Pac-12 college football preview: USC, Utah bring intrigue to former South divisionESPN PLUS $ MATERIAL
The college football world is changing in quite a few overdue ways. The NIL saga has been made as sloppy and dramatic as possible, in part because of a complete lack of regulation at the NCAA level, but it still represents a huge step forward for the rights of athletes. The expansion of the College Football Playoff ... well ... I'm going to assume that it still happens at some point even if the process for expanding it has turned out every bit as messy as NIL. (It's almost like there's no one in charge of college football or something!)
There are plenty more fights to come when it comes to reshaping the sport's future, but in the meantime we've at least decided to check an easy box. Last week, the NCAA announced it would allow conferences with championship games to ditch divisions and allow its top two teams to play in said title game; within minutes, the Pac-12 announced it would be doing just that and starting in 2022. This year's Pac-12 championship game participants will be the two teams with the best conference record.
For the purposes of this preview series, we'll keep the division structure, however: South this week, North next week. The 2022 schedules are still based on those divisions, after all. So while it's possible (but highly improbable) that no one from this group of six teams plays for the Pac-12 title in Las Vegas on Dec. 2, let's talk about the artist formerly known as the Pac-12 South.
2021 recapThe Pac-12 South didn't lack for plot in 2021, though most of it was discouraging. UCLA began the season with flashy wins over Hawai'i and LSU, and quickly jumped to 13th in the AP poll, only to lose to Fresno State, fall out of the polls and finish a solid but unspectacular 8-4. USC fired Clay Helton two weeks into the season, wobbled for a while, then collapsed to 4-8. Arizona State started 5-1 and climbed into the top 20 but lost four of seven down the stretch. Arizona and Colorado, meanwhile, went 1-1 against each other, 1-1 against FCS teams and 3-17 against everyone else.
Utah, however, just kept getting better. The Utes began the season 1-2 but won nine of 10 after Cameron Rising took over at quarterback. They beat USC by 16 and UCLA by 20, then stomped Oregon twice by a combined 76-17 to win the Pac-12. They nearly won a classic Rose Bowl against Ohio State, too. It was a ray of sunlight in a cruddy year for the Pac-12, and it set up Utah as an awfully interesting team for 2022.
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SP+ projects UCLA and Arizona State in a limbo of sorts. UCLA might replicate last year's performance unless its defense improves, and ASU has seen such dramatic roster turnover in key areas that the Sun Devils are rather impossible to project at the moment. (Arizona and Colorado: easier to project.)
The most interesting teams here, however, are Utah and USC. The Utes have never finished higher than 12th in SP+ under Kyle Whittingham, but that's where they start in 2022. And USC is even harder to project than ASU.
Lincoln Riley's first Trojans team has taken on 18 transfers and counting, including star quarterback Caleb Williams (Oklahoma) and defending Biletnikoff-winning receiver Jordan Addison (Pitt). But USC graded out horribly last season, and a miserable defense hasn't taken on the same type of star-power upgrade. Defense will almost certainly prevent the Trojans from living up to burgeoning preseason expectations, but they will almost certainly exceed the meager SP+ projections.
Burning questionsWill this be Whittingham's best Utah team? Seventeen years ago, Urban Meyer left Utah for Florida; his defensive coordinator, Whittingham, a holdover from the Ron McBride era, stayed behind to pilot the ship. It's safe to say he has done it well. The Utes went 13-0 in 2008 and earned a move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 in 2011. After some stumbles, they've risen to the challenge, winning two South titles in the past four years and taking the Pac-12 crown last fall. They've done most of this without a great offense -- from 2005 to '18, the Utes averaged a 54.4 ranking in offensive SP+.
In 2019, however, Whittingham rediscovered his offensive soulmate: coordinator Andy Ludwig. Utah's OC from 2005 to '08, Ludwig developed some new tricks over time, and under his watch the Utes' offense has ranked 16th, 30th and 14th the past three years. Starting with Utah's 42-26 win over USC on Oct. 9, Rising, a Texas transfer, was the No. 5 quarterback in the FBS, per Total QBR, completing 65% of his passes and averaging 7.9 yards per non-sack carry. Utah averaged 39 points per game over its last 10. Rising is back, as are leading rusher Tavion Thomas, big-play receiver Devaughn Vele, dynamite tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, and a decent 60% of last year's offensive line starts.
Utah probably won't field its best defense this year, but it shouldn't be a liability. Six starters are gone, but the duo of end Van Fillinger and tackle Junior Tafuna up front, linebacker Gabe Reid (a Stanford transfer) and ace corners Clark Phillips III and Zemaiah Vaughn assure a level of star power. Sophomores, such as rover Karene Reid and safety Cole Bishop, could be ready for star turns. Line depth is a concern, but this should be a pretty typical Utah defense. Combining that with one of the best QBs in the country sounds like an awfully tantalizing combination.
Has the transfer portal fixed a dismal USC defense? In his most recent Way-Too-Early Top 25 (maybe just an early top 25 at this point?), colleague Mark Schlabach ranked USC fourth in the country. It's not like it doesn't make some sense. Lincoln Riley, the most successful under-40 coach in college football, has come to town from Oklahoma, and he brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him. Addison, Mario Williams (also from OU) and other transfers could team with holdovers Tahj Washington and Gary Bryant Jr. to form an absurd receiving corps. Former Oregon running back Travis Dye is an upgrade, too, and the line could start four seniors, including all-conference left tackle Andrew Vorhees. The Trojans are almost guaranteed to exceed the No. 24 offensive projection above.
They'll have to play defense, too, though. That might not go as well.
USC has fielded only one top-20 defense, per SP+, in the past eight years. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who came from Oklahoma with Riley, fielded a top-15 unit in 2020, but his other two at OU ranked 48th and 58th. When he's got the right attackers in his front six, Grinch can unleash a relentless and incredibly fun defense. When he doesn't, they just get burned a lot.
In defensive end Solomon Byrd (Wyoming) and linebackers Eric Gentry (Arizona State), Romello Height (Auburn) and Shane Lee (Alabama), USC has certainly added some transfer firepower to go alongside tackle Tuli Tuipulotu. But is it enough? And can a completely redesigned secondary -- five of last year's top six are gone, though nickel Max Williams (injured in 2021) and transfers Mekhi Blackmon (Colorado cornerback) and Bryson Shaw (Ohio State safety) are additions -- hold up even if the attackers up front are creating havoc? Those answers will determine whether USC exceeds these projections by a little or a lot.
Speaking of poor defenses ... will UCLA's be any better? When Chip Kelly likes working with someone, he keeps doing it. His defensive coordinator over his first four seasons at UCLA was Jerry Azzinaro, who was his defensive line coach at Oregon (2009-12) and with both the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles (2013-15) and San Francisco 49ers (2016). Unfortunately, UCLA averaged an 86.0 ranking in defensive SP+ and peaked at only 76th last year. The Bruins blitzed constantly (seventh in blitzes per dropback) but rarely got home (100th in sack rate), and while a safe secondary mostly limited big plays, they constantly fell victim to both solid run games and quick-passing games.
Azzinaro resigned in January, but Kelly still wanted an experienced hand: He chose Bill McGovern, his OLBs coach at Philadelphia and a college assistant for about three-quarters of his nearly 40-year coaching career. He has primarily been a linebackers coach, and he has some exciting players to coach. Kelly brought in four linebacker transfers -- North Texas sophomores Gabriel and Grayson Murphy (a combined 15.5 sacks, 22 run stuffs), Hawaii's Darius Muasau (seven and 14 in those categories) and former Washington blue-chipper Laiatu Latu. Throw in Wyoming corner Azizi Hearn, and the Bruins did some good portal work. That was necessary, as nine of last year's top 12 defenders, in terms of snap counts, are gone. There is massive change on this side of the ball.
It would be a shame if poor defense again wrecked what could be a great offense. The Bruins were 12th in offensive SP+ in 2021, and they have a veteran attack helmed by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and 1,100-yard rusher Zach Charbonnet. Three line starters are gone, but Kelly added Rutgers tackle Raiqwon O'Neal to what is still a veteran unit. The top three receivers are gone, but again the portal could have provided help: Duke's Jake Bobo and UCF's Titus Mokiao-Atimalala are solid options. It's going to be difficult to replace dynamite tight end Greg Dulcich, but the offense should still be excellent. It's once again the defense that could be a problem.
What's left of the Arizona State offense? Jayden Daniels handing the ball to Rachaad White, frequently running himself behind the all-conference duo of left guard Dohnovan West and left tackle Kellen Diesch and throwing to Ricky Pearsall, LV Bunkley-Shelton and White, all with plays called by Zak Hill. That was the Arizona State offense in 2021, and it worked pretty well. The Sun Devils ranked first nationally in rushing success rate and sixth in three-and-out percentage; a lack of big plays stalled some drives and resulted in a No. 36 ranking in offensive SP+, but with Daniels and his receivers scheduled to return, along with backup running back DeaMonte Trayanum, that seemed like something to build around.
None of the people in the previous paragraph are playing or coaching for Herm Edwards' Sun Devils in 2022. Hill and many other assistants, including defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce, resigned due to findings of NCAA violations, and a number of starters on both sides of the ball transferred. ASU has fallen from 32nd in returning production in February to 93rd today, and while transfer portal additions have helped keep the talent level afloat -- among them are quarterbacks Emory Jones (Florida) and Paul Tyson (Alabama), running back Xazavian Valladay (Wyoming), offensive guard Chris Martinez (SDSU), defensive tackle Nesta Jade Silvera (Miami) and nickel Khoury Bethley (Hawaii) -- the turnover has been immense.
The defense still has depth up front and playmakers in linebackers Kyle Soelle and Merlin Robertson, but the offense is starting from scratch, right down to offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas, who joined the program in February. Jones (or Tyson) and the duo of Valladay and Daniyel Ngata could form a solid backfield, but the receiving corps is unproven and the best linemen are gone. There might still be a top-50 team here, but it's hard to say that with confidence.
Was last year a low point for Arizona and Colorado (or does it get lower)? We call this a trend:
Arizona, 2012-14: 0.650 win percentage, 39.0 average SP+ ranking
Arizona, 2015-18: 0.440 win percentage, 65.8 average SP+ ranking
Arizona, 2019-21: 0.172 win percentage, 103.0 average SP+ ranking
The Wildcats have won one game since the start of the abbreviated 2020 season. The defense hasn't ranked in the top 60 since 2014, and after a sustained run of quality, the offense plummeted to 119th last year. Second-year head coach Jedd Fisch didn't inherit much and didn't do much with what he inherited.
Meanwhile, since coming out of nowhere to win 10 games and a South title in 2016, Colorado has won either four or five games every year since. Granted, that includes a 4-2 record in 2020, but even that was a bit on the fortunate side -- the Buffaloes were outscored by 19 points and ranked just 67th in SP+ that year.
After a long run of mediocre play, the bottom dropped out in 2021. The Buffs plummeted to 104th in SP+. The defense was occasionally decent, but the offense averaged 15.6 points per game against opponents who weren't Arizona or from FCS. Experience levels are solid this year, but almost no returnee stood out statistically, and from the perspective of pure recruiting rankings, this is barely a power-conference roster. In Karl Dorrell's third season in charge, Colorado is not a projected favorite in a single game.
Arizona doesn't have much more from a talent perspective, but the transfer portal brings hope. Washington State transfer Jayden de Laura was at least an average quarterback last season, and former UTEP receiver Jacob Cowing is one of the best deep threats in the country. New defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen doesn't inherit much, but the secondary is experienced and aggressive.
Hope is relative, however. Neither team is projected to win more than 3.3 games on average. There's a long way back to competitiveness here.
My 10 favorite playersIt probably says something that there were a few exciting quarterbacks to choose from and almost no standout defensive linemen.
QB Cameron Rising, Utah. He began 2021 on the bench and ended it as one of the best quarterbacks in America. And he's got a hell of a supporting cast around him this year.
QB Caleb Williams, USC. As a true freshman at Oklahoma, Williams completed 65% of his passes with 21 TDs to four INTs. And while he doesn't run often, he averages nearly 10 yards per carry when he does. Real deal.
RB Zach Charbonnet, UCLA. The 220-pounder rushed for 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. He is a scary sight in the open field, and Chip Kelly's offense puts him in the open field quite a bit.
WR Jacob Cowing, Arizona. In a play-action heavy UTEP attack, the senior from Maricopa, Arizona, needed only 69 receptions to gain 1,354 yards and score seven times. He immediately becomes one of the most dangerous slot receivers in the Pac-12.
LT Andrew Vorhees, USC. The left tackle position is as demanding as it comes, and the 6-foot-6, 325-pound Vorhees allowed zero sacks and blew only 0.8% of his blocks last year, per Sports Info Solutions. He's going to be quite an asset for Caleb Williams.
RT Braeden Daniels, Utah. A first-team all-conference performer, per Pro Football Focus, Daniels allowed only two sacks all season. And as a Utah lineman, it's safe to say he's as mean and physical as can be.
OLB Grayson Murphy, UCLA. The North Texas transfer recorded a havoc play (a tackle for loss, pass defensed or forced fumble) on 3.4% of his snaps last year. He's a ferocious blitzer and disruptive run-defender despite his 235-pound frame. His numbers just barely trump those of his brother (and fellow Bruin), Gabriel.
LB Kyle Soelle, Arizona State. He made a tackle on 13% of his snaps, generated pressure on 20% of his pass-rush attempts, made 11 run stops at or behind the line and allowed a 17.4 QBR in coverage. He's absolutely dynamite, and ASU might need him to be even better this year.
CB Clark Phillips III, Utah. The four-star signee immediately lived up to the hype as a redshirt freshman, picking off two passes, breaking up 12 more and allowing a 45.4 QBR despite taking on most opponents' No. 1 receivers.
CB Nigel Bethel Jr., Colorado. He missed half the season because of injury, but he was on pace for an incredible season. Through six games, he had allowed just a 5.1 QBR as primary coverage guy. 5.1!
Honorable mentions: QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson (UCLA), RB Travis Dye (USC), TE Dalton Kincaid (Utah), LT Raiqwon O'Neal (UCLA), LG LaDarius Henderson (Arizona State), DT Tuli Tuipulotu (USC), DT Kyon Barrs (Arizona), CB Azizi Hearn (UCLA), NICKEL Khoury Bethley (Arizona State), CB Treydan Stukes (Arizona)
AnniversariesIn 1982, 40 years ago, the Bill McCartney era began at Colorado. What followed were the greatest two decades in the school's football history. McCartney's Buffs won only seven games in his first three years but became an annual bowl presence in the late 1980s, then broke through with back-to-back 11-win seasons in 1989 and '90 and a share of the 1990 national title. Under McCartney and successor Rick Neuheisel, they pulled off top-10 finishes four times between 1994 and 2001.
In 1987, 35 years ago, Terry Donahue's peak began at UCLA. Donahue set a bar too high for virtually every UCLA coach who has followed, engineering 12 ranked finishes, five top-10s and four Rose Bowl berths in 20 years. But the Bruins went to a new place when Oklahoma quarterback Troy Aikman transferred to UCLA in 1987. Aikman threw for 5,298 yards in two years, as the Bruins won 20 games and spent two weeks at No. 1 in 1988 -- their only two weeks there in the past 55 years.
In 1992, 30 years ago, the legend of the Desert Swarm took root. The 14-year Dick Tomey era at Arizona featured a pair of top-10 finishes and seven bowls, but it is primarily known for defense. The Wildcats allowed 10 or fewer points seven times in 12 games in 1992, then did so six more times in 1993. The Wildcats' offense couldn't hold up its end of the bargain in 1992, and they went just 6-5-1, but they broke through on both ends the next season, when they went 10-2 and beat USC and Miami by a combined 67-7.
In 2002, 20 years ago, Utah fired Ron McBride. Over a 13-year tenure, McBride had raised the bar in Salt Lake City, pulling off a top-10 finish in 1994 (the school's first ranked finish) and attending six bowls. But the school made one of the most inspired hires you'll ever see after bidding adieu. Urban Meyer proceeded to go 22-2 over two seasons before handing the reins to Whittingham for his own incredible run. McBride raised the bar, and Meyer and Whittingham kept raising it.
In 2012, 10 years ago, Lane Kiffin's USC disappointed. After a brief setback as NCAA sanctions shrank the scholarship count a bit, Kiffin had engineered a bounceback in 2011. USC went 10-2 and finished in the AP top six for the eighth time in 10 years. The Trojans began 2012 at No. 1. All was right in the world. But a 6-1 start turned into a 1-5 finish, and after a 3-2 start the next season, Kiffin was famously fired on the LAX tarmac.
USC's last 10 seasons have featured just one top-10 finish and one conference title. The Trojans are just 22-21 over the last four seasons. It's been a lost decade. Lincoln Riley sure seems like the perfect coach to pull the program out of its doldrums, but it's a tall task.
In 2017, five years ago, Arizona State fired Todd Graham. Graham is not exactly regarded as the easiest coach to work with, and since back-to-back seasons in 2013 and '14, he had gone just 18-20 in his last three seasons. His firing wasn't a total shock, in and of itself. But everything that followed was strange. Athletic director Ray Anderson, a former agent, hired Herm Edwards, a former client. Edwards hadn't coached since 2008 and hadn't coached in college since 1989. Anderson deployed every corporate buzzword in the MBA parlance in announcing and justifying the hire, and after four seasons Edwards has ... basically been Graham, but with alleged recruiting violations.
Graham's last four years: 0.549 win percentage
Edwards' first four years: 0.581 win percentage
Edwards' four seasons have been neither a success nor a failure, but he'll need a lot of new blood to come through to keep the ship afloat this year.