The Pac-12 South is not nearly as deep as the North, but it is still one of the deepest conference divisions in college football. Last season saw the Arizona State Sun Devils capture the Southern Division crown, and took on the Stanford Cardinal in the Pac-12 Championship game in Tempe, Ariz. ASU ran away with the South last year (they finished with an 8-1 conference record), but this upcoming season is probably going to see changes in the South finishes in 2014.
It’s unlikely that Arizona State wins the division for the second year in a row, but the Sun Devils should still be a talented threat heading into 2014. Now, let’s take a look at my power rankings for the Southern Division.
1) UCLA Bruins: UCLA has a bunch of returning talent, on both sides of the ball, from a team that went 10-3 and finished two games behind ASU in the South. The 2013 Bruins were a well-rounded squad — UCLA had the 20th best offense, and 34th best defense in the country — and they look to get better heading into 2014 because, of there are nine returning offensive starters and seven returning defensive starters.
Thanks to the returning starters the Bruins should be one of the favorites to win the South, and battle against Stanford for the conference’s championship. UCLA’s offense should continue to improve under junior Brett Hundley, and the defense should get better as the front seven gains more experience. It should be an interesting year in Pasadena, Calif.
2) USC Trojans: In the 2013 season we saw the Trojans lose to Washington State at home, their head coach was fired after an embarrassing loss to ASU, and the defensive coordinator take over the Trojans while leading them to the Las Vegas bowl. At the end of the season, USC hired away former Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian to rebuild the program after former Trojan head coach Lane Kiffin’s reign of terror.
USC will now have a new head coach as the program enters the 2014 season, and the program is probably going to see attrition from the current players on its roster. That’s going to be the biggest problem for the Trojans moving into the season. Fortunately for the Trojans, Sarkisian runs a similar style of offense to Kiffin (and therefore former USC head coach Pete Carroll); and that should make it so that there isn’t a long adjustment period to the playbook. The 2014 season is going to be a test for Sarkisian as he has an already talented squad, with fairly talented two-deep…but not much depth outside of that (thanks NCAA).
3) Arizona State Sun Devils: The Sun Devils graduated a ton of talent from the 2013 squad that won the Pac-12 South. While ASU has seven returning starters on the offensive side of the ball, the team’s biggest weakness is going to be on the defensive side of the ball because the Sun Devils only have three returning defensive starters on the roster. That’s going to make it hard for head coach Todd Graham to improve his squad’s defensive performance — ASU’s defense was ranked as the 62nd best defense in the country in 2013 — heading into the new season.
The Sun Devils do have a lot of returning experience on the offensive side of the ball however, and that should help the team score points in bunches…and help win the squad games that they shouldn’t win because of the young and inexperienced defense. Arizona State’s offense is going to be potent thanks to the fact that it’s starting QB Taylor Kelly is back under center for his senior year. Kelly and starting RB Jaelen Strong (also returning) were a major part of the Sun Devils offense in 2013 (which finished the season as the 1oth best offense in the country); and they, along with the offense, can only get better heading into 2014.
4) Arizona Wildcats: Arizona won eight games last season, including a shocking upset victory over (then) No. 5 Oregon in Tuscon, Ariz. The Wildcats won those eight games thanks to a potent offense based off of an incredible ground game led by RB Ka’Deem Carey (graduated), Arizona averaged 264.9 yards per game on the ground in 2013. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, head coach Rich Rodriguez has to appoint a new starting QB and RB heading into the upcoming season…and that could spell trouble for Arizona.
While Arizona currently doesn’t have a starting QB or RB, the Wildcats do returning seven starters from the offense and six on the defensive end of the field. That’s a good core for Rodriguez to begin to build on, but it is going to be interesting to see what happens in Tuscon as the team has to break in its new QB against a very tough Pac-12 conference.
5) Utah Utes: Outside of Utah’s first season in the Pac-12, the Utes have struggled to stay healthy and win football games. The 2013 season was more of the same, as the team finished the season with a 5-7 record. Utah lost starting QB Travis Wilson to a pre-existing condition (discovered during a post concussion exam) towards the end of the 2013 season; but Wilson was cleared medically during the spring…and recaptured the Utes starting job early on in fall camp.
Now that Utah has it’s starting QB situation figured out for the 2014 season, the focus can shift to the defensive end of the spectrum where the coaching staff has to replace six starters — there are five returning starters on the defensive end. It’s going to be interesting to see if head coach Kyle Whittingham survives another season without a bowl game, some Utah fans are getting restless.
6) Colorado Buffaloes: Colorado has been bad since they’ve joined the Pac-10/12; the Buffaloes only have three conference wins in three seasons. Head coach Mike MacIntyre is entering his second season in Boulder, Colo. and he (and the program) desperately need to win more than one conference game in the 2014 season.
Fortunately for Colorado, there is a lot of returning starters on the roster with Pac-12 experience — eight defense, and seven on offense. The Buffaloes are going to need the experience to overcome the talent deficit between the squad and the rest of the Pac-12 (it takes more than one okay recruiting class to overhaul a roster) if they are going to win games in conference.