2017 Pac-12 Football Preview: South Division

Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, non-bowl teams and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid, non-bowl teams aren’t. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

The South got a glimpse of a possible waking giant as USC ripped off nine straight victories on the back of its young QB to end the year in making a trip to the Rose Bowl. This season, their crosstown rival, UCLA, hopes to have its own young QB back healthy in order to contest the Trojans spot atop the division.

Contenders

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Quarterback Sam Darnold #14 of the USC Trojans. Credit: Harry How/Getty Images

USC Trojans

Clay Helton’s tenure got off to a rough start last year when the Trojans stumbled to 1-3 out of the gate. Then, the win streak began and USC ended as one of the season’s hottest teams, just missing out on playing for the Pac-12 title. This season, Helton has another loaded group to work with including a guy that people have pegged as the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

Redshirt sophomore QB Sam Darnold took over the starting job in Week 4 against Utah and never looked back, completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,086 yards with 31 TDs and 9 INTs. That performance got NFL scouts mouths watering especially considering Darnold’s ideal size (6’4″ 225 listed) for the position. People have pegged him (along with Wyoming QB Josh Allen) as one of the top QBs in the 2018 draft and neither guy has declared yet. Before Darnold has to decide his NFL future, he’ll be working with a Trojans offense that returns top rusher Ronald Jones (1,082 yards 12 TDs) and have three starting linemen back with the return of center Toa Lobendahn. The receiving corps loses its top two guys, but the Trojans are annually stocked well at that position and this year is no different with five-star freshman Joseph Lewis joining a stable of former four and five-star guys. USC should have no trouble matching last year’s offensive output of 34.4 PPG and 477.5 YPG.

DC Clancy Pendergast runs a 4-2-5 scheme and he’s got seven guys back from last year’s team as three defensive linemen, one linebacker and three secondary guys return. The biggest loss is CB Adoree Jackson (5 INT 11 PBU), but junior Iman Marshall (3 INT 8 PBU) looks poised to step into his role of shutdown corner. MLB Cameron Smith has been starting since his freshman season and enters his junior year as the leading tackler from last year’s team. This group should improve on last year’s numbers.

The Trojans do face Texas (home) and Notre Dame (away) in the out of conference slate, but they avoid Washington out of the North and get most of the big boys at home (Stanford, Utah, UCLA all come to the Coliseum). Over 9.5 wins

Bowl Teams

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Josh Rosen #3 drops to pass as Nate Starks #23 of the UCLA Bruins and Scott Quessenberry #52. Credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

UCLA Bruins

The Bruins got off to a 3-3 start last year with QB Josh Rosen under center before Rosen was lost to the year with a shoulder injury and UCLA went 1-5 to finish 4-8. This season, Rosen is back, hopefully healthy, along with most of his offensive counterparts, but the schedule is tough and will be the main obstacle in the Bruins contention for the conference title.

In addition to getting Rosen back from injury, the Bruins bring back four offensive linemen and the top five rushers from last season. The running game averaged just 82.4 YPG last season, so there’s only one way for this group to go in that respect. With that many veterans back, I would expect better numbers. Rosen’s top two receiving targets are also back in senior Darren Andrews (55 receptions 709 yards 4 TDs) and junior Jordan Lasley (41 receptions 620 yards 5 TDs). Overall, with nine guys back from last year’s group, this unit should easily pass last year’s 24.9 PPG and 379.8 YPG.

The defense is hit a little harder by departures especially up front with DE Takkarist McKinley and DT Eddie Vanderdoes both leaving for the NFL. ILB Kenny Young was second on the team in tackles last year (90) and he returns to lead a talented LB group. Jim Mora has recruited this side of the ball well with largely three and four-star recruits in the depth chart and there are plenty of talented guys to combine with the six returning starters and improve on last year’s stats.

The Bruins open the year with Texas A&M and then face Stanford, Washington, Utah and USC all on the road in conference play. That’s four of the big boys in the conference on the road with a home date against Oregon as well. Over 6.5 wins.

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Phillip Lindsay #23 of the Colorado Buffaloes. Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Colorado Buffaloes

The Buffaloes were a pleasant surprise in coach Mike MacIntyre’s fourth season. The first three years of his tenure saw the team go 4-8, 2-10, and 4-9. Last year, with a senior-laden roster, they jumped to 10 wins and won the Pac-12 South. This season, their all-time leading passer departs and the defense has a lot of holes to fill. They should still make a bowl, but double-digit wins is highly unlikely.

Sefo Liufau set the program record for passing yards with 9,763 in his four years starting. Last season, he did miss some time with an ankle injury and freshman Steve Montez was thrust into the spotlight. He acquitted himself fairly well (59.3% 1,078 yards 9 TD 5 INT) and should be ready to be the full-time guy this year. It will help to have top running back Phillip Lindsay (1,252 yards 16 TD), the top seven receivers and four starting offensive linemen back. While breaking in a new QB replacing a four-year starter would normally indicate a step back, this group could actually improve on last year’s 31.1 PPG and 438.4 YPG.

The defense however, presents a bigger challenge. Last year’s group was built on veteran’s and held opponents to just 21.7 PPG and 342.9 YPG. This season, they lose four draft picks, including three in the secondary, and eight starters overall. The most experienced group is surprisingly, the secondary where they have essentially a pair of starters back in safeties Afolabi Laguda and former nickel back turned safety Ryan Moeller. That experience in the back end will help, but still, a step back from last year’s finish is to be expected.

The Buffs open the season with their rivalry game against Colorado State in Denver and the Rams are no pushover this season. They do draw Washington out of the North, but avoid Stanford, and they get the Huskies at home. USC comes to Boulder as well, with road games against UCLA and Utah. Under 7.5 wins.

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Quarterback Troy Williams #3 of the Utah Utes. Credit: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Utah Utes

The Utes were leading the way in the Pac-12 South until a surprising home loss to Oregon before falling at Colorado the following week gave the Buffs the division title. This season Kyle Whittingham has a much bigger coaching job on his hands as he has one of the least experienced teams in terms of returning starters in the Pac-12 (just 9 back).

Senior QB Troy Williams is back after starting last season, but he’ll be pressured by Alabama grad-transfer Cooper Bateman and sophomore Tyler Huntley. Williams’ numbers were decent, but he struggled with accuracy (53.1%). Whoever wins the QB battle will be without last year’s leading rusher in Joe Williams and behind an offensive line that has just two starters back. No. 2 receiver Raelon Singleton returns, but the rest of the top four receivers depart. That doesn’t bode well for a group that looks to improve on last year’s 29.8 PPG and 431 YPG.

The defense is a little better off with five starters back but, the secondary was hit particularly hard by departures as that group returns just one starter in converted QB Chad Hansen (No. 1 tackler with 90). The good news is the defensive line gets back DE Kylie Fitts who missed all but two games last season with a foot injury. He’ll join stud DT Lowell Lotulelei (brother of Carolina Panthers DT Star) on the line as the defense looks to match last year’s 43 sacks. Linebackers Kavika Luafatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli both return (Utes run a 4-2-5) after combining for 109 tackles and 7 TFL last season. The secondary is my biggest concern, and overall they could take a small step back this season.

The schedule is difficult with USC, Oregon and Washington on the road and Stanford and UCLA coming to Salt Lake City. There’s also the small matter of the rivalry battle with BYU which will be played in Provo this year. Matching last year’s nine wins will be difficult, but seven is reasonable. Under 6.5 wins.

Non-Bowl Teams

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Rrunning back Kalen Ballage #7 of the Arizona State Sun Devils. Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Arizona State Sun Devils

The Sun Devils started 2016 5-1 before injuries ravaged the roster and then they lost the final six games to finish 5-7. Todd Graham’s team returns 13 starters from last year’s group and adds in a couple of transfers that could make an impact.

Last year, the Sun Devils started three different QBs in Manny Wilkins, Dillon Sterling-Cole and Brady White. All three return, and the team adds Alabama transfer Blake Barnett, which should make for an interesting QB battle. Whoever wins has an offensive line that returns three starters from last year’s unit and a loaded running back corps with all four of their top rushers from last year back. The star is senior back Kalen Ballage who, in addition to being the No. 2 rusher, was also the team’s No. 3 receiver. Similar to Ballage in versatility is No. 2 receiver N’Keal Harry who returns for his sophomore season. They lose top receiver Tim White, but add in a pair of Big 12 transfers in Ryan Newsome (Texas) and John Humphrey (Oklahoma). All in all, this unit should improve on the 33 PPG and 391 YPG averaged last season.

The defense was a mess las year allowing opponents 40 points and 521 yards per game, mostly through the air. Opposing QBs completed 63.9% of their passes averaging 357 yards per game. This year the secondary loses three starters from last year’s group, but due to injuries, the backups got some good playing time last year. The defensive line should be stronger with three guys back and the linebacking corps brings back top tackler DJ Calhoun and returns Christian Sam from injury. Last year’s defense was disastrous, this season, the unit should improve.

The Sun Devils schedule isn’t easy as they face San Diego State and Texas Tech in non conference play and as mentioned above draw both Stanford (away) and Washington (home). In addition home games against Oregon and USC are on the slate with away games against Utah and UCLA. Under 5 wins.

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Quarterback Brandon Dawkins #13 of the Arizona Wildcats. Credit: Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Arizona Wildcats

The Wildcats, like their in-stat rivals, suffered through an injury-plagued season last year that led to a 3-9 mark. This season Rich Rod has 14 starters returning and a lighter schedule that should lead to a better record, but maybe not a bowl appearance.

Anu Solomon transferred to Baylor, leaving junior Brandon Dawkins as the incumbent starting QB. Dawkins is more of a dual-threat, but needs to work on his accuracy (53.9%). Dawkins will be protected by a veteran offensive line consisting of five returning starters from last year and will have three of the top four running backs back from last year, though not the top guy in Samaije Grant. At wide receiver, top target Shun Brown (521 yards 3 TD) returns, but most of the rest of the group departs. Despite that, the offense’s numbers were so low last year (25 PPG 413 YPG) that they should still improve this season with better health.

On defense, similarly to the Sun Devils, the Wildcats struggled through a bad year allowing 38 points and 469 yards per game. This year, DC Marcel Yates will have two starters back on the offensive line and all four starters back in the secondary. Only one LB returns, but that group suffered through injuries last season and the backups, who will now be starters, saw plenty of time. Like ASU, this AU defense should take a step forward.

How much of a step forward the team takes will be dependent upon how they handle home games against Houston, Utah and UCLA and road games against USC, Oregon, Oregon State and Colorado. If they pick off a couple of those teams, they could make a bowl. If they don’t it’s highly unlikely. Under 5.5 wins.

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