This is a little bit like cleaning the garage; you know you’ve got to do it, but you’re not exactly looking forward to it.
It might be the toughest year to forecast Pac-12 football, especially in the South division. I see the league a lot like the national polls, with two nationally prominent teams in Oregon and Stanford, and several other good teams, including three in the lower reaches of the Top 25. It may not be ready to challenge the SEC for bragging rights (and it may not be close), but it ought to be the No. 2 league in the country.
On to the forecast for the Pac-12 South. We’ll come back in a day or so with one for the North.
1. USC. The way I see the South, there are a lot of things to like about several teams, but also a fair amount to suspect. In the Trojans’ case, one of the chief frailties is, you’re looking at a team without a proven quarterback, as Cody Kessler and Max Wittek failed to sort anything out in camp, and coach Lane Kiffin says both will see time in the opener at Hawaii. Then there’s the matter of Kiffin himself, an unproven commodity whose regime could crumble if the Trojans don’t take advantage of a forgiving early schedule (one in which the quarterback could gain traction). Troy is also suspect on the back end defensively, but the addition of ex-Cal coordinator Clancy Pendergast and his 3-4 should make a difference, along with some star athletes. A shaky vote for the Trojans, who don’t have to play either Oregon or Washington.
2. Arizona State. Todd Graham is talking big, as in seeking a national championship, and maybe the Sun Devils will prove ready for it. But their 8-5 record of 2012 was a bit misleading, as they allowed 162 points in mid-season to four straight quality foes — Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC. They didn’t have a victory over an FBS team with a winning record until the regular-season finale against Arizona. Now they have a demanding schedule from weeks 2-5, and questions at wide receiver. But the quarterback, Taylor Kelly, is good.
3. UCLA. The Bruins are the media pick to win the South, and, notwithstanding my selection, I wouldn’t be surprised if it went that way. But something tells me it’s going to be tougher going in Jim Mora’s second year, partly because of the schedule. UCLA has to go to Nebraska the second week of the season, and that could be a tone-setting game, much as was UCLA’s upset of the Huskers last year. Then there’s the matter of the Oct. 19 and 26 one-two — consecutive road games with Stanford and Oregon. Brett Hundley gives UCLA a leg up at quarterback, but the running back situation is cloudy, and Mora is clearly concerned about the secondary. Given what lies beyond, the Oct. 3 game at Salt Lake City looms large.
4. Utah. I see the Utes as the possible sleeper of the South — probably not to contend for the division title, but to rattle some cages of the teams picked above. The offense should be better with an older Travis Wilson at quarterback and Dennis Erickson directing it. The defense has to pick it up after allowing 34, 34 and 35 points in its last three outings of 2012. I’m counting on a refocused program chastened by its failure to make a 2012 bowl game. Its ability to take advantage of the first three Pac-12 games being at home will be critical; they’re against Oregon State, UCLA and Stanford, and somehow Utah has to find a way to win two.
5. Arizona. RichRod seems to be pushing the right buttons in Tucson, looking like the guy who might someday get the Wildcats to their first Rose Bowl (if he stays with it long enough). But there are yet defensive concerns (‘Zona gave up more yards per game than Colorado last year), and I still have to be convinced that B.J. Denker — or whoever quarterbacks — is going to be any sort of facsimile of last year’s standout, Matt Scott. Seems to me the ‘Cats outlook somewhat parallels that of Cal and Washington State in the Pac-12 North — given the rest of the division, it’s going to be hard to be upwardly mobile this year.
6. Colorado. Buffs in last looks like the safest play on the board in either division. There are multiple personnel questions, starting with the quarterback, Connor Wood, who threw only 42 passes last year. At some point, he could be replaced by Bellarmine product Sefo Liufau if new coach Mike MacIntyre senses that’s the future. MacIntyre’s work at San Jose State was yeoman, and he seems to get high marks from everybody, but he has a rebuilding job ahead.