2022 Pac-12 Football Conference Season Preview and Best Bets: Utah turns up the heat

Apr 23, 2022; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham looks on during the second half of the Utah Spring Football Game at Rice Eccles Stadium.
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Sam Avellone

NCAAF · 2 weeks ago

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Long-time suffering Browns fan born and raised in the greater Cleveland, Ohio area who now resides in SEC country. University of South Carolina alum. Sports handicapper for close to 10 years with a primary focus on NCAAB while enjoying NFL, PGA, NCAAF, NBA, and Soccer.

Offseason change is becoming quite the norm in college sports. Usually, change happens on the field, when players and coaches transfer to new programs, accept new offers or move on to the NFL – not at the program level. However, this offseason was a little bit different for the Pac-12, as UCLA and USC shocked the sports world when they announced their intentions to move to the Big Ten after the 2023 season. Since then, rumors have been swirling about California, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Washington finding new homes as well. 

While we do not know what the Pac-12 will look like in the future, we do know what it will look like this year (on paper). Oregon, USC and Washington hired new coaches during the offseason, Washington State promoted its interim coach to head coach, and seven programs hit the transfer portal for a quarterback to either take over or compete for the starting position — Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Oregon, USC, Washington and Washington State. The conference will likely be made up of several high-powered offenses and many bad defenses, leading to high-scoring matchups within the conference and a heated battle for the conference championship.

Read our College Football National Championship preview, including a +8000 longshot

Pac-12 winner odds

The Pac-12 will not have divisions this year, as the two teams with the highest conference winning percentage will make the Pac-12 Championship Game. This makes every conference game that much more important. The race for the Pac-12 title seems to be a 3-headed one, as USC is listed at +150 to win the conference on FanDuel, while Utah and Oregon — last year’s Pac-12 Championship participants — are both listed at +300.

Behind those 3 favorites, UCLA is listed at +1000 and Washington +1700 to win the Pac-12. Then, it is nothing but long shots. Oregon State, Arizona State, Cal and Stanford all have odds listed in the 40/1-60/1 range while Colorado (150/1) and Arizona (500/1) bring up the rear. Be sure to shop around before placing your futures bet, as the odds vary at each sportsbook and you could find some value.

Pac-12 winner best bets

Utah Utes +300 (and over 9 wins -115)

Coming off a 10-4 season in which they won their first Pac-12 football championship in program history, Utah will be playing with expectations this year. Coach Kyle Whittingham embarks on his 18th season as Utah head coach and returns 17 total starters — 8 on offense, 6 on defense and 3 key pieces on special teams.

First-team all-Pac-12 quarterback Cam Rising returns after being inserted into the lineup last year during the Week 3 triple-overtime loss to San Diego State. After losing 2 of the first 3 games of the season, the Utes went 9-2 straight up and 7-4 ATS with Rising as the starting quarterback and averaged 38 points per game. He threw for 2,943 yards, 20 touchdowns and 5 interceptions while posting the 6th-best QBR in the country (84.2). He also has the ability to use his legs – rushing for 499 yards and 6 touchdowns on 74 carries. 

Accompanying Rising in the backfield is junior running back Tavion Thomas, a physical runner who excels at breaking tackles. Thomas had trouble with ball security early last season which caused him to earn just 9 carries in Weeks 2, 3, and 4 combined, but he figured things out against USC in Week 5 and never looked back. He accumulated 1,108 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns on 204 carries and did not lose a fumble after week 2.

Utah also returns 5 of its 6 top pass-catchers from last season, including what could be the country’s best tight end duo in Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid – who combined for 86 receptions, 1121 yards and 14 touchdowns. As for Rising’s protection, Utah returns 3 of its 5 starting offensive linemen from a unit that ranked top 20 in line yards, opportunity rate, and opponent sack rate last season. Despite losing two starting linemen to the NFL, Coach Whittingham is confident that he has the depth to replace them this season without much drop off in production. 

Defensively, Utah held opponents to 23 points per game last year, which ranked 32nd in the nation. While 6 starters return this season, the Utes lost their defensive leaders in Devin Lloyd, Nephi Sewell, and Mika Tafua, and rank outside the top 80 in returning production. However, there is optimism around this unit. There are plenty of young pieces on this side of the ball who gained invaluable experience last season playing for a conference champion and will now look to take the next step as leaders on their defense.

Clark Phillips III and Cole Bishop will headline what could be the best secondary in the Pac-12, while the defensive line has talented pieces like Junior Tafuna and Van Fillinger – who combined for 10 sacks and 74 total tackles last season. The question marks surround the linebacker core because of the loss of talent in that area, but Utah brought in Mohamoud Diabate from Florida to try to plug the holes left by Lloyd, Sewell, and Tafua. Diabate had 170 total tackles and 5.5 sacks in his 3 years with the Gators. 

Utah’s schedule does have a few tricky spots, but overall, the Utes should be firmly in the mix to win the conference again this season. Utah will go on the road to play the Florida Gators in Week 1 – a game in which the Utes are currently favored by 1.5 points on FanDuel. They will also have a tough road test in Oregon the week before Thanksgiving, where they are currently listed as a 3-point underdog. Utah is fortunate to host USC at home, where the Utes allowed just 15.6 points per game last season to FBS opponents, but it will be a tough test coming off a road game against a very formidable offense in the UCLA Bruins. Other than that, the Utah schedule is favorable.

The Utes will play with extreme physicality on both sides of the ball, in a system that has been proven to be successful under Coach Whittingham. They should benefit greatly from all of the returning talent on the roster, especially in a conference going through so much change at the top. Assuming health, I expect them to eclipse their win total of 9 games and take home the conference championship. They have won 9 or more games in all but one season since 2014 (not counting the COVID-19 year in 2020), and have arguably their best quarterback over that time in Rising with a ton of returning starters around him. 2022 is the year of the Ute.

Read our BIG 12 conference preview, which includes a couple of best bets

Washington Huskies over 7.5 wins -130

The Huskies were a disappointment last season, as they went 4-8 despite having a veteran team. They struggled on offense, scoring just one touchdown against FCS Montana in Week 1, and averaging just 22.8 points per game (95th) and 328.7 yards per game (110th). Because of the offensive woes, both head coach Jimmy Lake and offensive coordinator John Donovan were relieved of their coaching duties mid-season. Kalen DeBoer was hired in the offseason, bringing some hope to Seattle on the offensive side of the ball. At Fresno State, DeBoer was responsible for an offense that averaged 30.9 points per game and 446.8 yards per game (15th) against FBS opponents. 

DeBoer brought in transfer quarterback Michael Penix, Jr. to compete for the starting job, which he should win as he is familiar with DeBoer’s system from their days together in Indiana in 2019 when DeBoer was offensive coordinator. Washington surrounds Penix with a core of talented, young wide receivers in Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, who combined for 80 receptions and 7 touchdowns last season in a run-heavy offense.

Aaron Dumas was brought in from New Mexico to compete for the starting running back position with Cameron Davis behind what should be a talented offensive line. Two-time All-Pac-12 left tackle Jaxson Kirkland returns to Seattle for a 6th season, joining fellow returning starters Victor Curne and Henry Bainivalu and a group of promising young talent. 

Washington will have to replace two stud defensive backs in Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon, who were both drafted in the top 40 this year, and will have to improve against the run. However, there is optimism around the defense. Edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui returns for what he hopes to be a healthy 2022 season, while Tuli Letuligasenoa joins him on the defensive line. Linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio will miss half of the season due to an injury, but Pittsburgh transfer Cam Bright joins Carson Bruener and should be able to hold down the fort in his absence, as the two combined for 122 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions last season.

Washington’s schedule is favorable, as the Huskies will face just one offense who projects to be in the Top 20 (Oregon), while 8 opponents project outside the top 75. They start the year with non-conference opponents Kent State and Portland State and should comfortably reach 2-0 before hosting Michigan State as 3-point underdogs. With home games against Stanford, Arizona, Oregon State, and Colorado, and a road game against Arizona State, the Huskies seem to have a path to 6-7 wins with an improved offense under DeBoer before factoring in the most difficult part of the Huskies’ schedule — its conference road games at UCLA, Cal, Oregon and Washington State.

Games at UCLA, Cal and Washington State are winnable for the Huskies, but Oregon will be a tough test. If you pencil Washington in for 2 losses (Michigan State and Oregon), the Huskies would have room for 2 more losses for you to cash an over bet on their win total. I have a hard time seeing 5 losses assuming health, knowing the offensive prowess DeBoer has as a signal caller.

Get our Heisman Trophy best bets for the upcoming season

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