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Ducking the Odds: Pac-12 South Pre-Season Picks

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Sean & Rusty’s ongoing Pac-12 prognostications, plus a real game pick.

NCAA Football: Eastern Washington at Oregon Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re here, then you read our first piece, and you’re bravely back for more. So Rusty and I will walk through the Pac-12 South, which is probably just as crazy and unpredictable as the North.

Plus, stay tuned for the Cal-Hawaii pick at the bottom - there’s real live football tomorrow. (Even if it’s in Australia.)

The Picks

S: UCLA OVER 8.5 Wins

Oh, UCLA. An enigma, but the steadiest of enigmas. To wit, their last four years of regular season results: 8-4, 9-3, 9-3, 9-3. So this over-under feels about right.

The real question is: did UCLA get better than their 8-4 campaign last year?

Defensively: maybe. Big-talent losses on defense: 3 defensive players were drafted, including monsters Kenny Clark and Myles Jack. Caveat: UCLA’s defense was all kind of beat up last year. I think there were close to 5 starters injured at the end of the year (and Jack was out all year). So, their returning talent is better than one would think after losing two elite guys.

Offensively, they’ll undoubtedly be better. Sure, the loss of Paul Perkins at RB hurts, as does a lot of O-line starters gone, but I have a feeling that Josh Rosen (fill in your favorite name pun here) is set to take a large step forward and commentators won’t be able to shut up about him. Rosen’s return and presumed advancement ought to bridge that gap. Even if UCLA’s offense gets a little worse, but they turn the ball over less, they’ll be better than last year.

So give me the over. I think they lose to Texas A&M, and will probably drop a dumb game somewhere in October, but overall they’re set to beat everyone in the South, save for maybe USC. Give me the over and a repeat of that Patented UCLA 9-3 Magic (patent pending).

R: UCLA OVER 8.5 Wins

It might be concerning that UCLA has only four starters back on offense but a lot of those concerns can be tossed with Josh Rosen at quarterback. Going into their game against Texas A&M it is important to remember that they have two starters back on the offensive line and add a transfer from Texas. I believe having starters back on the offensive line to be one of the strongest factors in getting off to a fast start.

The Bruins have nine starters back on defense, losing first round draft pick Kenny Clark and linebacker Myles Jack who was hurt the majority of last season. But with so much experience coming back I’m not too concerned.

The problem with picking UCLA to win on the over is that they always drop a game or two that they shouldn’t. Last year they lost to ASU in week 5 and Washington State deep in the season before getting run over by USC. Maybe they packed it in after the season and just were uninterested in a glorified exhibition game when they lost 29-37 to Nebraska.

If you give UCLA wins over UNLV, BYU, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington State, Colorado, Oregon State, and Cal that puts them at eight wins. Those are all reasonable games to win. That means they only need to win one over Texas A&M, Stanford, Utah, and USC. Last year they beat Utah on the road. This year they open travelling to Texas A&M whose defense, led by Myles Garrett, will test them immediately. But Texas A&M did not perform well against good teams and they have had a rough offseason.

It is more likely than not that UCLA can pull out a win over one of the teams I’ve listed as tossups than they are to lose all of them.

S: USC OVER 7.5 Wins

USC’s non-conference is automatically tough since they have Notre Dame every year. Made tougher this year with the opener with Alabama. (Sidnote: cannot wait for the side-eye between Lane Kiffin and everyone on the USC sideline. On second thought: I might have to take a quaalude to distract myself from the endless media commentary on Lane and USC before, during, and after the game. I digress.)

USC’s schedule opens up about as tough as it can get: Alabama at JerryWorld, Utah State, @Stanford, @Utah, Arizona State. But it’s also backloaded, finishing with Oregon, @Washington, @UCLA, Notre Dame. If they can go 6-3 in that nine-game stretch, then I think they’ll bump over that 7.5 mark.

I know, I know: the USC hype train is always a-runnin’ down the track. But this year feels different. The lack of fanfare means USC may just quietly sneak up on some people. Weaknesses are defensive depth and a new QB. But, as Rusty notes below, they’re back up to close-to-normal with scholarship players, and haven’t missed a beat with recruiting since the Bush debacle. So the untested guys they have on defense are at the very least highly touted. And the QB, Max Brown, was a can’t-miss 5-star out of high school. That, with their elite skill talent - Juju Smith-Schuster and Adoree Jackson to name a few - should cover up a lot of blemishes.

Simply stated? If USC doesn’t go 8-4, even with that tough schedule, there are serious problems in LA. Give me the over, because USC is (unfortunately for Duck fans) poised to roll back to prominence in the near future.

R: USC UNDER 7.5 Wins

The Trojans will have about eighty-one scholarship players this season, which is the most they’ve had since the NCAA handed down the worst ruling I can remember when punishing the school for the Reggie Bush scandal. Coaching at USC has also been a huge issue since Pete Carroll left for the Seahawks. The players seem to like Clay Helton a lot and he will not be cleaning house in preparation for his first season as the official head coach of the Trojans.

USC brings back ten starters on offense but have to replace Cody Kessler. However, Cody Kessler, while he didn’t make a lot of mistakes, was very hesitant throughout the last season and was unable to make a lot of plays. On defense the Trojans have five starters back but everyone filling in was a four or five star recruit coming out of high school. The only thing the defense will lack is experience in the front seven. Four of the starters back are in the secondary including one of the best all-around players in the country, Adoree Jackson.

If USC can get through the first four games 2-2 they will be happy with that but it’s more likely than not that there will be one win. If they don’t go 2-2 they will definitely be under. The schedule of playing Alabama in Dallas, hosting Utah State, at Stanford, and at Utah is really difficult. Utah State after playing Alabama is not a walk in the park. They’ll have wins over Colorado, Arizona State, Arizona, and California. So they’ll have five wins before Oregon, Washington, UCLA, and Notre Dame in that order.

This USC team will be much better than their record shows. Most of the time you say their players are much better than the team shows. But this schedule is so difficult that if they hit eight wins I will be really impressed. USC has to win two games in the stretch of Alabama, Utah State, Stanford and Utah. Then USC has to win two games in the stretch of Oregon, Washington, UCLA, and Notre Dame. That’s all before we make the assumption they win every game that they should during the season.

S: Utah UNDER 7.5 Wins

Listen, Kyle Whittingham can coach his way out of anything, but it’s a lot to ask to repeat an 8-4(+) schedule. No offensive skill returning to speak of, and return 7 starters from a constantly-good defense. I think this is a good team, with great home field advantage. But I think it’s a tough chore to roll through the Pac-12 again the way they did last year. I think they’ll go just under the 7.5 number, at 7-5.

R: Utah OVER 7.5 Wins

This team is tough to write about, mostly because they absolutely blew Oregon out of the water last year. The Utes have six starters back of offense and seven starters back on defense. Four offensive linemen and three defensive linemen are back.

Travis Wilson played extremely well last year but the first three games are cupcakes so the new starting quarterback will have some time to get used to the job before playing USC on a Friday in week 4. The Utah offensive line is so good I don’t think there will be a significant drop-off after losing Devontae Booker to the NFL Draft.

The Utah schedule is also very manageable. They’ll have wins over Southern Utah, BYU, and San Jose State before hitting the conference schedule. They will beat Oregon State and California. The game at Arizona State on a Thursday night off a bye week could be difficult but they beat Sparky last year. They are looking at six wins before the tough schedule. They only need to win two games out of hosting USC, hosting Arizona, at UCLA, hosting Washington, and hosting Oregon. I think they’ll beat Washington and Arizona putting them at 8.

S: Arizona OVER 6 Wins

Oddly, this one kind of hinges on the opening game with BYU in Glendale, AZ. If Arizona wins, they have a shot of going 8-4. If they don’t, well, it’ll be a battle.

I really don’t know much about Arizona, other than they have decent experience returning. But the main thing I know is that Rich Rodriguez is the best coach in the Pac-12 South, with Whittingham a close second. I wouldn’t bet on a RichRod team to do worse than 7-5 no matter what experience is back or how tough the schedule. I think they’re better than Arizona State this year and may be the third best team in the South, behind the LA schools.

I’m a bit more bullish on Arizona than Rusty is, so I’m taking the over, mostly on the shoulders of Rich Rodriguez and his ability to get more out of less.

R: Arizona UNDER 6 Wins

The positive with the Wildcats is the experience coming back. The offense has seven starters coming back and the defense has eight starters coming back. With three starters back on the offensive line and most of the front seven back the Wildcats have a great shot at beating BYU.

Best-case scenario Arizona enters conference play with three wins after opening against BYU in Glendale, Grambling State, and Hawai’i. Then the tough slate begins. They host Washington, at UCLA, at Utah, and host USC. Then the bye week. Then hosting Stanford, at Washington State, hosting Colorado, at Oregon State, and hosting Arizona State on a Friday night.

Looking at their schedule there is only one game that I think is a layup and that’s against Oregon State. Finding three to four wins out of the group listed above is tough.

S: Arizona State UNDER 5 Wins

I think the wheels are going to come off this year in Tempe. Big losses on offense, moderate losses on defense. The offense was very good last year, but loses a ton on the OL and obviously at QB. The defense was not good last year, and has relatively little experience coming back.

Arizona State has perennially underperformed with good talent. I think this year they lack talent they’ve had at key positions in the past, and are set for a regression.

They’ll have a tough time getting more than one win after September, and I think it’s a tough ask to get to 6-6. Give me the under.

R: Arizona State UNDER 5 Wins

The Sun Devils have four starters back on offense and six back on defense. The only returning starter on the offensive line is left tackle Evan Goodman but this unit was a bit of a disappointment last season. There is a brand new quarterback with no pass attempts coming in and keeping pace with Texas Tech could be a challenge. On defense there are two returning starters at each level.

Arizona had two quality wins last year: beating Washington 27-17 and beating UCLA 38-23. They had one two close losses: losing in triple-overtime to Oregon and losing to Cal 46-48.

After the first three games the Sun Devils will have at least two wins. They face Cal who is full of new players on offense so that will most likely be a third win. But then they play USC and UCLA. Colorado will be better this year and I think Arizona State is one of the games they will win. Washington State isn’t a pushover, they travel to Oregon, host Utah, and then finish at Washington, and at Arizona.

Given the inexperience on offense and the difficult schedule I don’t see them topping 5 wins. There is a good chance they will push but if we are picking under or over I’d have to pick the under.

S: Colorado OVER 4.5 Wins

As Rusty documents below, the Buffs were among the unluckiest teams in the country last year, losing 5 games within one score. They have almost everyone back, including secretly-good Sefo Liufau.

They should open at 3-2, ant this is definitely the type of team that can sneak away with at least two more unexpected wins. If they can get a few more bounces than last year, this is a bowl team.

(Plus, I’m biased: I live in Western Colorado which has been a college football wasteland since CU has been down. I’m rooting for the Buffs to at least get the state talking about college football again instead of endless, insufferable Broncos commentary.)

R: Colorado OVER 4.5 Wins

This is where the fun begins. Last year Colorado had four wins but that can be misleading. Colorado also had five losses within one score. With nine starters back on offense and defense I expect to see a big jump.

On offense they are without leading receiver Nelson Spruce and are breaking in a new left tackle. On defense they are having a new tackle and strong-side linebacker.

They will get two wins starting with Colorado State and Idaho State. Then they go to Michigan and anything can happen there. (Just kidding, Michigan will win) With a game against Oregon State on the schedule the Buffs only need two more wins. A few Colorado close losses came against Arizona, UCLA, USC, and Utah. Colorado will beat two teams that they probably have no business, on paper, beating.

A Real Deal Holyfield Game Pick

S: Cal v. Hawai'i (+20) (At Sydney, Australia)

Take the points in a shootout, especially a weird one like this. I think Cal wins, but with a brand new quarterback in unfamiliar, let-laggy environs, expect this one to get wacky. Like, 4 or 5 turnovers plus a special teams score wacky.

Hawai’i returns a ton on both lines, which is huge, and should give them some continuity playing against higher-level Cal talent.

Cal is too talented to lose, but I don’t expect them to hold a 3-TD lead over these guys in a weird opener against a hungry Hawai’i team eager to improve under a new coach.

R: Cal v. Hawai'i (+20) (At Sydney, Australia)

There are a few reasons why I like the Rainbow Warriors in this game. First, Cal only has four starters back on offense and five on defense. They are down their six leading receivers and tacklers from last season. There are going to be some major adjustments made in the first few weeks. It is extremely likely that Cal comes away with a win but the twenty point spread is huge for a team with very little experience. Cal also doesn't have the same experience that Hawai'i has in terms of traveling a ton of miles to play a game. Hawai'i criss crosses the country regularly and has had to adjust to huge time zone changes and drastic changes in the weather on a week-to-week basis.

The Rainbow Warriors also have nine starters back on offense and six back on defense. Hawai'i really struggled last year, only winning three games beating Colorado in the season opener, UC-Davis, and ULM. The offense should see a big improvement with Nick Rolovich at head coach. June Jones really struggled the last couple years leading the offense on the island. Hawai'i also has four starters back an offensive line that has turned out multiple NFL draft picks in the last few years and returns five of the front seven. The cohesion on the team, especially on the line, will be a big factor in this game. There were an abnormal amount of injuries last year and were -12 in turnovers, all signs that there will be an improvement this year.

I expect Hawai'i to hang with Cal late into the third quarter before depth takes over. While the Golden Bears are young Cal recruits a lot better than Hawai'i. Cal will pull away too late, will get the win, but won't cover the spread.