Pac-12 college football betting guide: Smart money on USC or UCLA?

Oregon running back Travis Dye carries the ball against USC in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 18 at the Coliseum.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

Here is VSiN’s 2021 college football betting guide for the Pac-12.

Favorites: USC and Oregon

A wide-open conference race means there is no dominant team, and that’s the case again this year in the Pac-12. Five teams will set the pace — Oregon (+ 250), Washington (+ 360), USC (+ 380), Arizona State (+ 450) and Utah (+ 600), according to the DraftKings odds board — with UCLA chasing as a 12-1 long shot. USC is the obvious favorite in the South, and the North is a coin flip between Oregon and Washington.

Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis is the conference’s top Heisman Trophy candidate (28-1 at DraftKings) after totaling 47 touchdown passes in two seasons. USC coach Clay Helton has underachieved with an 18-13 record the last three seasons, and he was lucky to go 5-1 last year, when Slovis led improbable comebacks to beat Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA.


USC quarterback Kedon Slovis found his rhythm Saturday during the Trojans’ final scrimmage of fall practice. Here’s what we learned during training camp.

Aug. 21, 2021

Oregon returns nine starters, including senior quarterback Anthony Brown, on an electric offense. The Ducks are probably more talented than the Huskies, but Oregon drew a more difficult schedule with road games against UCLA, Utah and Washington. The Huskies avoid playing USC and Utah from the South and will host Arizona State and UCLA. Washington faces a big question mark at quarterback, so it’s tough to pick the Huskies to win the North.

The Sun Devils will be a threat with the return of quarterback Jayden Daniels, and the Bruins are hoping talented quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has a breakthrough year for coach Chip Kelly, who’s 10-21 in three disappointing years at UCLA. Kelly has 20 starters returning, so this is his chance to move up the standings and finally reach a bowl. Of the Power Five conferences, the Pac-12 appears to be the odd man out of the four-team playoff picture, but the league has opportunities to make a statement and test its strength in several marquee nonconference games.

Live dogs: Utah and California

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham answers questions during Pac-12 media day on July 27 in L.A.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Who’s the best coach in the conference? If you don’t answer Kyle Whittingham, it’s the wrong answer. Utah went 11-3 in 2019 under Whittingham, and this team might be better. The Utes return 19 starters and have the league’s top offensive and defensive lines. Baylor graduate transfer quarterback Charlie Brewer should lift the offense to the next level. The Utes get home games against Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA, and they are worth a shot to win the league at odds as high as 8-1. Cal coach Justin Wilcox is a defensive mastermind, and junior quarterback Chase Garbers is 8-3 in his last 11 starts for the gritty Golden Bears.


Dead money: Arizona

The Wildcats will carry a 12-game losing streak into this season. Jedd Fisch, formerly the quarterbacks coach for the New England Patriots, takes over as the only new head coach in the conference. Fisch can motivate Arizona’s players to be more competitive, but a three-win season looks to be the ceiling.


Arizona: This is rock bottom for Arizona. Last season ended with a 70-7 loss to Arizona State, sending the Wildcats into this season riding a 12-game losing streak. The good news is the Kevin Sumlin error is history, and the Jedd Fisch era begins. Fisch is already doing a lot to change the culture in the program. A new coach typically has no problems motivating players who get a clean slate to compete for playing time, so expect the Wildcats to rise up and possibly exceed extremely low expectations.

Fisch brought in several transfers and two of them — Jordan McCloud from South Florida and Gunner Cruz from Washington State — are battling to be the starting quarterback. This team could improve in a hurry, but where are the wins on the schedule? Arizona has a chance to win two games in September when it hosts Northern Arizona and San Diego State. The Wildcats will be dogs in all four Pac-12 home games against UCLA, Washington, California and Utah. It’s tough to go over 2.5 wins with a team that will be an underdog in 11 games, but upsets happen and Fisch’s team will show a lot of fight. Be positive and bet on 3-9.

Pick: Over 2.5

Arizona State: If all goes according to plan in Tempe, Jayden Daniels will play his way into Heisman Trophy contention and the Sun Devils will be in the hunt to win the South when they host USC in early November. The dual-threat Daniels, a third-year sophomore, might be the most talented quarterback in the conference. He passed for 17 touchdowns with two interceptions as a freshman and followed with five TD passes and one pick in four games last year, when Arizona State finished 2-2. The losses were by a total of eight points, and the wins were by a combined 76 points. Herm Edwards, 17-13 in three years as coach, has nine starters returning on offense and 11 on defense. But here’s what could derail Edwards’ big plans: the NCAA is investigating alleged recruiting violations in his program and his job could be in jeopardy.

The Sun Devils are talented enough to win nine or 10 games — even with road trips to BYU, UCLA, Utah and Washington — but the uncertainty surrounding the NCAA probe is cause for caution and dampens what should be a sunny forecast for the season. When betting over high win totals such as 8.5, the worst-case scenario must be considered. In this case, Daniels is the real deal and Arizona State can win the division, but there’s a chance things could take a turn for the worse for Edwards.

Pick: Under 8.5

Colorado: No coach in the Pac-12 did more with less last year than Karl Dorrell. Almost every pundit picked the Buffaloes to finish last in the league, yet they opened by upsetting UCLA and Stanford on the way to a 4-0 start. A loss to Utah was followed by a 55-23 blowout to Texas in the Alamo Bowl, as Dorrell’s debut season finished at 4-2. Now he returns eight starters on each side of the ball and faces a manageable schedule.

Colorado hosts Northern Colorado, Texas A&M and Minnesota in September, and the Buffaloes should be favored in conference home games against Arizona and Oregon State. The quarterback position is a question mark. The strength of the offense will be a ground attack powered by Jarek Broussard, who led the league with 895 rushing yards, and Alex Fontenot. The Buffaloes finished 5-7 in each of the three seasons before Dorrell’s arrival and probably will regress to another losing record, as Dorrell still needs time to rebuild the talent level.

It’s easy to envision the Buffaloes going winless on the Pac-12 road against Arizona State, California, Oregon, UCLA and Utah. This looks like a 4-8 season, unless Dorrell discovers a game-changing QB. Colorado will not be the surprise team in the conference this time around.

Pick: Under 4.5

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly looks during a game against Utah in 2019.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

UCLA: A humbled Chip Kelly faces a crossroads. He’s no longer considered a cutting-edge offensive coach and carries a 10-21 record into his fourth year with the Bruins. He does bring back 20 starters, including the most experienced quarterback in the conference, so he’s got something going for him. If he can’t win this season, maybe the game has passed him by and he simply can’t win at UCLA. He’s a long way from duplicating the success he had at Oregon, where he rolled to a 46-7 record in four years.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson had a solid showing at QB in the shortened 2020 season, passing for 12 touchdowns with four interceptions. He displayed improvement after totaling 19 turnovers in 2019. The ground attack is the key to Kelly’s offense, and it’s in good hands with senior Brittain Brown and Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet running behind an experienced, physical offensive line. The defense, which allowed a combined 91 points in season-ending losses to USC and Stanford, should be at its strongest point in Kelly’s tenure. But there’s always a downside, and the schedule is tougher than a $2 steak. UCLA will face LSU, Arizona State and Oregon at home in addition to Washington, Utah and USC on the road. The Bruins are capable of winning six or seven games — enough to reach a bowl — but eight is a long shot.

Pick: Under 7

USC: Almost everything about USC looks good on paper: The roster is loaded with talent, led by veteran quarterback Kedon Slovis, and the schedule is hospitable (seven home games and no games against North favorites Oregon and Washington). But the Trojans are too often paper tigers for coach Clay Helton, who is 18-13 straight up and 13-18 ATS the last three seasons. USC was lucky to finish 5-1 last season, when improbable comebacks were required to beat Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA.

Slovis has thrown 47 touchdown passes in two seasons and is the conference’s top Heisman Trophy candidate (28-1 odds at DraftKings), yet his arm strength is a concern after he suffered a separated shoulder in last year’s Pac-12 title game. Drake London could be the league’s top wide receiver, and Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram is primed to take over as the team’s go-to running back. The Trojans will flash plenty of firepower in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s wide-open attack. Aside from edge rusher Drake Jackson, a top NFL prospect, there are question marks all over the defensive depth chart.

Home games against Stanford, Utah and UCLA are probably tougher than they appear, and Arizona State, California and Notre Dame will be tough spots on the road. Helton is a poor game manager who had the luck factor on his side last year, so it wouldn’t be surprising if USC finishes 8-4 and Helton remains on the hot seat.

Pick: Under 8.5

UCLA is hoping an infusion of experienced transfers and more time with the Bruins’ defensive coordinator will help them stop Hawaii dual-threat quarterback Chevan Cordeiro.

Aug. 22, 2021

Utah: With a rebuilding year in the rear-view mirror, Kyle Whittingham is building toward something special. While media pundits will hype USC and Oregon as the Pac-12’s fashionable favorites, it’s a mistake to overlook Utah. Whittingham is the best coach in the conference and he’s got a team that reflects his blue-collar image.

It starts up front, where the Utes return all of their starters on the offensive line and boast a deep, experienced defensive line. Ten starters return on defense. The team’s most important starter could be a newcomer — Baylor graduate transfer quarterback Charlie Brewer, who’s capable of lifting the offense to the next level after poor QB play doomed the Utes early last season. If Brewer delivers, this will be one of Whittingham’s elite teams in his 17 years in Salt Lake City, and that’s saying something considering his 11-win team in 2019 was in the hunt for the College Football Playoff. It’s possible Utah could be favored in 11 games, with the only obvious underdog spot being Oct. 9 at USC. The Utes get home games against Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA, so the schedule sets up well.

The bottom line is Whittingham is a bet-on coach, and he has the league’s top offensive and defensive lines, so Utah is worth a shot to win the league at around 8-1 odds.

Pick: Over 8.5


Oregon: It starts with recruiting at Oregon. Fourth-year coach Mario Cristobal is a slick salesman, and his recruiting success has turned the Ducks into one of the nation’s most talented teams. Anthony Brown, a senior who attempted only 23 passes last season, is the favorite to win the starting QB job, though the prospects he’s competing with are highly touted. The running back position is loaded with CJ Verdell, Travis Dye and Sean Dollars. The receiver group is stacked with size and speed. Five starting offensive linemen return. Kayvon Thibodeaux is an elite end on another talented defense. The Ducks are dynamite in all areas aside from coaching. Cristobal’s lapses in game management have been costly at times, and defensive coordinator Andy Avalos left to become the head coach at Boise State.

It will be difficult for the Ducks to win 10 games simply because they are 10-point underdogs at Ohio State in early September and play conference road games at Stanford, UCLA, Utah and Washington. The Ducks went 1-2 on the road in league play last year, getting upset by California and Oregon State. Cristobal overachieves in recruiting and underachieves on the field, so although Oregon should sweep its seven-game home schedule, the crystal ball shows a 9-3 record at best. An upset of the Buckeyes could change things, but that’s a lot to ask.

Pick: Under 9

Washington quarterbacks Dylan Morris and Patrick O'Brien look to pass in practice.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Washington: The Huskies could go two ways, and a lot depends on how redshirt freshman Dylan Morris drives the offense. Morris was far from spectacular last season, completing 61% of his passes with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Washington finished 3-1 thanks to a four-game home schedule. The Huskies beat Arizona and pulled out narrow victories over Oregon State and Utah before falling to Stanford as 11-point favorites, so the results were not convincing in coach Jimmy Lake’s first year. Lake did have a young team, and 10 starters return on offense and eight on defense.

The schedule looks like something Lake drew up in his office and submitted to the league office for approval. The Huskies’ four road games in league play are against lightweights Arizona, Colorado, Oregon State and Stanford; Washington doesn’t face USC or Utah. The nonconference lineup is Montana, Michigan and Arkansas State, and the Huskies are 1-point dogs in Ann Arbor. (Oregon drew a tougher Big Ten opponent with a trip to Ohio State.)

If Morris elevates his level of play, Washington can win 10 games. It would be somewhat surprising if the Huskies win fewer than nine against this schedule. But if Morris is not the answer at quarterback, this team could go in the wrong direction or quickly turn to freshman Sam Huard to try to save the season.

Pick: Over 8.5

California: If a wise man ranked the coaches in the Pac-12, Cal’s Justin Wilcox would be in the top five. Wilcox is a defensive wizard, but he’s 21-21 through four years in Berkeley, mostly because the Golden Bears’ offense tends to go into hibernation. That could be a different story this year with junior quarterback Chase Garbers returning. If the offense wakes up, this will be a sleeper team to watch. Garbers is not Aaron Rodgers (or even Jared Goff), but he’s good and presumably getting better. The Bears are 8-3 in Garbers’ last 11 starts, including a one-point loss to Stanford last year when the Cardinal blocked the potential tying PAT. Wilcox displayed his defensive wizardry in Cal’s season-ending 21-17 upset of Oregon.

This team’s fate will not be decided in September, but the Bears need to be at least 2-2 after hosting Nevada and Sacramento State and facing TCU and Washington on the road. The rest of the schedule shows three games the Bears are likely to lose (at Oregon, USC, at UCLA) and five they should be favored to win (Washington State, Colorado, Oregon State, at Arizona, at Stanford). A seven-win season is within reach for Wilcox and the Bears, but that’s a little too optimistic and a 6-6 season plus a bowl game seems more realistic.

Pick: Under 6.5

Stanford: Enthusiasts of wide-open passing offenses will not be big fans of this Stanford team. The marquee offensive threat for the Cardinal will be running back Austin Jones, who leads a deep and talented backfield. Stanford coach David Shaw will run the ball ... and run some more, employing two tight ends and hoping to overpower defenses with a relentless ground attack. Shaw is a conservative play-caller and he’ll be phoning in more of the same no matter who wins the quarterback competition between former five-star recruits Tanner McKee and Jack West. McKee and West combined for 26 pass attempts last year behind NFL-bound starter Davis Mills.

Shaw did well to put up a 4-2 record when the Cardinal were homeless for most of the season during COVID-19 restrictions. Stanford finished with a dramatic 48-47 win at UCLA in double overtime. It’s crazy to be too critical of Shaw, who has a 90-36 record on “The Farm,” but he’s 8-10 the last two years. The Cardinal also faces one of the nation’s most challenging schedules. Good luck finding an easy home win against the lineup of UCLA, Oregon, Washington, Utah, California and Notre Dame.

Still, Shaw should have enough talent to win at least four games while springing a few upsets. While Stanford’s style might not be exciting, its running attack will be strong.

Pick: Over 4

Washington State: Nick Rolovich left Hawaii to replace Mike Leach as the Cougars’ coach, surely aware that Leach would be a tough act to follow. There was not much action last year, however, as Washington State went 1-3 with an abbreviated schedule. In an odd season finale, the Cougars blew a 28-7 halftime lead at Utah and lost 45-28. Rolovich is a sharp offensive coach, has had a year to implement his system and 18 starters are returning, so this is his real starting point. Finding the right quarterback is his first priority.

Here’s a closer look at each of UCLA’s football matchups in the 2021 college football season, which starts Aug. 28 when the Bruins host Hawaii.

Aug. 22, 2021

Last year’s starter, freshman Jayden de Laura, will compete with Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano, who has 30 career starts. The top wideouts are tiny sticks of dynamite — 5-foot-9 Travell Harris and 5-8 Renard Bell. The running attack will be handled capably by returnees Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh. The offense packs potential. A disastrous defense that allowed 38.5 PPG has 10 starters coming back, but is that good news?

Rolovich should open with home victories over Utah State and Portland State, but the rest of the schedule is nowhere near as soft. This appears to be a 5-7 or 6-6 team on paper, so Under 6 wins is the way to look.

Pick: Under 6

Oregon State: Each conference always has a surprise team, and the Beavers are candidates in the Pac-12. Fourth-year coach Jonathan Smith has 19 starters coming back after a 2-5 season riddled with tough luck. Oregon State lost three games — against Washington, Utah and Stanford — by six or fewer points. A team with experience should find ways to win more close games, and Smith is a solid coach. He took over a one-win team and went 5-7 two years later.

This will be his most talented team in Corvallis, as these are no longer the beleaguered Beavers. Tristan Gebbia, a returning junior, is dueling with Colorado transfer Sam Noyer for the starting quarterback job. The toughest starter to replace will be star running back Jermar Jefferson. Oregon State opens the season as a 7-point underdog at Purdue before returning home in the favorite’s role against Hawaii and Idaho. The league schedule is a grinder with five road games, including USC and Oregon, and only four home games. The Beavers are expected to be ‘dogs in three of those home games against Arizona State, Utah and Washington.

But the wins and losses are not graded on paper in the preseason, and the Beavers showed that last year by upsetting the Ducks 41-38 as 13-point dogs. Expect a 4-8 or 5-7 finish.

Pick: Under 5

VSiN, the Sports Betting Network, offers more expert sports betting content in a free daily email at