The Pac-12 Conference features a couple of contenders every year. While the North Division boasts a majority of these, the South has a few of their own. Earlier, I previewed the North. Here, I’ll offer a preview of the Pac-12 South.
Fresh off a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State, the USC Trojans enter 2017 with sky-high expectations. Quarterback Sam Darnold returns, looking to build on an impressive 2016 campaign. He’s joined by wideout Deontay Burnett and tailback Ronald Jones II, both of whom played crucial roles in the team’s success last season.
Defensively, the Trojans return seven starters to a unit that ranked third in the Pac-12 a year ago. They should be better, with Washington losing much of their top-ranked defense to graduation or the NFL.
Their schedule is semi-favorable in the early going, with Western Michigan and Texas both in the rebuilding phase. Stanford will be a test, as will Washington State later in the season. Luckily, this team avoids Washington in the regular season.
Last season’s surprising Pac-12 South champion, the Colorado Buffaloes will be hard pressed to repeat 2016’s success. That’s made more difficult by the fact they lost eight starters off of a team that anchored an astounding turnaround from 2015.
On the offensive front, Steven Montez likely returns under center. He could have some competition though, with senior T.J. Patterson sitting out the past two years after transferring from Wyoming. The tailback duo of seniors Donovan Lee and Phillip Lindsay will be tasked with shouldering much of the load up front. Both have the ability to be game-changers, but Lee’s health could be a concern.
The one thing going for the Buffaloes is their schedule. It appears favorable early on, with Colorado State being their lone test in the early going. A late September game vs. Washington will serve as a measuring stick, with a win cementing Colorado’s place in not only the Pac-12 but also the College Football Playoff discussion. With the season winding to a close, USC comes calling. If all goes according to plan, that game has the potential to decide the Pac-12 South Division champion. That is if these guys don’t fall to Utah in the season’s final week.
A rising star in the Pac-12, the Utah Utes should continue their ascension up the Pac-12 ladder. Without running back Joe Williams, the team will look to sophomore Devonta’e Henry-Cole to carry the bulk of the weight. That could prove risky, as he has limited experience at the college level. He’ll be joined by senior Jordan Howard. Finally healthy after suffering a season-ending injury vs. Arizona last year, Howard looks to establish himself as an elite ball carrier. Barring injury, Henry-Cole and Howard have the ability to form a dynamic 1-2 punch for the Utes.
Defensively, the 2016 sack leaders must replace Hunter Dimick. Lucky for them, the Utes have no shortage of capable replacements. Filipo Mokofisi has the talent but needs to step up his game, while Lowell Lotulelie can be a stud if he can remain healthy. An injury forced him to miss spring practices. If he’s unable to remain on the field, Cody Ippolito could be the guy who steps up. The Arizona transfer has a lot of upside, though injuries are also an issue for him.
Schedule-wise, the Utes have an easy road early on. Their first month features games against North Dakota, BYU, and San Jose State, all of whom aren’t predicted to finish with good records. Even Arizona shouldn’t be too difficult, as they’re in a rebuilding phase. After that, things get dicey, with Stanford and USC in back-to-back weeks. A road game at Oregon could even be difficult, especially if the Ducks are rolling under a new coaching regime. The final three games might not decide the conference but could shake up the college football landscape pending the result of the Utes’ mid-November game at Washington.
For a team coming off an underwhelming 2016 campaign, the UCLA Bruins have made some changes. Head coach Jim Mora blew up his staff, bringing in a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach among others. That might not have been the culprit though, as injuries decimated a team filled with talent. Josh Rosen is healthy and looking to get back to the form shown early in his career when he set a number of Bruin marks. Right tackle Kolton Miller also returns after missing most of 2016 with a foot injury. Keep an eye on the development of wideout Theo Howard, as he could emerge as a receiving threat in 2017.
If you take a peek at their schedule, there’s a good chance the Bruins could let Mora go before entering October. Texas A&M, Hawaii and Memphis all could finish in the Associated Press Top 25. They then travel to Stanford before hosting Colorado. A 2-0 record is entirely possible, while 1-1 is the expected outcome. That sets them up for the final five-week push, featuring road games at Washington, USC, and Utah. A 3-0 record here all but guarantees the Bruins a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. 2-1 should be enough to signal UCLA is back and for real, while 1-2 says there’s more work to be done.
The Arizona State Sun Devils had a rough go of it in 2016, but there are reasons to think 2017 will be better. It all starts under center where Manny Wilkins has a slight edge over Brady White and Dillon Sterling-Cole. To complicate things further, Alabama transfer Blake Barnett added another layer to the competition. A competition that may not be settled until the season’s underway.
Glancing at the schedule, the first two games against New Mexico State and San Diego State should be gimme’s for any FBS team. Texas Tech poses a bit more of a challenge, but the Sun Devils should still be able to eke out a win. Then comes the five game gauntlet of Stanford, Washington, Utah, USC and Colorado. Going 3-2 during this daunting stretch should guarantee them a bowl berth. 2-3 makes things tedious, while 1-4 is a disaster that could bring about sweeping changes come 2018.
Coming off a season that saw them finish in the Pac-12 basement, the Arizona Wildcats are looking for anything that would point to progress being made. Running back Nick Wilson staying healthy would go a long way there, as he’s one of the league’s best backs on the field. The issue seems to be staying there. He set the Wildcats freshman rushing record and ranked in the top five among FBS freshman, but injuries cut his sophomore and junior seasons short.
The Wildcats schedule isn’t friendly past Game One. Houston went 9-3 in 2016 and are expected to remain in the upper echelon of college football. UTEP could go either way, as they’re going through a rebuilding phase themselves. When it comes to the conference schedule, Arizona will likely have a tough time beating anyone except Arizona State and possibly California. That might not be enough to earn them a bowl berth, but finishing above 3-9 is the goal here.
What are your thoughts on the Pac-12 South Division? Do you see any surprises? Can anyone knock off USC here? How do you feel things will stack up? Feel free to leave any of your thoughts in the comment section.