the season took some steam out of last season’s run after a championship game appearance the previous year and the Ducks did lose to USC in the regular season. Oregon will have to visit USC this season, but the rest of the schedule is incredibly favorable. Oregon will play just four road games all season and they get to host Washington and Stanford in big North division games. Oregon won by double-digits in every other conference game last season and they do not have to play UCLA or Utah, likely two of the better teams from the South division. Getting back to the Rose Bowl or even possibly the BCS championship game will likely require beating USC twice, but the Ducks have enough talent to replace its stars and deliver another excellent season.
Oregon State (+5500): If you are looking for a deep long shot to win the Pac-12 or at least the North division, Oregon State may fit the bill. Mike Riley has a great track record with the program, often exceeding expectations, but just about everything went wrong last year in a 3-9 season. Oregon State has 15 starters back, including QB Sean Mannion who completed nearly 65 percent of his passes as a freshman. The defense had only two returning starters last year and predictably struggled early in the year, but the Beavers should be greatly improved on the defensive side of the ball this season with six of the top seven tacklers from 2011 back. The schedule has some tough games with a non-conference match against Wisconsin but that game along with division games with California and Oregon will be at home in a historically difficult venue. The biggest break is being one of two teams in the conference that won’t have to play possible preseason #1 USC. All five road games for Oregon State will be challenging games, so this is not a team likely to run the table and come out on top of the division, but this is a team that can definitely double its win total from last season.
Stanford (+2000): A big drop is expected for Stanford after a great two-year run, going 23-3 the last two seasons, including 11-2 last year in the first year for coach David Shaw. Stanford draws a difficult conference schedule with road games at Washington, California, Oregon, and UCLA, but they do get to host USC at home early in the year. Stanford also has to play at Notre Dame, so a decrease in wins is very likely given the slate ahead and the transition at several key positions, notably QB. Stanford does have 13 starters back in action and the defense should be a strong point with a lot of experience back in action. The running game that the Cardinal is known for also brings back the top three rushers from 2011 and three starters on the offensive line. A tougher schedule will make Stanford the underdog in this division, but the Cardinal should still be a very competitive team that is only a few upsets away from a great season. While a third straight BCS bowl game may be a reach, another solid winning season should be in order for a team that appears to be slightly overlooked.
Washington (+850): On paper, it looks like Washington may be the team most likely to unseat Oregon in the North. The Huskies played the Ducks as well as just about anyone in the conference last year and this will be a fourth year for Coach Sarkisian with a program that has appeared to gain a bit of momentum each season, though with back-to-back 7-6 seasons the last two years. The lasting memory of 2011 is an ugly 67-56 loss in the Alamo Bowl where the defense allowed 777 yards, so this is a team that still has a lot of work to do. The offense lost Chris Polk, who rushed for over 1,500 yards and while Keith Price had a strong statistical year at QB last season, he was often in favorable situations in high-scoring games. The top two Washington receivers from a year ago are gone and finding a big improvement is tough with this schedule. Washington has to play at LSU in week two and also has a tricky opener with San Diego State. The conference schedule features a brutal opening slate facing Stanford, Oregon, and USC in three consecutive weeks and a possible 2-4 start could leave this team reeling. The schedule improves the rest of the way, but the Huskies have to play five conference road games and they won’t have any true home games this season due to stadium renovation. Washington could fall short of elevated expectations this season and may need a great late season run to even make a bowl game.
Washington State (+4000): Things are looking up in Pullman after a rough stretch. Paul Wulff was let go last season despite an improved 4-8 season and he deserves credit for helping to bring back a program that was a complete mess when he arrived in 2008, even though history won’t be kind with his 9-40 career record. In comes Mike Leach -- the brash ‘mad scientist’ that engineered high-scoring offenses at Texas Tech before the controversial fallout. Leach inherits a veteran team including senior QB Jeff Tuel and several experienced receivers. The defense greatly improved last season after a horrendous few years and Leach has enough to work with to keep the upward trend moving forward and possibly flirt with a bowl appearance in his first season. Washington State played two of its non-conference games on the road, which could be a challenge, but they do miss USC on the Pac-12 schedule. There are no easy games on the schedule in conference play and Washington State will need to win a few road games, something they’ve done three times in the last five years. This is a team that could go either way, as it could be a difficult transition season or things could come together quickly and the Cougars will be a challenging team for the rest of the conference to adjust to. Either way, it should be much more interesting in Pullman than in the past five years.
USC is back in the mix after two years of probation and the Trojans enter the season as clear Pac-12 favorites. The odds suggest it will be a two team race with Oregon, but a few other teams are capable of strong seasons and would be an upset away from making a run. Here is an early look at the Pac-12 South division and the odds for each of the six teams to capture the conference title.
Arizona (+3000): Despite his failure at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez was a desirable hire for Arizona as the Wildcats look to break a long run or mediocrity or worse. Mike Stoops was able to bring minor success to Tucson with three straight bowl seasons, but last year a brutal schedule derailed that run and he was shown the door. The Rodriguez offense could flourish in the Pac-12, however, as most defenses won’t be well prepared for it and there is a lot of talent in the program even with several notable players from last season moving on. Arizona does not have the greatest of schedules with a tough non-conference game with Oklahoma State early in the year and also having to open the conference season at Oregon while also playing at Stanford two weeks later. Arizona does get five home games in league play, but it could be a tough first half of the season for the Wildcats in the transition year. Arizona might be a year or two away from a breakthrough season, but this should be a play-on team late in the year and an improved record is certainly possible.
Arizona State (+4000): After the messy one-year tenure at Pittsburgh, Todd Graham bolted to Tempe, his fourth coaching stop in seven years. This was a team that greatly underachieved last season and throughout the five years for Dennis Erickson, outside of his first season. Only eight starters are back in action this season and the non-conference slate early in the year is fairly difficult with games with Illinois and at Missouri. The conference schedule features Oregon, but the Sun Devils will miss Stanford and Washington, two quality teams for a slight advantage. There will be new schemes on offense and defense and with limited experience back on the team, particularly on defense and among the receiving corps. It looks like a potentially challenging season for Arizona State and while getting back to a bowl game and a having similar .500-type season as the past two years is certainly a possibility, it could also get worse in the transition year. Other than USC, the division as a whole does not look that difficult however so there could be several coin flip games that could make or break the year.
Colorado (+8800): It was pretty clearly going to be a tough opening season for Coach Jon Embree at Colorado as the Buffaloes entered the Pac-12 last year. The schedule was incredibly difficult and there were not a lot of positives to work with from the previous administration. After just three wins last season, Colorado is capable of hitting that mark in the first four games of the season this year but the schedule stiffens, having to play USC, Oregon, and Stanford in consecutive weeks late in the season and featuring a very tough slate of home games in conference play. Colorado does get five home games in league play, but they will likely be dogged in all of them and there are only three returning starters on the offense. This was a team that was badly outscored and outgained last season and while there should be improvement with a slightly lighter schedule there were 28 seniors on last year’s team and that leadership void will be missed. The steep odds look appropriate in this case as Colorado could have another very tough season.
UCLA (+3800): The Rick Neuheisel era won’t be remembered fondly for UCLA, but the Bruins faced some brutal scheduling and also had to deal with a constant cycle of injuries at the QB position. Former Falcons and Seahawks coach Jim Mora, Jr. takes over the program and there will be 16 returning starters to work with including both of the QBs from last season. While the defense did not have good numbers last year, the Bruins will have eight of the top nine tacklers from last season back in action and this will be one of the most experienced team in the conference. UCLA also snags a great schedule within the conference with five home games including some of the toughest games with Utah, USC, and Stanford all visiting the Rose Bowl. From the North draw, UCLA does not have to play Oregon or Washington, a huge advantage over the rest of the division along with Utah who also misses Ducks. Challenging non-conference games at Rice, and at home with Nebraska and Houston could take a hit on the record, especially being early in the year in the transition season. It will be pretty tough to envision USC failing to win this division, but UCLA might have the next best shot with the experience returning and the favorable schedule.
USC (-200): With 16 starters returning from a 10-2 team and one of the Heisman favorites in QB Matt Barkley, USC will open the season as heavy favorites in the Pac-12 and one of the favorites to take home the national title. The Trojans will be tested early; having to play at Stanford in the third week of the season and the draw from the North division is very difficult with a game at Washington as well as home games against California and Oregon. Within the division, USC has to play on the road against the top competitors UCLA and Utah and non-conference games with Hawaii, Syracuse, and Notre Dame will make for a tougher set of games than most major conference teams will face. The talent on this team is undeniable with Barkley coming off a brilliant statistical season and WR Robert Woods catching 111 passes last year. The top three USC receivers return, along with the top RB and four of five on the offensive line, making this an absolutely loaded offense. The defense has talent and experience, but the unit underachieved last season and will remain the question mark if they are forced into shootouts like they were in both losses last season. Coach Lane Kiffin is also a bit unproven with a fairly pedestrian 25-13 record in three college seasons and few big game wins. USC deserves this pricing and while it will be a shock if the Trojans don’t win this division, going undefeated and beating Oregon potentially twice will be a tall order.
Utah (+3000): Utah could have earned the South division championship game spot by beating Colorado at the end of the year, but the Utes laid an absolute egg with a 17-14 loss at home as 22-point favorites, sending 6-6 UCLA to the conference championship game. USC being on probation was obviously the only reason the Utes had a chance, but they could be formidable this season. 8-5 was a step back for the Utah program, but considering the upgrade in competition in moving to the Pac-12, it was not a horrible result and this program has much more stability than most of the teams in the conference as Coach Whittingham enters his eighth season and this will be a veteran team with 16 returning starters. Utah also grabs a great schedule with Oregon and Stanford as the two teams absent. Not having to play the Ducks is a huge edge, although Utah will have to play five conference road games. Utah will get USC at home and off a bye week, so while it will take a big upset, the set-up is as good as could be asked for. The non-conference slate features games at rivals Utah State and at home against BYU and those won’t be easy games. Another similar solid, but not great season is the most likely result for Utah and they will be in the mix for a second place finish in this division and among the next in line if USC would somehow stumble.