Nov 30, 2013; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez (center) in the huddle in the second half against the Arizona State Sun Devils in the 87th annual Territorial Cup at Sun Devil Stadium. Arizona State defeated Arizona 58-21. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

PAC-12 COUNTDOWN: SOUTH PART 1

Saturdayblitzcom’s Shiloh Winder Counts down all 12 teams in the Pac-12 running up to the season opener.

This week, the South Division

 

colorado-logo

#6: COLORADO

State of the Program: Mike MacIntyre built San Jose State up from nothing into a an 11 win team before moving up to the big league reclamation project that is Colorado. It’s no easy job. The Pac is arguably the most rapidly improving conference in college football and the Buffalos are at the back of an eagerly accelerating pack.

How far is Colorado from the rest of the league? Consider: Since joining the Pac-12 Colorado is 4-23 in conference play and the Buffs have won only 2 road games in the last six years.  Things bottomed out in 2012 when the Buffs lost to FCS Sacramento State and finished 1-11.

In 2013, MacIntyre came in and stopped the skid, opening the season with a win over rival Colorado State. The Buffs would also beat 2 FCS opponents and scored a decisive 41-24 win over North Division doormat Cal in the Pac’s toilet bowl. Colorado finished with 4 wins; their highest total since 2010.

Season Outlook: There are plenty of reasons to think the Buffs will be better this year. They return 16 starters, including QB Sefo Liufau, their top 6 rushers and 4 of their top 5 receivers.  They are also in the 2nd year under a coach that clearly has the program moving in the right direction.

But the Buffs have some big hurdles to climb this year as well. All-Pac-12 Receiver Paul Richardson averaged over 16 yards per catch last season while taking a lot of pressure off of Colorado’s other skill players.  He was a 2nd round draft pick in the NFL last spring, and his loss will make the entire offense’s job harder this season. 1000 yard WRs don’t exactly grow on trees in Boulder.

CU’s schedule is much tougher this year as well. Central Arkansas and Charleston Southern are not on the slate. Colorado plays all 12 against FBS opponents and two of the Buff’s most winnable games this year, UMass and Cal, are on the road where CU has lost 29 of their last 31.

The Pick: This will be the best Colorado team since 2010, but you’ll have to look pretty close to notice it. They could win multiple road games for the first time since ’07, and maybe even nip a Pac-12 team other than Cal. But the entire Pac-12 is getting better around them and even a vastly improved Buffalos team could end up with the same 4-8 record as last year.    

Utah_Utes_logo#5: UTAH

State of the program: Utah was one of the most successful football programs of the BCS Era. From 1999-2011, the Utes went an incredible 10-1 in the post season. Utah now owns the best bowl winning percentage (.765) of any program with more than 10 appearances.

When they joined the Pac-12 the Utes’ two BCS Bowl wins put them ahead of Oregon and Stanford for 2nd most in the league. But the step-up in competition, and chronic instability on offense have had the Utes spinning their wheels for two consecutive 5-7 seasons.

After the 2008 campaign that saw the Utes win the Sugar Bowl and finish #2 in the AP poll, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig left the program and the Utes’ all-time winningest QB, Quarterback Brian Johnson, graduated. In 5 seasons since, Utah has had a different offensive coordinator every year, and have not kept a starting quarterback healthy through even one single season.

Things have been particularly tough since joining the Pac-12 . Utah showed up in the Pac with an offensive coordinator so young he still had teammates playing for the Utes (yeah. That didn’t work.). And all the team’s starting quarterbacks have suffered career-ending (or apparent career ending) injuries.

This season brings yet another offensive coordinator to Utah in former Mizzou OC and Wyoming HC, Dave Christensen. Quarterback Travis Wilson was thought to be finished with football, but was then cleared by doctors to play last spring.

Players to watch:  Wilson juuuust held off Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson for the starting QB job in fall camp. Thompson was a highly sought after recruit and fits

Utah’s Travis Wilson was cleared to return to football in the Spring and was once again named Utah’s starter this week. PHOTO: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

perfectly in Utah’s new offensive system. Given Wilson’s injury history, and Utah’s recent luck with QB health, that’s a big deal.

Last year Wilson badly sprained a finger on his throwing hand and Utah didn’t have a backup the coaches trusted. As a result, Wilson played without the ability to throw the football for most of the Utes’ conference slate, including a brutal 3 game stretch where he was 14/44 with 3 TDs and 6 INT.

Thompson won’t start for Utah in week one, but at this point, Utah takes a, “not if but when” attitude about needing 2nd string quarterbacks and Thompson’s presence is making everyone in SLC feel a lot better about the season.

Things also look better at receiver, where 1000 yard receiver Dres Anderson will benefit from the return of explosive playmaker Kenneth Scott. Scott suffered a season ending injury in Utah’s first game last season and his return should go a long way toward helping Anderson maintain the 19 ypc average he had last season.

At tailback, JC transfer Devontae Booker looked phenomenal in spring ball and may bring back the punch that Utah’s running game has lacked since the departure of John White.

On defense, head-hunting safety Brian Blechen returns from injury this season and will contend for All-Pac-12 honors. Local product Nate Orchard was excellent last year and will step into the big shoes of perennial 100 tackler, Trevor Riley.

Season Outlook: Utah had a frustrating season last year, playing very close games with UCLA, Washington State, Stanford, Oregon State, and ASU, but only coming out on top in one of the five.

Kyle Whittingham teams are always sound defensively, but too often, Utah’s head man seem to regard offense as a necessary evil. But the fact is, Pac-12 is in the midst of an offensive arms race and Utah won’t go to a bowl game again until they have an offense Whittingham trusts.

After a three years of Pac 12 recruiting, the talent is now there at the skill positions, and it appears Christensen is finally going to get the Utes off the coordinator carousel.  But for it all to come together this season, the Utes will need a big dose of patience and enough luck to keep the same QB in the lineup for at least 9 or 10 games.

If Utah does go bowling again, you can be sure they earned it. ESPN Insider Brian Fremeau ranked Utah’s schedule the most difficult in the nation, and Phil Steele calls it the nation’s 8th toughest.

It certainly is formidable. The Ute’s non-conference schedule includes dates with Mtn. West favorite Fresno State, and a road game at the Big House in Ann Arbor. After that, it’s on to the 9 game Pac-12 schedule, in which the Utes draw both Stanford and Oregon from the North Division.  

The Pick: Just like Colorado, Utah could improve quite a bit this season without having any extra wins to show for it. Utah was 5-7 last season, but could easily drop to 4-8 this year. Fans in SLC are starving for another trip to the post-season, but it looks like the Utes are a year away.

 

Arizona Logo#4: ARIZONA

State of the program: When Mike Stoops took over  Arizona in 2004, they were a smoldering wreck of a program coming off a season when the team had staged a full-scale revolt against the coaching staff. Given the turmoil of the program, the 3-8 finishes of his first two seasons actually exceeded expectations.

The Stoops era peaked with 8-5 finishes in 2008 and 2009. Stoops was fired in 2011 after the program plateaued, and his successor, Rich Rodriguez was a big name coach who was expected to take the Wildcats to the next level.  Rich Rod has now been in the Sonoran for two seasons. Both years he went, you guessed it, 8-5.

This year UA has a beautiful new facility that is attracting some of the finest recruits in program history and Wildcat fans are expecting the program to leave the 8-5s behind and start bearing down on the elites in the Pac-12 South.

 Players to watch:  Rich Rod’s name is synonymous with the spread option offense, and he generally recruits to the system he pioneered very well. So it’s odd that for the third year in a row, Rodriguez’s QB will be a senior, starting for the first time.

This year’s one and done QB will be Jesse Scroggins, a dual threat transfer from USC with considerable talent who never quite fit in the Trojans’ Pro-style system. Scroggins’ strong arm, quick release, and ability to run make him a perfect fit for Rodriguez’s offense. If the single-year success of Matt Scott and BJ Denker before him is any indication, UA can expect to get great production out of the former Trojan.

Of much bigger concern will be replacing the NCAA’s leading rusher over the past two seasons, KaDeem Carey. Carey has been the engine that made Arizona’s offense go since RichRod took over. This year the leading returning rusher on Arizona’s roster had only 27 carries last season.  UA will turn to redshirt freshman Pierre Cormier to carry the biggest load, but it’s hard to imagine anyone replacing Carey’s output.

Scooby Wright wreaks havoc on defense PHOTO: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On defense, linebacker Scooby Wright was possibly the most fun to watch defensive player in the Pac last season. Scooby earned 2nd team Freshman All-America honors and is the Wildcat’s top returning tackler.  Look for him to step into a leadership role for the Cats this season while potentially becoming the most popular player in Tucson since “FEED THE GRONK!”  

Season Outlook: Of the lower-rated teams in the Pac-12 South, Arizona looks by far the best situated to make a bowl. The Wildcat’s non-conference schedule of UNLV, UT-San Antonio, and Nevada looks like easy pickings, while their conference slate allows them to miss Stanford from the North division and play the worst team in each division (Colorado and Cal) at home. However, if the Cats are going to improve upon last year’s record, they’ll need to be more consistent.

Getting to the next level will require Arizona to eliminate outlier games like the 546 yards the defense allowed to a USC offense in the midst of a coaching change, or the outing against Washington State when the Cats mysteriously had their 2nd worst offensive effort of the season against the Cougar’s normally weak D.

The Pick: Lots of good things are happening in Tucson, and the Wildcats are headed in the right direction, but it’s just tough to look at Arizona’s schedule and see more than 8 wins. They snuck up on Oregon in the desert last year, and that will be tough to replicate in Autzen this October. Rich Rod’s program is getting some traction, but UA still seems well behind USC, UCLA and  ASU in the South Division.

Tags: Arizona Football Colorado Football Rich Rodriguez Scooby Wright Travis Wilson Utah Football

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