By 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, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today, we head out west with the Pac-12 South, where the Bruins’ sophomore QB looks to lead his team to their first title game since 2012.
Preseason Media Poll
1) UCLA Bruins
2) USC Trojans
3) Utah Utes
4) Arizona Wildcats
5) Arizona State Sun Devils
6) Colorado Buffaloes
Jim Mora Jr. has led the Bruins to 37 wins during the course of his first four seasons, including two 10-win campaigns. Last year, injuries to their stars on defense and breaking in a freshman QB led to just an 8-5 year. That said, the young freshman QB was the top QB recruit in the country and will look to continue his development as he enters his sophomore campaign. With a defense that is getting a couple of those stars back from injury and has plenty of experience, the Bruins look primed for a run to the Pac-12 title game for the first time since 2012.
Josh Rosen was one of the most heralded QB prospects heading into his freshman season and he didn’t exactly disappoint, completing 60 percent of his passes for 3,668 yards and a 23-10 touchdown to interception ratio. This year, Rosen will be breaking in a younger group of wide receivers as he loses four of his top five targets from last year and the top running back after Paul Perkins decided to leave early for the NFL. Despite the relative inexperience at the skill position spots, Rosen has the ability to make the players around him better and he’ll be playing behind an offensive line that has some experience returning in tackles Conor McDermott and Kolton Miller. The unit also gets Scott Quessenberry back after he red-shirted last season.
While the offense is less experienced, the defense brings back nine starters. Most important is the return of defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, who was lost to injury in the first game last season. He’ll replace the loss of Kenny Clark, who left early for the NFL. They also lose star linebacker Myles Jack, but bring back two other starters in Kenny Young and Jayon Brown. Continuing the theme of returning injured players, corner Fabian Moreau is back after being out for the season after just three games last year. He returns to a group that brings everyone else back as well and the defense should definitely improve on the 25.1 points and 402 yards per game that they allowed last season.
The schedule is kind to the Bruins as it spaces out their biggest games against Stanford, Utah and USC and they get all of those teams at home.
Toughest Games: @ Texas A&M (9/3), vs. Stanford (9/24), vs. Utah (10/22), vs. USC (11/19)
Last season was a weird year for the Trojans. Expected by many to be a top team prior to the year, they started out just 3-3 and never really got on a roll. Part of that certainly had to do with the dismissal in midseason of their coach Steve Sarkisian for various off the field issues. This season, Clay Helton starts his first full year as the head coach and he has most of the offense returning.
10 starters return on offense for new coordinator Tee Martin. The one position that doesn’t have a returning starter is quarterback where Cody Kessler moved on to the NFL. Max Browne is the expected starter but he will be pushed by red-shirt freshman Sam Darnold. Whoever ends up at QB will have a veritable cornucopia of talent to work with. First, they’ll be playing behind an offensive line that brings everyone back including All Pac-12 tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler. In the backfield you have the combination of senior Justin Davis and sophomore Ronald Jones who combined for 1,889 yards and five touchdowns last season. The rushing attack averaged 168 yards per game last year and could be even better this season. The receiver corps is stacked with all of the top guys back, but the big name is JuJu Smith-Schuster, who caught 89 balls for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The offense could be prolific despite breaking in a new QB.
On defense, it’s a little bit different with heavy losses in the front seven. All three starters along the defensive line are gone. Additionally, star linebacker Su’a Cravens is gone, on to the NFL, along with two other starters. That means the front seven will likely be breaking in six new starters, which means it could take some time to round into form. The secondary however, is back mostly intact including a pair of stud corners in Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall.
The schedule is BRUTAL. The Trojans have Oregon, Stanford and Washington out of the North and get Alabama and Notre Dame in the out of conference slate.
Toughest Games: vs. Alabama (9/3 Arlington), @ Stanford (9/17), @ Utah (9/24), vs Oregon (11/5), @ Washington (11/12), @ UCLA (11/19), vs. Notre Dame (11/26)
The Utes had one of the stingiest defenses in the country last season, allowing opponents only 22.3 points per game while giving up just 109 yards per game on the the ground. Kyle Whittingham’s team is coming off a 10-win season, but they have some big holes to fill on offense.
The best news for the Utes on the offensive side of the ball this year is that the offensive line returns four of the five starters from last year. That veteran group will protect a new quarterback after four-year starter Travis Wilson graduated following last season. In his place, there is a three-man competition for the job between former Washington transfer Troy Williams, junior Brandon Cox and freshman Tyler Huntley. Back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher DeVontae Booker moved on to the NFL, leaving senior Joe Williams who had just 104 carries for 477 yards to shoulder the running load. The receiver group loses its top two as Kenneth Scott graduated and Britain Covey has left on his two-year mission.
On defense, new defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley will have some star power to work with as tackle Lowell Lotulelei (Star’s younger brother) is back along with defensive end Kyle Fitts, who had seven sacks last season. The linebacker group is a bit of a question mark as both Gionni Paul and Jared Norris, their top two from last season, are gone. In the secondary look for first team Pac-12 safety Marcus Williams to have another big year and corner Dominique Hatfield (four interceptions last year) is back as well.
The schedule is favorable in that they get three of their four toughest games at home (USC, Washington, Oregon). They do have five Pac-12 road games however, including a road date with UCLA.
Toughest Games: vs. BYU (9/10), vs. USC (9/23), @ UCLA (10/22), vs. Washington (10/29), vs. Oregon (11/19)
Arizona State Sun Devils
After three straight winning seasons under Todd Graham, the Sun Devils took a step back last year by going 6-7 following a loss in their bowl game to West Virginia. This season, Graham has much less experience to work with and is breaking in a new offensive coordinator after Mike Norvell left to take the head coaching job at Memphis.
New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has both of the team’s top rushers back from last season in Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage (combined 1,757 yards 11 TD). The problem for Lindsey is that he has to find a new quarterback, loses two top receivers and four starters along the offensive line. That’s a lot of production and experience that is lacking in this unit. There is a solid left tackle in Evan Goodman, who is an NFL prospect, and their second leading receiver Tim White is back (57 receptions 633 yards 8 TDs). Overall, there’s a lot of work to do.
On defense, the Sun Devils fare a little better as they bring back all three starting linebackers in Salamo Fiso, Christian Sam and Viliami Moeakiola, though Moeakiola is moving into the secondary to take a safety spot this year. Along the defensive line, despite the loss of their top guy in Antonio Longino, they bring back end JoJo Wicker and tackles Tashon Smallwood and Viliami Latu. The secondary is the big question mark with three starters moving on and just corner Kareem Orr returning.
The Sun Devils draw Oregon and Washington from the North and have to travel to USC. How quickly the offensive line and new QB develop will determine where this season goes.
Toughest Games: vs Texas Tech (9/10), @ USC (10/1), vs. UCLA (10/8), @ Oregon (10/29), vs. Utah (11/10), @ Washington (11/19)
Rich Rodriguez has somewhat quietly been building a consistently good team in Tucson. After leading the Wildcats to four bowls in his first four seasons, winning three of them. He also won the Pac-12 South in 2014 before losing to Oregon in the title game. He’s got some pretty good returning talent this year and that bowl streak should continue.
Quarterback Anu Solomon now enters his third year as a starter after throwing for 2,567 yards with a 20-5 touchdown to interception ratio and completing 62.1 percent of his passes. He will have Nick Wilson in the backfield with him after he was part of a trio of backs who combined for over 2,200 yards last season. Wilson himself had 729 of those and eight touchdowns. He did have the most carries of the three backs at 134 and looks ready to step into the full-time workhorse back role as long as he can stay healthy. Solomon will be breaking in some new targets as three of the top four receivers are gone. He will be working behind an offensive line that has multiple starters back including Cal transfer Freddie Tagaloa. The offensive line and the whole Wildcats team will be playing through the loss of their teammate, center Zach Hemmila, who passed away in his sleep Saturday.
The defense brings in a new coordinator in Marcel Yates, who comes over from Boise State, and he will have an experienced defensive line group returning two starters in Luca Bruno and Sani Fuimaono. They do lose star linebacker Scooby Wright, but he was injured for most of last season and plenty of linebackers got experience last season. The secondary loses just safety Jamar Allah. This group should be able to cut down on the 467 yards and 35.8 points per game they allowed last season.
The problem for Rich Rod’s crew is the schedule. In a six-week stretch from late September through October, the wildcats face Washington, UCLA, Utah, USC and Stanford. That five-game stretch will largely determine whether Arizona is contending or fighting for a bowl spot.
Toughest Games: vs BYU (9/3), vs. Washington (9/24), @ UCLA (10/1), @ Utah (10/8), vs. USC (10/15), vs. Stanford (10/29)
Mike MacIntyre’s first three seasons haven’t really turned the program around as the team has won just 10 games in those three years and are 2-25 in conference play during that time. This year, MacIntyre has his most experienced team and the most experienced group in the Pac-12 with 18 returning starters.
On offense, the Buffaloes are likely to return QB Sefo Liufau, though he is still recovering from a Lisfranc injury last season. His health will be crucial to Colorado’s chances of bettering the 4-win total they had last season. Their top running back Phillip Lindsay is back and every wide receiver except for Nelson Spruce returns. With an offensive line that brings back everybody except for tackle Stephane Nembot, this offense should absolutely improve on the 25 points per game and 397 yards per game they averaged last year.
Defensively, the entire defensive line is back except for tackle Justin Solis and all of the linebackers are back as well. The Buffaloes will just be hoping for better health for the LB group that missed both Addison Gilliam and Kenneth Olugbode for long stretches last year. The secondary loses just one starter in Kenneth Crawley and part-time starter Jered Bell.
Things look pretty good for MacIntyre, right? Especially considering that the team was only -2 in terms of points per game versus points allowed last season (25 ppg, 27 opp. ppg). However, the schedule is rough with the Buffaloes adding a trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan in the out of conference and getting Stanford and Oregon out of the North. The Buffs should be better and a bowl berth is possible, but the schedule keeps them from doing much more.
Toughest Games: @ Michigan (9/17), @ Oregon (9/24), @ USC (10/8), @ Stanford (10/22), vs. UCLA (11/3), vs. Utah (11/26)
Division Winner- UCLA
Despite the inexperience at the skill positions and USC’s more loaded offense, I’m going to go with the Bruins here. One, because Josh Rosen should be one of the top QBs in the country in year two, while the Trojans will be breaking in a new starter at that spot. Also, for as experienced as the Trojans are on offense, there are some question marks on defense and that looks to be the Bruins strength this year. Jim Mora Jr. and the Bruins advance to the Pac-12 title game to square off with Stanford which would be interesting because we would have already seen that game in September. That’s a tough one to forecast because by the time you get to the conference championship game, there are no more inexperienced guys. At that point, everybody has a full season’s worth of games under their belts. I’ll take Stanford in that game if only because I think Christian McCaffrey finds a way to make one huge impact play that will be the difference between the two. That all said, even though Stanford wins the Pac-12, they miss out on the CFP for the second consecutive year.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.