Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, August 27, 2016 at 11:28 AM
WHY ISN'T VEGAS EXCITED ABOUT ARIZONA?
Rich Rodriguez is entering his fifth year at Arizona. He's never failed to win at least seven games and he's taken a team to both a Pac-12 Championship Game and to the Fiesta Bowl (both in 2014). He's got a quarterback both explosive and experienced in Anu Solomon and veterans at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. So why isn't Las Vegas more excited?
Arizona is a 40-1 shot to win a conference title in a year the Pac-12 has no clear frontrunner. The Over/Under for wins is only 6 with a (-110) price on either side of that number. What gives?
Perhaps it's a lack of regard for Rodriguez's ability to produce a good defense, a skepticism that is firmly grounded in past results. Last season was another year with a sieve for a D, as the Wildcats ranked 107th in the country in points allowed. They were terrible against both the run and the pass.
From a talent standpoint, while Rodriguez has done a respectable job recruiting, the talent base at Arizona lags well behind what's available at Pac-12 South rivals USC and UCLA and also behind in-state rival Arizona State.
The problems on both defense and overall talent were never more apparent than last September 26. Arizona was hosting UCLA and Tucson was abuzz. ESPN sent the Gameday crew and oddsmakers saw the game virtually even, with the Wildcats only a one-point underdog. UCLA had just lost its great linebacker, Myles Jack, for the season. By the time the night was over, Arizona had taken a 56-30 pounding. One week later, for a national ESPN audience, they lost to Stanford 55-17. The Wildcats didn't really recover on the field and they haven't recovered any esteem in the eyes of the betting market
So the doubts about Arizona are well-founded, and as tempting as a 40-1 price looks with a coach who's at least a proven winner and in an open league race, we have to suggest waiting until we see how Arizona matches up with BYU on September 3.
The Over/Under of 6 is bit more intriguing. Rodriguez has been a head coach for 14 years and only failed to win seven games in his first two years at Michigan, when he was a complete misfit for both the talent and the culture. Those were an anomaly.
But can the Wildcats get those wins in the regular season? They can certainly be expected to beat Colorado at home and win at Oregon State, both in November. They can be expected to beat Grambling and Hawaii at home in September.
That leaves three more victories to get in the following games: BYU, Washington (Chris Petersen's best team in Seattle), at UCLA, at Utah, USC, Stanford, at Washington State and Arizona State.
Utah has to rebuild a bit, but we'd feel a lot better about the game if it were in Tucson. As far as the finale against Arizona State, it's concerning that last year Arizona lost to their archrival by 15 points at a point when the Sun Devils were fading fast.
It's certainly doable for Arizona to go Over 6, especially considering that the bowl matchups available for Pac-12 teams that go 6-6 are usually manageable dates against Mountain West teams, providing a little bit of insurance. We understand if bettors choose to go that route. But there's so much up in the air about the Wildcats that the best we can say is not to bet them to go Under and to at least put them on your radar as a conference longshot.
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ARIZONA STATE IS UNDERRATED
The betting market doesn't think too much of Arizona State. It's not that they've made the Sun Devils a 30-1 longshot to win the Pac-12 title (eighth in the league). It's the Over/Under of 5 on the wins total that's so striking. Consider the following...
*Arizona State has won at least six games (the minimum necessary to win an Over bet) for six straight seasons.
*That includes the last four years under head coach Todd Graham. If we dig further into Graham's past at Pitt, Tulsa and Rice we find that he has won at least six games in 10 of the 11 years. If the one off-year (2009 Tulsa) he still won five. That means to win an Under bet, Graham would have to have the worst year of his career.
Everybody has their worst year eventually, but what is it about this ASU team that makes it close to an assumption on the part of the market? There are problems to be sure. There's a very young offensive line with four new starters and there's uncertainty at quarterback. The defense ranked 99th in the country last year. When you consider that the 2015 team went 6-7, is assuming a decline all that unreasonable?
It's not unreasonable but there's more to the story. A lot went wrong in close games for the Sun Devils last year. They lost in triple-overtime to Oregon, by two to Cal and by one to West Virginia in a bowl game. And they still won six games. They were also good enough to beat UCLA, Washington and Arizona by double-digits.
Nor is there a lack of talent in Tempe. Graham has recruited well since his arrival. The junior and sophomore classes in particular, on whom so much of this season depends, were highly regarded upon their arrival. Some of them - like running back Demario Richard, an 1100-yard rusher in 2015 have already made a significant impact. More will get their opportunity in 2016.
The offensive line might have to be rebuilt, but after finishing 113th in the country in sacks allowed, it can't get much worse. Admittedly, that's not a ringing endorsement, but nor should it be cited as a reason to assume ASU will decline.
Finally, the schedule is marginally easier than last year. Arizona State opened the 2015 season with a road-neutral game against Texas A&M in Houston. They replace that this season with a home date against Texas Tech. The two other non-conference opponents are Northern Arizona and UT-San Antonio. The Sun Devils will have at least two wins and quite possibly three by the time league play even begins.
And even if Arizona State is rebuilding is there a reason they can't win at Colorado? Or at home against Cal, who lost Jared Goff to the NFL? Or Utah, which is doing some retooling of their own and hasn't recruited nearly as well as ASU over the last four years? We've already identified six very winnable spots for Arizona State and that assumes they won't win any others.
There are concerns at ASU, to be sure. When it comes to handicapping them game-to-game, we'll have our eye on all of those issues we've listed here and more. But in taking a broad view of the season it's tough to make the case that we should assume this will be the worst year in Todd Graham's coaching career.