When the Pac-12 season begins, teams will be seen as the main favorites in the conference’s North Division. Will they in fact live up to expectations, or will at least one of them falter? If one falters, will one of the four teams in the division’s lower-tier find a way to rise in the standings and piece together a respectable season?
Expected wins: 9 [Over -115, Under -115]
Oregon did not win the Pac-12 North last year, but it also has to be said that the Ducks did not play Washington due to COVID-19. The Ducks, while not winning their division, played in the Pac-12 Championship Game anyway because Washington ran into COVID-19 problems that prevented the Huskies from fielding a healthy team. When given the chance to play USC in the Pac-12 title game, the Ducks didn’t miss. They played their best game and defeated the Trojans to advance to the Fiesta Bowl. Oregon had a mediocre regular season, losing twice, but it was able to play in two showcase games and give its young roster a meaningful experience heading into 2021.
The big question for the Ducks is at quarterback. Anthony Brown, a transfer from Boston College who played for the team last year, is the likely starter. Oregon has a tough road game at Ohio State that figures to be a loss, but if the Ducks go 8-1 in their nine-game Pac-12 schedule, they will exceed their win total. What helps is that they don’t play USC in the regular-season schedule. They hope to meet the Trojans in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Oregon’s offense was inconsistent last year, and while Anthony Brown wasn’t quarterbacking the team most of the way, he did play in some games and rarely made a substantial difference in production. If Oregon does exceed its win total this season, it will be a result of having pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, projected by many experts to be a top-five NFL draft pick. Ultimately, Oregon will probably exceed its win total because it will have the chance to play a 13th game in the Pac-12 title game. Oregon could lose three games but win 10 and go over, so you should also go over the college football odds.
Expected wins: 9 [Over -115, Under -115]
Washington is dealing with an injury to star defensive player Zion Tupuola-Fetui. Washington head coach Jimmy Lake thinks he will return before the end of the season, but Tupuola-Fetui is expected to miss at least eight games, maybe nine or ten. That’s a big blow for a team that relies on its defense to carry the workload, and whose offense is not equipped to carry a team through 12 games. Under looks like it’ll be a strong choice for their weekly scores and odds.
The formula for Washington is a solid running game, ball control on offense, and field position, setting up the defense to make plays and put the squeeze on offenses that find it hard if not impossible to score. Not having Tupuola-Fetui is a significant loss for Washington. Keep in mind that the Huskies will play Oregon before Tupuola-Fetui is expected to return to the team. Washington has a tough early-season game at Michigan and will have to find enough offense to carry through until Tupuola-Fetui returns to the lineup. That will be a tough task.
Washington quarterback Dylan Morris was very inconsistent last season for several reasons. It was partially because the pandemic shortened the Pac-12 season and because Washington had two games canceled because of its own internal COVID-19 problems, the Huskies played just four games. This means Morris did not get a significant amount of playing time, which gives him the best possible chance of having a breakthrough season in 2021.
The various indicators on this Washington team are not pointing in the right direction. Something special will need to happen — an unexpected star emerges from obscurity, or an opponent plays a really bad game when the Huskies are in a vulnerable position — for this team to exceed its win total. The under is looking really good at this point in time. Washington has struggled on the recruiting trail and has had a hard time finding elite talent at wide receiver. The Huskies’ passing game is not in good shape, and there are going to be several moments this season when they will need their passing game to excel. The team doesn’t seem to have the personnel or the offensive philosophy which will suit its needs, especially with its best defensive player on the shelf for at least two months this season.
California Golden Bears
Expected wins: 5½ [Over -115, Under -115]
With Oregon and Washington being the clear favorites in the Pac-12 North, the four-team pack trailing the Ducks and Huskies is hoping for a little magic. Washington might fall well below its expected nine-win total. The Huskies could finish 7-5 or 6-6. This could open the door for California to rise into second place. It’s not probable, but it’s possible.
Chase Garbers is an effective quarterback — not brilliant or dominating, but an accurate short passer who can hit 10-yard routes and who can also scramble when plays break down. He can get outside the pocket and make good things happen under pressure. He lacks the ability to throw the ball down the field and hit home runs, but he can be part of a ball-control passing game. Cal has lost a few players on its offensive line, which will hurt, but Garbers returning with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave gives the Golden Bears a measure of continuity and stability on offense.
The Bears need to be dynamic on defense. They know that Oregon and Washington have weaknesses at the quarterback position, so if they can play their best against the Ducks and Huskies, they might be able to pull off an upset or two. California’s defense was strong against Oregon last year. The Golden Bears did not play Washington, so the Huskies will be a mystery for them this season. In terms of the overall expected win total, Cal seems to be underestimated here. The Golden Bears had some weird losses last year, including a one-point loss to Stanford on a blocked extra point. Assuming none of those really weird scenarios emerge this year, California should have enough to win at least six games if not seven.
Washington State Cougars
Expected wins: 5 [Over -115, Under -115]
Washington State seems to be overvalued. The Cougars do have a few high-level offensive linemen, and they have a strong running back, Max Borghi, but they have little else to offer. Their quarterback situation is uncertain. They have a weak defensive front. They don’t have high-end wide receivers to help out their quarterback, and they are coming off a 2020 season in which they got dominated by multiple opponents. Washington State has less depth than most teams in the Pac-12 North. If any injuries hit – and like it or not, that’s a part of football — the Cougars could go into a tailspin. Washington State is coming off a bad 2020 season and a distraction-filled offseason in which its quarterback was arrested for DUI, though later found innocent of the charge. This seems like a clear-cut case in which a team will go under the college football lines.
Oregon State Beavers
Expected wins: 4½ [Over -115, Under -115]
As Oregon State tries to move forward in a tough division, the Beavers have the knowledge that they upset Oregon last year. However, the man who helped them achieve that surprising victory, running back Jermar Jefferson, is in the pros. Oregon State’s offense will have a hard time matching the potency and effectiveness of last year’s rushing attack, and it needs to be emphasized that Oregon State had a losing record in spite of its strong running game. The Beavers did a lot of things well and didn’t have all that much to show for it.
This is still a team that lacks depth on defense and will have less talent than nearly every other Pac-12 opponent it faces this season. Oregon State might have the chance to turn the corner as a program in the future, but that doesn’t seem very likely this particular season. Oregon State is more likely to finish below its expected win total than above it.
Expected wins: 4 [Over -115, Under -115]
This is a confusing situation. David Shaw has won multiple Rose Bowls at Stanford. He has coached in several BCS/New Year’s Six bowl games. He has won multiple Pac-12 championships. Stanford has certainly struggled a lot more in recent years, and Shaw has not been able to maintain his dominance of the Pac-12, which is half a decade old, but the fact that Stanford isn’t what it once was doesn’t mean the Cardinal are going to fall to the basement.
They still know how to beat Oregon State. They’re still more talented than Washington State. David Shaw is still a competent head coach. He defeated Washington – the Pac-12 North champion – on the road last year. Stanford went 4-2 in a six-game schedule. The idea that Stanford will go 4-8 just doesn’t fit with 2020, and it doesn’t fit with Shaw’s track record over the past several seasons. Unless there is something about this program that is about to completely collapse, Stanford should definitely win more than four games this year.