Pac-12 South college football offseason preview

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Mar 6, 2018

Pac-12 South college football offseason preview​


How much is returning production worth when you only played a few games last year? The answer will determine how good the Pac-12 is in 2021. In February's returning production rankings, the conference boasted eight of the top 15 teams, which would generally hint at massive forthcoming improvement. But Arizona State's 11th-ranked production came from a four-game slate, and Utah's eighth-ranked production came from five.

We'll find out how good the Pac-12 South in particular is soon enough, but one thing appears likely: the Pac-12 South race should be fantastic. Defending champion USC has a dynamite new skill corps, an improving defense and a workable schedule. Arizona State and Utah also have no guaranteed losses and plenty of reasons for optimism (at least if the NCAA doesn't soon vanquish ASU's optimism). UCLA looked genuinely exciting on offense and could be a major wild card. Colorado went 4-2 last year taking the fight to opponents. Five of six teams head into 2021 thinking they've got a shot at the division, and while only three to four of them are right, this battle could be a lot of fun. Let's preview the Pac-12 South!

Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 130 FBS teams. The previews will include 2020 breakdowns, 2021 previews and a brief history of each team in one handy chart. The series has thus far covered the Conference USA East and West, the MAC East and West, the MWC Mountain and West, the Sun Belt West and East, the top and bottom half of the AAC, the seven Independents, the ACC Atlantic and ACC Coastal and the Pac-12 North.


Arizona Wildcats

What's the Hemingway line about going bankrupt -- it happened gradually, then suddenly? That's how things fell apart for Kevin Sumlin's Arizona. Now Jedd Fisch attempts a rebuild.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank:

Average projected wins: 2.8 (1.2 in the Pac-12)

  • Likely wins*: Northern Arizona (91%)
  • Relative toss-ups: San Diego State (50%)
  • Likely losses: Cal (31%), vs. BYU (26%), at Colorado (21%), at Washington State (18%), UCLA (14%), Utah (11%), Washington (8%), at Arizona State (7%), at USC (5%), at Oregon (3%)
* Likely wins are games in which SP+ projects the scoring margin to be greater than seven points, or above about 65% win probability. Likely losses are the opposite, and relative toss-ups are all the games in between.

Facing 10 opponents projected 54th or better doesn't bode well, but the Wildcats have enough experience -- and new blood -- to potentially show moments of growth.

What we learned about Arizona in 2020​

Things fall apart. Arizona nearly beat USC in its first game, lost its next three by an average of 16, then got humiliated by Arizona State 70-7 in its finale. Quarterback Grant Gunnell got hurt, freshman Will Plummer wasn't ready, the defense was hopeless from the start, and things went really far south.

The portal is changing rebuilding jobs. It's unlikely that top programs will lean heavily into transfers from year to year -- they sign too much star talent from the high school level, and winning cultures are already well-established. Short-term boosts aren't grave necessities.

Rebuilding programs are a different story. Like Rutgers' Greg Schiano, Fisch added double-digit transfers, mostly from power conferences. He brought in three transfer QBs (USF's scrambler-gambler Jordan McCloud, Washington State's Gunner Cruz, Oregon State's Nick Moore), while two, including Gunnell, also transferred out.

Only three of the transfers are seniors, too. The NCAA's immediate eligibility waiver means that you can attempt to find both immediate and long-term help.

What we didn't learn about Arizona in 2020​

How much actual talent is there in Tucson? Fisch landed aggressive veteran defensive coordinator Don Brown, a clear win. But raw talent could still be an issue in 2021. Brown can work wonders when he's got a couple of pass-rushers and good corners. He could enjoy working with corner Christian Roland-Wallace, but Arizona's pass rush was nonexistent, the run defense openly awful.

On offense, slot men Stanley Berryhill III and Jamarye Joiner are efficient (if not explosive), and RBs Michael Wiley and Drake Anderson, arriving from Northwestern, are explosive (if not efficient). The Wildcats have decent team speed, but in a deep and experienced division, Arizona is playing from behind.

Arizona's history in one chart​

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. A WAC member since 1962, UA hired Jim Young in 1973 and immediately surged, going 26-7 from 1973 to '75 and spending part of 1974 in the top 10.
  2. Young left for Purdue, right before UA joined the Pac-10 in 1978. After some initial mediocrity, the Wildcats began to hold their own under Larry Smith in the mid-1980s.
  3. When Smith left for USC, Arizona brilliantly brought in Dick Tomey in 1987. His Desert Swarm defense would pave the way for seven bowls and two top-10 finishes.
  4. The peak of the Tomey era: In 1998, All-America CB Chris McAlister and 1,200-yard rusher Trung Canidate led a charge to 12-1 and a No. 4 finish.
  5. After a post-Tomey crash, Arizona rallied under first Mike Stoops, then Rich Rodriguez. In 2014, the Cats won 10 games and their lone Pac-12 South title. Then came the slide.


Colorado Buffaloes

Colorado was better than expected but got stomped by the two good teams it faced (Utah and Texas) in Karl Dorrell's first season in charge. Is a 4-2 campaign something to build on?

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank:

Average projected wins: 4.8 (3.2 in the Pac-12)

  • Likely wins: Northern Colorado (99%), Arizona (79%)
  • Relative toss-ups: Oregon State (59%), at Cal (46%), Minnesota (38%)
  • Likely losses: USC (26%), Texas A&M (24%), at UCLA (24%), Washington (23%), at Utah (21%), at Arizona State (20%), Oregon (18%)
Eight Buffalo starters return on each side of the ball, so further improvement is coming. But facing a schedule with seven projected top-25 teams, per SP+, might be too tall a task.

What we learned about Colorado in 2020​

You were guaranteed to see some big plays. Darrin Chiaverini's CU offense was an inefficient 99th in success rate, but RB Jarek Broussard and slot receiver Dimitri Stanley created enough explosions to make the Buffs dangerous. Meanwhile, Chris Wilson's defense was aggressive to a fault, ranking eighth in success rate but giving up seven gains per game of 20+ yards (126th).

Broussard and Stanley are back, as are potential star wideout La'Vontae Shenault and big-play options Daniel Arias and Brenden Rice. There's potential here, but only if the line improves. Run blocking was a massive issue, and 21% of CU's non-sack rushes got stuffed at or behind the line (95th in FBS).

What we didn't learn about Colorado in 2020​

Who's the QB? Incumbent Sam Noyer missed spring ball after shoulder surgery, then transferred to Oregon State in June. That turns a three-man battle into two: Tennessee transfer JT Shrout vs. last year's backup, Brandon Lewis. Lewis is a runner -- in 35 snaps, he threw 10 passes with nine rushes -- while Shrout was all-or-nothing in a small sample at Tennessee, averaging more than 13 yards per completion but throwing three picks in 42 passes.

Will experience tamp down defensive mistakes? In linebackers Carson Wells and Nate Landman, CU boasts two of the more exciting chaos agents in the conference, and corners Mekhi Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez are sticky and aggressive, too. The pass rush could stand to improve, but CU's biggest issue was that mistakes and missed tackles created far too many implosions. Wilson admirably forces the issue, but the Buffs play too many explosive teams to survive with the same number of glitches.

Colorado's history in one chart​

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. CU had begun to stumble as it was joining the Big 7 in 1948, but Dallas Ward's program rallied, finishing above .500 nine years in a row and reaching the 1957 Orange Bowl.
  2. After a nice run in the 1970s, things completely fell apart under first Chuck Fairbanks, then Bill McCartney. But CU showed McCartney patience, and he rewarded it.
  3. CU from 1989 to '96 under McCartney and Rick Neuheisel: eight ranked finishes, five seasons of 10+ wins, a Rashaan Salaam Heisman and a share of the 1990 national title.
  4. Gary Barnett couldn't maintain the program's momentum, but he generated brief magic in 2001. CU crushed Nebraska, 62-36, then upset Texas for the Big 12 title.
  5. CU from 2006 to '15: 3.5 wins per year, an average SP+ ranking of 76th, and a rock-bottom, 1-11 season in 2012. Things have begun to look up since.


UCLA Bruins

It feels like a now-or-never situation for Chip Kelly at UCLA. His Bruins are 10-21 in three years, but they return almost everyone after an almost-promising 2020.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank:

Average projected wins: 7.5 (5.1 in the Pac-12)

  • Likely wins: Hawaii (95%), Fresno State (88%), at Arizona (86%), Cal (77%), Colorado (76%), at Stanford (75%)
  • Relative toss-ups: LSU (58%), Arizona State (50%), at Utah (40%), Oregon (36%), at USC (36%)
  • Likely losses: at Washington (32%)
Last year's Bruins lost four games by a total of 15 points; if they were banking good close-game mojo for 2021, there are a lot of potential wins on the table.

What we learned about UCLA in 2020​

Lots of efficient running? High tempo? This is a Chip Kelly offense! For the first time in Kelly's tenure, we saw genuine consistency from the Bruins' offense. They scored at least 34 points in five of seven games, went three-and-out only 21.6% of the time (18th in FBS) and leaped from 71st to 23rd in offensive SP+. And yeah, they were able to use tempo as a weapon at times.

Better yet, almost all of the reasons for this jump are back. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is close to a genuine dual-threat breakthrough, Greg Dulcich is one of the most explosive tight ends in the country, every lineman returns, and while leading rusher Demetric Felton is gone, backup Brittain Brown had better per-touch stats. Plus, Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet transferred in.

What we didn't learn about UCLA in 2020​

Can the defensive improvement maybe speed up a bit? Technically, the Bruin D is slowly improving. In the three years since ranking 104th in defensive SP+ in Jim Mora's last season in charge, they have risen to 97th, 90th and 81st, respectively. They had three great games in 2020 but also went 0-4 in games in which they scored 35+ points. That doesn't happen with a reliable defense.

This was a bend-don't-break unit that missed far too many tackles to bend properly (121st in tackle success rate). Ten starters return, including legit play-makers like linebacker Caleb Johnson and corner Mo Osling III, but Kelly made aggressive use of the transfer portal, adding Alabama linebacker Ale Kaho, Notre Dame linebacker Jordan Genmark-Heath, USC freshman tackle Jay Toia and North Texas safety Cam Johnson. Pairing this offense with even a top-50 defense would make the Bruins a potential South contender.

UCLA's history in one chart​

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. Red Sanders, progenitor of the "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" quote, won a lot. From 1952 to '55, his Bruins went 34-5 with four straight AP top-6 finishes.
  2. UCLA lost its way in the early-1960s, but that stopped the moment Tommy Prothro took over. His first two Bruins teams went 17-3-1 with top-5 finishes and a Rose Bowl win.
  3. After a two-year stint by Dick Vermeil, the underrated Terry Donahue took over in 1976. From 1982 to '88, his Bruins won three Rose Bowls and finished in the top 10 four times.
  4. In 1998, Cade McNown and the UCLA offense averaged 39.7 points per game and came within 50 seconds of a BCS title game bid but fell in the last minute at Miami.
  5. Kelly took over a program that had won just 10 games in two seasons ... and has won 10 in three. But 2021 offers a hell of a breakthrough opportunity.


Utah Utes

Kyle Whittingham's Utes improved every week of their five-game season. An experienced defense will dominate, but Whittingham's looking to a truckload of transfers to get the offense rolling.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank:

Average projected wins: 8.4 (5.9 in the Pac-12)

  • Likely wins: Weber State (96%), at Arizona (89%), at San Diego State (85%), Colorado (79%), at Stanford (78%), Washington State (76%), at Oregon State (73%), at BYU (71%)
  • Relative toss-ups: UCLA (60%), Arizona State (55%), Oregon (41%), at USC (40%)
  • Likely losses: None
Three of the four most highly rated teams on the schedule must visit Salt Lake. Survive early trips to BYU and SDSU, and the Utes could be primed for a big run.

What we learned about Utah in 2020​

The defensive ceiling is as high as ever. Whittingham's Utes have ranked in the defensive SP+ top 40 for 14 straight years, the top 20 six times. They did fall from 16th to 26th last year -- but that was primarily due to youth and an iffy first game against USC. Over the last four, a freshman- and sophomore-heavy secondary allowed a 56% completion rate and a 115.2 passer rating.

There were a few more breakdowns than normal against the run, but Utah was still efficient and incredibly disruptive -- they were first in havoc rate: TFLs, passes defensed and forced fumbles per play. Now 12 of the 14 players with 100+ snaps return, from star ends Mika Tafua and Maxs Tupai and linebackers Devin Lloyd and Nephi Sewell to aggressive young corner JaTravis Broughton.

What we didn't learn about Utah in 2020​

If you want a Big 12 offense, do you just bring in Big 12 players? Per SP+, Utah's offense hasn't graded higher than its defense since 2006, Whittingham's second season. The Utes are projected 10th in defensive SP+, so the offense probably won't top that this year either, but Whittinham is making his intentions clear. A year after bringing in young Texas quarterback Cameron Rising, he added Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer, Oklahoma running back T.J. Bledger and receiver Theo Howard, and another Texas QB, Ja'Quinden Jackson. LSU RB Chris Curry and USC WR Munir McClain also come aboard.

With TE Brant Kuithe, high-efficiency slot men Britain Covey and Solomon Enis and every lineman returning, there could be a strong recipe in here. But this is quite a chemistry experiment.

Utah's history in one chart​

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. One of the most underrated coaches of the first half of the 1900s, Ike Armstrong retired after a 2-7-1 campaign in 1949, just his second losing season in 25 years.
  2. After 40 years of treading water, Utah exploded to 10-2 and 10th in the AP poll under Ron McBride in 1994. McBride raised expectations massively in SLC.
  3. Before catching more than 1,000 NFL passes, all-time great Steve Smith was catching 78 for 1,603 yards and 12 TDs (with four punt return scores) in two years at Utah.
  4. McBride raised the bar, then successor Urban Meyer took everything to a different level. His Utes went 10-2 in 2003, then 12-0 in 2004, and he was off to Florida.
  5. Whittingham went 33-6 from 2008 to '10, and Utah earned a Pac-12 bid in 2011. Their form was dipping when they joined, but a new surge began in 2017.


Arizona State Sun Devils

Herm Edwards' Sun Devils boast a dangerous, fast and experienced two-deep and could play at a top-20 level, but now the NCAA is on ASU's trail after some potentially major recruiting violations.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank:

Average projected wins: 8.6 (5.9 in the Pac-12)

  • Likely wins: Southern Utah (100%), UNLV (99%), Arizona (93%), Stanford (86%), Colorado (80%), Washington State (77%), at Oregon State (74%), at BYU (71%)
  • Relative toss-ups: USC (52%), at UCLA (50%), at Utah (45%), at Washington (37%)
  • Likely losses: None
The nonconference slate is navigable, and while there are some tricky road games, ASU hosts USC. This could be a huge year, but that NCAA cloud looms.

What we learned about Arizona State in 2020​

The run game is electric. With three new line starters, juco transfer Rachaad White and freshman Chip Trayanum, first-year offensive coordinator Zak Hill crafted an offense that ranked second in FBS in rushing success rate and second in rushes of 20+ yards per game (3.3). White and Trayanum averaged 7.8 yards per carry, and star sophomore QB Jayden Daniels averaged 9.9 over about seven non-sack carries per game. Small sample? Of course -- ASU only managed four games last season. But the potential is obvious.

The secondary has upside, too. Despite getting minimal contributions from three expected regulars (corner Jack Jones and safeties Cam Phillips and Willie Harts), ASU ranked 30th in passing success rate allowed and dominated both the Arizona and Oregon State passing games despite a mediocre pass rush. Veteran corner Chase Lucas was excellent, young Jordan Clark got his sea legs, and now everyone, including the dynamic Jones, heads into 2021 at full strength. The run defense was dreadful, and star end Tyler Johnson needs help in the pass rush department, but the pass defense should be excellent.

What we didn't know about Arizona State in 2020​

Can Daniels pass when he has to? The receiving corps was led by two freshmen, and you could tell. LV Bunkley-Shelton and Johnny Wilson caught just 17 of 37 passes, and while the Sun Devils ranked seventh in standard downs success rate, they fell to 58th on passing downs.

Bunkley-Shelton, Wilson and sophomores Geordon Porter and Ricky Pearsall have more experience, and Edwards added transfers Bryan Thompson (Utah) and tight end Geor'quarius Spivey (Mississippi State) and blue-chip freshmen Elijhah Badger and Lonyatta Alexander. There's a lot to be excited about. As long as the consistency improves. And as long as the NCAA investigation doesn't sidetrack everything.

Arizona State's history in one chart​

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. Making back-to-back great hires is hard, but after losing Dan Devine (27-3-1 from 1955-57) to Missouri, ASU replaced him with Frank Kush (176 wins in 22 years).
  2. Kush's ASU from 1970 to '75: 62 wins, four top-10 finishes (No. 2 in 1975), five bowl wins, 19 All-Americans and a Pac-10 invitation. Not bad.
  3. After winning the Rose Bowl with John Cooper in 1986, ASU started 11-0 in 1996 and faced Cooper's Ohio State with a shot at the national title. They fell just short in a classic.
  4. Results slid at the turn of the century, but ASU still had star power. The biggest star of the bunch: Terrell Suggs, the third-best defender of the 21st century.
  5. The long-retired Edwards was an unconventional hire in 2019. ASU's trajectory is great, but now we have to see how much of a bite the NCAA takes.


USC Trojans

After losing 11 of 19, Clay Helton's Trojans have won 10 of their last 13 and jumped from 34th in SP+ in 2018 to 13th last year. Can the rise continue?

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank:

Average projected wins: 8.9 (6.6 in the Pac-12)

  • Likely wins: Arizona (95%), San Jose State (92%), Stanford (88%), Oregon State (84%), BYU (83%), at Cal (75%), at Colorado (74%), at Washington State (70%)
  • Relative toss-ups: UCLA (64%), Utah (60%), at Notre Dame (55%), at Arizona State (48%)
  • Likely losses: none
Going 5-1 last season required a few rallies and close wins, and a schedule that features four projected top-25 opponents (but no top-15s) could produce quite a few more close finishes.

What we learned about USC in 2020​

Opponents will always adapt. Just as SEC opponents were learning to drop eight players into coverage to frustrate Mike Leach's Mississippi State quarterbacks, it seemed foes were doing the same with USC's Kedon Slovis in Graham Harrell's iteration of the Air Raid. Slovis' completion rate fell from 72% to 67%, he went from 12.4 yards per completion to 10.9 and his INT rate crept up.

Opponents forced more third downs, and USC struggled. Slovis finished games well, but this qualified as a sophomore slump. Let's see how he responds.

Drake London is really good. USC basically had three No. 1 WRs in Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns and London. London was the most physical of the three; he's listed at 6-5, 210 pounds, but runs through arm tackles like he's 245. St. Brown and Vaughns are gone, but London leads a new WR group that includes sophomore Bru McCoy, explosive Memphis transfer Tahj Washington and Colorado transfer K.D. Nixon. Slovis will still have some thrilling options.

He should also have a more stable run game. The line returns four senior starters and efficient leading rusher Vavae Malepeai is joined by transfers Keaontay Ingram (Texas) and Darwin Barlow (TCU).

What we didn't learn about USC in 2020​

How much defensive improvement was due to Talanoa Hufanga and Olaijah Griffin? In Todd Orlando's first year as coordinator, USC improved from 60th to 29th in defensive SP+, strong movement for just seven games. The Trojans blitzed frequently, generated pressure and got their hands on lots of passes, but they also prevented big plays well.

Now they have to keep improving without their best cornerback (Griffin) and, in Hufanga, a safety who served as USC's best blitzer (three sacks) and patrolman (four INTs, two breakups). Drake Jackson and Nick Figueroa will again lead the USC pass rush, and six front-seven starters return, but any drop-off in pass defense could put extra pressure on a run defense that was merely decent.

USC's history in one chart​

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. A pre-war power, USC fell on hard times in the late-1950s, going just 21-27-2 from 1957-59. Then the Trojans hired John McKay and quickly became USC again.
  2. RBU: From 1965 to '78, USC placed a running back in the Heisman top four seven times, including wins by Mike Garrett (1965) and OJ Simpson (1968).
  3. McKay left for the NFL after the 1975 season, but USC pulled off a seamless transition to John Robinson, who went 11-1 in 1976, 12-1 in 1978 and 11-0-1 in 1979.
  4. Robinson's own NFL departure prompted a long, slow slide. From 1983 to 2000, the Trojans averaged 7.2 wins with only three top-10 finishes. Then Pete Carroll took over.
  5. USC saw seven straight AP top-four finishes under Carroll and won two national titles, but the Trojans have struggled with consistency and direction since his 2009 departure.