The Pac-12 South was supposed to be a walk in the park for USC in 2012. Instead, the Trojans stumbled, lost the division to crosstown rival UCLA, nearly got head coach Lane Kiffin fired and now look at a balanced landscape for the 2013 season.
USC remains a contender to win this division, even as Matt Barkley goes into the NFL to hook up with old nemesis Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles. But UCLA isn’t going anywhere, and now Arizona State and Arizona have to be considered candidates to represent the league in the conference championship game. TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage breaks down the four prime contenders…
FOUR ON THE FLOOR
USC: Barkley may be gone, but Max Witten got game experience at the end of last year when the incumbent was injured. Witten still has All-Everything receiver Marqise Lee back at receiver. Lee is the best Heisman candidate among players at non-traditional positions, and USC also returns running back Silas Redd.
The Trojans should be tougher in the trenches than was the case in 2012, when both UCLA and Notre Dame outhit them at the end of the regular season. The offensive front is experienced, and a lot of the defensive front seven is back. An extra year of maturity and being in the weight room should make a difference.
USC’s problems will be in its defensive backfield, where there is rebuilding to do, and ultimately regarding the coaching of Kiffin, who has still yet to actually prove he is capable of handling a gig like this one.
UCLA: The Bruins say goodbye to Jonathan Franklin, a tough runner who led their ground attack all the way to the conference championship game before losing to Stanford. But the offensive front that paved the way for Franklin is back, and so is sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley, who survived trial by fire as a freshman starter.
Jim Mora Jr. immediately turned around the entire culture of this program, which had developed an inferiority complex to USC. He’s got a good defense to work with, starting with his front seven and defensive end Cassius Marsh. Like the Trojans, UCLA’s big problem will be re-tooling its defensive secondary.
There’s no question though, that this program is on the rise. It might be a two-year process due to the lack of senior starters, but the Bruins can start to think about their first Rose Bowl since 1998.
Arizona State: Todd Graham is in his second year in Tempe, and his team has already started to become a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 South. They closed the year by beating Arizona, and then winning a bowl game over Navy, 62-48. Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly made great strides, he’s protected by an excellent left tackle in Evan Finkenburg and has a good tight end target in Chris Cole.
The defensive front seven is stacked with senior leadership, starting with All-American tackle Will Sutton on the nose. The Sun Devils won’t be outhit by anyone, and they have a playmaker at linebacker in Carl Bradford. There’s still more experience in the secondary. It’s easy to see why this team is getting some love to represent the South in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Arizona: Rich Rodriguez made an instant impact during his first year in Tucson, putting the Wildcats back into postseason play and knocking off USC and pushing Stanford to overtime. But Arizona also lost to UCLA by a 66-10 count, and ending the year by losing to Arizona State and barely surviving mediocre Nevada in a bowl game was a disappointment. It’s tough to see Arizona making big strides in 2013.
The offensive line has three starters back, but only one senior. Ka’deem Carey may be the best back in the entire league, but there’s uncertainty at quarterback and wide receiver Austin Hill was lost to a torn ACL in spring practice.
Arizona could win with defense, with ten starters back and most of them upperclassmen. Normally I would expect such a team to do just that…but since when has Rich Rodriguez ever won with defense? If that trend breaks and Rich-Rod finds a quarterback, his team can get in the middle of this race. Otherwise, pencil them in for fourth, a low-level bowl game and better things next season.
The football fans at Utah and Colorado have seen better days. While it’s unfair to Utah to put them in the same class as Colorado—the Utes are merely subpar, while the Buffs are genuinely horrific—neither is going to a bowl game in 2013.
Utah: The transition to the Pac-12 has been predictably challenging. This isn’t a terrible team, and bringing in Dennis Erickson to help the offensive staff could aid sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson in his development. But the Utes are just not tough enough in the trenches and they have problems in the secondary and even improvement on offense only means mediocrity.
Colorado: Mike MacIntyre turned San Jose State into a bowl team and now tries to turn around the Buffalo program. This is a team that won game last year, and that by a single point, 35-34 over Washington State.
The team is young—even with 15 starters back this year, they’re projected to have 16 more back in 2014. If you combine youth with a head coach that I like, you’ve got the formula for growth. But growth in 2013 doesn’t mean anymore than three wins.
This one’s really close, and I can think of good reasons to take any of UCLA, USC or Arizona State. But I’m going to go with the Sun Devils. I’m a little leery of whether Graham can get them this level, but at this point in his career I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and I really like the defense he has going in Tempe.