Can someone challenge Washington and USC at the top?
Let me start my overview of the Pac-12 by saying USC is back and this is great not only for the conference, but also for college football in general. The past few seasons haven't been good to Trojans fans, but now they are back in the mix for a College Football Playoff appearance and possible national title.
Washington should continue to build off of its successful 2016 campaign as well. Outside of those two, it remains to be seen if any other team wants to be a part of the Pac-12 title mix.
Here’s a look at the win totals for each Pac-12 team. I'll give my thoughts on each team although there won't be a selection for every squad. In making my determination, I consider everything from returning starters to offseason news and schedule.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of the South Point Casino sports book
(Over 3.5 -110...Under 3.5 -110)
It could be a long season for the Golden Bears under new head coach Justin Wilcox. He's going to try and run the same offense that they did with Sonny Dykes, but having just four starters back will not help. Whoever the quarterback ends up being, he will have wide receivers Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall to throw to. Tim DeRuyer takes over a defense that allowed 40 points or more nine times in 2016. James Looney is not a bad person to build with up front. The special teams should be strong for Cal. Three of the first four games are at home, but two of those matchups are Ole Miss and USC. I think the under is probably worth a look here. There are too many questions to think that the 2017 campaign will be good.
(Over 7.5 -140...Under 7.5 +120)
Willie Taggart was a great hire and one that should re-energize the fan base. The offense has building blocks in QB Justin Herbert, RB Royce Freeman and WR Charles Nelson. The team took a stand and dismissed wide receiver Darren Carrington two weeks after his DUI arrest. The offensive line is pretty much back so I think we could see some fireworks from this group. Defensively, eight starters are back for new coordinator Jim Leavitt. The Ducks have plenty of room for improvement on this side of the ball, but will it come quickly or take some time? Four of the first six games are at home. The second half of the slate includes road trips to Stanford, UCLA and Washington. I agree with the money move on the over, but would never advocate paying that price to do so.
(Over 5.5 +110...Under 5.5 -130)
Oregon State could have an offense that will surprise some teams if the coaching staff can find a reliable quarterback. Options include returning starter Marcus McMaryion, fellow upperclassman Darell Garretson and 6-foot-7 junior college transfer Jake Luton. If healthy, Seth Collins could pair with Jordan Villamin to form a nice wide receiver combination. Ryan Nall is back after rushing for nearly 1,000 yards with 13 touchdowns in 2016. The Beavers’ defense may struggle in the secondary following the departures of Treston Decoud and Devin Chappell. More of the burden falls to sophomore corner Xavier Crawford. The wins for Gary Andersen’s team need to come early with road trips to California, Arizona and Oregon slated for November. I agree with the public money move here, but also don't think it's worth taking at -130.
(Over 9 EVEN...Under 9 -120)
The status of QB Keller Chryst is important here. Depending upon how long he'll be out (knee) will be a huge factor determining which side to take. Ryan Burns and K.J. Costello got to take most of the reps in the spring so either should be ready if called upon. Bryce Love made the most of his carries last year and he'll be running behind a fantastic offensive line. There are some intriguing options out wide and at tight end. The defense brings back eight starters, but will be without Solomon Thomas. The secondary could be one of the best in the country, which is important in a league with so many pass-happy offenses. Stanford's first true home game isn't until Sept. 23 against UCLA. The final three games are home against Washington, California and Notre Dame. I kind of like the under here. I think this is a tough slate, especially the road games, and a few challenging home matchups too.
(Over 10 -140...Under 10 +120)
The Huskies had an awesome season under Chris Petersen last year and have the pieces in place for an encore. Linebacker Azeem Victor and defensive tackle Vita Vea are back to anchor a defense with six returning starters. The secondary could be an issue considering all the talent lost to the NFL, but Jojo McIntosh and Taylor Rapp patrol the back end at safety. Jake Browning is the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year after tying the record for touchdown passes (43) and throwing just nine interceptions. He has Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman back at running back and Dante Pettis (15 TD catches) out wide. The offensive line has a few holes that will need to be filled. Also will be important to see how Washington handles being the hunted rather than the hunter. Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State should offer little resistance to open things and there’s no USC on the schedule. I really wish I could find enough “banana peel” games to recommend the under, but I don't see too many.
(Over 7.5 EVEN...Under 7.5 -120)
Wazzu is going to throw and throw some more with Luke Falk under center. He had 633 pass attempts in 2016. The running back group showed last year it’s capable of getting the job done and Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James Williams are all back. Nine starters returning on defense, so it’s possible this unit takes a step forward. Peyton Pelluer will be at middle linebacker for the third straight season. Any all-name team has to include Hercules Mata'afa, who had five sacks last season. The Cougars do not leave Pullman until the sixth game of the season, but it’s a big one – at Oregon. The last four games include road trips to face Arizona, Utah and Washington. Small lean to the over here as I think this team has the potential to win eight games. The schedule lines up nicely for Wazzu to hit the ground running.
(Over 5 -115...Under 5 -105)
Rich Rodriguez is coming off a bad season, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Wildcats allowed nearly 45 points per game in their eight conference game losses. Seven starters are back, but does that necessarily mean that improvement will be made. The defensive line is not that good, which trickles down to the linebackers and the secondary. The offensive side of the ball also has a ton of question marks starting with quarterback. Will it be Brandon Dawkins or Khalil Tate under center in the opener against Northern Arizona? Running back could be a strength if Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor can stay healthy. I like the under here. I think Arizona is going to continue to be bad until recruiting picks up, a coaching change is made, or a combination of the two.
(Over 5 +105...Under 5 -125)
Much like rival Arizona, the Sun Devils have a quarterback competition between Manny Wilkins and Alabama transfer Blake Barnett. They also have an outstanding running back tandem in Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, even though last year’s production (112th in FBS in rushing offense) leaves plenty to be desired. Defensively, Phil Bennett takes over a unit that gave up 40 points per game in 2016. Koron Crump is back after collecting nine sacks. There is experience in each level of the defense so there should be some degree of improvement. The schedule features four of the first six at home, although two of those games are Oregon and Washington. The under is the right way to go here.
(Over 7 -105...Under 7 -115)
Outside of losing QB Sefo Liufau, the Buffaloes’ offense is pretty much intact. There are a lot of reasons to like the new signal-caller, Steven Montez, who made three starts last season. He has plenty of weapons to throw to, namely Shay Fields, Bryce Bobo and Devin Ross. Philip Lindsay also returns after rushing for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns. The defense is expected to take a step back, however, following the loss of eight starters and coordinator Jim Leavitt. D.J. Eliot comes over from Kentucky and will look for similar results from a relatively inexperienced group. Special teams will be a question mark as well after last season’s struggled. Colorado’s first true road game isn't until Sept. 30 at UCLA. I think seven is a good number with a lean to the over if the defense figures things out.
(Over 7 -115...Under 7 -105)
Josh Rosen is hoping for better things after playing in just six games because of a shoulder injury. He came in with so much hype for his freshman season, but things have somewhat quieted down two years later. Soso Jamabo leads a running game that was second to worst in the nation last season. Rosen will have some targets to throw to, including Darren Andrews and Eldridge Massington. The offensive line returns four starters but this is a group that has struggled in recent seasons. The defense returns just five starters and must overcome some significant personnel losses. The secondary should be in decent shape with Nate Meadors and Jaleel Wadood leading the way. UCLA’s schedule is no cakewalk with road trips to Stanford, Washington and USC. Seven is a very good number here.
(Over 10 +115...Under 10 -135)
If only the team discovered that Sam Darnold should have started all along last year. Darnold's back and he's one of the favorites for the Heisman Trophy. Ronald Jones II will keep teams honest out of the backfield coming off a 1,000-yard season. The wide receivers are young but talented. We'll see how Darnold does with an unproven group of targets. Defensive coordinator Clancy Prendergast enters his second year with some holes to fill but no lack of available talent. Kicker Matt Boermeester is unlikely to return after being suspended in February, so special teams could struggle early. This is a young team that could be one year away from national title contention or crash the College Football Playoff this season. There are only one or two pitfalls on this schedule so I think 10 is a good number.
(Over 6 -135...Under 6 +115)
Defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei hopes to follow in the footsteps of his brother Star, who plays for the Carolina Panthers. The younger Lotulelei is one of four returning starters on defense. The secondary is being completely rebuilt with all new starters but does have safety Chase Hansen to anchor the back end. The offense has only three returning starters and a new coordinator (Troy Taylor). Quarterback Troy Williams is back but he has plenty of room for improvement and it’s uncertain how he’ll fit in the new offense. Adding to the challenge is an offensive line that will feature four new starters. The Utes have some winnable home games. If they can play well on their home turf, the over is in play. Still, with so few starters returning, I can probably make a case for the under at the +115 price.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.