What looks to be a fascinating football season in the Pac-12 South is approaching after an offseason full of headlines. Three new head coaches have been hired, including Chip Kelly, who is back in the conference for the first time since he coached Oregon to three consecutive 12-win seasons. After a ten-year hiatus from the sidelines, Herm Edwards will lead the Arizona State Sun Devils in his college head coaching debut. Both LA schools could have true freshmen quarterbacks taking over this year, potentially setting up a rivalry that would last for the next three or four years. So, with all of the madness in 2018, how will this sector of the conference shake out?
Best Team: USC Trojans
It was tough to choose between USC and Utah due to the Utes bringing back a plethora of effective players from last season. But Clay Helton’s Trojans will likely have a five-star quarterback recruit leading an offense flooded with talent and, while highly-touted quarterbacks frequently don’t pan out, theirs has a seemingly unprecedented readiness for college ball. In other words, USC’s ceiling is certainly about as high as one can ask for.
Under center is J.T. Daniels, who reclassified himself and graduated early so that he could play college football after his junior year of high school. He will likely become the first true freshman to start at quarterback for USC since Matt Barkley in 2009, although redshirt freshman Sam Darnold led the Trojans to the Rose Bowl a couple of years ago.
Daniels completed over 73 percent of his passes over the past two years and threw 119 touchdowns in just 29 games. Last season, he won the Gatorade National Player of the Year. 247 Sports called him the second-best quarterback recruit in the country while ESPN ranked him third.
He will have an abundance of prolific weapons. He has a big target in junior Michael Pittman Jr. at 6’4”. He and sophomore Tyler Vaughns should complement each other nicely, as they did last year when they combined for over 1200 yards and seven scores.
Daniels will have a familiar face to throw to. Five-star (according to 247 Sports) Amon-Ra St. Brown was high school teammates with USC’s young quarterback at Mater Dei, where they won the 2017 national title. St. Brown caught 72 passes for over 1300 yards with 20 touchdowns last year.
USC’s top three tight ends are also back and can provide more targets. Up front, two of last year’s starters are back, both of which made the All-Pac-12 team, plus some highly-recruited underclassmen should help fill in the gaps.
On defense, the Trojan linebacker corps could be among the best in the nation. Run-stopper Cameron Smith, with the second-most tackles in the Pac-12 as a junior in 2017, has improved in total tackles and tackles-for-loss in each of his three seasons. Senior Porter Gustin is back after missing much of last year with various injuries. In 2016, he was USC’s leader in tackles-for-loss and he racked up 5.5 sacks. They have also added five-star inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote who, with good speed and athleticism, was ranked the top recruit at his position by several scouting report sites like ESPN and 247 Sports.
Worst team: Colorado Buffaloes
In his five previous years as Colorado’s head man, Mike MacIntyre has led the Buffs to one winning season, back in 2016 when they captured the Pac-12 South. CU averaged under four wins-per-campaign during the other years; last season’s campaign saw them finish 5-7. With no real star power and a tough schedule, Colorado is looking at the Pac-12 South cellar for the seventh time in eight years.
Junior quarterback Steven Montez had an adequate 2017, completing over 60 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and nine picks. But his percentages and, more significantly, decision-making didn’t improve much from his freshman season to his sophomore campaign despite his stints in 2016 where he showed off the potential to be an incredible college quarterback.
Around him is an offense full of uncertainty. In the backfield, no one on the roster had much playing time last year except for Travon McMillan, who transferred in from Virginia Tech. However, 2017 was his worst statistical season in college.
As for receivers, Colorado’s best three from last fall are gone. Their highest recruit at this position in the past two years is speedy, compact sophomore K.D. Nixon (5’8”), who caught two passes in 2017. He will be involved in special teams as well; he had 11 kickoff returns as a freshman. Montez’s top target will likely be senior Juwann Winfree, who caught 21 passes last year. If there’s reason for optimism, it’s that his best two games as far as yardage came during the final two contests of the year, including a 163-yard performance with two scores against USC.
On the offensive line, there was some shuffling in 2017, with seven players starting at least five games. Three of them are gone, most notably All-Pac-12 tackle Jeromy Irwin. Luckily, CU recruited heavily in offensive linemen over the past two years, including two four-stars (according to 247 Sports) in 2017, but they are still unproven players.
The defense was ineffective last season, especially against the run. In contrast, two years ago was another story, where a primary reason for CU’s 10-4 record in 2016 was their ability to force turnovers and get to the backfield combined with a killer experienced secondary.
Unfortunately, last year they had the 107th-worst run defense out of 130 teams and forced only 14 turnovers, second-fewest in the conference. Coordinator D.J. Eliot returns for his second season and most of last year’s starters are back as well. So, perhaps after a disappointing debut season in Boulder, Eliot may adjust to finding more effective ways of using his players. Or maybe the continuity means that more of the same is coming, which seems more likely.
Some hope for the future is that the top outside linebacker recruit in the country according to 247 Sports, Davion Taylor, committed to CU for the 2018 season, as did several intriguing defensive backs for this year and next.
Most Improved team: Utah Utes
After taking care of business against weaker non-conference teams, Utah struggled in Pac-12 play in 2017. From weeks 5-11, they dropped six of seven games and finished 7-6, their worst record since 2013. However, much of the offense last year was led by underclassmen who showed good upside, giving the Utes confidence that, in 2018, their young starters will be more polished.
Tyler Huntley displayed good potential as a dual-threat quarterback in his first season as starter. He had three games when he threw for over 300 yards and he ran for 537 yards in 10 contests. Behind him, junior Zach Moss should be the primary running back. He finished last season hot with 246 yards while averaging 7.5 yards-per-carry over the final two games. Four starters are returning on the offensive line and their depth should be strong as blockers were the program’s focal point as far as recruiting.
Defense, in an on-brand detail, was Utah’s biggest strength in 2017. They allowed the fewest points and yards of all six Pac-12 South squads and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley is back for an 11thseason with the team and third as DC.
His secondary should be rock solid. Their top corner, 2017 All-Pac-12 Second Team member Julian Blackmon (four interceptions), will be a junior this year, and 2017 four-star recruit Jaylon Johnson will likely start beside him after a productive freshman year. Their front line lost a few key players from a year ago, but they still have defensive end Bradlee Anae, who led the Utes in tackles-for-loss in 2017.
The biggest concern for Utah is that their schedule becomes brutal in late September – early October. They start that stretch against Washington, then travel to Washington State and Stanford. After that they have to play potential offensive juggernauts Arizona and USC at home. Luckily, their November opponents are more manageable, so, as long as they hold their own over that five-game span, a late run at the Pac-12 South title is very possible for the Utes.
Most successful season with a new coach: Arizona Wildcats
There is a lot of intrigue about how the three new head men in the Pac-12 South will do in their first years, but immediate success may be tough considering that all three rosters are flawed. However, due to having terrific offensive playmakers and a manageable schedule, Arizona should have the best 2018 in this group.
U of A had the top offense in the conference last year in terms of scoring and yardage, and they could be even better now. Quarterback Khalil Tate is the ultimate dual-threat, as he ran for nearly as many yards as he threw for as a sophomore last season (1591 throwing and 1411 running). Since he took over as the starter in week five, he won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week four times. Around Tate, Arizona’s top three receivers return, including All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention Shun Brown, as does running back J.J. Taylor, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry last year.
Their glaring weakness was defense. Granted, it was young, with freshmen as their leaders in tackles (Tony Fields II) and interceptions (Lorenzo Burns). With that said, another year of experience for the young defenders could lead to improvement. Poor recruiting in recent years means that they will rely on last year’s squad to make big strides. Nevertheless, with an offense led by a possible Heisman candidate in Tate along with other dangerous weapons, they should be able to stay competitive in the race to win the Pac-12 South.
As for the Bruins, despite Chip Kelly’s stature as a college coach, UCLA could have the roughest year of the three teams here. Their defense was downright pathetic last season despite the backlog of ridiculous talent that Jim Mora amassed. They were the second-worst against the rush in the country and allowed 36.8 points-per-game, the most in the Pac-12 South. Kelly recruited some good defensive players but, this year, they will likely run out a very similar bunch as 2017, which does not spark a lot of optimism.
On offense, UCLA could be relying on a freshman quarterback, their top recruit Dorian Thompson-Robinson, as long as he beats out previous backup Devon Modster and grad transfer Wilton Speight (Michigan). Regardless of who wins the job, they may have a tough time behind this offensive line. The Bruins had three All-Conference linemen last season, but they have all departed, meaning the line will be inexperienced and vulnerable if their recent recruits don’t pan out.
As for ASU, while the offense could be competent with a solid veteran quarterback in senior Manny Wilkins and standout receiver N’Keal Harry, the defense is a concern. The Sun Devils struggled in 2017 and now many of their top play makers, like last season’s Pac-12 tackle leader Christian Sam, are gone. There are a lot of position battles and even a couple of past offensive players, seniors Nick Ralston and Jalen Harvey, have switched positions to help on defense.
New coordinator Danny Gonzales had a lot of success last year in the same role at San Diego State, but he is going to have a tough time sorting out this Sun Devil personnel, especially on the front line.
To make matters worse, the Devils have perhaps the toughest schedule in the conference. They play potentially the three best teams in the Pac-12 North with road games at Washington and Oregon and a home game against Stanford. They also have to compete at USC, Arizona and San Diego State (who beat ASU in 2017), not to mention they have a home game against Michigan State, a perennially top-25 ranked program.
Whatever happens, at least football’s almost here.