College football betting preview: Pac-12

August 22, 2022 02:01 PM
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The VSiN college football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 131 FBS teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.

Here are the team previews for the Pac-12:

UTAH

Most of the Pac-12’s offseason hype was focused on USC, but it was Utah that won 10 games and took the conference title last season before losing a Rose Bowl thriller to Ohio State. The Utes bring back 14 starters and have a shot to be better this year. If the stars align, Kyle Whittingham could be coaching a national title contender.

Offense

Three games into last season, Whittingham flipped a quarterback switch that proved to be the turning point. He made Cameron Rising, a Texas transfer, the new starter and the team never looked back. Rising led the Utes to 38 points per game and a 9-1 record against Pac-12 opponents. Utah dropped 52 points on Stanford, 44 on UCLA and 42 on USC. Rising passed for 20 touchdowns with five interceptions, and his mobility (499 rushing yards) added a tough-to-defend dimension. Rising, praised by coaches and teammates for his strong leadership, is still somewhat of a secret yet is about to emerge as a top NFL prospect. If Tavion Thomas is not the league’s top running back, he’s close to it. Thomas rushed for 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns. Five of the top six receivers return, and four starters come back on the offensive line. This should be one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses.

Defense

The Utes will miss linebacker Devin Lloyd, the team’s leading tackler and a first-round pick in the NFL draft. Whittingham tried to fill the void by bringing in Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate, who will make a big impact. There are plenty of playmakers, led by linemen Junior Tafuna and Van Fillinger, cornerback Clark Phillips and safety Cole Bishop. Six starters return, and that seems like a relatively low number, but Whittingham reloaded by bringing in a lot of transfer portal talent. Whittingham is an aggressive coach who usually fields one of the nation’s top defenses, and this unit again appears to be the toughest in the league.

Outlook

It’s not going to be a surprise if Utah wins 10 or more games and makes a run at the College Football Playoff. Still, the Utes must survive three road games that could derail their dreams — Sept. 3 at Florida, Oct. 8 at UCLA and Nov. 19 at Oregon. DraftKings lists Utah as a 2-point favorite against the Gators in the opener. The most positive aspect to the schedule is the Utes host USC on Oct. 15. Anything less than a nine-win season would be a big disappointment, so bet Over 9 and expect a push at worst. The pieces are in place. Rising will be a star, and Thomas is a physical runner who will punish defenses. In his 18th year in Salt Lake City, Whittingham is a rock solid coach who emphasizes defense. There’s a lot to like about this team. Even if the Utes lose to Florida, they should bounce back in a big way. The Pac-12 ditched the North/South division format this year, so the top two teams by winning percentage will meet in the conference title game, and smart money says it’s Utah and USC.

Pick: Over 9

USC

Lincoln Riley fell short of a national championship at Oklahoma, but he coached the Sooners to three playoff appearances in five years and piled up a 55-10 record. USC would be thrilled with similar results, especially after last year’s 4-8 fiasco. The coaching situation is finally solidified, and the offense should be explosive, but is the defense improved enough for the Trojans to win a conference title? 

Offense

Riley is a creative play-caller who cranked out Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks for the Sooners, so he seems to be exactly what USC needs. He’s young (38), Hollywood cool and will recruit at the highest level. He’s already winning in recruiting, and his biggest get is former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams, who passed for 21 touchdowns with four interceptions and also ran for 442 yards and six scores last season. Riley also brought in former Oklahoma receiver Mario Williams and Jordan Addison, a star receiver who transferred from Pittsburgh. If the line holds up, the Trojans expect to display one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses. The line should hold up, with seniors Brett Neilon and 6-foot-6, 325-pound Andrew Vorhees as the anchors. The ground attack looks promising and will be led by a pair of Pac-12 transfers — Travis Dye (Oregon) and Austin Jones (Stanford). Assuming Williams continues to develop under Riley, this offense will light up scoreboards and oddsmakers will be posting high totals on USC games.

Defense

The high-profile offensive transfers are the headliners, but did Riley and his staff do enough to toughen up a soft defense? The Trojans hit something close to rock bottom last year in a 62-33 loss to UCLA. The defense allowed 31 points or more in six of the final seven games. The top returnee is tackle Tuli Tuipulotu, and USC lured veteran transfers from Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Colorado. In total, 10 transfers join the three returning starters. The depth chart looks much better on paper, but there’s plenty to prove. Riley made a wise move by bringing coordinator Alex Grinch from Oklahoma. Grinch was previously at Ohio State. The Trojans might need to outscore opponents while the defense matures, but Grinch is the man for the job.

Outlook

USC will be favored in its first six games — Fresno State and Oregon State are not patsies, however — so Riley could not have asked for a much better schedule. The seventh game, Oct. 15 at Utah, will be a big one in the conference race. The Trojans caught a break with Oregon and Washington not on the schedule. The final two games of the regular season — at UCLA and Notre Dame — probably will determine whether USC tops its win total of 9.5. It’s tempting to think the Trojans are overhyped and possibly a year away, but the Pac-12 is a little down and 10 wins are within reach. USC has enough offensive talent to beat every team on its schedule, although Utah is the league’s most talented team. If Riley does not win at least nine games, the defense will be to blame.

Pick: Over 9.5

UCLA

It took four years for Chip Kelly to post his first winning season as UCLA coach, so the next challenge is to continue the forward progress. Kelly picked up two signature wins as a small underdog in 2021, beating LSU and USC, en route to an 8-4 finish. Only eight starters return, but the schedule is easier, so can the Bruins top eight wins?

Offense

Dorian Thompson-Robinson triggered some drama in the offseason when it appeared he might give the NFL draft a shot. Instead, the quarterback returned for his senior year, causing UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel to pull back his commitment to Kelly and go to Oklahoma. Thompson-Robinson has been inconsistent during his career yet finally put it together last year, passing for 2,409 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 609 yards and nine TDs. Thompson-Robinson, typically plagued by turnovers, cut down on mistakes and threw only six interceptions. Kelly has a lot of confidence in his backup, Ethan Garbers. The brightest star on this offense should be running back Zach Charbonnet, a former Michigan transfer. Charbonnet stepped into Kelly’s offense and rushed for 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns. He will get more of the workload this year. The Bruins lose a few of their top playmakers — running back Brittain Brown, wideout Kyle Philips and tight end Greg Dulcich — and the line is being rebuilt, so be cautiously optimistic about what the offense will look like early in the season.

Defense

Kelly finally changed his coordinator, a couple years too late, and replaced Jerry Azzinaro with Bill McGovern, who has extensive NFL experience. Azzinaro was a dinosaur and his defenses had poor results, but Kelly stayed loyal to him and that was a mistake. Kelly has coached in 43 games at UCLA — only one opponent was held to fewer than 10 points while 18 opponents scored 38 or more. McGovern is in a tough spot with only two starters returning. The coaching staff added some transfers who will help fill holes, including linebackers Brandon Kaho (Alabama) and Gabriel Murphy (North Texas). This defense could struggle unless the incoming recruits and transfers make a surprisingly big difference.

Outlook

The eight-win season saved Kelly’s job. The Bruins’ trip to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego was spoiled when COVID issues caused them to cancel the game a few hours before kickoff. Kelly’s record in Pasadena is 18-25, so he’s not lighting the world on fire, but he has a strong chance to put up another winning record due to a promising offense and a weak schedule. UCLA’s nonconference schedule (Bowling Green, Alabama State, South Alabama) is an embarrassment and the conference opener is at Colorado, which might be the worst team in the Pac-12. The Bruins should be 5-0 when they host league favorite Utah on Oct. 8. USC is much improved and will be seeking revenge for last year’s 62-33 humiliation. It’s not difficult to find nine potential wins on UCLA’s schedule, but the defense could be a problem, so another eight-win result looks more likely.

Pick: Under 8.5

OREGON

Dan Lanning is in and Mario Cristobal is out at Oregon, and there’s no way to know if that will be a coaching upgrade this season. Lanning, 36, is a first-time head coach who was Georgia’s defensive coordinator, but he doesn’t get the benefit of bringing the Bulldogs’ defensive stars with him. He did recruit a quarterback from the SEC, so the Ducks will have a completely new look.

Offense

Bo Nix, who had a rollercoaster ride at Auburn, transferred to Oregon for a fresh start. Nix put up solid numbers as a passer and runner, but the Tigers won only six games in each of the past two years and Nix was not exactly a fan favorite. Nix replaces Anthony Brown, another dual-threat quarterback. Running back Travis Dye, who transferred to USC, and Brown were the team’s leading rushers last year. Byron Cardwell is expected to take over as the featured back, and he’ll have plenty of help because the entire starting line returns. Oregon’s offensive line should be among the nation’s best. The Ducks can reload due to elite recruiting classes the past several years. Oregon scored 31.4 points per game last season and this offense has a chance to be more explosive, but Nix’s development will be the key.

Defense

Lanning inherits a decent defense and seven returning starters, so he has something to work with in his debut season. It will all start with sophomore middle linebacker Noah Sewell, who’s as good as any defender in the conference. Justin Flowe is another potential star as an outside linebacker. Lanning’s pedigree suggests the Ducks will get significantly better on defense. With Cristobal rumored to be leaving for Miami, which obviously did happen, Oregon’s team fractured in November. Star end Kayvon Thibodeaux was injured and not on the field enough. The Ducks allowed 38 points in each of their late-season blowout losses to Utah. But the page has been turned and Lanning will upgrade this unit.

Outlook

A season-opening game against Georgia is probably not what Lanning wants. DraftKings lists the Ducks as 17-point underdogs in Atlanta. If there’s a positive, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is likely to take it easy on his former assistant if the score gets lopsided. Of course, Oregon pulled off a major upset in last year’s opener by beating Ohio State 35-28 as a 14-point road dog. There’s a lot of talent in the program, the Ducks can hang with every other team on the schedule, and they get home games against BYU, UCLA, Washington and Utah. None of the five true road games in Pac-12 play are against title contending teams. How the Lanning-Nix combo works out is a mystery, and there are too many questions about Nix to pencil in nine wins. Eight is conservative but seems like the right number. The big picture in terms of Oregon’s future is another mystery. With UCLA and USC leaving for the Big Ten in two years, what will be the Ducks’ next move?

Pick: Under 8.5

WASHINGTON

Chris Petersen stepped down as coach in 2019 and left a good Washington program in the hands of his assistant, Jimmy Lake, who dropped the ball. Lake went 7-9 in two years, including 4-8 last year, and was fired after some off-field blunders. Kalen DeBoer, former Fresno State coach, has been hired to clean up the mess.

Offense

DeBoer, the offensive coordinator at Indiana before taking over at Fresno, arrives with a good reputation and a quick-fix mentality. He’s bringing in former Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix to run the offense, and Penix is the type of player who will either hit a home run or strike out. DeBoer knows how to coach up quarterbacks, so the odds are in Penix’s favor. The Huskies have two highly touted recruits as backups, Dylan Morris and Sam Huard, but neither found a groove last year. Four starters return on the line, so the Huskies have a chance to run the ball, protect Penix and improve an anemic offense that fizzled late last season. There are few obvious playmakers aside from Penix, who thrived under DeBoer’s guidance at Indiana but flopped when DeBoer left for Fresno. Penix could prove to be a big hit, but if not this looks like a pedestrian Pac-12 offense.

Defense

Washington allowed only 22.7 points per game last year, a surprisingly low number for a four-win team. It was a positive sign that the defense held up even while the offense was often hopeless. Only five starters return, but the Huskies have two of the best defensive players in the league in edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui and middle linebacker Cam Bright. The front seven is strong enough to stop the run and keep Washington competitive in almost every game. The defense was not the problem last year and should be solid this year. USC and Utah, perhaps the two most explosive offensive teams in the conference, are not on the schedule so that helps.

Outlook 

The talent level in the program is way down from the Petersen era. Washington won a total of 18 games in 2018 and 2019, Petersen’s last two years, but the Huskies went 4-12 against the spread under Lake as expectations plummeted. A 13-7 loss to Montana in last year’s opener was a clear signal that it was time for a change. Unlike Lake, DeBoer has had success as a head coach and knows how to design an offense. It requires a big leap of faith to predict eight wins in DeBoer’s first season in Seattle, even with a hospitable schedule. DeBoer needs time to rebuild, so it’s an ideal time to miss the Trojans and Utes. The toughest spots on the schedule are road games against Oregon and UCLA. After opening against Kent State and Portland State, the Huskies will get tested in home games against Michigan State and Stanford. A 4-0 start would launch Washington on a path to go Over 7.5 wins, but this team does not look overly impressive on paper.

Pick: Under 7.5

OREGON STATE

If you want to see one of the most underrated coaches in the country, look no further than Jonathan Smith. In 2018, Smith took over a hapless program and went 2-10. Last year, Oregon State improved to 7-6 and reached a bowl game. The Beavers beat USC, Utah and Washington, so this team’s inferiority complex is history.

Offense

Chance Nolan is not going to make any Heisman Trophy watch lists, but the junior quarterback is a tough competitor. He passed for 2,677 yards and 19 touchdowns and also ran for 286 yards and three TDs while starting the final 12 games. The ground attack was a big reason for the Beavers’ success last season, but BJ Baylor has moved on to the NFL with the Packers. Baylor was the first Oregon State player to lead the Pac-12 in rushing (1,337 yards) since Steven Jackson in 2003. Nolan still has at least two talented backs ready to take the ball. Deshaun Fenwick is penciled in as the starter, but freshman Damien Martinez is earning rave reviews from Smith and it sounds like he’s a future star. With four starters back on a veteran line, Oregon State should have another potent offense. The Beavers scored 45 points against USC and 42 against Utah in two of the biggest wins in Smith’s four years as coach.

Defense

Nine starters return for a defense that showed improvement late in the season. In victories over Arizona State and Stanford, the Beavers allowed a total of 24 points. Junior linebacker Omar Speights and defensive backs Alex Austin and Jaydon Grant are All-Pac-12 candidates. It’s odd to see a Florida player transfer to Oregon State, but Andrew Chatfield did and he’s expected to step in as a starter. This is one of the most experienced units in the league and it should be Smith’s best defense in Corvallis.

Outlook

Four of the first five games on the schedule — Boise State, at Fresno State, USC, at Utah — are as tough as a $2 steak. The Beavers should get a breather against Montana State on Sept. 17, but there are no other soft spots through the middle of October. On the other hand, Oregon State is no longer an automatic “W” for any opponent on its schedule. If the defense turns out to be as imposing as it appears on paper, the Beavers can win seven games, so it’s time to be optimistic. Smith deserves the benefit of the doubt based on the accomplishments of last season, which was not a fluke, and there’s a real chance this team is on a surprising rise. The Beavers beat Oregon as 13-point underdogs two years ago, and they get the Ducks on their home field in a Nov. 25 finale. Don’t sleep on Smith. The easy way out would be to forecast a 6-6 finish, but the coach, quarterback and defense fit the profile of an overachieving team. This is a high-risk prediction, but don’t doubt Oregon State’s ability to go Over the win total.

Pick: Over 6.5

ARIZONA STATE

In coach Herm Edwards’ fifth year, there’s a perception the Arizona State program is falling apart. An ongoing NCAA investigation shadows Edwards, who lost veteran quarterback Jayden Daniels to LSU. The Sun Devils are coming off an eight-win season, but only seven starters return, so there’s heat on Edwards in the desert and it could get cranked up soon. 

Offense

When a three-year starting quarterback transfers with no guarantee he’ll start for his new team, something is wrong. Daniels ditched Tempe to join new LSU coach Brian Kelly, but Daniels is not the favorite to be the Tigers’ top gun. Daniels did not play well last season, so it might not be a big loss. Emory Jones, a mediocre passer and better runner, transferred in from Florida. Jones is battling Alabama transfer Paul Tyson, the grandson of late Tide coach Bear Bryant, for the starting role. While all of last year’s top offensive performers are gone, Edwards got lucky when running back Xazavian Valladay transferred from Wyoming. Valladay turned in a 1,070-yard season for the Cowboys and has the potential to be a big-time back. Returning starters don’t mean as much in the transfer portal era, and the Sun Devils have only three on offense, so Arizona State could be OK if the quarterback picture develops.

Defense

Edwards juggled the coaching staff and hired Donnie Henderson from the NFL as a new coordinator to replace Antonio Pierce. The defense was solid last year while allowing 20.8 points per game, but 11 starters were back then and only four return now. The linebackers will be the strength of the unit with Merlin Robertson and Kyle Soelle coming back as the leaders. Arizona State allowed 30 points or more in only three of 13 games last year, but with so many new faces on the field and Pierce gone as the coordinator, it’s a defense that seems sure to decline.

Outlook

The Edwards experiment has been better than expected, considering his hiring was mocked by many in the media. He’s 25-18 with no losing seasons. However, the NCAA investigation could be his downfall. He has survived it so far. Edwards hired an old NFL friend, Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick, to be an offensive analyst and advisor. The Sun Devils will be dogs in three of their first five games and it’s doubtful they can upset Oklahoma State, Utah or USC. The conference schedule eases in the second half, but some lower-level Pac-12 teams such as Colorado, Stanford and Washington State are now looking at Arizona State as an opportunity to get a win. Edwards is 4-0 against Arizona, so he has that going for him while the rival Wildcats are stuck in a downward spiral. The rebuilding Sun Devils are not going to match their 8-5 record from last year, which ended with a 20-13 loss to Wisconsin in the Las Vegas Bowl. Considering the questions at quarterback and massive turnover on the roster, Edwards would do fine to finish .500.

Pick: Under 6.5

CALIFORNIA

Justin Wilcox is known as a top-notch defensive coach and his teams have been solid on that side of the ball in his five years at Cal. Unfortunately for Wilcox, he has not solved the offensive puzzle. The Golden Bears are turning to a new quarterback and have hopes of getting back to a bowl for the first time in three years.

Offense

A program that produced Aaron Rodgers and Jared Goff is searching for an answer at quarterback. Jack Plummer might be the guy to repair the offense. Plummer started the first four games at Purdue last season and passed for seven touchdowns with no interceptions, but he was benched then transferred after the season. If he wins the job, Plummer will become the successor to Chase Garbers, a four-year starter who signed with the Raiders as an undrafted free agent. Garbers led Cal to an 8-5 finish that included a bowl win in 2019, and while he totaled 20 touchdowns (16 passing, four rushing) last season, the team went 5-7. Cal beat Stanford and USC, but its bowl aspirations died in a 10-3 loss at Arizona that underscored the offense’s inconsistency. Only three starters return, including two on the offensive line, so Plummer will have to find a rhythm with new receivers and new running backs and it’s not going to be easy.

Defense

Wilcox has a 26-28 record in Berkeley, but he’s not on a hot seat and just received a contract extension. Opposing coaches in the Pac-12 know they are in for a fight when facing a Wilcox-coached defense. The Bears allowed 22.3 points per game last season and probably will post a similar number with five starters returning. The strength of the defense will be the front seven, with edge rusher Brett Johnson and middle linebacker Jackson Sirmon leading the charge. Senior safety Daniel Scott is big and physical and among the league’s best defensive backs. Cal tends to play several close, low-scoring games and that should continue.

Outlook

The first half of the Bears’ schedule is the softest, starting with home games against UC Davis and UNLV. A trip to Notre Dame on Sept. 17 could feel like deja vu for Plummer, who started for Purdue in a 27-13 loss in South Bend last year. Plummer’s failures in the red zone in that game eventually led to his benching and transfer to Cal. The Bears will have a shot to win their next three — Arizona, at Washington State, at Colorado — but they project as underdogs in five of the final six games. The season could swing one way or the other with the “Big Game” against Stanford on Nov. 19. Cal crushed the Cardinal 41-11 last year, yet it’s interesting to note the Bears have lost six straight games to Stanford in Berkeley. Wilcox is not a coach to underestimate. However, with a total of eight returning starters, the second-smallest number of any team in the conference, it’s tough to predict six wins for a rebuilding Cal team.

Pick: Under 5.5

STANFORD

In recent years, David Shaw has drawn interest from some NFL teams in head-coaching searches. He’s not getting much accomplished at Stanford lately, so his stock is declining. Shaw’s record is 11-19 in the last three seasons and this could be a make-or-break year with an elite quarterback and a total of 17 starters returning.

Offense

Tanner McKee has the potential to develop into the top quarterback in the Pac-12, but for now he ranks behind Utah’s Cameron Rising, USC’s Caleb Williams and maybe UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The 6-foot-6 McKee did not open last year as the starter and missed two games to injury. He finished with 2,327 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions for an offense that broke down up front. The line was bad and the running attack nearly nonexistent. Shaw’s signature style is a physical offensive line and power ground game, but Stanford lost its identity and was blown out in several games. McKee, who enters his sophomore year, was one of the few bright spots and has a promising future. All five starters come back on the line, but it was a weak group, and only time will tell how much those players have matured. EJ Smith, son of Dallas Cowboys great Emmitt Smith, will be the featured back. If the Cardinal can rediscover the running game, McKee should have much more success. He’s not going to put up huge numbers in Shaw’s conservative offense, but he has NFL-caliber tools and can be a winner in this conference.

Defense

Stanford’s defense was a disgrace last season, surrendering 32.4 points and 450 yards per game. There were a few low points — a 52-7 loss to Utah, 41-11 loss to California and a 45-14 loss to Notre Dame — and all came on the Cardinal’s home field in the final month. It obviously did not help that the offense was hopeless and, as things unraveled, Shaw lost the ability to motivate the team. Seven starters return, led by junior cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, and freshman edge rusher David Bailey will step in immediately to make an impact. The offense’s improvement will help this defense.

Outlook

Optimism is best used cautiously when forecasting a Stanford team that struggled badly in all areas last season. But with 10 starters returning on offense and some incoming talent on both sides of the ball, there’s no reason for the Cardinal to get outclassed again in conference play. There were high points early last season — victories over USC and Oregon — and this is a fresh start. Shaw is more motivated, and he has an experienced quarterback and veteran roster. Five or six wins should be attainable. The Cardinal will be favored at least three times at home. The road schedule is brutal (Washington, Oregon, Notre Dame, UCLA, Utah and Cal) and that’s why oddsmakers set the win total so low. Some sportsbooks have set the total at 4, instead of the 4.5 at DraftKings, and it’s a solid Over bet at the lower number.

Pick: Over 4.5

WASHINGTON STATE

Aside from USC, which has a much higher profile, no team in the Pac-12 is more intriguing than Washington State. The coach and his new quarterback are relative unknowns, but each has an interesting story. The Cougars could be the surprise team of the conference or they could be a bust, but they will be a team to watch.

Offense

Raise your hand if you have heard of Cameron Ward. Seeing no hands, let’s look into his background. Ward is a transfer from Incarnate Word, a private school in San Antonio, and he totaled 77 touchdown passes in two seasons in the Southland Conference. Last year, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Ward threw for 4,648 yards and 47 TDs with 10 interceptions. His head coach at Incarnate Word, Eric Morris, was hired as the Cougars’ new coordinator and he’s bringing a passing-crazy attack to Pullman. Only four starters return, but there are playmakers on the depth chart. Wisconsin transfer Nakia Watson will step in as the top running back, and there will be small speedsters and big targets in the four-receiver scheme. The talent level might be a little down from recent years, but one way to level the playing field is to spread the defense and throw the ball 50 times per game. This is an offense that could top 30 points per game if Ward makes a quick adjustment to a higher level of college football. 

Defense

Jake Dickert was named Washington State’s interim coach with five games remaining last season and went 3-2 with victories over Arizona State, Arizona and Washington. After the Cougars crushed the Huskies 40-13 on the road, Dickert was named full-time coach. He deserved it after stopping a seven-game losing streak to Washington, and his defensive background will balance a new-look coaching staff. Dickert, who played wide receiver at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, was previously the defensive coordinator at Wyoming. All four starters return on the line, with ends Ron Stone and Brennan Jackson considered two of the league’s top edge rushers. Dickert’s defense should be solid.

Outlook

The Cougars play four of their first five games at home, and they have a shot to win all four against Idaho, Colorado State, Oregon and California. A trip to Wisconsin on Sept. 10 will tell a lot about this team’s potential. The spread passing attack triggered by Ward is something opposing defenses will be seeing for the first time, so Washington State could catch some teams by surprise. The passing attack will look similar to what former coaches Mike Leach and Nick Rolovich rolled out in past years. The schedule stiffens in the middle with games against USC, Utah and Oregon State. The bottom half of the Pac-12 presents several tossup games. If Ward is the real deal and some playmakers emerge, the Cougars could pull a couple of upsets along the way and get to 6-6. This call for the Over is not a best bet, just a guess, because Washington State is the definition of a mystery team.

Pick: Over 5.5

COLORADO

The beginning of the Karl Dorrell era at Colorado was a surprising success with four consecutive wins in 2020, but the Buffaloes are 4-10 since and the outlook is bleak this year. Dorrell must find ways to wake up a sleepy offense if he’s going to win more than three games. Colorado will be an underdog in at least 10 games and possibly all 12.

Offense

Brendon Lewis started every game at quarterback last year and returns as a third-year sophomore. He was relatively good, passing for 10 touchdowns with three interceptions, but he completed only 58% and threw for just 1,540 yards. The Buffaloes lost leading rusher Jarek Broussard, yet still have talent in the backfield with Alex Fontenot and Deion Smith. There’s not much production returning at receiver, but there were not many passes to be caught last season. Tight end Brady Russell returns along with three interior line starters, so the offense should be better. It’s tough to be much worse than last year’s 18.8 points per game. Things have gone downhill since the Buffaloes hung 48 points on UCLA and 35 on Stanford to open the 2020 season. It’s up to Dorrell and Lewis to turn it around. Lewis has not shown he can be a big-play quarterback, but he’s still maturing.

Defense

In the 2020 Alamo Bowl, Colorado entered with momentum yet got crushed 55-23 by Texas, and that set the tone for last year. The Buffaloes lost a 10-7 decision to Texas A&M in Denver and took a 30-0 beating from Minnesota in Boulder. The defense was not the problem. An offense unable to move the ball was a big problem. Colorado actually produced a couple strong defensive performances late in the season in a 34-0 victory over Arizona and a 20-17 victory over Washington. Five starters return from that unit, led by 6-foot-7 end Terrance Lang, 6-6, 325-pound nose tackle Jalen Sami and senior strong safety Isaiah Lewis. Oklahoma transfer Robert Barnes is expected to step in as a starter at linebacker. The defense is good enough to keep Colorado competitive in most games.

Outlook

Dorrell’s offenses have no real identity or exciting style of play, something that must change if he wants to keep his job. The schedule is not doing him any favors either. The Buffaloes open the season as 8-point home dogs to TCU before likely taking lopsided losses on the road against Air Force and Minnesota. The middle of the schedule (UCLA, at Arizona, California) will give Colorado some hope, but matching last year’s 4-8 finish is probably fantasy. Further misfortune for Dorrell: All of the Pac-12 heavyweights — Utah, USC and Oregon — are on the schedule. While the Buffaloes could pull an upset or two in Boulder, Under is the way to look at the win total. DraftKings opened at 3.5 wins and sharp action has moved the number to 3. Surprises can always happen, but this has the look of a 2-10 team.

Pick: Under 3

ARIZONA

The hiring of Jedd Fisch, who spent some time in the NFL as the Patriots’ quarterbacks coach, figures to be a good thing eventually. Fisch’s first year was a disaster that included a stunning loss to Northern Arizona and a shutout loss at Colorado. The Wildcats finished 1-11 and have lost 23 of their last 24 since the middle of the 2019 season. The mess is not Fisch’s fault, but he has yet to clean anything up.

Offense

Starting with a positive, Fisch found a new quarterback. Jayden de Laura transferred from Washington State, where he passed for 23 touchdowns last year, and the sophomore is a major upgrade. Arizona used three quarterbacks who combined for 10 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions last year. All three — Will Plummer, Gunner Cruz and Jordan McCloud — remain on the roster, but Fisch plans on de Laura winning the job and never looking back. Michael Wiley and Drake Anderson return to a running back group that looks improved. Wide receiver Jacob Cowing will make an impact after transferring from UTEP, where he had team highs of 69 receptions and seven touchdowns while being a big-play target. The line will start two seniors and a junior so there is experience and impressive size on the depth chart. An offense that averaged an anemic 17.2 points in Fisch’s first year appears much better on paper, and de Laura could make a big difference.

Defense

Eight starters come back, though that’s not always a positive when a team loses 11 games. There are new faces, luckily, for the Wildcats. New coordinator Johnny Nansen, who previously coached the defensive line at UCLA, has a good reputation as a recruiter and he brought in transfers from UCLA, USC and Michigan to strengthen the front seven. Former coordinator Don Brown took the head-coaching position at Massachusetts, and Brown was solid, but Nansen will do more to help boost the program’s talent level. There are more playmakers on this defense and the unit should be much improved.

Outlook

Fisch needs to lighten up the schedule. The Wildcats open the season as 5.5-point underdogs at San Diego State before hosting Mississippi State and North Dakota State. It would be no small accomplishment for Arizona to win one of those three games, considering the recent futility in Tucson. The Wildcats have a shot to beat Cal and Colorado before the schedule gets tough in mid-October. The home finale against Arizona State on Nov. 25 will be important for recruiting and the big picture in the future. Fisch needs a significant win or two to show recruits there is hope and progress. The Sun Devils have won the last two meetings by a combined score of 108-22. The win total for Arizona is 2.5 at some books and 3 at DraftKings and others. There is a path to three or four wins, especially with the arrival of a new quarterback, but it would be too optimistic to bet Over 3.

Pick: Under 3

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