Wilson’s 2019 Pac-12 Betting Guide: Is a College Football Playoff Return Possible?

Wilson’s 2019 Pac-12 Betting Guide: Is a College Football Playoff Return Possible? article feature image
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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Utah Utes

The Pac-12 continues to entertain the college football masses, as the news this summer centered around possible 9 a.m. kickoffs. ‘Pac-12 After Dawn‘ remains an open question, as fans still search for the Pac-12 network through their various cable providers.

The Power 5 conference has not had a College Football Playoff team since 2016 with Washington. The league is open to changes, including a move of the championship game from Santa Clara to Las Vegas. That will not be the only Las Vegas presence as the Vegas Bowl will realign to setup a Pac-12 and SEC matchup starting next year.

In this piece I will look for market advantages in Pac-12 Championship and division futures lines, give out my projected win totals compared to what sportsbooks have posted and break down my favorite futures bets for the conference.

What’s New in Pac-12 North?

Since the Pac-12 went to divisions in 2011, three teams have represented the North division while three others have been left at home. One of those teams is current conference contender Oregon.

There is plenty of buzz around this Ducks roster, from Justin Herbert’s final season to an offensive line that returns every start. In total, the guys protecting Herbert upfront return 153 career starts.

On our recent Pac-12 version of The Action Network Podcast, guest Dan Rubenstein mentioned a formation change on the offensive side of the ball.

The defense is going through their own transition with Jim Leavitt resigning as defensive coordinator and Andy Avalos from Boise State filling the position. Avalos has much more complex scheme, with head coach Mario Cristobal quoted as saying “he’ll use two or one defensive lineman in 2-4-5, 1-5-5 or 1-4-6 formations“. 

Washington will not be going through scheme changes, but will have a roster full of new faces in starting positions. A rank of 130th in defensive returning production highlights the focus in Huskies camp this August.

As of this writing, there still is not a clear picture of who the starting quarterback will be for kickoff against Eastern Washington.

The third team to represent the North in a Pac-12 Championship Game is Stanford. The Cardinal offensive line is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Oregon, losing 119 career starts among 4 players.

The turnover may be welcome, as Stanford offensively was 124th in stuff rate and 108th in rushing efficiency. It may be another season of quarterback KJ Costello hitting large targets like Colby Parkinson in tip-drill fashion.

Before the students even get to their first week of class in Palo Alto, Stanford will have played Northwestern, USC, Central Florida and hosted Oregon through September.

What would the world be without the famous Cheez-It Bowl? The game between Cal and TCU summed up the Bears season, as neither team had 300 yards of total offense and combined for 9 turnovers. That Cal defense is 21st in returning production, while the offense will have plenty of turnover.

Quarterback Chase Garbers will compete with UCLA transfer Devon Modster, who had a successful Cactus Bowl in 2017, for the starting position under center. Any kind of offensive contribution will help this team best last year’s S&P+ offensive rank of 118th.

Oregon State is third in defensive returning production, but will that translate to improved play from a unit that was 126th in defensive S&P+? Head coach Jonathan Smith is in his second season after multiple seasons at Washington as an offensive coordinator.

There was an uptick in offensive explosiveness last season with a final rank of 52nd, up from 126th in 2017. Running backs Jermar Jefferson and Artavis Pierce will take advantage of any defense that cannot stop the run.

 

The Gardner Minshew era came and went for Washington State, creating a run at the College Football Playoff last season. Transfer Gage Gubrud is the front runner for the starting quarterback position after an injury plagued 2017 at Eastern Washington.

Head coach Mike Leach may have some fun in special teams, as Gubrud is known for knocking down 50-yard field goals in warmups. The schedule is unkind to the Cougars with just four Pac-12 home games and road visits to Utah, Oregon and Washington.

What’s New in Pac-12 South?

Unlike the North, every single Pac-12 South team has an appearance in the conference championship game since the inaugural game in 2011. Each season the conversation begins with the status of USC and 2019 is no different.

Clay Helton is atop the leaderboard for coaching hot seat after a 5-7, bowl-less 2018. Offensive production dropped off the board without Sam Darnold, but it is the defense led by coordinator Clancy Pendergast that is under fire.

 

The Trojans finished 90th in defending explosive plays and now have a returning production rank of 118th. This defense can’t afford another step back with the first half of the season schedule including Stanford, BYU, Utah, Washington and Notre Dame.

There are questions on the offensive side of the ball with the hiring of Graham Harrell. The former North Texas offensive coordinator will implement a scheme change with the air raid. JT Daniels, last year’s starter, is deep in a quarterback competition through the first fall scrimmage.

Reigning South division champion Utah has had the most buzz this preseason. A loss to Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game did not include quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss due to injury. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig resumes his position for the Utes after 11 years with stops at Cal, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt.

The players have adapted to Ludwig’s scheme early in camp, as last year’s Commodores offense finished top 25 offensively in S&P+.

But the strength of the team is the defense.

The Utes return their biggest havoc players on the defensive line and secondary. Linebacker was to be plugged by Penn State transfer Manny Bowen, but a retirement for business opportunities will have defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley searching for starters over the middle. Road trips at USC and Washington may be the only hurdles for the Utes to contend for the College Football Playoff.

Arizona’s Khalil Tate is full strength as coaches describe last year to now as ‘night and day‘. If the 2017 version of Tate makes an appearance, there could be plenty of noise out of Tuscon.

Arizona is 11th in defensive returning production and increased its defensive S&P+ rank from 115th to 74th last season. The schedule includes trips to Washington and Utah, with both bye weeks coming before October. The Wildcats get just four of nine conference games at home, but should make it back to bowl season.

Arizona State had a successful first season under Herm Edwards. The Sun Devils finished 27th in defensive IsoPPP and 14th in special teams S&P+. The defense is 14th in returning production and will be the strength of the 2019 team with the loss of quarterback Manny Wilkins. The current quarterbacks are a collection of true freshman including Jayden Daniels.

The conference schedule has five of nine games at home. Road trips to UCLA and Oregon State are manageable, while Kent State and Sacramento State is ideal for a potential freshman quarterback.

Chip Kelly was welcomed at UCLA with one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Nine teams on the teams on his 2018 schedule made a bowl, which reflected in the Bruins defensive rank of 118th in success rate. Over 40 freshman are expected on the 2019 roster, so the building continues in Westwood. The quarterback competition will continue up until the season opener with last year’s starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the mix.

Colorado had plenty of offseason positives in the power ratings department. A new head coach in defensive minded Mel Tucker, a rank of 43rd in returning production, and a positive second-order win total. New offensive coordinator Jay Johnson inherits quarterback Steven Montez and wide receiver Laviska Shenault.

Expectations are low for Tucker’s first year in Boulder, but the schedule may help the Buffs initially. Colorado is not scheduled to take on a projected top 50 defense until Oregon in mid-October.

Bets to Watch

  • Utah to win Pac-12: The South division was filled with teams that had at least 4 conference losses. Even a loss at Washington should not interrupt a return visit to Santa Clara for the Utes. Utah is projected to be a favorite over any other Pac-12 team on a neutral site this season.
  • Oregon Under 8.5: There are too many potholes on the schedule, starting with a neutral site trip to face Auburn. The defense is undergoing a scheme change, and the Ducks have issues winning on the road. Any injury to Justin Herbert late in the season may have the quarterback left on the sidelines thinking about the NFL.
  • Washington Under 9.5: This number has been plummeted over the summer down to 9 at some sports books. The returning production will be hard to overcome with quarterback, skill positions and an entire defense with new starters. A quarterback battle continues through camp with no clear sign of who the starter will be against Eastern Washington.
  • Cal Over 5.5: The Bears are a play on team with one of the best defenses in the nation. With any improvement from an offense that was 126th in IsoPPP and 99th in success rate, Cal will be bowling once against with at least 6 wins.