The Pac-12 North is fairly easy to predict, as no team really stands a shot at going duck hunting. The Pac-12 South is the polar opposite, as 5 teams could realistically make a run at winning the division. The only thing almost for certain is that the lowly Colorado Buffaloes will finish 6th, but ASU, UCLA, USC, Arizona and Utah all could claim they have the best chance at winning the division.
1. Arizona State
I reiterate that you could make an argument for 5 teams to finish atop the South. I just happen to like ASU’s argument the best. While the Sun Devils do lose starter Taylor Kelly, backup Mike Bercovici played plenty last year, throwing for 1445 yards and 12 touchdowns, so there shouldn’t be a large drop off. Leading rusher D.J. Foster is back, though he will likely play more wideout this year with the departure of Jaelen Strong. One interesting thing to watch for the Sun Devils is how the offensive line will adjust to a less mobile quarterback, as Bercovici is much more of a pocket passer than Kelly. On the opposite side of the football, ASU returns breakout safety Jordan Simone who went from a walk on at Washington State, to being on the Thorpe list for this season. The Devils also return starters at nearly every position besides Strong Safety, Spur (Inside Linebacker) and Devil (Defensive End). Those returning starters include top tacklers Antonio Longino and Salamo Fiso along with interception leader Kweishi Brown. ASU starts the season with a big test against Texas A&M in Houston, a game which should say a lot as to whether or not ASU can hang with the big boys. It’s going to be a dogfight all season, and there really isn’t much room for error, but the Sun Devils should be able to get themselves into the Championship Game against the mighty Ducks.
Player to Watch: Jordan Simone, SS
I’ll be honest, I’m just not buying into all the Cody Kessler hype. I’m not going to debate that he’s good, because 39 touchdowns isn’t anything to scoff at. It just seems that we’ve seen this USC hype a billion times, and afterwards people realize the QB whether it was Matt Barkley or Mark Sanchez lacks the team around him to be stellar. SC lost most of their receiving corps and running back Javorious Allen, which could make Kessler’s job a little tougher with an inexperienced group of receivers. However, USC does return their entire offensive line, and freshman standout JuJu Smith who was 2nd on the team with 724 receiving yards last year. The Trojans do have the offensive pieces to be very good, but not quite enough to overcome ASU. Meanwhile on defense, USC is going to have figure out how to replace All-American Leonard Williams and leading tackler Hayes Pullard. Highly regarded SLB Su’A Cravens does return though along with Anthony Sarao who plays opposite of him. In the secondary, cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson and Kevon Seymour return after combining to break up 23 passes last season. SC does have help in a very weak OOC schedule, but doesn’t get much help in conference as they miss Washington State and bottom feeder OSU. The Trojans will likely have a good season, and it may come down to the wire but they won’t quite be able to beat out ASU.
Player to Watch: JuJu Smith, WR
If Brett Hundley was coming back, UCLA would be the easy pick to win the South. The Bruins bring back their entire offense including Paul Perkins, Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte who were among UCLA’s leaders offensively last season. Top notch center Jake Brendel will anchor the Bruin line, who should help provide good protection and help freshman QB Josh Rosen get adjusted to Pac-12 football. Rosen is held in very high regard by college experts, but like I mentioned in the North article, it’s too tough to predict that a QB will be able to fully adjust to a new system, especially against top tier competition. UCLA did take two big losses defensively as star ILB Eric Kendricks moved on to the NFL as did defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa (say that 5 times fast.) Both will be tough to replace, but still looming in the middle of the field is the dynamic Myles Jack who was 2nd on the team in tackles last season, and led the team with 8 tackles for loss. Sack leader Deon Hollins is also still around, along with big Kenny Clark up the middle. Special teams haven’t been a focus in these articles, but it’s worth noting that Kai Fairbairn was a very solid 18-22 last year. The Bruins have a very good opportunity to still take the division, but it’s all going to come down to whether or not Rosen can adjust.
Player to Watch: Josh Rosen, QB
Arizona has a great crop of talent this coming season, but questions about their consistency and their defense is why they’re here. Arizona played some fantastic games last season, including stunning the Ducks at Autzen, but also laid a goose egg in a big game at the Rose Bowl against UCLA. Arizona should be able to score plenty, as their only real losses are Terris Jones-Grigsby and Austin Hill. Anu Solomon surprised as a freshman last year throwing for nearly 3800 yards, and will get his top two receivers Cayleb Jones and Samajie Grant back along with the speedy Trey Griffey. Phillip Wright, better known as Scooby was arguably the best defensive player in football last year, and has a chance to do even more in his junior year. The concern for the Wildcats comes with the amount of losses they have throughout the rest of the defense. Arizona only returns cornerback Jarvis McCall in their secondary, as top defensive backs Jourdon Grandon and Jared Tevis departed. Arizona will benefit from an easy out of conference schedule, and doesn’t play Oregon this year so they do have a good chance at a bowl game, but the losses on defense will prevent them from finishing at the top. As good as Scooby is, he’s only 1 guy.
Utah hasn’t been able to keep a quarterback healthy in years, and that’s why I can’t see them finishing above the 4 other teams. Travis Wilson has been the on and off starter for years, but is terribly inaccurate which in most situations classifies a quarterback as bad. As a matter of fact, Kendal Thompson is listed as the starter but he hasn’t shown signs of being much better as a passer. There are bright spots for the Utes though. Devontae Booker was stellar last season, and was named to the Heisman watch list. Kenneth Scott is back on the outside for Utah, but Dres Anderson and Kaelin Clay are gone, not that the Utes use their wideouts much. In addition 4/5 of the offensive line returns including senior center Siaosi Aiono. Utah takes a huge loss on the defensive side though with Nate Orchard graduating. Orchard registered 84 tackles, 18.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss last year, and his production won’t be easily replaced. Leading tackler Jared Norris will help, as will rover Gionni Paul but it will be still be a large void in the defense. Utah still should have a good season, and has a possibility to make a bowl, but they won’t be able to hang with the big boys.
Colorado may actually be a solid team, but unfortunately they are buried under the 5 other teams in the division. Nelson Spruce was terrific for the Buffs last year, and Sefo Liufau was steady, though he did have issues with interceptions. Colorado also will feature a brigade of running backs with Christian Powell, Michael Adkins II and Phillip Lindsay. Offense shouldn’t be any trouble for Colorado, and the games will certainly be exciting. Defense will be an issue however. Leading tacklers Kenneth Olugbode, Addison Gilliam, Chidobe Awuzzie, Tedric Thompson and Kenneth Crawley will be there to provide experience, but none of them are really better than solid. It’s been a rough few years for the Buffaloes, as they are only 10-39 since 2011. This could be a year they hit a respectable 4-8 or 5-7, but Colorado just doesn’t have the horses to hang with the best of the league.