Pac-12 Season Projections: USC Goes 9-0, Defeats Oregon in Pac-12 Championship Game

Only in Bizarro World does USC suffer two years of sanctions and emerge as the the best team in the nation. Will they head to the Rose Bowl or the National Championship Game?

Schedule. Schedule. Schedule.

Never underestimate the importance of the schedule in determining who will finish atop a hotly contested conference race. Cal, Washington, and Stanford will all battle furiously for the second-place position behind Oregon in the Pac-12 North. With the conference's 9-game schedule, teams will always have an uneven split between road and home games. In this three-way battle for second, Cal enjoys 5 homes games while UW and Stanford each have 4. Worse yet for the Huskies and Lobsterbacks, one of those precious home games is a near-automatic loss against USC. Even worse for them, they both have to travel to Berkeley for pivotal games in determining the conference standings. Stanford has it worst of all, though, as they battle both Washington and Cal on the road. With such parity among the three teams, a difference in schedule could play all the difference down the stretch.

A few weeks ago we solicited game-by-game predictions from fans throughout the Pac-12. Each respondent picked the winner of each of the conference's 54 games. The results indicate that scheduling plays a big role in determining where Cal, UW, and Stanford line up in the conference pecking order. Against their top three competitors in the conference, Cal hosts all three and is expected to go 2-1, UW has two home games and is expected to go 1-2, and Stanford has to visit all its top division rivals and is expected to go 0-3. As we see in the standings below, this gives the advantage to the Bears, who tie UW for second in the conference. Stanford's brutal schedule pushes them to a disappointing (assuming someone will actually be disappointed if Stanford falls on its face) 4th place finish.

Things are less exciting in the South as a clear hierarchy emerges. The biggest surprise is an upstart Utah finishing second (likely with 9 or 10 wins).

Final Standings

Pac-12 North Pac-12 South
1. Oregon (8-1) 1. USC (9-0)
2. Cal (6-3)* 2. Utah (7-2)
2. Washington (6-3) 3. Arizona (4-5)
4. Stanford (5-4) 4. UCLA (3-6)
5. Oregon State (2-7) 5. Arizona State (2-7)
5. Washington State (2-7) 6. Colorado (1-8)

*Cal wins the head-to-head tiebreaker with UW

Join us after the jump as we go through each week of the Pac-12 schedule and see who gets picked to win each game. Overall, our game-by-game predictions weren't too bad last year and I'm sure our game predictions each week will put Ted Miller's weekly predictions to shame (yes, that's a challenge).

Week 3

USC (0-0) at Stanford (0-0): USC (95.22%) def. Stanford (4.78%)

Observations: After enjoying some post-Luck era euphoria following a near-certain win over San Jose State and a probable win over Duke, the Trees are due for a rude awakening when they begin conference play against the top-ranked Trojans.

Week 4

Utah (0-0) at Arizona State (0-0): Utah (90.00%) def. ASU (10.00%)

Oregon State (0-0) at UCLA (0-0): UCLA (83.48%) def. Oregon State (16.52%)

Cal (0-0) at USC (1-0): USC (90.87%) def. Cal (9.13%)

Colorado (0-0) at Washington State (0-0): Washington State (95.18%) def. Colorado (4.78%)

Arizona (0-0) at Oregon (0-0): Oregon (99.57%) def. Arizona (0.43%)

Observations: It's tough to envision any upsets here. Unfortunately, the first full weekend of conference matchups will probably lack drama and excitement.

Week 5

Stanford (0-1) at Washington (0-0): Washington (71.74%) def. Stanford (28.26%)

Oregon State (0-1) at Arizona (0-1): Arizona (62.17%) def. Oregon State (37.83%)

Arizona State (0-1) at Cal (0-1): Cal (98.70%) def. ASU (1.30%)

UCLA (1-0) at Colorado (0-1): UCLA (65.65%) def. Colorado (34.35%)

Oregon (1-0) at Washington State (1-0): Oregon (96.96%) def. Washington State (3.04%)

Observations: This is a great "measuring stick" weekend for several teams. Will Arizona take care of business against the Beavers? Will Wazzu be competitive through halftime against the Ducks? And the most interesting question of all: who wins the UW-Stanford game? The loser of that one will have a tough, tough time climbing back into the top half of the Pac-12 North standings.

Week 6

USC (2-0) at Utah (1-0): USC (61.74%) def. Utah (38.26%)

Arizona (1-1) at Stanford (0-2): Stanford (95.22%) def. Arizona (4.78%)

UCLA (2-0) at Cal (1-1): Cal (93.48%) at UCLA (6.52%)

Washington State (1-1) at Oregon State (0-2): Oregon State (51.74%) def. Washington State (48.26%)

Washington (1-0) at Oregon (2-0): Oregon (95.22%) def. Washington (4.78%)

Observations: Surprisingly, this is the fewest votes USC receives all season (including the game against Oregon). It looks like if USC is upset at all this season, the Utah game is the likeliest candidate. Elsewhere Oregon continues its winning streak over Washington and the Beavers battle the Cougs in an intriguing matchup. I'm not a Beaver Believer this year and I expect Wazzu to notch the upset.

Week 7

Arizona State (0-2) at Colorado (0-2): Colorado (55.22% def. Arizona State (44.78%)

Utah (1-1) at UCLA (2-1): Utah (80.00%) def. UCLA (20.00%)

USC (3-0) at Washington (1-1): USC (86.96%) Washington (13.04%)

Cal (2-1) at Washington State (1-2): Cal (73.04%) def. Washington State (26.96%)

Observations: Someone is going to be upset this weekend--take your pick. (please don't let it be the Bears)

Week 8

Oregon (3-0) at Arizona State (0-3): Oregon (98.26%) def. Arizona State (1.74%)

Washington (1-2) at Arizona (1-2): Washington (80.43%) def. Arizona (19.57%)

Stanford (1-2) at Cal (3-1): Cal (74.78%) def. Stanford (25.22%)

Colorado (1-2) at USC (4-0): USC (99.57%) def. Colorado (0.43%)

Utah (2-1) at Oregon State (1-2): Utah (80.87%) def. Oregon State (19.13%)

Observations: Having gotten its USC and Oregon losses out of the way, UW begins its steady climb back up the conference standings. Meanwhile the Bears reclaim the Axe and hand Stanford its third conference loss in four games.

Week 9

UCLA (2-2) at Arizona State (0-4): Arizona State (54.35%) def. UCLA (45.65%)

USC (5-0) at Arizona (1-3): USC (98.26%) def. Arizona (1.74%)

Washington State (1-3) at Stanford (1-3): Stanford (90.00%) def. Washington State (10.00%)

Cal (4-1) at Utah (3-1): Utah (63.04% def. Cal (36.96%)

Oregon State (1-3) at Washington (2-2): Washington (93.48%) def. Oregon State (6.52%)

Colorado (1-3) at Oregon (4-0): Oregon (99.13%) def. Colorado (0.87%)

Observations:

This is a huge weekend for Utah and Cal. The Utes will probably own a 6-1 record coming into this game while the Bears will be 6-2; both will be ranked if they have six wins. Either team would be knocked out of the division title race with a loss this weekend. Early in the fourth quarter of last year's game, Cal led 34-0. Of course, we all know road Cal and home Cal are two completely different teams. A win here could propel either team to a 9-win season.

Just a few days before November begins, bottom-feeder ASU finally earns its first conference win under Todd Graham!

Week 10

Washington (3-2) at Cal (4-2): Cal (72.61%) def. Washington (27.39%)

Arizona (1-4) at UCLA (2-3): UCLA (83.91%) Arizona (16.09%)

Oregon (5-0) at USC (6-0): USC (75.65%) def. Oregon (24.35%)

Stanford (2-3) at Colorado (1-4): Stanford (92.61%) def. Colorado (7.39%)

Arizona State (1-4) at Oregon State (1-4): Oregon State (74.78%) def Arizona State (25.22%)

Washington State (1-4) at Utah (4-1): Utah (87.83%) def. Washington State (12.17%)

Observations:

This will be a big weekend in the conference. If Cal loses to UW, the Huskies will likely finish second in the North. A Cal win will keep the Bears in the North title hunt.

Down in LA, the Ducks and Trojans give us a Pac-12 Championship Game preview. The winner gets home field advantage when they face each other again four weeks later.

Week 11

Colorado (1-5) at Arizona (1-5): Arizona (82.61%) def. Colorado (17.39%)

Oregon State (2-4) at Stanford (3-3): Stanford (95.22%) def. Oregon State (4.78%)

Oregon (5-1) at Cal (5-2): Oregon (73.04%) def. Cal (26.96%)

Arizona State (1-5) at USC (7-0): USC (99.57%) def. Arizona State (0.43%)

Utah (5-1) at Washington (3-3): Washington (55.65%) def. Utah (44.35%)

UCLA (3-3) at Washington State (1-5): Washington State (75.22%) def. UCLA (24.78%)

Observations: Oregon-Cal and Utah-Washington will have big implications for the Pac-12 North. An unlikely upset from the Bears could put them in the driver's seat for the Pac-12 Championship Game. Meanwhile UW will have to fight off Utah in order to remain in the top half of the North Standings. If both teams are healthy, this will be an exciting match.

Week 12

Washington State (2-5) at Arizona State (1-6): Arizona State (55.22%) def. Washington State (44.78%)

USC (8-0) at UCLA (3-4): USC (94.78%) def. UCLA (5.22%)

Washington (4-3) at Colorado (1-6): Washington (90.43%) def. Colorado (9.57%)

Cal (5-3) at Oregon State (2-5): Cal (80.00%) def. Oregon State (20.00%)

Arizona (2-5) at Utah (5-2): Utah (91.30%) def. Arizona (8.70%)

Stanford (4-3) at Oregon (6-1): Oregon (96.09%) def. Stanford (3.91%)

Observations:

The WSU-ASU game should determine whether the Cougs earn bowl eligibility. If they sweep their OOC slate, then this could lock up bowl eligibility heading into next week's UW game. With its bowl chances shot (and Graham likely on the way to his next coaching destination), ASU may not have much to play for here.

Meanwhile, USC caps its perfect season and Cal earns its first winning conference record since 2009.

Week 13

Utah (6-2) at Colorado (1-7): Utah (84.35%) def. Colorado (15.65%)

Washington (5-3) at Washington State (2-6): Washington (63.48%) def. Washington State (36.52%)

Arizona State (2-7) at Arizona (3-5): Arizona (71.74) def. Arizona State (28.26%)

Stanford (4-4) at UCLA (3-5): Stanford (75.22%) def. UCLA (24.78%)

Oregon (7-1) at Oregon State (2-6): Oregon (97.83%) def. Oregon State (2.17%)

Observations: Arizona battles to secure bowl eligibility (assuming they go 2-1 OOC). Meanwhile Leach hosts what could be the most important game of the year for the Cougs (and the most exciting Apple Cup since that 2008 thriller). If they go 2-1 OOC, this will determine whether or not they earn a bowl invitation. UW should be slightly favored, however.

This brings us to our final standings.

Final Standings

Pac-12 North Pac-12 South
1. Oregon (8-1) 1. USC (9-0)
2. Cal (6-3)* 2. Utah (7-2)
2. Washington (6-3) 3. Arizona (4-5)
4. Stanford (5-4) 4. UCLA (3-6)
5. Oregon State (2-7) 5. Arizona State (2-7)
5. Washington State (2-7) 6. Colorado (1-8)

*Cal wins the head-to-head tiebreaker with UW

As expected, Oregon and USC win their respective divisions. The hard-fought battle for second in the North ends in a tie as Cal and UW finish 6-3. At 5-4, the Stanford hype train fell off the rails early on and never recovered. Leach's debut fizzles and Mike Riley suffers another disappointing season (possibly his last).

The Pac-12 South doesn't look like it's due for a particularly exciting season. USC cruises to victory, Utah surprises with a 9 or 10-win season, RichRod elevates Arizona to bowl eligibility, and the rest of the South teams wonder if they made the right coaching decisions...

Another way to try to determine who will finish where is to add up the votes each team received for each of its games. This could give us a more accurate forecast. For example, a team picked by 51% of respondents to win each conference game would finish 9-0 in the above standings, despite earning only 4.59 wins if we add up the percentages.

Expected Number of Wins

Pac-12 North Pac-12 South
1. Oregon (7.80) 1. USC (8.03)
2. Cal (5.66) 2. Utah (6.60)
3. Stanford (5.10) 3. UCLA (3.6)
4. Washington (5.00) 4. Arizona (2.68)
5. Washington State (3.52) 5. Arizona State (2.21)
6. Oregon State (1.82) 6. Colorado (1.46)

The top two teams stay put in each division, but Stanford leapfrogs the Huskies and UCLA vaults from 4th to 3rd. The bottom two from each division remain in the cellar.

Comparing the two sets of standings yields some useful insight. First we'll look at those teams with the biggest difference between their finish in the final standings and their expected number of wins. Like our hypothetical team which goes 9-0 despite being picked by a narrow majority, these teams earn their wins in closely fought contests (instead of blowout victories). As a result, they're most likely to suffer upsets in these close matches.

Most Likely to Be Upset Over the Course of the Season:

  1. Arizona (-1.32)
  2. UW (-1.00)
  3. USC (-0.97)

As they are picked to finish 9-0, USC is an obvious choice here. UW and Arizona, however, earn several of their wins in tough, closely contested games. Some bad luck or an ill-timed turnover could see each team dropping a winnable game or two.

Most Likely to Do the Upsetting Over the Course of the Season

  1. Washington State (+1.52)
  2. UCLA (+0.60)
  3. Colorado (+0.46)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, these are the teams whose final records are most heavily determined by losses in close games (as opposed to blowout losses). If juju smiles upon them, they could easily notch an upset or two and move up a spot in the standings.

Before we move onto the Pac-12 Championship Game, let's highlight some intriguing games. First, we'll look at the games with the most consensus.

Pac-12's Most One-Sided Fights
  1. Week 8: Colorado (0.43%) @ USC (99.57%)
  2. Week 11: Arizona State (0.43%) @ USC (99.57%)
  3. Week 4: Arizona (0.43%) @ Oregon (99.57%)
  4. Week 5: Arizona State (1.30%) @ Cal (98.70)
  5. Week 8: Arizona State (1.74%) @ Oregon (98.26%)
  6. Week 9: Arizona (1.74%) @ USC (98.26%)
One thing clearly stands out: the Pac-12 South is going to be TERRIBLE this year. All of the teams receiving the fewest votes belong to the southern division. It looks like it will be a bad year to be a college football fan in the state of Arizona.

Coin Flips
  1. Week 6: Washington State (48.26%) @ Oregon State (51.74%)
  2. Week 7: Arizona State (44.78%) @ Colorado (55.22%)
  3. Week 9: UCLA (45.65%) @ Arizona State (54.35%)
  4. Week 11: Utah (44.35) @ Washington (55.65%)
  5. Week 12: Washington State (44.78%) @ Arizona State (55.22%)

These are our five closest games. Probably not by coincidence, all five go to the home team. The Utah-UW game is the most intriguing, as this is Utah's only predicted loss besides the USC game. It is also a pivotal game if UW wants to finish second in the North. Featured twice on this list, the Cougs will probably notch the upset in at least one of these games.

Pac-12 Championship Game

In a new twist this year, I asked respondents to provide some info on the Pac-12 Championship Game. I asked them to list who would win each division and to pick the winner of the conference. The results mostly fall in line with the standings from above.

Picks to Win Each Division

Pac-12 North Pac-12 South
1. Oregon (83.91%) 1. USC (74.78%)
2. Cal (12.61%) 2. Utah (24.78%)
3. Oregon State (1.74% ‽‽‽‽) 3. UCLA (0.43%)
4. Stanford (0.87%) 4. Arizona (0.00%)
5. Washington (0.43%) 4. Arizona State (0.00%)
6. Washington State (0.43%) 4. Colorado (0.00%)

I'm not sure where these Oregon State homers have been hiding this offseason, but they certainly made their voices heard in these results! I'm surprised 1 out of 4 picked Utah to win the South. I can't see anyone topping the USC juggernaut this season.

It's not inconceivable that Cal wins the North. Oregon is likely to lose to USC. If Cal upsets Oregon they will both likely finish 7-2, thus sending the Bears to the Pac-12 Championship Game. It's unlikely, but stranger things have happened (who would have predicted UCLA in last year's Pac-12 Championship Game?)

Now let's see who you all picked to win the conference.

Who Wins the Pac-12 Championship Game?

1. USC (48.70%)
2. Oregon (24.35%)
3. Utah (16.52%)
4. Cal (9.13%)
5. Oregon State (0.87%)
6. Washington State (0.43%)
7. Washington (0.00%)
7. Stanford (0.00%)
7. UCLA (0.00%)
7. Arizona (0.00%)
7. Arizona State (0.00%)
7. Colorado (0.00%)

No surprise here: USC and Oregon are the favorites, followed by Utah and Cal who have an outside shot. Again, these Oregon State homers cannot be silenced!

Thanks to all you Pac-12 fans who participated! Your input was much appreciated for this final set of preseason predictions before we get to watch some actual football. Thanks again, and may you all fall before the sturdy Golden Bears this fall.

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