Several teams chasing USC football (again) in crowded Pac-12 South

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Lianne Frick/File

Let’s not kid ourselves — the Pac-12 wet the bed in 2017. For those who remember vividly, the ‘conference of champions’ was the runt of the litter for three straight months last season, failing to produce a top-10 team by year’s end, let alone a legitimate contender for the annual College Football Playoff. Collectively, the conference predominantly known for fast-paced, high-scoring, late-into-the-night contests laid down an unsightly 1-8 record in bowl games.

But with 2017 in the rearview mirror, and the return of multiple stars who have fully embraced #Pac12AfterDark’s air-raid culture, 2018 does bring some promise. Last season may not have seen any particular program stand out from the rest, but the arc of elite playmakers coupled with aggressive coaching does bend toward good competition.

Big names like Stanford’s Bryce Love, Washington’s Jake Browning and Arizona’s Khalil Tate are back in action and gunning for a spot in the Heisman Trophy discussion. Perhaps most importantly, however, both Love and Browning return to programs with CFP aspirations, while Tate’s Arizona squad will attempt to edge the likes of USC, Utah and UCLA in the Pac-12 South.

With just about one month left before everyone’s favorite weekend of the year, here’s how many perceive the Pac-12 South lining up by season’s end:

1) USC (2017: 11-3, 8-1)

For the number of teams both inside and outside the Pac-12 that hold a lasting grudge against the infamous Trojans, there’s also a tremendous amount of respect inside the conference for the wildly successful program. Let’s face it: USC will be tough to beat on any given day, as usual — unless the Trojans are playing Ohio State.

Speaking of Ohio, LeBron James signing with the Lakers wasn’t the only notable transition occurring in Southern California this summer. But even without a runaway favorite to replace Sam Darnold under center, it’s hard to bet against head coach Clay Helton’s team, which returns six starters on the defensive side of the ball, highlighted by the man in the middle — senior inside linebacker Cameron Smith.

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The Trojans are structurally sound, with arguably the top defensive line in the conference, and with Clancy Pendergast back as defensive coordinator, they likely have the best chance out of all Pac-12 defensive schemes to limit high-flying offenses. Cornerback Iman Marshall opted to return for his senior year and is set to lead a secondary, attempting to overcome the absence of embattled fellow cornerback Jack Jones.

Not to mention the bad taste in the team’s mouth after a lackluster performance in last December’s Cotton Bowl Classic — a 24-7 defeat to the Buckeyes. Whether it’s former Mater Dei High School star and USC freshman JT Daniels, big-play spinner and redshirt freshman Jack Sears or dual-threat redshirt sophomore Matt Fink taking the reins from Darnold, the Trojans are still the real deal heading into 2018.

2) Arizona (2017: 7-6, 5-4)

If I had guts, I’d pick Arizona over USC to represent the south in late November’s Pac-12 Championship Game. I might even tell people to ignore what is being laid out now. Here’s why.

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It’s no secret that Arizona isn’t about to run the triple option this upcoming season under former Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin. That’s because former backup quarterback-turned-sensation Khalil Tate let the world know last winter. Power to the players, right?

To be real, though, a simple glance at the Wildcats’ schedule provides a dead giveaway of the program’s boosted chances of taking home a Pac-12 South title. In 2018, Arizona will not face Stanford or Washington, the two Pac-12 North powerhouses. That isn’t great from a strength-of-schedule, “please let us enter the College Football Playoff discussion” perspective when Arizona begins the year at 4-0, but it’s an advantage for a new head coach in Sumlin, who’s known for doing special things with unique talent.

Tate is perhaps the most interesting student-athlete in the entire nation; after all, most quarterbacks at the beginning of last season didn’t rush for 327 yards in a game one month after not being given the starting job. Should the now-Heisman hopeful run circles around USC’s defense on Sept. 29, a game being held in the friendly confines of Tucson, Arizona, and the Wildcats have a legitimate shot of making it to a Jan. 1 bowl game.

Also, last time I checked, 11 men take the field on each side of the ball. The Wildcats will be returning not five, not six, but nine starters defensively, accentuated by Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Colin Schooler.

At minimum, this will be a fun team to watch this season. At best, it will be in the hunt for a surprise bid in the Rose Bowl game.

3) Utah (2017: 7-6, 3-6)

While the Utes aren’t considered a trendy pick to stand atop the conference as a whole come bowling season, it’s difficult to imagine anything less than another solid, consistent bowl-worthy season from Kyle Whittingham and company. The lone Pac-12 program to come out on top in a bowl game last winter, Utah’s floor is arguably higher than Arizona’s despite only returning four starters on defense.

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As with many competitive programs in the Pac-12 South, a lot of the Utes’ success lies on the shoulders of their quarterback-running back pairing. While they haven’t always seen the field a lot together, junior quarterback Tyler Huntley and junior tailback Zack Moss are both poised for vast developments in their game. The former struggled with turnovers at times in an up-and-down campaign last season but is seemingly on the cusp of a breakout year given his innate talent both throwing and running with the football.

Moss, on the other hand, already has a workhorse-type season on his resume, eclipsing 1,000 yards in 2017 and recording five games with 125 or more yards. His presumed backup, redshirt junior Armand Shyne, could easily be a starter for several elite programs across the country and is finally healthy after suffering early injuries in back-to-back seasons.

4) UCLA (2017: 6-7, 4-5)

Guess what, Pac-12 fans? He’s back.

As fate would have it, Chip Kelly (along with his $24 million contract) has returned to the college ranks and the West Coast in particular, although he’s traded rainy stretches in Eugene for the never-ending supply of sunlight that can be found in Westwood year-round.

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Although the UCLA faithful are eager to see if Kelly’s change in scenery can translate once again into national contention, reality says to tamper expectations. The Bruins are a young squad with just eight seniors and two graduate transfers, and they are kept at bay by a defense that surrendered nearly 300 rushing yards per contest in 2017. That won’t get the job done against Stanford’s Bryce Love, Washington’s Myles Gaskin, USC’s Stephen Carr and many more.

And the offense? It is without wonder boy Josh Rosen and his favorite do-it-all target, Jordan Lasley. Red-zone trips aren’t likely to spike under redshirt sophomore Devon Modster — at least not initially. Kelly might instill some magic into UCLA’s new look weapons, but if the program is on the fence for a bowl game late in the year, concluding the season against USC and Stanford in back-to-back weeks is a daunting final stretch.

5) Arizona State (2017: 7-6, 6-3)

College football is abundant with fiery, amped-up, sometimes midgame-15-yard-penalty-worthy coaches who like to put themselves out there for the support of their student-athletes. Current Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy, BYU’s Kalani Sitake and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh are among those who first come to mind. But even with decades of in-your-face leaders at the helm of Division I programs, it’s hard to find a comparison to new Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards.

If the college coach Herm Edwards is anything like the NFL coach/analyst known for inspirational speeches typically found exclusively in “based on a true story” sports films, then Sun Devil fans are in for a treat over the next few seasons. They might even forget that while former head coach Todd Graham fell short of the program’s goals during his tenure, ASU finished in an impressive second place in the crowded south division last season.

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So why the drop-off to No. 5? As with UCLA, 2018 is really an experimental year for Arizona State, with a well-known household name taking on the task of chasing down USC in the coming weeks, months and years. Edwards is gifted with arguably the best receiver in the country, junior N’Keal Harry, who would be the talk of the town on Sunday mornings if he played in the Southeastern Conference. He’s a prime fit for a Pac-12 squad that tends to thrive under the national spotlight, when it receives that spotlight.

The Sun Devils defense excelled under that spotlight against Washington in 2017, handing the Huskies their first defeat of the season at the time. But the offensive line was chewed out frequently during big moments, finishing 124th in the nation in sacks allowed. Much like that of Cal, the future of Arizona State looks solid, but this isn’t by any means a one-year experiment.

6) Colorado (2017: 5-7, 2-7)

Quarterback Steven Montez walked into Pac-12 Media Day last week with a Batman mask. Just for that, Colorado has received some reconsideration for moving up a couple of spots in the Pac-12 South. In all honesty, the Buffaloes finishing above the Sun Devils is more than plausible, but a young core on both the offensive and defensive lines doesn’t bode well without elite playmakers.

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For the fire sale that was the Pac-12’s set of coaches last season, Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre ended up keeping his job — for now. A year removed from taking the Buffaloes to the Pac-12 Championship Game and winning National Coach of the Year, MacIntyre’s seat is on the warmer side after a shaky 2-7 record in conference play in 2017.

Redshirt senior middle linebacker Rick Gamboa is one of six defensive starters returning for a group taking aim at a bounce-back season. But the loss of four offensive linemen and explosive tailback Phillip Lindsay will keep the offense anchored — not exactly a sign for optimism when trying to outscore fellow Pac-12 opposition. Trying to replace Lindsay will initially come in the form of a committee, headed by Virginia Tech transfer Travon McMillian. The Buffaloes are far from the clear-cut bottom of the division as the Beavers are up North, but their ceiling is capped considerably.

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020