Oregon gets all the publicity in the Pac-12, but it's Stanford that is the conference's two-time champion. Sportsbooks list the Ducks as the +150 favorites to win the title this season, tied for the longest odds of an Power 5 conference favorite.
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The Pac-12 Championship Game has only been around for three seasons and it previously was held on the campus of the top overall seed, obviously a huge advantage -- although it didn't help host Arizona State last year against Stanford (previous two hosts won). It will be at a neutral site going forward, with this year's game at the San Francisco 49ers' new Levi's Stadium. The Pac-12 had been the only power conference not to hold its championship game at a neutral site.
It would be a minor upset if it's not an Oregon-UCLA matchup on Dec. 5 in Santa Clara, Calif. The Bruins are part of the field at -190, so clearly the sportsbooks aren't super-confident in the Ducks. Oregon does bring back nine starters on what is annually one of the nation's most high-powered offenses. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is the +725 second-favorite on college football odds to be Oregon's first Heisman winner. He might have been the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft had Mariota declared.
Mariota does lose his top receiver in Josh Huff (62 catches, 1,140 yards, 12 TDs), but the Ducks have perhaps the best 1-2 running back punch in the nation west of Alabama with Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner. They won't even miss the departed De'Anthony Thomas. Five starters are back on defense, led by All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Oregon plays one of the most anticipated non-conference games of the season against Michigan State on Sept. 6. Those two teams couldn't be much more different stylistically. Realistically, the only shot the Ducks have of being underdogs during the season is Oct. 11 at UCLA. Nemesis Stanford visits Eugene this season. No USC or Arizona State on the schedule. Oregon has a wins total of 10 (doesn't include conference title game or bowl), with the 'over' a -130 favorite.
UCLA brings back its own Heisman candidate QB who likely would have been a first-round pick in the 2014 draft: Brett Hundley. He is one of nine offensive starters back and that doesn't even include linebacker/running back Myles Jack, who was only the Pac-12 Defensive and Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2013. The defense brings back seven starters but will miss excellent linebacker Anthony Barr, a first-round pick of the Vikings. The Bruins have two challenging non-conference games, opening at Virginia (as 21-point favorites) and visiting Texas in Week 3. UCLA has the disadvantage of having to play both Oregon and Stanford from the North Division. Both are at the Rose Bowl at least. Road games at Arizona State and Washington will be challenges as well.
Stanford manages to keep winning despite incredibly difficult academic standards that generally means the Cardinal aren't able to land the best recruits. David Shaw has done remarkable work building on what Jim Harbaugh started. The Cardinal seem to be in the heads of Oregon as they simply blow the Ducks off both sides of the ball when the two play. Strength and size have beaten out speed in the past two meetings, although Michigan State gave Stanford a dose of its own medicine in the Spartans' Rose Bowl win.
Stanford brings back QB Kevin Hogan and leading receiver Ty Montgomery. However, workhorse running back Tyler Gaffney (330 carries, 1,709 yards, 21 TDs) and a chunk of the offensive line are gone. The Cardinal have a really tough schedule. They have to play the likely top three from the South in USC (home), Arizona State (road) and UCLA (road) as well as traveling to Oregon, Washington and Notre Dame out of conference. That's a beast.
Southern Cal might have an outside shot of beating out UCLA in the South Division in Coach Steve Sarkisian's first season. Fourth-year junior Cody Kessler won the quarterback battle this spring with Max Wittek transferring out. No surprise as Kessler started every game last season and shredded Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Trojans, who have to visit Stanford and UCLA, probably are a few years away after dealing with all the scholarship reductions.
College football picks: Our recommended betting picks start with Oregon 'over' 10 wins, and the Ducks to beat UCLA in the Pac-12 title game. Thus also take the Ducks at +120 to make the four-team College Football Playoff.