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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Previewing the Pac-12 South — Will UCLA live up to expectations?

Tyler Baker
Tyler Baker / The Daily Wildcat Wilbur, the UA mascot, flies the University of Arizona flag before the Territorial Cup matchup against Arizona State University on Friday, November 28, 2014. Arizona would go on to beat ASU and win the Pac-12 South Championship.

1. UCLA Bruins

Is this the year that UCLA will live up to the hype? The Bruins have garnered high preseason rankings in recent years, only to fall victim to inconsistent play.

This season, UCLA once again appears to be the favorite to win the Pac-12 Conference South.

A large reason for that is because of sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen — one of the best young quarterbacks in the country.

UCLA lost four of its top five wide receivers as well as its top running back from a season ago, so Rosen will have to take on much more of the offensive load in his second year.

Rosen threw for 3,670 yards and 23 touchdowns as a true freshman.

On the other side of the ball, the Bruins are looking to have a bounce-back season.

Their defense was hit hard by injury last season, losing star linebacker Myles Jack for most of the season, and they struggled to replace him, finishing in the middle-of-the-pack defensively.

Fortunately for the Bruins, they have the talent to turn things around.

Jack left for the NFL, but Eddie Vanderdoes, Eli Ankou and Takkarist McKinley give UCLA a potentially dominant defensive line, plus it already has a solid secondary.

UCLA led the Pac-12 in pass defense in 2015, and it returns three starters.

The Bruins aren’t the dark horse national championship pick they were a couple of years ago, but with a healthy roster and Rosen’s continued development, should roll to the Pac-12 championship game.

2. USC Trojans

Talent has rarely been the problem for the Men of Troy, but coaching has been an issue.

Clay Helton was promoted to be the program’s head coach, which was met with skepticism, as Helton had never been a head coach at the collegiate level.

Luckily for Helton, he has a team capable of proving the skeptics wrong.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a must-watch player, as the electrifying receiver hauled in 89 passes for 1,454 yards as a sophomore. Adoree’ Jackson will do his best Deion Sanders impersonation as he will likely play both cornerback and wide receiver, using his athleticism to generate big plays.

At quarterback, Cody Kessler graduated, leaving Max Browne as the next passer in line. Browne — a former five-star recruit — has the pedigree to be a top quarterback, but he doesn’t have much experience, and protecting him could be an issue.

The Trojans’ offensive line returns all five starters, but they struggled as a unit last season. Perhaps Neil Callaway, the team’s new offensive line coach, can get more out of them.

The Trojans lost seven starters from their defense, and most of them were up front, putting the team’s front-seven in question. However, the secondary returns three starters and it should be a strong point of the team.

There’s little doubt USC, which churns out a top recruiting class annually, has the talent to put together a strong season and contend for a Pac-12 title, but an inexperienced coaching staff and quarterback may hold it back.

3. Utah Utes

Utah will have an entirely new backfield, being forced to replace quarterback Travis Wilson and running back Devontae Booker.

WIlson was an inconsistent passer, but left as the second winningest quarterback in program history, and Utah has three quarterbacks competing to replace him, with junior college transfer Troy Williams as the favorite.

Senior Joe Williams will replace Booker. Williams rushed 399 yards in three games while Booker was out due to injury last season, so he appears to be a viable replacement.

Utah returns its entire offensive line, too, so expect the running game to be one of the best in the conference.

Defensively, Utah once again is loaded with future NFL talent, with defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei leading what should be a dominant rushing defense.

Plus, Utah’s secondary is opportunistic as it recorded 22 interceptions last season, safety Marcus Williams, who had five interceptions last season, was an All Pac-12 selection.

Utah will always be a solid team with head coach Kyle Whittingham at the helm, and this year should be no different.

4. ASU Sun Devils

For the first time in the Todd Graham era, the Sun Devils have questions at quarterback.

2015 starter Mike Bercovici graduated and an open competition — with four different quarterbacks — will determine who the new starter will be.

The unit protecting the quarterbacks is in flux too. ASU has just one returning starter along the offensive line.

ASU does return Demario Richard, who rushed for 1,104 yards last season, but as a whole, it could have one of the worst offenses in the conference.

Aggressive, physical defense has become a Sun Devil trademark under Graham. Last year, that strength became a weakness, as ASU was frequently gashed by opposing teams.

This season, the aggression may get dialed back, especially on passing downs.

Arizona State returns six starters on defense, but a weak secondary—and an unproven offense—may be the difference between the Sun Devils making a bowl game or spending the holidays at home.

5. Arizona Wildcats

Quarterback Anu Solomon led Arizona to the 2014 Pac-12 Championship game and the Fiesta Bowl two seasons ago, but now, the junior is fighting to keep his job. He’ll compete with dual-threat quarterback Brandon Dawkins, with the winner getting a chance to lead a potentially explosive offense.

Running back Nick Wilson—a consistent producer when healthy—will lead UA’s usually-explosive ground game.

The UA’s defense struggled to get stops last season, and it will look to change that, but the talent on the roster is lacking.

The program brought in a new defensive coordinator, Marcel Yates from Boise State, to try to change things up, so there’s hope the defense will improve even if the talent isn’t the greatest.

And if the Wildcats can find a consistent signal caller, continue to run the ball well, and occasionally stop someone, they will be in bowl contention yet again.

6. Colorado Buffaloes

Head coach Mike MacIntyre has improved the Buffs considerably since being hired in 2013, but there is a lot more work to be done in Boulder.

The 2016 Buffaloes are an experienced bunch, but pure talent is lacking.

That is especially true at quarterback, where Sefo Liufau will start his senior campaign.

Liufau has shown flashes of being a top quarterback in the conference at times, but it’s generally been a struggle for him. And this season he won’t have Nelson Spruce, who led the Buffs in receiving in the past two seasons.

The Buffs defense does have seven defensive starters returning, though, with their secondary — led by Chidobe Awuzie and Tedric Thompson — being a strength.

The Buffs likely won’t be the pushover they’ve been in recent years, but they aren’t ready to be a contender either. However, a bowl game is within reach.

Follow Nathan Skinner on Twitter

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