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Picking the Pac: Known Unknowns

Lessons learned from wild Week 1

NCAA Football: Oregon at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Week 1 was rough for picks, for me and for most projection systems. The early season is always tough with limited information, and the uneven nature of 2020 exacerbated the problem. FCS teams over-performed against the spread. We’re all too familiar with UW’s collapse against Montana, but Weber State, Southern Utah, and Northern Colorado all covered against Utah, Arizona State, and Colorado, respectively. Going forward, I will be skeptical of big favorites, especially against teams who have been able to play together more recently. With that, let’s get to the picks.

2021 Pac-12 Picks

0 1 0 1 0 48 43 0 63 28
1 4 8 8 4
2 4 6 6 4
3 7 4 7 4
4 3 3 5 1
5 3 2 3 2
6 3 1 3 1
7 3 2 4 1
8 4 2 3 3
9 2 4 3 3
10 3 2 3 2
11 2 3 5 0
12 5 1 4 2
13 2 5 6 1
14 2 0 2 0
15 0 0 0 0

Oregon (+14.5) @ Ohio State

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Neither team’s Week 1 performance was good enough to inspire much confidence. Despite questionable QB play by Anthony Brown, Oregon should be able to mimic the ground attack that Minnesota used to keep it uncomfortable for the Buckeyes. The Duck secondary, on the other hand, looked porous against Fresno State, which does not bode well against one of the best receiving groups in the country. Ohio State’s explosive offense is enough to pick the Buckeyes. Will they cover? That’s a tougher question.

Ohio State 37 – Oregon 24

Texas A&M (-17) vs. Colorado, from Denver

The Aggies took care of business in a routine tune-up against Kent State, but three INTs and five total turnovers leave some room for improvement. Colorado’s offense was quite one-dimensional and Brandon Lewis’s limitations in the passing game give me real concern about the Buffs’ offensive ceiling. A&M gave up some big run plays last week, but I’m betting that the turnovers are correctable and A&M will do enough offensively to pull away.

Texas A&M 42 – Colorado 21

Cal (+11.5) @ TCU

If the Dawgs hadn’t laid such an egg last week, there would be a lot more attention on California’s awful performance against a Nevada team they should have beaten soundly. The bad version of Chase Garbers showed up and totally under five yards per pass attempt. Nevada didn’t light up the scoreboard, but Cal yielded an uncharacteristic 300+ passing yards on eight yards per attempt. I won’t read much into TCU’s win over Duquesne, but they did show a balanced offensive attack. The Cal offense is going to have to improve drastically against a better defense to even stay in the game.

TCU 31 – Cal 17

Portland State (+14.5) @ Washington State

I mentioned earlier that I learned a healthy skepticism of laying big points to FCS teams, and WSU certainly fits the bill of a team who doesn’t deserve to lay a big spread. But this spread isn’t prohibitively large and Portland State is not an FCS team to fear. They lost in Week 1 to a terrible Hawaii team and their only spring game was a 48-7 thrashing at the hands of Montana. The Cougs aren’t contenders this year, but they’re good enough to blow out PSU.

WSU 42 – Portland State 20

San Diego State (+2) @ Arizona

Can a home loss to a non-P5 school ever be a good loss? If it’s possible, then Arizona’s performance against BYU would probably qualify. Gunner Cruz showed signs of life in the passing offense. The Aztecs have become an extreme ground-and-pound offense, which should keep the score low. I expect Arizona to show some moderate improvement this season, and this match-up is a good opportunity.

Arizona 24 – SDSU 20

Utah (-7) @ BYU

NCAA Football: Weber State at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

If BYU’s close win against Arizona was good for the Wildcats, it was fairly unimpressive for the Cougars. Utah didn’t run up the score enough against Weber State to cover the ample spread. On the positive side, Charlie Brewer looked like the real deal at QB, which gives the Utes the multi-faceted offense they need. I believe we’re in the early stages of a very good season for Utah and BYU is still somewhat living off of a better-than-expected 2020. We may look back on this match-up as a mismatch. The only element that gives me pause is the road rivalry game.

Utah 30 – BYU 21

Stanford (+17) @ USC

If Utah is the team on the upswing, then Stanford is the Pac-12 team who is cratering and whose reputation hasn’t quite caught up yet. The Cardinal were absolutely inept against a Kansas State team that isn’t better than pretty good. Stanford officially replaced Jack West with Tanner McKee at QB, but McKee played enough in Week 1 that it won’t be a cure-all. USC gave up more yards than it would’ve liked against San Jose State, but didn’t let the yards turn into points. The running game looked like a viable complement to Kedon Slovis and Drake London’s air attack. Clay Helton is usually good for a couple head-scratchers each year, but I don’t think this Stanford team is positioned to be one of them.

USC 40 – Stanford 20

UNLV (+34) @ ASU

This line is exactly the type that threw me off in Week 1. Arizona State is miles ahead of this moribund Rebels squad. They can have a very successful game and come up short of the spread. Jayden Daniels only attempted 12 passes in Week 1. It will be hard to outscore anyone by 34 with that sort of offense, but it doesn’t mean ASU won’t dominate the game.

ASU 45 – UNLV 14

Hawaii (+11) @ Oregon State

This spread begs the question of whether Oregon State is just ok, or pretty bad. Hawaii showed in Week 0 against Oregon State that it is not remotely good enough to beat a good Pac-12 team. Oregon State is not on UCLA’s level in raw talent. The Beavers struggled to run the ball and had to switch QBs from Sam Noyer to Chance Nolan against Purdue. They still kept it close enough that I’m not worried about them losing to Hawaii. I just don’t see the offensive firepower to blow them away, at least not yet.

OSU 28 – Hawaii 20

Washington (+7) @ Michigan

Is it possible to come up with a version of this game where UW executes beautifully on offense and pulls off a big road win? Sure, a week ago it would’ve been easy to forecast that sort of performance. But after the Week 1 performance by the offensive line, a questionable offensive strategy, and the loss of most of the team’s receiving options, such a prediction would go strongly against the evidence we’ve seen so far. Offensively, the more likely scenario is that Michigan’s big, athletic defensive front gives the offensive line as much trouble or more than Montana did a week ago. Dylan Morris continues to struggle with constant pressure, which prevents him from getting balls downfield. Perhaps the run game can show signs of life with a dose of Sean McGrew and some play calls outside the tackles. If they can extend drives on the ground, the scarcity of receiving options won’t matter as much. Altogether, it’s hard to use the evidence of Week 1 to predict much offensive explosion in Week 2.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, there is a bit more reason for optimism. The pass rush didn’t get home against Montana and didn’t contain the edge, but they did show an ability to get some push. Jackson Sirmon looked much better at ILB after spending last year as the unit’s whipping boy. Trent McDuffie looked as dominant as ever in the secondary. Michigan ran the ball down WMU’s throat in Week 1. The Dawgs will need their interior DL to hold up against the run to free up the ILBs to clean up plays. I think the defense will be fine, but not enough to overcome the lack of offense.

Michigan 28 – UW 17