As the last conference to approve a return to play in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Pac-12 finally got its season underway this past weekend. The Pac-12 member teams are slated to play to play an all-conference, seven-game schedule, culminating in cross-divisional games and the conference championship on Dec. 18. However, the Cal vs Washington and Utah vs Arizona opening week games were canceled due to outbreaks within the Cal and Utah programs. These games will not be rescheduled.
The uncertainty surrounding future Covid outbreaks, which could precipitate additional cancellations, underline the importance of each game that is actually played. The Pac-12 is already playing fewer games than any other conference, so nearly anything can happen in this shortened season. This could be good news for sports betting fans looking for potential value. Last year, Oregon won the Pac-12 with a resounding 37-15 win over Utah. Currently, the Ducks are the favorites to win again, with USC and Washington not far behind. As of Monday, this week’s slate of Pac-12 NCAAF games is set to go on as scheduled.
Team That Will Surprise: Cal
NCAA Championship Odds: N/A
The Pac-12 isn’t exactly loaded with talent, as only one skill position player was named to Pro Football Focus’s draft board, which lists the top 100 prospects in the nation. Additionally, no team has shorter than +9000 odds to win the NCAAF Championship as top conference contenders Oregon and USC are both longshots. That, Covid, and the fact that only six games will be played before the conference title game, means that nearly every team can contend.
Enter the California Golden Bears. Unfortunately, their season opener was canceled due to a single positive Covid test, which placed other players into quarantine. When Cal does eventually get to play, as its game next weekend vs Arizona State is currently in jeopardy , the Bears should be a delight to watch. They finished the 2019 season 8-5 and achieved an AP. No. 15 ranking after a 4-0 start to the season. They lost the next four games after an injury to QB Chase Garbers, but proceeded to win four of their last five upon his return, including a bowl win vs. Illinois. Cal isn’t getting as much respect as Pac-12 North contenders Oregon and Washington, but the Bears are a very solid football team who could make some noise.
Cal’s biggest advantage heading into an otherwise uncertain season is experience. It returns the vast majority of starters from their 8-5 2019 outfit, including Garbers, who has the most starts of any Pac-12 quarterback, and every member of their offensive line. RB Christopher Brown rushed for 913 yards last season and he spearheads a deep corps of halfbacks. New OC Bill Musgrave has a host of NFL experience and hopefully, it will mean a more dynamic Cal offense. Cal has significant losses in their secondary, as it lost both of its starting safeties to the NFL, but they have a solid front seven. It’ll be interesting to see how the Golden Bears perform with higher than usual expectations. They have improved each year under Head Coach Justin Wilcox and I don’t expect this year to be different.
Team That Will Disappoint: Oregon
NCAA Championship Odds: +9000
Oregon finished 12-2 last season under second-year head coach Mario Cristobal. The Ducks won the Pac-12 after a five-year drought and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. In their opener, they defeated Stanford, 35-14. A lot of questions remain for this new-look Oregon team. The Ducks have huge shoes to fill at QB, as Justin Herbert is the starter for the Los Angeles Chargers. Sophomore Tyler Shough played well in his first start, as he completed 17-of-26 passes for 227 yards and ran for 85 yards on 11 carries. If Shough struggles at any point, Boston College transfer Anthony Brown is in the wings. Their run game is more of a sure thing and it showed on Saturday as they put 269 yards and four scores on Stanford. Redshirt Junior CJ Verdell, one of the Pac-12’s best backs, ran for 105 yards on 20 carries and he’ll be a problem for opposing defenses. However, it’ll definitely take some time for the offense to find a consistent groove.
Oregon is returning only three starters on offense and the entire offensive line is new. The 2019 Morris and Outland trophy-winning LT Penei Sewell opted out of the season due to Covidand declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. Safety and potential first-rounder Jevon Holland also opted out, which weakens a defense returning five starters. The good news is that CB Deommodore Lenoir, who Cristobal has called one of the best cornerbacks in the country, returned after initially opting out. This year will be a new challenge for Oregon. Its roster has talent, but no team in the Pac-12 has been hit harder by Covid opt-outs and losses to the NFL. The Ducks came into Week 1 ranked 12th in the nation, but it’ll be a tough task to justify that by season’s end. However, their toughest games are in the last two weeks of the season, which could allow them to build some momentum.
USC picked up a huge win against Arizona State, which figured to be its toughest test in getting to the Pac-12 Championship Game. If the Trojans pick up a win on the road against Utah in two weeks, it’s hard to see them missing out. Utah has won the Pac-12 South in each of the previous two seasons but this year figures to be a rebuilding one. USC QB Kedon Slovis is one of the best young QBs in the country and he has an incredible first option in WR Amon-Ra St. Brown. Three of the top four receivers from last year are returning, as are the Trojans’ two leading rushers. Their offense is as good as it gets in the Pac-12 and they’ll be returning a bunch of starters on defense as well. Come December, I expect Clay Helton and the Trojans to lift their first Pac-12 championship trophy since 2017. .
Prediction: USC Wins Pac-12