There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Pac-12 is one of the best conferences in the country. It has changed vastly since its conception, but one thing has always stayed the same: winning. After the addition of Utah and Colorado three years ago (how time flies), the Pac-12 was split into two divisions: North and South. Though the North division has produced the Pac-12 Conference champions each of those years, the South division has steadily narrowed the talent gap.
The 2014-2015 football season will have nationally-ranked teams in both divisions, but the two divisions will always have teams in the cellar who need a little bit of help getting up. Let’s take a look at how the Pac-12 South shakes out:
6. Colorado Buffaloes
The Buffaloes weren’t the worst team in the conference in 2013 (that honor went to the Cal Bears), which was a huge improvement for the team from 2012. Colorado ended the season 4-8 (1-8 in Pac-12 play) — amounting to three more wins than the previous year. While they may have only won three more games, the Buffs improved in almost every single statistical category — a testament to coach Mike MacIntyre‘s leadership and coaching abilities.
However, just because they improved in 2013, doesn’t mean that they are ready to fight for a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Colorado is a young team with little depth. The team’s star is Sophomore QB Sefo Liufau, who recorded 1,779 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman last year. If the Buffaloes can provide him consistent targets to throw to and a couple of running backs to depend on, the team could surprise more people than just their opponents.
Colorado’s schedule is not kind as they play @USC, UCLA, Washington, @Arizona and @Oregon in a five-game stretch from the middle of October to the end of November. There is a chance for the team to improve on its four wins from last year when the Buffaloes face Colorado State, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Cal and Utah. Maybe they’ll even pull off an upset or two when they meet Oregon State and Arizona.
5. Utah Utes
Last season the Utes were better than exactly two teams in the Pac-12, which put them in the No. 10 position in the conference rankings. That is not where Utah, a team that dominated in the Mountain West and came into the Pac-12 three years ago with high expectations, anticipated landing. Those dreams and expectations of Pac-12 dominance went down the drain quickly. The team only reached the post-season once (2011) since it joined the conference. Utah has, in fact, ended each season with a worse record than each previous year, which is not the direction the Utes or their fans want to be heading.
The simple fact is that the Pac-12 is deep, and the Pac-12 South is just as competitive as the Pac-12 North. To be considered anywhere near the top of the conference, a team needs to play consistently and win games — both of which the Utes have had trouble accomplishing. The same Utah team that beat Stanford last year lost to Arizona and Washington. The Utes came so close to winning against Oregon State until a meltdown in overtime ended that game with a loss.
On the bright side, Utah hired a new offensive coordinator this year in Dave Christensen, who is a very well-known and respected OC. Christensen needs to give the Utes a kick in the butt and start building the offensive line.
Focusing on the quarterbacks, last year’s starter Travis Wilson returns but has competition from Kendal Thompson, an Oklahoma transfer. On the defensive side, the team needs to get more consistent. If the defense played all its games the way it played against Stanford last year, let’s just say Utah’s place would be a little higher on this list.
4. Arizona Wildcats
In the two seasons since the Wildcats hired head coach Rich Rodriguez, the team has reached the post-season and placed fourth in the Pac-12 South both times. While not considered one of the worst teams in the conference, Arizona isn’t considered one of the elite, either. There has, however, been a lot of improvement and that gives the team and fans alike a reason to feel optimistic about the 2014 season.
Arizona is one of the only teams in the conference searching for a starting quarterback after losing B.J. Denker to graduation. On the bright side, the Wildcats have a host of choices for their next quarterback as three transfer QBs – Jerrard Randall from LSU, Connor Brewer from Texas and Jesse Scroggins from USC — are available, as well as freshman Anu Solomon. They also must replace running back Ka’Deem Carey, who was a leader and one of the team’s biggest stars.
‘Zona has experienced talent returning on the offensive line and a very well-known and feared defense. Last season, Arizona’s defense picked off 18 passes and returned five of those interceptions for touchdowns. Most of the line is made up of veterans and has depth, which will help enormously in case of injuries.
All of these pluses may make it seem like Arizona belongs higher on this list, but the teams ahead of the Wildcats have even more going for them and have proven that they deserve a slight edge.
3. Arizona State Sun Devils
Getting to the top three teams in the division, the competition gets a lot closer and it becomes harder to decide who deserves to be ranked in each position. The Sun Devils land at No. 3 because, while the team was good in 2013, going 10-4 (8-1 in Pac-12 play), it does lose its top two players on the defense and has a couple holes to fill in the offensive line.
The Sun Devils lost Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, two of the most aggressive players in the Pac-12, to the NFL to this year. While a few eager players are chomping at the bit to take their places, it’ll be interesting to see if the Sun Devils can retain the aggressive in-your-face defense they were known for last year.
On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Taylor Kelly returns for his last year at Arizona State and is considered one of the top QBs in the conference. Kelly threw for 3,635 yards and 26 touchdowns last season and ran for 608 yards, proving that he is a threat in every situation.
Arizona State also needs to find a running back besides D.J. Foster (501 yards) for Kelly to depend on. Using Foster as the primary running back leaves the Sun Devils with a huge soft spot, as there is not much experience behind him if he gets hurt. There are young players who could turn into stars if given the chance, though, which is something that Arizona State needs to focus on.
2. USC Trojans
After firing their head coach following a embarrassing loss to Arizona State in the fifth game of the 2013 season, the Trojans won seven of their next eight games before facing and beating Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl, ending the season 10-4 (6-3 in Pac-12 play). During the off-season one of the biggest coaching changes in the country was the Trojans’ hiring of Steve Sarkisian away from the University of Washington where he led the Huskies for five years. While at Washington, Sarkisian went 34-29 and brought the Huskies from the bottom of the Pac-12 cellar to somewhere right in the middle and heading toward the top.
It will be interesting to see how Sarkisian fares at USC as the Trojans’ fan base has proven to be not particulary patient with new coaches. One of the biggest challenges is going to be replacing all the players lost to the NFL Draft, as the Trojans were blindsided with a lot of underclassmen draft declarations. Starters Dion Bailey, Marquise Lee, Xavier Grimble, Marcus Martin, Morgan Breslin and George Uko all left for the draft. USC still has a lot of talent left and recruited a solid class this year, but it’ll be up to Sarkisian and his staff to find the best players to fill those empty places.
The Trojans do return their star quarterback Cody Kessler who finished the 2013 season on a high note. While he will be missing Lee, WR Nelson Agholor is more than ready to step up and make the 2014 season (and beyond) his own.
The defense will be one of the biggest factors in determining if USC takes that next step up to the top of the Pac-12 South and maybe the entire Pac-12. First-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox lost significant talent to the NFL, but he has star players such as Leonard Williams to help rebuild his unit.
1. UCLA Bruins
The Bruins’ place atop this list should be of no surprise to anyone as UCLA finished last season 10-3 (6-3 in Pac-12 play) with a win against Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl to end the 2013 season. With coach Jim Mora entering his third year at UCLA and the return of QB Brett Hundley, the Bruins are not a team to be trifled with.
UCLA’s offense lost WR Shaq Evans and guard Xavier Su’a-Filo to the draft but will have nine returning starters. The defense, on the other hand, lost a lot of talent and will need to step up and reload because, as we all know, the Pac-12 is the conference of quarterbacks. A good offense will only get you so far – you need the defense to step up.
The 2014 schedule is set up nicely for UCLA, as it will face Oregon, USC and Stanford at home — an advantage that you can’t overlook when facing these teams. UCLA’s non-conference slate features a middling Virginia team, Memphis and a Texas team that will still be getting used to a new head coach (Charlie Strong). It is easy to imagine the Bruins getting through their first three games unscathed before they face Arizona State in the first conference game of the season.
With less than a month left until the start of football season, it is getting easier to imagine watching these great games and renewing tailgater friendships – and harder to wait for the start of the 2014 football season!
Top photo by Kevin Cline