Pre-season predictions of conference finishes tend to be problematic at best, as injuries, off-field incidents, the sudden emergence of unheralded or new players, game altering controversial calls, and even the weather are all givens, but when and where they will strike aren't so easy to anticipate. It certainly keeps the season interesting, though. If the predictions were always all right, we could hold Pac-12 media day, and then dispense with the regular season altogether. But what fun would that be?
This year, the Pac-12 is even more intriguing, thanks to 4 1/2 new coaching staffs, plus quarterback changes, always a cause of considerable uncertainty, at 2 of the best 3 teams from last year.
Sizing Up The South
One place where there isn't a lot of uncertainty is USC, where coach Lane Kiffin has almost his entire starting lineup, including multiple All-Americans, and 19 of 24, back. Scholarship reductions that limit the Trojans to 75 full-rides instead of 85, which stemmed from the same Reggie Bush related affair that sidelined USC from the last 2 post seasons, makes depth a concern if injuries or other player losses begin to mount, but with Matt Barkley, the probable first pick in next year's NFL draft back at quarterback, its going to be an upset if the Trojans don't win the Pac-12 South again (and this time it will count!), and land a BCS bowl berth (remember, the 4 team playoff model, and a relabeling of the process, won't happen for 2 more seasons) to boot.
Barkley has not only the best pair of receivers in the country in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, they may be the best 2 in the country, never mind the Pac-12 (though there are several in the conference who will contend). And 4 of 5 offensive linemen return. The USC defense was porous at times last year, but they should have enough offense that even a moderate improvement defensively should make the Trojans difficult to keep up for most opponents.
Utah represents the primary threat to the Trojans in the Pac-12 South, and the Utes get USC in Salt Lake City on the first Thursday night of October. A "Black Out", at elevation, gives Utah all the intangibles that makes an upset more likely, and its worth remembering that the Utes took the Trojans to the wire in the Coliseum last year.
Win or lose, Utah has a legitimate shot in the Pac-12 South, and is certainly a solid pick for #2 if they can't get to the Conference title game. The return of John White IV, above, a 2nd Team All-Pac-12 selection last year, will give the Utes a solid running game again. For most of the season, "The Wolfman" was the entire offense, and everyone (except Oregon St. Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker) knew it, yet he still rolled up over 1,500 yards rushing.
The reason for the reliance on Wolf, who had more carries than anyone in the conference, was the absence of quarterback Jordan Wynn, who played in only 4 games last season as a result of a shoulder injury. If Wynn can finally stay healthy (which is no certainty, he was injured in the 2010 campaign as well), then the balance the Utah offense should attain could actually make Wolf even more effective. And it will remind everyone about WR Devonte Christopher, who belongs in that conversation about who might be the best receiver in conference.
If the Utes can balance their offense, the defense, led up front by DT Star Lotulelei, an All-Pac-12 First Team selection last year who also won the Morris Trophy, and might well be the best defensive lineman in the country, and the Kruger brothers, could flirt with being dominant.
Utah is also second in the Pac-12 in number of returning starters, with 18 of 24 back, second only to USC.
Also, Utah again avoids having to take a bruising from physical Stanford, or needing to try to keep up with Oregon's speed, at least during the regular season, both of which USC must contend with.
Three of the four new coaches are in the Pac-12 South, as is one of two second year skippers. All that uncertainty makes it unlikely any of the other four teams in the division will find the consistency to overcome USC and Utah, but it makes the scramble interesting to say the least, and their ultimate finishing order equally uncertain.
UCLA turned the reins over to Jim Mora Jr., who also brought offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone over from Arizona St., after firing Rick Neuheisel despite the fact that he got the Bruins into both the Pac-12 Championship Game (thanks to USC's ineligibility) and a bowl game. Trouble is, UCLA lost their last 3 games, and 4 of their last 5, and got blasted in doing so. Utah, USC, and Oregon pinned 31-6, 50-0, and 49-31 blowouts on the Bruins. Combined with a 45-19 loss at Stanford, is was clear UCLA wasn't close to the 4 teams that are the best in the conference, the ones the Bruins have got to get over if they are going to sniff the Rose Bowl, their home field, in the post season.
In an effort to improve on those defensive disasters, the defensive minded Mora made the switch to the 3-4 in the off-season. The move should better capitalize on the athleticism of the Bruins, who have under-performed relative to the perceived talent they have recruited.
The challenge for Mazzone are two-fold. One is to meet Mora's objective of generating a good running game with Jonathan Franklin, who came up just shy of a 1,000 yard season despite splitting time with the graduated Derrick Coleman last season.
The other is to find consistency at quarterback, something Neuheisel couldn't accomplish despite repeated efforts. Kevin Prince has been the most frequent starter, but Richard Brehaut has been turned to multiple times, and Brett Hundley is also on hand. Hundley had every opportunity to take the starting job in the spring, but didn't do it, and until UCLA finds a solution to their running quarterback dilemma, its doubtful they will be able to break into the conference's upper echelon.
The Bruins return 16 starters, 4th most in the Pac-12, but only 2 that were as much as Honorable Mention in the All-Pac-12 balloting. UCLA also avoids both Oregon and Washington, which should help them rise above their Arizona neighbors.
Arizona also has a new coach, bringing Rich Rodriguez to the desert, in hopes of recreating the magic Rich Rod managed at West Virginia. And with the hopes that his stay in Ann Arbor was an aberration. Hope of a turnaround started in Tucson before Rodriguez arrived, when the Wildcats won their last 2 games in 2011, but there's a lot of turning around to do, as the 'Cats had dropped 13 of their prior 14 games against FBS foes, a streak that got former coach Mike Stoops sent back to Oklahoma mid-season, before the disaster was even over.
Though Arizona returns 15 starters, including their entire offensive line (which may or may not be a good thing), they must replace both QB Nick Foles and WR Juron Criner, easily the best players the 'Cats have had in the last couple of seasons. The 'Cats must also transition from a pass first offense as run by Foles to the run-based read-option that Rodriguez specializes in.
Fortunately, Matt Scott, who red-shirted last season, but looked good in place of an injured Foles in a couple of outings in 2010, is the kind of all-around athlete type of quarterback Rodriguez makes the centerpiece of his offense.
Arizona hosts the Territorial Cup, and 7 other games, and the favorable schedule should give them the edge over their cross-state rivals, though a bowl qualification would probably represent a season that exceeds expectations.
Colorado took their turn at starting the rebuilding process last year, bringing on Jon Embree at the same time the Buffs broke into the Pac-12. The results weren't pretty, and a half-dozen conference opponents ran up in excess of 40 points on Colorado in what would be a 10 loss campaign. That was an especially bad thing to combine with an offense that was in the bottom 30 in the country in rushing and scoring.
There were signs that Embree's complete rebuild was beginning to bear fruit at the end of the season, though, as Colorado won 2 of their last 3 games, including a 17-14 upset of Utah in Salt Lake City that ended a 23 game road losing streak, and cost the Utes a berth in the Pac-12 Championship game.
However, the Buffs lost their quarterback, Tyler Hansen and their best running back, Rodney Stewart, among many others, and the Buffs bring back only 11 starters, second lowest in the conference. With a quarterback competition featuring multiple transfers cast off by other programs, the offense is a huge unknown.
Compounding the problem, WR Paul Richardson, who is yet another that belongs on the list of the elite receivers in the Pac-12, tore his ACL in spring practice. Richardson is defying modern medicine, and is so far ahead of schedule in his recovery that he has a chance to actually return to action late in the season. It could be an ill-advised move, however, as back to back trips to USC and Oregon right before that comeback's earliest return could come.
But an attractive non-conference schedule, and a manageable start to the conference campaign (The Buffs get both UCLA and Arizona St. at home, and at elevation) could have Colorado with a shot at a bowl game before the schedule gets brutal mid-season. Finishing with 3 of 4 games at home, and avoiding the Arizona heat by not going to the desert until November, could yield a bowl game that would be a huge assist to Embree in his efforts to bring the recruits to Boulder that will put the Buffs in the hunt for the "better" bowl berths.
Look for Embree to pull out all the stops to get off to a good start, and then piece together a decent finish.
Arizona St. upset USC, and went to a bowl game for the first time in 4 years last season. But after a 5-1 start, the Sun Devils lost their last 5 games, culminating with 56-24 rout by Boise St. in the Las Vegas Bowl. The collapse ultimately cost both head coach Dennis Erickson and Athletic Director Lisa Love their jobs, after a struggle of a search for a replacement for Erickson that eventually resulted in the hiring of Todd Graham away from Pittsburgh.
Hard hit by graduation, Arizona St. also saw quarterback Brock Osweiler leave early for the NFL, and unstable but immensely talented Vontaze Burfict also move on, leaving the Sun Devils with only 10 returning starters, and just 8 position players, both the lowest in the conference.
It's hard to find where support for speedy running back Cameron Marshall, above, is going to come from unless an unheralded newcomer somewhere on the roster really comes of age as the season rolls along.
Graham's late arrival in Tempe didn't help with recruiting either, and it's likely to take some time to turn things around in the House of Sparky.
So my pre-season media ballot for the Pac-12 South looks like this:
6. Arizona St.
We'll look at the Pac-12 North next.
(Photos by Andy Wooldridge)