Herewith, the spring version of our 2013 Pac-12 South football picks. I reserve the right to make adjustments in August, pending spring and summer developments like player movement on and off the roster, surges to prominence in fall camp and the inevitable long arm of the police blotter:
- Arizona State. You could boil down the debate on the Sun Devils to this question: How important is Will Sutton? Well, he’s clearly instrumental, an All-American defensive tackle, a position not all that well-endowed in the Pac-12. The question is whether his presence or absence is pivotal enough to have brought about a dramatically different level of play in the Sun Devils in 2012. It can be argued that ASU’s resurgence was a bit illusory last year; after a 5-1 start, it proceeded to go on a four-game losing streak in which it allowed 162 points. Of course, that coincided perfectly with Sutton’s loss due to a knee problem – he was hurt on the first series against Oregon. It should also be pointed out that the Sun Devils didn’t beat an FBS team with a winning record until the Arizona traditional. Still, some key metrics say ASU did a lot of things right, sacking quarterbacks 52 times and rushing for 205.5 yards a game. Sutton is back to demand double-teams and wreak havoc, ASU has QB Taylor Kelly returning as one of 14 starters, and even though the schedule is nasty early – Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame – it also doesn’t include Oregon.
- UCLA. The Bruins had a nine-win season in 2012, although it was watered down a bit with three finishing losses – two to Stanford and an ugly Holiday Bowl defeat to Baylor. But in the big picture, they’ve developed some momentum, and now the issue is whether they’ve got the chops to win the Pac-12 South and represent the division in the league title game for the third straight year. I think there’s one predominant reason why they won’t: A two-Saturday stretch in October in which they have to play at Stanford and Oregon. Let’s face it, it’s going to be very difficult to win a division title if UCLA doesn’t win one of those. Quarterback Brett Hundley had a 29-11 TD-interception ratio last year and is plainly on the way to stardom. But there are some offensive-line issues (the Bruins may need help from incoming freshmen, which is always dicey), among them that UCLA allowed 52 sacks a year ago, which ranked down there with Colorado and WSU. Then there’s the graduation of the career-leading rusher, Johnathan Franklin, with the probability that the load in his wake will have to be shared. If it comes down to ASU and UCLA, though, the Bruins do get the Sun Devils in Pasadena.
- USC. If you’ve figured the Trojans out, let me know. One minute, Lane Kiffin is talking about how they made their own bed by not hitting enough in practice last year, implying workouts are going to be a lot more rugged. In the next breath, he’s easing off the reins in spring practice, because so many players are hurt. So I don’t know what formula he’s plotting for the fall, because USC does in fact figure to be thin in some areas, and USC athletic director Pat Haden told Sports Illustrated.com, “I think the toughest years (of the NCAA sanctions) are coming up.” Then there’s the revolving door of staff changes. Kiffin has four new assistants, which makes it seven in two years. That can’t be good for continuity. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was effective at Cal doing odd-front looks, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue at Troy, which has eight starters back both ways. But the secondary is depleted and nobody knows who the quarterback will be, which seems to augur an uneven ride in 2013.
- Utah. Is it time for a reassessment of the Utes? My sense of the program since it entered the Pac-12 is: Well-coached, solid fundamentally, defensively sound and rightly dedicated to the run. Well, you can argue the other side as well. Kyle Whittingham is only 7-11 in Pac-12 games since Utah joined the league after rampant success in the Mountain West – and it hasn’t had to play either Oregon or Stanford yet. But to some degree, the offensive shortfall is attributable to problems under center (Jordan Wynn was injured a bunch through those two years), and the Utes seem to have their QB of the future in Travis Wilson, now tutored by Dennis Erickson. Utah lost Star Lotulelei and Joe Kruger off its defensive line to the NFL, but Whittingham spoke blithely about it recently, saying the school merely reloads annually up front. The Utes have the most home-heavy early Pac-12 schedule of anybody in the league, with Oregon State, UCLA and Stanford before mid-October, and it’s safe to say if things aren’t trending right, Whittingham is going to hear some heavy growling around Salt Lake City.
- Arizona. This is a pick that doesn’t seem to do justice to Rich Rodriguez’ rebuilding effort in Tucson, one that yielded an 8-5 record in his first season. The ‘Cats rolled for 526 yards a game, second only to Oregon. Problem was, an overworked and smallish defense allowed 499 yards a game, worst in the league. This year, the gap between the two extremes is likely to narrow, as Arizona has 10 starters back on defense, but no obvious answer at quarterback, unless it’s JC transfer B.J. Denker. Getting a long look in the fall will be freshman Anu Solomon of Las Vegas. ‘Cats can hand it off a lot to Ka’Deem Carey, who quietly led the nation in rushing yards last year, but they lost primo receiver Austin Hill to a knee injury in spring. They need to keep it together early, because they have only one league game in Tucson before Nov. 9.
- Colorado. The Pac-12 South is competitive enough above Colorado that it would be a major coup for the Buffs if they figure out a way to finish anywhere but last. Now they’re starting over with a new staff, headed by Mike MacIntyre, who came from a successful run at San Jose State. And they’re going to be christening a new quarterback as well, after a strange sequence of spring events that saw senior Jordan Webb tear up a knee and after the session was done, Nick Hirschman transfer out just when it looked like he could start. Now Bellarmine Prep’s Sefo Liufau will merit consideration for the QB job in August, but otherwise, it’s probably Texas transfer Connor Wood. Perhaps of more concern to MacIntyre is a defense that allowed 488.5 yards and 46 points a game and collected a mere three interceptions.