Even in failing to meet its lofty preseason expectations as the 6th-ranked team overall, the Pac-12 North still belonged to Washington, in 2018, for the second time in three years. The Huskies all-time leading passer, Jake Browning, has now moved on to the NFL, however, leaving a void where we’ve recently become accustomed to seeing Washington as the premiere team of the Pac-12. I certainly wouldn’t count Washington out by any stretch of the imagination, but parody seems to be the expectation this season, with at least half of the teams capable of representing the North in the Pac-12 Championship.
In what will be Mario Cristobal’s second season, Oregon could be poised to resume their position as the leader of the Pac, with Quarterback Justin Herbert entering his senior season as a Heisman front-runner and a potential number one overall pick in 2020’s NFL draft.
Stanford is also a team that one can never really count out in looking for a Pac-12 title contender, as David Shaw is the winningest coach in school history, and quarterback KJ Costello is one of the conference’s best.
Washington was the only team in the division who will lose a quarterback to the NFL, as Mike Leach and his Washington State Cougars will have to rebound from the loss of the “Mustache” Gardner Minshew. While Wazzou took the nation by surprise with Minshew, it could be a little much to ask for Leach to pull another rabbit out of his hat in 2019.
Cal and Oregon State round out the division as the two teams that would shock the world if they brought home the Pac-12 North crown, and for these two, a winning season is a successful one.
Determining who will represent the division in the Pac-12 title game isn’t our goal here, however, for season win totals are posted and there are bets to be made. Therefore, while I hope this preview serves as a minor crash course in the Pac-12 North and a quick buffer in preparations for the upcoming season, I still think there are a few angles to consider in these season win total lines that have been up for a little while now.
Pac-12 North Division Season Win Total Best Bet
Stanford Over 6.5 -140 BetOnline – To put into perspective how good David Shaw has been in his eighth season as head coach of Stanford, consider that since 2011: only Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, and Urban Meyer have more wins. This is why Stanford is a team that is always in the discussion when pondering Pac-12 Title contenders – Shaw is about as consistent as any coach in the game. This year’s version of the Stanford Cardinal is young, ranking 114th in experience (Phil Steele Mag), with only nine returning starters, and coping with the loss of the focal point of the offense the last two seasons, Bryce Love; but you still can’t count them out.
Shaw focuses on the offense, where he’ll have junior QB KJ Costello back to lead what has characteristically been a conservative attack. Costello was very solid last season, earning himself 2nd team All-Pac 12 honors in completing 65.1% of his passes for 3540 yards and a 29 to 11 ratio for the second-best passing season in school history. Heading into his junior season, not only is he in the discussion for best QB in the conference, but he has the potential to be one of the top QB’s in the nation. Coping with the losses of Love, their three top WR’s, and three starting offensive linemen won’t be easy, but the Shaw-Costello combo is good enough to match last year’s output with only four returning starters.
The Stanford defense has traditionally been exceptional in the Shaw era, but the last two seasons have left something to be desired; with the Cardinal D allowing 408 yards and almost 23 points per game. Losing eight of their top 13 tacklers from a season ago, defensive coordinator, Lance Anderson, will only have five starters returning and only one senior expected to start. Whether these past two seasons are outliers remains to be seen, but the inexperience doesn’t help matters for a defense looking to reverse a negative trend.
A quick glimpse at their schedule tells you exactly why their season win total is set as low as it is. Stanford will play the 12th toughest schedule in the nation (Phil Steele Magazine) with out of conference games: vs Northwestern, @ UCF, and vs. Notre Dame. They’ll be underdogs in half of their games, per Adam’s PR’s and home dogs in three of these: Oregon, Washington, and Notre Dame. One positive is that they’ll only play one Pac-12 team on the road this season vs. a team with a winning record.
To me, though, I find it shocking that the betting world seems to be as low on Stanford as it is. Shaw has won at least nine games in every single season he has been head coach of Stanford except for one season, in 2014, in which he won eight. Yes, they are inexperienced, but in KJ Costello they have experience, and also one of the better Quarterbacks in the nation. Yes, the schedule is brutal, but “The Farm” is no easy place to play and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cardinal pulled off an upset or two in the home dog role. Give me Stanford to go over 6.5 for the best bet in the Pac-12 North.
Oregon Over 9 +140 BetOnline – If there is any year in which Oregon has the capability to make a return to national prominence, 2019 could be it.
With Justin Herbert forgoing the NFL draft, in which he could’ve been the number one overall pick and returning for his senior season – along with 9 other offensive starters – the Ducks offense seems poised to explode. With the entire offensive line returning, four of them being seniors, this easily the most experienced offensive line in the country, and, according to Phil Steele’ Magazine, returns the most career starts of any line since 2011. I would expect improvement upon the 37.1 ppg last year, and an output that could have this offense in the conversation with the best in the country.
While abysmal for much of the Helfrich era, the Oregon defense improved drastically in the past two seasons, allowing 29 and 27 point per game respectively under defensive coordinator, Jim Leavitt. Leavitt will move on ahead of the 2019 season, but the Ducks will bring in Andy Avalos from Boise State and return seven starters in total. In addition to the returning experience, they will add top-notch youth, with DE Kayvon Thibodeaux expected to start as the number one overall defensive end prospect in the country. The defense may not improve drastically, as it did under Leavitt, but I don’t see it regressing much, if it all, either.
Unfortunately for Oregon, if there is one thing that could rain on this potential parade, it is the schedule, which while not overly difficult from a national prospective (45th Phil Steel Mag), is rough for a Pac-12 team. The Ducks are a team that historically has been much, much better at home, but nearly all their biggest games of the year will be on the road (Auburn in Arlington, Stanford, Washington, USC). They will, however, only be underdogs in two of these games (Auburn, Washington) per Adam’s Power Ratings, so a double-digit win season is still in the cards. I think they get by Stanford and USC, so I’ll go over 9 at the plus 140 price and take the Ducks to improve to 10-2 in Cristobal’s second season with arguably the best offense in the nation.
Washington Over 9.5 -125 BetOnline – Ranked preseason as a top-10 team heading into 2018, Washington had Playoff aspirations – with all-time leading passer, Jake Browning, entering his senior season. Three losses by a combined 10 points derailed their season, however, and now, after three-straight seasons of double-digit-win campaigns, the Huskies are left rebuilding – with only nine starters returning for 2019. While they will be one of the most inexperienced teams in the country (#111, Phil Steele Magazine), there will be a veteran presence at the most important position on the field; for waiting in the wings behind Browning, is the now junior, arguably #1 overall High School QB prospect, Jacob Eason. Coming with the SEC experience of 13 career starts at Georgia, Eason may be the strongest arm Washington has ever seen usurp the position; and while Browning has made history with the most passing yards by far in the career of any Husky QB, Eason has the talent to be an upgrade for the Washington offense.
Offensive coordinator Bush Hadman will resume duties for a second season, hoping to improve upon the outlier, 26.4 pgg performance the offense put together in 2018. Myles Gaskin is another key loss at the running back position (7th round NFL Draft), but seven starters will return overall, and Washington will boast one of the better offensive lines in the nation. With highly touted prospects at both WR and RB, and Eason poised to pick up right where Browning left off, Washington may surprisingly improve on offense despite the loss of its all-time leading passer.
While Chris Peterson is a coach known for offense, it has actually been his defenses that have carried the weight for Washington is recent seasons – leading the Pac-12 in scoring defense for last four years. Last year, they allowed a very impressive 16.8 ppg, but returning only two starters, this will be his most inexperienced defense in a long time and keeping the four-year best defense in the conference streak alive would be a big surprise, in 2019.
Washington may be down a bit as far as overall talent and experience go, but the schedule sets up quite nicely for the Huskies and could be the difference in whether they make it four double-digit win seasons in a row and go over the 9.5. The Huskies will get five Pac-12 home games, with their toughest opponents (Oregon, Utah, and Washington State) all coming to Seattle; and according to Adam’s Power Ratings, the Huskies will be favored in every single game this year. In their second most difficult road game, aside from the one at Stanford, they’ll be more than a field goal favorite, at Arizona. They’ll be sizable favorites over Oregon State and Colorado in their other two road games.
I’m a believer in Chris Peterson, the consistency with which his defenses have played, and the talent of Jacob Eason, so I find it difficult to look any other way than over with the Huskies in 2019.
Washington State Under 8 -125 BetOnline – As one of the least experienced teams in the country last year (122nd, Phil Steele Mag), Washington State was expected to be a Pac-12 bottom dweller; but transfer QB Gardner Minshew caught the conference, as well as the nation, by storm, leading the Cougars to an 11-2 record. Very similar to last season, Mike Leach will have: a very young team (102nd) and a highly regarded transfer QB, in senior grad transfer Gage Gubrud (2-time FCS Player of the Year Finalist) running the show. Was last season a fluke? A product of a soft schedule and did Leach just happen to catch lightning in a bottle with Minshew? Or has the program turned a corner, and become new mainstay among the elite in the Pac-12?
The Cougar Offense, which averaged 37.5 ppg and 451 yards, was the best conference by a decent margin; good enough to earn 8th year head coach, Mike Leach, Pac-12 Coach of the year honors. With seven starters returning, they have a chance to be as good as they were last season, but the obvious question to answer is whether Gubrud can live up to the hype, or even come close to putting up Minshew’s numbers – who finished second in the country in total passing yards. We do know that Gubrud was good enough to almost win the FCS’s version of the Heisman twice, but how he will fare against an uptick in competition remains to be seen.
The Washington State defense has improved in each of the last four seasons, with former Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys taking over last year and improving upon Alex Grinch’s impressive 25.8 ppg to 23.3. They return half of the starters from last year’s version, including senior 2nd team All-Pac 12 SS Jalen Thompson, but only two other seniors will start alongside him. The defense may regress a bit, but should be of similar caliber.
Where this team differs strongly from last year’s team is in the schedule it will face, as they will go from playing one Pac-12 road game against a bowl team last year to five this year. Of those five teams they’ll play on the road in conference, two will be coming off a bye with Wazzou coming to town. Overall, they are an eight-win team according Adam’s PR’s and that is exactly where the win total is set. The number feels right, but if I had to lean any way it would be under. I think it has been underestimated how good Minshew was last season, and I’m highly skeptical that this team can match last years level of offensive dominance. The schedule isn’t as favorable, and Leach has been known to have a few of those head-scratching performances with his teams that didn’t really surface last season.
California Under 5.5 +125 BetOnline – Many don’t realize that last year, in just two seasons as head coach, the defensive-minded Justin Wilcox brought the Cal defense from allowing almost 43 ppg to allowing just 20.4! Last year he also put together the first winning season for the Golden Bears since losing Jared Goff and made it to a bowl game. With only 11 starters returning, I would expect that making a bowl game for a second-straight year would be admirable feat, but a season win total of 5.5 shows a minor step back as the expectation for the Bears in 2018.
While the defense has improved dramatically since the dawning of the Wilcox era, the offense has suffered; regressing to 21.5 ppg last season, from 27.8 the previous year and 37.8 in Goff’s final season. With only four returning starters, and a sophomore quarterback, Chase Garbers (61.2% Comp, 1506 Yards, 14 TD, 10 INT) back after a very mediocre season, it’s hard to say that things get much better for the Cal offense in 2019. They will once again have to rely on a defense that was arguably the best in the conference last season.
The defense will return seven starters, and of those seven, four return from a secondary that was the best is the country last season – allowing only 175 passing yards per game. This secondary, along with three other returning starters – all upperclassmen except one player – have this defense in the conversation as being among the nation’s elite.
The schedule could play a major factor in whether Cal can get to six wins, however, for it will be a much more difficult one that last season (25th) with six games away from home against bowl-caliber teams (Washington, Ole Miss, Oregon, Utah, Stanford, and UCLA). Adam’s Power Ratings call for them to be favored in only three games. The under definitely appears to be the only way to look with Cal, especially at the +125 price; though it’s not an easy bet to make with what could be the best defense in the Pac-12.
Oregon State Under 2.5 +100 BetOnline – Having won just nine games in the past four seasons, Oregon State has become the perennial bottom-dweller in the Pac-12, and with a season win total set at 2.5, the expectation is for more of the same out of the Beavers in 2019. There is reason to be hopeful, however, for Jonathan Smith, in his second season, that his team can begin to turn things around into a positive direction. With 16 starters returning, along with a few would be starters that were injured last season, and a few highly touted transfers, this is will be the 7th most experienced team in FBS. A team far from challenging for the Pac-12 title, or even a bowl, any improvement upon last year’s two-win season could be seen in a positive light given the program’s recent history.
Offensive coordinator of Washington for four years before taking over as head coach, Jonathan Smith made major strides in year one; taking an offense that averaged only 334 ypg and 20.7 ppg, in 2017, to 405 ypg and 26.1 ppg, in 2018. Senior Jake Luton (62.5%, 1550 YDS, 10 TD, 4 INT) will be back to run the offense after suffering a concussion in the opening game last year and missing the next six games. He’ll have the protection of an almost entirely senior (4) offensive line, and the services of an explosive run game with Jermar Jefferson in the backfield – who ran for over 200 yards in two games last season. Expect significant improvement out of the Beaver offense for 2019, especially given the injury to Luton, which could easily be under accounted for in gaging the offenses level of success last season in Smith’s first season.
The defense, in terms of points allowed per game, was the 2nd worst in the country last season in giving up a shockingly bad 45.7 per outing. They should definitely improve this year, however, with nine starters returning, and two highly sought after transfers: sophomore DE Addison Gumbs (26th ranked DE prospect out of High School) from Nebraska and sophomore ILB Avery Roberts (21st) from Nebraska expected to start. Yes, it’s not very difficult to top 45.7 ppg allowed, but this D should be more talented and much more experienced than last year’s version.
While the team should be better, the schedule is possibly the most difficult one in the Pac-12 (16th overall) and Oregon State is likely only to be favored in one game, vs. Cal Poly. There next best shot at a win will be in week two, at Hawaii, with Hawaii off a bye, and a spread close to a touchdown. Chances of home upsets are limited as well, with teams such as Oklahoma State, Stanford, Utah, and Washington coming to Corvallis – all teams in a different class. As much as I’d like to go over with the Beavers, holding steady in my belief that they will improve drastically this season, the schedule is simply brutal and I don’t see where they pull out three wins.