The Pac-12 South takes center stage on Saturday night, when ABC’s main nationally televised game will be UCLA-Arizona at 8 PM ET with Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit in the booth in Tucson. And there’s a late-night special across the state in Tempe when USC visits Arizona State (10:30 PM ET, ESPN). We’ll take a look at some keys for all four teams, from what to know when wagering on them, to what to watch for on the field.
The winner of this division title might well be in position to make the College Football Playoff when the conference championship games arrive the first Saturday in December, and these games will really start to sort it out. UCLA is favored by (-3.5) over Arizona, while USC is a (-5.5) road favorite at Arizona State.
UCLA: The Bruins are the most highly regarded team in the Pac-12 South right now, ranked #9 in the AP poll. That high regard has created problems for UCLA backers in Las Vegas though. Last season the Bruins were a miserable 4-8 against the spread (ATS) during the regular season and even though they’re 2-1 this year, it’s a very hairy 2-1.
The season opener was a 34-16 win over Virginia, a narrow cover as a (-18.5) favorite. Another close cover followed at UNLV, where UCLA won 37-3 while giving (-32.5). The Bruins came in as an (-11) favorite over BYU, and were picked to win and cover by ESPN Gameday’s Chris Fallica (“The Bear”) but had to rally just to pull out a 24-23 non-cover win. So the oddsmakers have either had UCLA’s games priced almost on the number or overestimate their strength.
What the Bruins do exceptionally well is run the football, something that’s been the case ever since Jim Mora Jr. took over as head coach. Paul Perkins saved the day against BYU with a 219-yard performance. He covered for a weak performance by freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, who has been prematurely announced as a Heisman contender.
After a strong outing in his debut against Virginia, Rosen was erratic against UNLV and awful against BYU. There’s nothing wrong that for a talented and developing freshman, but if the media is going to continue to talk about Rosen as though he’s ready for the NFL, it’s going to drive more people to bet on UCLA, which in turn will feed the issue of unreasonably high pointspreads for them to face.
If you’re uncomfortable with UCLA’s ATS history, but hesitant about going against them, the totals line is always another angle. A clear pattern emerges here. UCLA played 8 of its 12 regular season games last year to the Under, and all three games this season have gone Under. The total on Saturday night’s game with Arizona is 66.
ARIZONA: Another team that’s been overpriced lately, especially at home. Arizona was 5-8 ATS last regular season, including a Pac-12 championship loss at the hands of Oregon. It’s interesting to note that playing in Tucson, Arizona failed to cover in five of seven games. Yet they won six of those games outright. As we see so often, this isn’t about whether Arizona is a good football team, but why they’re so often favored by numbers they can’t cover in a win.
The problem persisted into this season. Arizona was favored by (-33.5) over UT-San Antonio to start the season and only won 42-32. Their defense suffered a huge blow when linebacker Scooby Wright, the best defensive player in the country, tore a meniscus. There are reports that Wright is practicing this week and hopes to get back on the field Saturday night. Whether he plays and how well is a significant X-factor in handicapping this game.
Arizona has since covered spreads as a favorite over Nevada and Northern Arizona and the Wildcats are getting brilliant quarterback play from Anu Solomon. Don’t overlook how well they’ve run the football too, with Nick Wilson emerging as a one of the top backs in the Pac-12. Now they have to again cover the number on their home field, but at least this time they’re getting, rather than giving the points.
Given Rich Rodriguez’s high tempo and the quality of this offense, it might surprise you to learn that Arizona played nine Unders last season.
USC: At this time last week, the Trojans were the Los Angeles team we were talking about as a Playoff contender, rather than UCLA. Then the USC defense went on the tank at home against Stanford. The Trojans were carved by Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan, who’s been a nice game manager over his four-year career, but has never reminded anyone of his predecessor, Andrew Luck. USC was also gashed on the ground, giving up 195 yards, although at least Stanford usually produces prolific running attacks against everyone.
Thus, for USC, our issue is very simple—can they play any defense? There are no concerns about Las Vegas overrating them—the Trojans were 7-5 ATS last season. One reason is that even when USC is a big favorite, quarterback Cody Kessler can light up the scoreboard with anyone. Kessler’s numbers are surreal—he’s completing almost 79 percent of his passes, getting 10.36 yards-per-attempt and sitting on a 10-0 TD/INT ratio. He’ll produce, but we have to find out if he’s going to need to score 45 every week to win in conference play.
The Over/Under can be a barometer of defensive improvement. It’s far from perfect—offensive ineptitude can also push a game Under, though as indicated above, there aren’t too many reasons to think that will be a problem for USC. And teams with good offenses naturally face higher totals lines. Last season, USC only went Over four times in a year they won eight games. The Stanford game went Over decisively and of course USC lost. It’s a trend to keep an eye on.
ARIZONA STATE: This is a team that oddsmakers have nailed right on the money. They were 6-6 ATS last year, 3-3 both home and away. If you look at the totals line, they had six Overs and six Unders, again evenly split between home and away. So far this season though, the Sun Devils had problems performing to expectations.
Arizona State opened the season in Houston as (+3) underdog to Texas A&M in a road-neutral environment. The number seemed to be holding, as the Sun Devils only trailed 17-14 after three quarters. But the inability to run the football caught up with them and the Aggies pulled away to a 37-17 win. ASU has since beaten Cal-Poly and New Mexico, but badly missed the number both times, winning 35-21 as a (-35) favorite and 34-10 as a (-25.5) favorite. Sun Devil games have also started going Under the total consistently.
All of these programs have reputations for their offenses in varying degrees, and you surely noticed the pattern that existed with games going Under. That underscores the importance of finding value and often bucking the trend of public opinion.
How many times have you been with a group of friends, looked at a game with two high-scoring offenses and someone jokingly says “Bet the over.”? It’s a simple remark, but illustrates the widespread belief that a high-scoring game will always go Over. Las Vegas watches games and scores too, and they’ve clearly adjusted to these offenses. We’ll see if that pattern holds on Saturday night.
Jim Hurley has been a successful public handicapper since 1985, when he began a Network that emphasized a team approach to handicapping. Hurley consults with statistical analysts, personnel experts and Vegas insiders to narrow the NFL and college cards down to the most bettable games each and every week. Visit him online at www.winningedge.com.