USC overwhelming favorite in Pac-12 while others look to ruin coronation
Arizona football head coach Rich Rodriguez watches from the sidelines during a game. The Wildcats ended the 2017 season with a 3-9 overall record and 1-8 in the Pac-12 conference.
The South is rising once again, with the Men of Troy leading the way. USC may be on the verge of something special, but they won’t roll through the division unchallenged. Utah and Colorado will provide resistance, while talented UCLA lurks in the shadows.
University of Southern California
Sam Darnold is the latest in a long line of outstanding Trojan quarterbacks and may be the best physical talent to play at Southern Cal since Carson Palmer who won the Heisman in 2002.
Darnold led the Trojans to nine consecutive wins to close out the 2016 campaign, including a thrilling Rose Bowl triumph over Penn State — the question is whether Darnold can avoid the sophomore jinx and continue to thrive in Troy.
Darnold will have a ton of help as tailback Ronald Jones returns. Jones rushed for 1,082 yards last year and averaged 6.1 yards per
USC will miss standout wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, but the Trojans don’t rebuild, they reload. Defensively, USC returns seven starters from 2016, including middle linebacker Cameron Smith.
Smith was second team All-Pac-12 last season and he may be an All-American this winter. Even though USC still lacks depth at some positions, they are still the Division's prohibitive favorite and should be in the thick of the College Football Playoff race.
University of Utah
Kyle Whittingham is one of the most consistent coaches in the country as his Utes have won nine or more games seven times in the last ten years. The Utes pride themselves on being unchanging, a model of efficient football.
Despite their success, Utah is moving away from the conservative, run-first philosophy in favor of a pass-happy spread attack. It remains to be seen who will be filling the air with footballs for the Utes as there is a heated quarterback battle.
2016 starter Troy Williams appears to be the likely starter for 2017, but Cooper Bateman was impressive in spring practice.
Bateman was a highly touted recruit that washed out at Alabama and found his way to Salt Lake City. Regardless of who wins the competition, they will be throwing to a group of unproven receivers.
Defensively, the Utes are once again an experienced, well-coached group. Utah returns five of their top seven tacklers from last year, with defensive tackle Lowell Lotuleiei leading the way.
Lotuleiei can do it all, he can rush the passer and is stout against the run. While Utah doesn’t appear to have enough overall talent to challenge USC for the South title, the Utes have beaten the odds before.
University of California, Los Angeles
Jim Mora and the Bruins have underachieved for most of the last three years. A 4-8 season and years of underwhelming play have the citizens of Westwood wondering whether Mora is the answer.
The one thing fans aren’t wondering about is who will be starting at quarterback. Josh Rosen is finally healthy and ready to rebound from what was a frustrating sophomore season.
Rosen missed the final six games following a shoulder
Both Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley can turn small plays into long gains. Kenny Young leads a defense that was abused last year. While the unit should be improved, it is safe to say that Rosen and the Bruins will have to win a lot of shootouts.
On paper, UCLA is a team that should be competing for a division title, but their lack of consistency will inevitably prevent them from fulfilling their potential.
University of Colorado
Last year, Mike MacIntyre was under fire, as his rebuilding project in Boulder had failed to make significant progress. This year, the 2016 Pac-12 Coach of the Year is looking to lead his Buffs to a second consecutive division crown.
In order for the Buffs to be more than a one-year wonder, they will have to successfully replace quarterback Sefo Liufau. Liufau rewrote the CU record book, and his inspired play helped make the Buffaloes a complete offensive team.
Former understudy Steven Montez is talented enough to replace Liufau, he was productive in spot duty last season. The question is whether he possesses the intangibles that made his predecessor successful.
While Montez is finding his way, McIntyre will rely on tailback Phillip Lindsay to carry the mail. Lindsay rushed for 1,252 yards and scored twelve touchdowns last season.
The Buffs will be an offensive team, for the defense is inexperienced and in some areas lacking in depth. Only three starters return and two are in the secondary. It is unlikely that CU repeats as division champs, but they will be in a bowl game for the second consecutive year.
Arizona State University
Remember when Todd Graham was an up and coming star in the coaching profession? Those days are long past, as Graham has been exposed as a one-dimensional coach.
ASU scores a ton of points, but the problem is that their opponents do so as well — the Sun Devils' defense allowed thirty or more points nine times last season, one of the highest rates in the country.
New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will have his work cut out for him, as he will have to overhaul a unit that was unable to execute the basics. While Bennett is putting his group through Football 101, offensive coordinator Billy Napier will be searching for a consistent quarterback.
Manny Wilkins made a lot of plays last season, but his decision making was spotty at best. Wilkins will face stiff competition from Blake Barnett and Brady White.
The Sun Devil rushing attack, long ignored, will be a force this fall. Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard are two talented tailbacks that complement each other perfectly.
While they were underutilized last season, that won’t be the case in 2017. ASU will be fun to watch, but their porous defense will keep them home for the holidays once again.
University of Arizona
Grease Fire. That is the only way to accurately describe the 2016 gridiron ‘Cats. Rich Rodiguez and his staff were unable to overcome a rash of injuries and inconsistent plays as the Wildcats slogged to a 3-9 record.
While it is safe to say that the 2017 edition is light years ahead of last year's game, it is still the least talented group in the division.
Quarterback Brandon Dawkins returns as a dynamic playmaker, as he rushed for 944 yards last season. Unlike last year, there isn’t a battle for the position, as former starter Anu Solomon transferred to Baylor University.
That said, if Dawkins can’t improve upon his middling passing numbers, Khalil Tate might get an opportunity.
Nick Wilson will also return and will be the centerpiece of the Wildcat rushing attack. Wilson was unable to build upon his breakout 2015 season due to injury but is now healthy and ready to run roughshod over opposing defenses.
While the offense appears to be a work of art, the defense remains a work in progress. Seven starters return, but the unit remains one of the worst in the conference.
Fortunately for the ‘Cats, they avoid the best teams in the Pac-12, with Stanford and Washington not appearing on the schedule. That is one of the few bits of good news in Tucson, as it will be a surprise if the ‘Cats are anywhere near bowl eligibility.
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