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Who’s the Dark Horse in the Pac-12 this year?

Since head coach Chris Peterson and the Washington Huskies made an impressive run in 2016, the Pac-12 has been relatively quiet, failing to reach the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons. Their bowl games haven’t fared much better, with the conference combining for a record of 4-12 in the two-year span. Call it a stretch of bad luck. Call it whatever you want — but the time is now for some up-and-coming programs to make some noise and lift the Pac-12 from the basement of the Power 5 conferences.

According to FanDuel Sportsbook, the Pac-12 is a three-horse race this season between Washington, the Oregon Ducks and the Utah Utes — all currently at 3-1 odds. The Huskies are the defending champions, Oregon is returning a Heisman trophy candidate at quarterback with Justin Herbert and Utah has a retooled squad that was a few big plays away from winning the conference last year. But the season doesn’t always go the way the sportsbooks envision it. Who are the under-the-radar teams with tasty odds that can challenge the Pac-12 throne?

Washington State Cougars +900

With all eyes on Washington and Oregon in the North division, Washington State’s recent run of success under head coach Mike Leach has basically gone undocumented — perfect for a gambler looking for a dark horse. The Cougars actually controlled their own destiny last season, peaking at no. 10 in the AP top-25 with only one loss, before a late-season stumble at the hands of the Huskies pushed them out of the Pac-12 championship picture.

The loss of star quarterback Gardner Minshew will sting but Leach has been known to plug in any signal-caller in his dynamic Air Raid offensive attack to astounding results. One year with Minshew under center produced the top passing offense in the country, totaling 373 yards per game through the air and 39 total touchdowns. Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud is stepping into an offensive scheme where he will be given the green light to sling the ball on almost every down. Look for much of the same offensive success to continue this season.

The Cougars are also coming back with many of the same playmakers involved in last year’s magical run, with seven starters returning on offense and six on defense. Washington State’s receiving core, led by Davontavean Martin and Dezmon Patmon, are among the most talented in the conference and the offensive line was terrific in pass coverage last season. The defense will continue to improve with veterans up and down the depth chart. If Washington State can survive a brutal road schedule, featuring the Utes, Ducks, and the rival Huskies, they’ll be nipping at the heels of the conference’s elite — ready for one to stumble.

Stanford Cardinal +1600

When studying potential dark horse teams, I look for proven head coach-quarterback combos that are on undervalued programs with a track record of success. Stanford checks all of those boxes. Head coach David Shaw, in his nine years coaching the Cardinal, has led his squad to under nine wins only once. This season, he gets another year with one of the conference’s most capable field generals in K.J. Costello. At 16-1 odds, this feels too good to be true.

When the staple Stanford power rushing attack hit a wall last season, with star halfback Bryce Love unable to stay on the field due to injuries, Shaw rode the arm of Costello to four straight wins to close the year. Costello was brought on as a middle man whose job was mainly to transfer the ball from the center to the premier running backs, but his efficiency and playmaking ability has made the senior a force to be reckoned with in the Pac-12. Shaw still wants the offensive attack to be balanced, however, and tailback Cameron Scarlett is willing and able to be the bulldozer between the tackles to keep opposing defenses honest this season.

While linebackers appear to be a huge question mark for the Cardinal, the defensive line is not planning on missing a beat. Standout defensive end Jovan Swann is looking to build off his impressive 4.5 sacks in 2018 and the pass rush has something to prove after ending last season 23rd in the country in sacks. Stanford has one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the NCAA, but luckily, none of those count towards competing for a berth in the Pac-12 championship game. Their conference slate gets much easier, with seven home games, including hosting preseason favorites Oregon and Washington. After being thrown into the fire early in the season, I expect Stanford to bounce back during Pac-12 matchups and be right in the thick of the North division race.

UCLA Bruins +3000

In gambling, sometimes the smartest thing to do is to throw a couple of bucks at a longshot flier and hope for the best. At the surface, banking on the Bruins, who started their 2018 campaign 0-5, is just throwing money away — but hear me out. Head coach Chip Kelly’s squad dramatically improved during the second half of the season, salvaging a potentially catastrophic collapse, beating California, Arizona, and USC while also going toe-to-toe with Washington, ASU, and Stanford in one-possession losses. UCLA was much better than their record suggested and in a South division with just Utah and a bloodbath of other squads, the Bruins could emerge as a surprise turnaround team this season.

The scoring didn’t come as naturally for UCLA as some of Kelly’s old Oregon squads, but that doesn’t mean a dangerous offensive attack is unfathomable this season. Breakout running back Joshua Kelley is one of the most talented rushers in the conference after posting 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns, and he’ll be in great shape behind a formidable interior offensive line. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has a year under his belt in the Kelly system and his dual-threat capabilities have the potential to burn opposing defenses week in and week out. The Bruin defense returns nine starters, including a skilled defensive back unit led by cornerbacks Elijah Gates and Darnay Holmes with hard-hitting safety Quentin Lake as the last line of defense. UCLA has the talent to improve, the question is, by how much?

Compared to most of its conference foes, the Bruins have among the easiest Pac-12 slates, avoiding both potential powerhouses Oregon and Washington. UCLA still has a couple challenging road assignments in Stanford and Utah, but with most of the South division beating each other up all season, the underdogs have a shot. If the Bruins can steal a couple of games on the road and keep up with the Utes in the division race, there’s a chance UCLA can claw their way into the Pac-12 Championship — and then who knows? All I know is, at 30-1 odds, risking a little cash for the potential of a high payoff isn’t the dumbest thing in the world.

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