Mountain (Standard) Time: Utah emerges as early favorite in Pac-12 South

Amanda Ramirez/Staff

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For the second straight year, the Pac-12 fell short of fielding a representative to the notorious College Football Playoff — an understandably disappointing result for the set of schools dubbed “the conference of champions.” 

But with a new year comes a fresh slate, and unlike last fall’s disaster of a season for the Pac-12, things appear extraordinarily promising for one school in particular: Utah. 

Just about everyone has the Utes representing the South in December’s annual Pac-12 title game, eager to erase last year’s memories of the injury bug and the infamous “What if?” question. 

After Utah, things become a toss-up, with heavy fog shrouding the South’s pecking order. With three weeks remaining until the show kicks off, here’s how things line up in the Pac-12 South. 

 

1) Utah (2018: 9-5, 6-3)

Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes have been solid, if not spectacular. That description matches the career of head coach Kyle Whittingham, one of college football’s maestros with a track record abundant in consistency. 

The one thing Whittingham hasn’t been able to do as a head coach? Claim a Pac-12 title.

2019 is as good a year as any for Whittingham and the Utes to finally make that a reality. Offensively, the Utes are structurally sound, with veteran quarterback Tyler Huntley and starting tailback Zack Moss primed for one last run together. The one-two punch is complemented by a defense that features premier defensive end Bradlee Anae and top-tier defensive back Jaylon Johnson, making the Utes by and large the South’s most balanced program.

One last reason to go all-in on Utah? The schedule-makers. The Utes will avoid both Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Stanford’s K.J. Costello, with a rematch of last year’s Pac-12 title game against Washington lined up on Nov. 2 — a time of year when both programs should be at their best. That game alone should generate a significant ripple effect across the entire conference, with both division titles at stake.

Few schools in the nation have the fluid balance on both sides of the ball that the Utes possess, and with a favorable schedule, it’s tough to visualize another program dominating the South when it’s all said and done. It’s been 15 years since a Pac-12 school won a national title, but Utah and Oregon offer the most hope for that drought to cease.

 

2) USC (2018: 5-7, 4-5)

When it comes to summarizing USC’s 2018 campaign, “disappointing” is an understatement. It’s tough to place blame on a true freshman quarterback regardless of the institution he’s competing for, but it’s safe to say JT Daniels was punched in the jaw and thrown into a fire quite a few times throughout his first year in cardinal and gold.

Head coach Clay Helton’s job was somehow saved despite the angry emails and phone calls from Trojan alumni and boosters. He returns to fall camp with a hot seat warmer than Venice Beach in July, and a quarterback prodigy whose confidence is shaky after a 5-7 season.

So why does USC have the inside track to unseating Utah at the top of the South?

The second year at any level is prevalently accepted as a player’s most important season, and Daniels is no exception. The former five-star recruit has the conference’s top receivers core at his disposal, along with a new and improved scheme in the works under new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.

Don’t expect this year’s program to be the Trojans of old, but a bounce-back season is certainly in the works. Six wins is the floor for USC; nine or 10 is not out of the question.

 

3) Arizona State (2018: 7-6, 5-4)

No N’Keal Harry. No Manny Wilkins. Many are writing off the Sun Devils’ second year of Herm Edwards’ reign in Tempe, at least when it comes to leapfrogging into the top spot in the division.

Eno Benjamin would like a word with all the doubters.

Arguably the Pac-12’s most under-the-radar playmaker, Benjamin (with 16 rushing scores in 2018) will carry an increased workload regardless of who inherits the job under center. ASU has about four gunslingers — led by Dillon Sterling-Cole — who could realistically take over as the starting quarterback come week one, but Benjamin will be the heart and soul of the Harry-less Sun Devils.

Last year’s squad could compete with just about anybody — nine of ASU’s contests last season were decided by one score. Edwards went 4-1 against the other teams listed in this piece, and even with a new quarterback, we all know he is gunning for 5-0 this time around.

 

4) UCLA (2018: 3-9, 3-6)

The Bruins will undoubtedly get better and better as the Chip Kelly experiment begins to take full effect in Westwood. But in his second year at the helm, expectations need to be tampered. 

By virtue of the transition from Jim Mora to Kelly, the Bruins’ depth chart is heavily saturated with underclassmen, particularly those without a lot of game experience. Kelly isn’t typically associated with an explosive defense, but that’s where UCLA’s strength lies heading into its fall practices.

The departure of safety Adarius Pickett hurts the secondary, but the linebackers core highlighted by Krys Barnes and Keisean Lucier-South will keep the Bruins competitive, at least in the early going. Tailback Joshua Kelley burst onto the scene late last fall and literally ran away with the starting job there, where he’ll (likely) share the backfield with second-year quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

 

5) Colorado (2018: 5-7, 2-7)

After a torrid 5-0 start to 2018, the Buffaloes dropped seven straight contests. The losing skid ended up costing Mike MacIntyre his job prior to Colorado’s loss to Cal in late November, bringing a once-promising era in Boulder to an abrupt end.

There’s plenty of reasons why the Buffaloes may wind up in the cellar of the South Division, but explosive pieces of the team’s engine remain intact. With Harry now a New England Patriot, receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. is the future NFL first-rounder to watch this fall.

Let’s not forget about arguably the most feared defensive lineman in the conference as well — defensive end Mustafa Johnson. Throw veteran quarterback Steven Montez into the mix, and you’re looking at a Buffaloes program that, while lacking depth, could strike fear as a trendy upset pick in conference play. 

 

6) Arizona (2018: 5-7, 4-5)

A year after Khalil Tate’s welcome party to the Heisman conversation, the Wildcats took one step forward and about three or four steps back. At his best, Khalil Tate is the Kevin Durant of college football — an unorthodox talent who produces big numbers week in and week out. 

But without a healthy Tate, Arizona’s offense is almost unrecognizable. Football should be played as a team sport, but it’s no secret that Tate is worth at least three wins for Kevin Sumlin’s program. 

And aside from linebacker Colin Schooler — a notable contender for Defensive Player of the Year — the Wildcats’ defense leaves plenty to be desired. Tate and all-purpose star J.J. Taylor may be enough to boost Arizona to a team worthy of a bowl game appearance, but a top-three finish in the South simply isn’t in the books.

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