Please check out Todd’s preview of the Pac-12 North that we posted on Wednesday!
DIVISION CHAMPION: University of Southern California Trojans
Projected Record: 10-3 (7-2)
Heading into this fall, there’s a general split on camps between the UCLA Bruins and the USC Trojans. The basic divergence is based on one man alone, Lane Kiffin. Either you buy into his voodoo or you don’t. Kiffin has remained a hot name in college coaching despite questionable results to back his reputation, although he does have a couch burning riot in Knoxville to his credit. At USC, Lane has bounced up and down and found himself in a rather hot seat heading into the 2013 season, despite fielding teams chock full of nationally ranked talent on both sides of the football. Looking at the roster, it’s easy to see USC running the table and winning the conference at large or playing for a national title. The problem is much of that talent was also on the same team picked number one in national preseason polls last year before flaming out.
Key Additions and Losses: Another year, another slew of USC Trojans into the NFL. It’s almost as though the number of Trojans into the NFL is interdependent on their record in college football. Among departed Trojans hoping to suit up on Sunday include WR Robert Woods, S T.J. McDonald, QB Matt Barkley, and C Khaled Holmes. Matt Barkley was once the next quarterback Messiah at USC, but his regression may have been an indicator of the general sense of something being “off” in Los Angeles. Despite sanctions, despite a marginal return on talent, despite questionable coaching, USC continues to prove their brand recruits itself by bringing in a top 15 recruiting class in 2013. Highlighting this impressive crop of high school talent is QB Max Browne, DT Kenny Bigelow, and RB Ty Isaac. Are there questions about Kiffin’s ability coaching on Saturdays? Sure. Could anybody question his ability to bring in high level position players in college football? I’d like to read that argument.
Key Games: Does it get any bigger for the USC Trojans than their battle versus Notre Dame? Gone are the days where USC can soundly beat Notre Dame and receive a favorable bump in the rankings off of the mystique of the Irish brand. Notre Dame was a great team last year and will likely be very good again this fall. Playing the game in South Bend will play the Trojans no favors. In conference play, USC gets to skip Oregon and host Stanford and UCLA at home.
Better…or worse?: Last year was a monumental disappointment in Troy. It won’t take much to be better this year, but how much better is to be determined. There’s really no reason for USC to not only contend but win the Pac-12 South this season, but there are certainly early indicators on why things might sway against USC’s favor. Namely, breaking in a new quarterback in Cody Kessler, the presumed starter, but it isn’t unlikely that a few other Trojans line up under center this fall. USC is also transitioning the look of its defense to a 5-2 but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic with playmakers LB Morgan Breslin and S Dion Bailey and sophmore DE Leonard Williams who highlight the impressive number of elite athletes filling out the Trojan defense.
Final Thoughts: It’s been said before, but USC has too much talent on both sides of the ball to not win at the least, the division title. That was said last year as well before USC slipped into mediocrity by their terms, but at some point, Lane Kiffin will put enough pieces together and at least have USC in the conversation for the conference title. Whether it reflects more on the strength/weakness of the Pac-12 or USC will be up for discussion, but the Trojans have a talented roster that would perform well in any conference in America. The most talented may prove to be WR Marqise Lee, perhaps the best WR in the nation and the type of player that’s a threat to score any time he touches the ball.
2. UCLA Bruins
Projected record: 9-3 (6-3)
First year (ex-NFL) coach Jim L. Mora (son of slightly more famous Jim Mora Sr.) made quite a splash in the other side of Los Angeles leading the Bruins to a nine win season in 2012, albeit ending the season with three losses in a row, including a disappointing loss to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. UCLA made back to back trips to the Pac-12 championship game, aided by sanctions to the rival on the other side of the town. But last year, the Bruins earned respect on their own merit. This fall, UCLA brings back a very good group of starters and an exceptional recruiting class. If the 2013 roster is a taste of things to come, the south division title competition could be very interesting for years to come.
Key Additions and Losses: UCLA is one of the Pac-12 programs that traditionally drafts numerous players into the NFL annually and 2013 was no exception. DE Datone Jones, RB Jonathan Franklin, P Jeff Locke, and G Jeff Baca were all lost to the NFL Draft. UCLA brings in the highest rated recruiting class in the Pac-12 in 2013, full of can’t miss prospects like WR Thomas Duarte, DB Johnny Johnson, QB Asiantii Woulard, and LB Deon Hollins Jr.
Key Games: UCLA will look to prove its worth early in Lincoln, Nebraska against the Cornhuskers. The road schedule doesn’t get much easier throughout conference play with trips to Stanford and Oregon back to back, with roadies to Arizona, Arizona State and USC to rounding out the schedule. Brutal.
Better…or worse?: UCLA might not match 2012’s nine wins, but they could very well be a better team. Much of UCLA’s place in the Pac-12 South will depend on how good USC proves to be in 2013 and the play of quarterback Brett Hundley who will have to take a step forward this year without NFL talent in the backfield. Oh yeah, there’s also a pretty good linebacker in Anthony Barr who’s obliteration of Matt Barkley will likely be on UCLA promotional material for years to come. Barr is a front runner for an All-American spot and has NFL execs licking their chops in anticipation. His presence on the defense alone is enough to make plays in the middle of the field more than a calculated risk for opposing defenses.
Final Thoughts: 2013 will prove to be an interesting year for UCLA’s sophomore coaching staff and incoming freshman class. Top ten recruiting, a solid group of returning starters and a real chance USC trips over itself again could play out very favorably for the Bruins. Splitting the Stanford and Oregon group would go a long way in helping put the Bruins back into yet another Pac-12 championship game, which would be a fantastic year two for Mora. In the head to head matchup, USC has the edge, but anything goes in a rivalry game and UCLA certainly has more than a puncher’s chance. Jim Mora has the Bruins sitting as one of the best teams in the Pac-12 coming off of last season, but to keep them there consistently will not be easy. The great start his staff is on in the recruiting trail can’t be understated as so much of the Pac-12 relies on athleticism and explosive players on both offense and defense. When a coach enters that top ten recruiting territory, it’s likely he’ll get production from at least a few of his freshman right away, which can be incredibly beneficial in the long run. It’s that kind of recruiting effort and meticulous game planning that he’s known for, relying on execution and constant self improvement, that will keep the Bruins at the top of the pecking order year in and year out in the Pac-12.
3. Arizona State Sun Devils
Projected record: 8-4 (6-3)
Arizona State coach Todd Graham quietly put together a very solid season in his first year as the boss in Tempe that included eight wins with a bowl victory over Navy. The Devils bring back an impressive group of starters including senior DT Will Sutton who will likely be playing on Sundays next fall as well as a promising future under (junior) QB Taylor Kelley who threw an impressive 29 TDs and only 9 INTs with over 500 rushing yards in his first year as the starter. Graham’s offense is well balanced and will rely heavily on both RBs Marion Grice and DJ Foster to compliment Kelley’s passing attack. The biggest knock against the Sun Devils last season was the lack of wins against quality opponents, but ASU will be given numerous change that perception this season with a challenging out of conference and conference schedule that could earn the Sun Devils respect and a spot well within the polls come January.
Key Additions and Losses: ASU returns a promising amount of talent but lost second team All-Pac 12 LB Brandon Magee and honorable mention CB Deveron Carr. Todd Graham brings in a solid, but not spectacular 2013 recruiting class that includes a promising duo of linebackers in Viliami Latu and Chans Cox, two nationally recruited prospects who turned down rival Arizona to suit up for the Sun Devils.
Key Games: Arizona State continues the trend of Pac-12 teams scheduling tough opponents out of conference with matchups against both Wisconsin and Notre Dame at home. The Notre Dame game will come after Arizona State plays three BCS teams from 2012, Wisconsin (home), at Stanford and USC (home). It’s not unthinkable to imagine Arizona State taking care of the Badgers as they rebuild, but the wear and tear of playing at Stanford and hosting what could be a driven USC team doesn’t bode well for being in peak condition for the Irish in week five. Arizona State fans should be thrilled with a split of USC and Notre Dame as both programs could very well be in the top ten come season’s end. Arizona State hosts rival Arizona at home in a must win game if the Sun Devils hope to stay near the top of the Pac-12 South and play the role of potential spoiler.
Better…or worse?: Arizona State retains an impressive amount of talent that could find its way onto first and second all conference teams before the season is all said and done. Arizona State had a solid defense in 2012 that flattened against better competition in each of ASU’s five losses. A big problem was an inability to stop the run, which remains a question heading into this fall but promising development in players such as sophmore DT Jaxon Hood could go a long way in plugging gaps up front for the Sun Devils. On offense, there is little reason to expect anything but solid improvement, but consistent production from the WR position will be crucial in keeping the balance Todd Graham hopes to maintain each week. Arizona State’s returning talent means the time to win is now, but it will take some favorable bounces and some missteps by UCLA or USC for Arizona State to finish as the runner up or higher in the Pac-12 South. It’s not impossible, but a very respectable third place finish and nine wins after a bowl victory is more likely.
Final Thoughts: Arizona State’s returning talent means less than eight wins in 2013 would be a significant letdown. There’s not a team, be it Stanford or Notre Dame, that won’t take the Sun Devils seriously this fall and if ASU is firing on all cylinders, the team should crack the polls and at the least influence the outcome of the division race. Sometimes under the radar teams struggle once they’re removed from underdog territory (see Oregon State towards the end of 2012) but ASU runs a balanced enough attack on offense that it should compensate for a dip in performance in either the running or passing game. On defense, consistency will be key and playing up to better competition will go a long way in reaching nine wins after a quality bowl victory come winter and a spot in the final polls. The Devils played great on defense when they won, but pretty bad when they lost. Finding that middle ground against teams that are more talented than you can go a long way when you can rely on a good offense.
4. Arizona Wildcats:
Projected record: 8-4 (5-4)
After a dismal stint in Ann Arbor, Rich Rodriguez proved many critics wrong and quietly rebuilt some credibility in Tucson, winning eight games capped by an inspired victory in the New Mexico Bowl. This, after Arizona’s 4-8 campaign in 2012 and only two conference wins was a little redemption for Rodriguez, who had been effectively buried despite being one of the hottest names in college football only a few short years ago. Much of Arizona’s success was built off of RB Ka’Deem Carey who was the nation’s leading rusher and a consensus All-American in 2012. Carey had a tumultuous offseason and in Rodriguez’s run heavy offense, it’s imperative that Ka’Deem has another stellar season if Arizona hopes to repeat last year’s success. There’s a lot to build on with the Arizona Wildcats, but the questions on both offense and defense make six wins as likely as eight heading into the 2013 season.
Key Additions and Losses: The Wildcats lose QB Matt Scott who performed admirably last fall and in the read option offense and finding the next quarterback who can read the defense and air the ball out enough to balance what should be a strong rushing attack is key. Last year’s backup, QB B.J. Denker is a solid athlete who could provide enough ability with his arm and feet to keep the read option running smoothly (and a little real time game experience to boot). Denker is a senior and Rodriguez could find himself having to teach and put faith into yet another new starter heading into 2014. Junior USC transfer Jesse Scroggins should get significant playing time in 2013 and there’s still a real chance he becomes the starter at some point this fall if Denker doesn’t perform, giving Arizona at least a little experience heading into 2014.
Key Games: Arizona should win all of the games its favored in this fall, but stumbling at UNLV or against Utah at home are realistic, if Arizona faces serious injury problems or struggles to find itself at QB. To reach eight wins, Arizona will have to steal a game from either Arizona State or UCLA. Anything is possible in a rivalry game, but watch out for Arizona hosting UCLA on November 9th for their homecoming game. Arizona faces significantly less competition out of conference than the teams projected above the Wildcats and this could play into their favor come November.
Better…or worse?: Arizona is a puzzling team. They’re solid, no doubt, but the drop off in talent and depth compared to the teams above them in the Pac-12 is large enough to feel weary of the Wildcats surpassing Arizona State, UCLA or USC in the Pac-12 South. A lot of pressure will be put on Arizona’s defense this fall, as Ka’Deem Carey alone should provide some comfort and security in the offense. Last year, Arizona gave up over 35 points in each of their losses, which masks thorough beatings by Oregon (49-0) and UCLA (66-10). More troubling is the number of points the Cats allowed in some of their wins, 54 against Stanford and 49 against UNLV among a couple of 30+ point games against Colorado and USC. A win might be a win, but a defense giving up 30 points to one of the worst teams in all of college football (Colorado) or hoping to win by going score for score against more talented teams like USC will likely not bode well for Arizona this season. The outlook for the Wildcats is better, with a chance of being significantly worse in wins and losses due to injury or questions on defense and at quarterback. Still, the foundation for Arizona football should be even stronger this time next year.
Final Thoughts: With a player as good as Ka’Deem Carey was in 2012, anything is possible for the Wildcats in 2013. With a consensus All-American in your backfield, you stand a chance to win every game on your schedule. That doesn’t mean you’ll win them all, but if he comes close to last year’s production, it’s possible to see Arizona upset one of the Pac-12 big boys once (or twice) this fall. More important for the long term future of Arizona would be a consistent level of play throughout the year and another quality bowl victory. It’s not always easy to maintain interest in the football program at Arizona, but Rich Rodriguez is doing a commendable job and there’s probably enough of a chip left on his shoulder to keep the Wildcats hungry this season.
5. Utah Utes
Projected record: 5-7 (2-7)
On the surface, it seems that Utah has had little success in the Pac-12 since joining in 2011 after being one of the upper tier Mountain West programs. Perhaps it is less an indictment against the Utes as it is an example of just how big the difference is between college football’s major conferences and those on the outside looking in in the BCS system. Utah has slipped a little the past two seasons, but an appearance in a bowl in 2013 could go a long way in swaying the momentum for Utah. And despite Utah’s disappointing start in the Pac-12, the good news is there’s been enough pieces to remain optimistic that the program isn’t bottoming out as much as it is simply adjusting to a higher level of play.
Key Additions and Losses: DT Star Lotulelei was the cream of the crop at his position in 2012 and was a first round NFL draft pick. The Utah defense also lost DE Joe Kruger to the draft. It poses a significant question in how the Utes can rebuild their defensive line, but bodes well in confirming head coach Kyle Whittingham’s eye for talent on defense. Utah brought in a top 50 recruiting class in 2013, which given their recent departure from the Mountain West, inability to find signature wins in the Pac-12 is perhaps not as bad as it seems. The 2013 class includes WR Andre Lewis who turned down conference foe Arizona State to join the Utes.
Key Games: Utah faces rivals Utah State and BYU out of conference, both games Utah will have to play very well to win. In conference, Utah gets Colorado at home and Washington State on the road, two games that could match their conference record from last year. Week three’s matchup with Oregon State, perhaps after a win over Utah State and trouncing of Weber State could go a long way in instilling confidence in the Utah program. Depending on Arizona’s season at that point, it’s possible Utah steals a game in Tucson, but not likely.
Better…or worse?: Utah loses too much talent on the defensive side of the ball to say they are definitively better. Replacing a top ten pick at defensive tackle isn’t easy, even if you are USC. Couple that with a star defensive end and a mild offense, it’s hard to say the Utes will be better. Utah will need big things out of RB Kelvin York to anchor the Utah offense as Utah has struggled to find playmakers in the passing game. Having a solid contributor at running could do wonders in opening up the passing game this season. They should finish above Colorado, but there’s probably too big a gap between Utah’s talent this year and the team above them to finish any higher. Utah could find itself in the handful of teams that are sinking quickly as the rest of the Pac-12 improves. Utah should consider a bowl game and three wins in conference a great step forward in 2013.
Final Thoughts: It’s been said a couple of times throughout the preview, but the bottom two or three teams in the north and south divisions are rapidly getting further and further beneath the top half of the Pac-12. Part of that is good for the conference, because it means that somebody besides Oregon and Stanford is winning, but it doesn’t make things any easier for the Utahs of the world. Unlike Colorado, Utah built its reputation in a non BCS conference, a tougher sell than the Big XII. Even if Utah puts together a six or seven win season, there’s little reason to think that Utah will recruit at the level of the top half of the conference. That’s probably a challenge Whittingham has dealt with his entire time at Utah, given the geographic and cultural…uniqueness that playing for Utah entails. Still, it’s going to be much more difficult to put under the radar and hidden gem type players against the Trojans or Bruins each year than Nevada.
6. Colorado Buffaloes:
Projected record: 3-9 (1-8)
What a mess in Boulder. There’s no sugarcoating it, Colorado is one of the worst teams in a BCS qualifying conference in all of college football. To take it further, they may be the absolute worst. Colorado won one game in 2012 and breaks in a new staff this fall with former San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre trying to do the impossible and somehow reignite the spark that turned Colorado into one of the strongest college football programs of the 1990’s. Colorado won a national championship in 1990 and won the Big XII championship game as recently as 2001 (and made another appearance in 2005), how could such a respectable football program tank so quickly? There are a lot of reasons, from failed coaching experiments to apathetic university leadership, but either way, it is an uphill battle for the Buffaloes in 2013 as CU tries to finally take the first step (for the umpteenth time) in rebuilding the program.
Key Additions and Losses: OT David Bakhtiari and TE Nick Kasa are both in the NFL and for a team lacking in talent like Colorado, losing two pro caliber players on offense deals a quite lethal blow. Especially considering 2013 is year one of MacIntyre’s pistol offense in Boulder. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a great influx of talent in Colorado’s 2013 recruiting class given their lack of success on the field in recent history. Recruiting will be an uphill battle for the new Colorado staff going against traditionally strong recruiting schools like USC, UCLA and the disadvantage of sharing recruiting ground with both Big XII and Big 10 programs. The onus will be on MacIntyre in finding under the radar athletes that can produce in his offense, something he also had to do each year at San Jose State. It may take a couple of years before he gets the true advantage recruiting in a BCS conference provides as Colorado is closer to the Mountain West than it is the Pac-12 in 2013.
Key Games: It’s crucial for Colorado to beat rival Colorado State in week one, as a loss out of the gate could mean more of the same for Buffs fans rather quickly. Colorado should take care of Central Arkansas in week two, which is as close as Colorado gets to an automatic win this season. In conference, it’s important for Colorado to show a pulse week in and week out and form its identity running the Pistol.
Better…or worse?: There’s a 50/50 chance that Colorado at least wins two games this year, mostly thanks to rival Colorado State being equally as bad a football team. Regardless, it’s hard to feel very comfortable in Colorado winning that game, and outside of Central Arkansas, there’s no such thing as an automatic win on the schedule. And even that game should make Colorado fans a little uncomfortable. If Colorado somehow steals a game in conference, it will be a major sign of improvement. It will be near impossible to tell if Colorado is significantly better or worse in 2013 and the verdict will be out until next season at the earliest.
Final Thoughts: Baby steps are about as far forward as Colorado can expect to walk in 2013, anything more would be one of the greatest turnarounds in recent memory. There are questions on both sides of the ball and the verdict is out on the new coaching staff. The return of WR Paul Richardson who returns after an ACL injury will surely help on the offensive side of the ball and DE Chidero Uzo-Diribe was a solid contributor his junior year in 2012 and could put up respectable numbers in his senior sendoff this fall. Colorado has little to lose this season, but there’s room for significant improvement in every position on the team. Building some excitement and energy behind Colorado Buffaloes football for the first time in forever could go a long way on the recruiting trail next offseason.
There it is. The 2013 Pac-12 football season as it stands a good week and a half from kickoff. It’s actually quite surprising after reading the names in headsets and helmets on the field how good the Pac-12 could end up being this year. Of course Oregon, Stanford and USC have the potential to find themselves BCS bowling come January, but the gap between that trio and the rest of the conference is rapidly closing. The beefy middle of the Pac-12 consisting of teams like UCLA, Washington and Arizona State is becoming quite solid. It’s going to become apparent this season that if any of the Pac-12’s three elite teams assume they’ll feast on any of the Pac-12’s up and comers they’re in for a long season. Would it be surprising to see a team like UCLA inside the top 10 come November? Or Washington? The talent is certainly there and the coaching top to bottom in the Pac-12 is incredibly solid. Given the instability in the Big 10 outside of Ohio State and the toss up that is the Big XII this year, the Pac-12 could very well be represented in the national championship this season. Given the number of incredible athletes in the conference, the Pac-12 should show strongly again come awards, All-American and Heisman season and enter another impressive group into the NFL draft. Excitement and the touchdowns to go along with it will not be hard to come by this season on the left coast.