Saturday Blitz’s Shiloh Winder Counts down the teams in the Pac-12 before Thursday’s season-opener. Today: the South Division top 3: #3: ASU: STATE OF THE PROGRAM: During the Dennis Erickson Era, ASU seemed like the most perennially overrated team in college football. The Sundevils would recruit well, get some AP votes with easy wins and then fold like tables every time they faced a ranked opponent. In Erickson’s last four seasons, the Devils were 2-9 against ranked foes, and only 5-4 as a ranked team themselves. Things appeared to be turning around in 2011 when the Devils started 5-1 including a rare smashing of #23 USC. By the end of October, they had the South Division Championship all but mathematically locked up. But for reasons that were never publicly clear, ASU completely fell apart after Halloween. They finished 0-4 including losses to lowly WSU and Cal, and Erickson was sent packing. Todd Graham came in with the Pac-12 coaching class of 2012. He was overshadowed by bigger names coming into the conference like Jim Mora, Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach. But Graham’s mark on ASU’s program was evident immediately. Under Erickson (and really, before that) the Sun Devils had a well-earned reputation as the Pac’s least disciplined team. No matter how bad things looked against he Devils, you could always count on a Vontaze Burfect personal foul to get you out of a crucial 3rd and long. In fact, ASU was the most penalized team in the conference three consecutive years before Graham got to the desert. In Graham’s first year, the Devils went from averaging 80 yards of penalties per game, down to 35, and have, incredibly, been the least penalized team in the Pac both of his seasons at the helm. The results showed up on the scoreboard. ASU improved by two wins in Graham’s first year, and improved by another two wins last season, winning the Pac-12 South.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Taylor Kelly returns for his senior season after throwing for 3600 yards and rushing for another 850. Leading rusher Marion Grice departs but DJ Foster has been a contributor in ASU’s offense for two years and is ready to play a leading role On defense the only returning starters are Linebackers Salmo Fiso and Damarious Randal who each had 71 tackles last season. To replace 9 starters, ASU had to lean heavily on JC Transfers. The biggest difference maker may well be defensive end Marcus Hardison, who was rated the #5 JC defensive end in the country by ESPN. The Devils are also excited about converted Tight End De’Mariyea Nelson. Nelson was slotted as ASU’s #1 TE through spring ball before taking Reps at “Devilbacker” in fall camp. Reports are that Nelson has been “unblockable” and has found a permanent home on the defensive side of the ball. SEASONOUTLOOK: ASU fans must have been dismayed when the preseason media poll picked them 3rd in the South after winning the division last year. After all, they went a perfect 5-0 against division opponents. This year, Taylor Kelly is coming back and Todd Graham has a lot of momentum. Unfortunately for ASU, they only return 8 starters from that team, and need to rebuild essentially their entire defense. By contrast, UCLA returns 17 starters and USC, 14. The Devils’ are simply less of a known quantity, and their success is contingent on a lot of underclassmen and JUCO question marks. THE PICK: ASU may be the toughest team to pick in the Pac-12 this year. They proved themselves the best team in the South Division last year and this year’s conference slate isn’t any tougher. Once again they avoid Oregon from the North and they get showdown games with Stanford and UCLA both at home. On the other hand, the Pac-12 is a very dangerous place for a team with an all-new secondary. At Pac-12 Media Day, Todd Graham reassured reporters that this year’s Devil defense “won’t be as experienced but we’ll be just as athletic”. That’s probably true, but defensive backfields take time to gel and the Pac has an incredible 10 returning starting quarterbacks this season. It’s not too difficult to imagine ASU’s new DBs getting lit-up with road games at Oregon State and USC. ASU will still score lots of points and be loads of fun to watch this year, but the margins in the Pac are too thin to imagine ASU making another leap. USC and UCLA are simply more experienced and more talented. #2: USC STATE OF THE PROGRAM: Maybe you don’t have the capacity to feel bad for USC. It’s hard to sympathize with the fan base of a team that has won Seven Heismans, been to 50 bowl games and reacts to an 8-4 season like a natural disaster, but you have to admit, USC has been on a Hell of a roller-coaster lately. After a 10 win season in 2011, expectations for 2012 went wild. USC was emerging from a two-year bowl ban as the preseason AP #1. That’s just not supposed to happen. And really, It didn’t. USC went 7-6. An average year for a team battling with harsh NCAA sanctions, but the worst season in history by a pre-season #1. We all remember what happened next. Hayden decided to stick with Kiffin. Before the season, he recorded a “vote of confidence” youtube video for his embattled head coach. Then he fired his ass at 3am on an LAX tarmac after the 5th game of the season. The Ed Ogeron/Clay Helton-lead Trojans took off so dramatically after the firing that no one would ever take Kiffin seriously as a football coach again (oh. Wait). USC went 6-1 after the coaching change including their first win over Stanford since 2008. Now former assistant and LA County native Steve Sarkisian is in as the plug-n-play Head Coach. Sark’s hire didn’t set the Trojan Family’s heart a fire, but there is a collective optimism around the program owing solely to the fact that he is not Lane Kiffin. Players to Watch: For the life of him, Lane Kiffin just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t believe a quiet, unassuming kid from Bakersfield was beating out his prized Mater Dei recruit with the huge arm in the competition to replace Matt Barkley. Cody Kessler out performed Max Wittek in Spring Practice, and again in Fall Camp, but Kiffin wouldn’t have it. Kessler may have been better on the practice field, but surely when the bright lights came on, the country boy would shrink and Wittek would shine. So the “competition” continued into the season. First, through an ugly win at Hawai’I and a then a “Sorry, folks, no refunds” disaster in the Coliseum against Washington State.
When Kessler was finally named the starter, he played with all the confidence his head coach had given him, putting up middling stats and developing chemistry with his receivers on the fly. This spring, Steve Sarkisian declared an open competition for the starting QB job, and then closed it almost immediately. It was emphatic. Kessler was his guy. The difference in QB handling has been evident all summer. In a pre-camp scrimmage at the track stadium with no coaches allowed, Kessler barked out orders to both offense and defense like a head coach. Between plays all eyes naturally drifted to the man who was finally the natural on-field leader USC so desperately needed last season. This summer Kessler has thrown the ball with the most confidence of his career. The great Marqise Lee may be gone, but rest assured, USC’s passing game will be just fine this season. Of course, this being USC, there are plenty of other stars to talk about. WR Nelson Agholor returns and Freshman WR Juju Smith is a potential breakout star. Buck Allen emerged during last season as backup to Silas Redd and Tre Madden, but Allen was so good, he’s stolen the starting job and is pre-season All-Pac-12 in 2014. On Defense Su’a Cravens was a Freshman All-American in 2013 and looks to become a household name this year. Steve Sarkisian calls the front 7 the strength of the entire team and DE Leonard Williams and MLB Hayes Pullard are arguably the finest players at their positions anywhere in the country. SEASON OUTLOOK: USC ended last year with a 45-20 throttling of Fresno State in the Vegas Bowl. USC will open with the Bulldogs in the Coliseum this year, but there’s more than just a scheduling quirk indicating the Trojans could pick up right where they left off. Steve Sarkisian’s familiarity with USC, and the SoCal recruiting trail were big plusses for a program that came out of the brief Ogeron era with a lot of momentum. Sark ran a pro-style attack to near perfection as a college QB at BYU and aside from a kick in tempo hasn’t messed much with USC’s scheme. Even with the shackles of the Kiffin era gone and the last remnants of the NCAA sanctions dropping off, USC’s path to 10 wins looks no easier than last year. The Trojans play one less game this year than last and have to play both UCLA and Stanford on the road. Less important than win totals for SC fans may be the Trojans’ all-important record against UCLA and Notre Dame. USC hasn’t beaten either rival since 2011, and Sarkisian won’t last long if he doesn’t reverse that trend quickly. THE PICK: USC ain’t gonna go to the Rose Bowl Semi-Final, but they should win at least 9 regular season games and have a shot at double digits with a bowl win. The Trojans won’t go back to dominating their rivals, but should expect to beat Notre Dame and make the Bruins sweat in Pasadena. These are not the highest aspirations of a legendary program, would be enough for the 1st season for the Sarkisian Era. South #1 : UCLA STATE OF THE PROGRAM: Jim Mora took the reigns in Westwood in 2012 and brought a desperately needed edge to UCLA’s program. His timing couldn’t have been better. Pac-12 Network TV money was flooding in and USC was fighting scholarship limits. Mora started winning local recruiting battles against the Trojans and his personality played no small role in the success of a $40 million fund drive for a new football facility. Now the Bruins have renderings of a nice building that will one day stand the edge of their 80 yard practice field (congratulations, guys) and USC is still under the cloud of sanctions for a phone call made 10 years ago. (One phone call. Ten years ago. Seriously.) UCLA Returns 17 Starters from a team that went 10-3 last year, and Brett Hundley is a legitimate Heisman contender. In short, prospects for the Bruins have never been better.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Hundley lead the Bruins in rushing last season, but that was mostly because the Bruins split carries among so many capable tailbacks; All of whom are returning. RB Jordan James should take the bulk of the carries this year though pre-season All-Pac-12 Linebacker Miles Jack played a little running back for the Bruins and averaged 7 ypc last year. Jim Mora promises Jack play a significant role on the offensive side of the ball this season, as well. The Bruins do lose leading WR Shaq Evans, but return 5 of their top 6 pass catchers. Look for Sophomore Tight End Thomas Duarte to follow in Joseph Fauria’s footsteps this season and bring the TE back to prominence in the Bruins offense. On Defense, the Bruins lose the phenomenal Anthony Barr, but Miles Jack looks ready to step into Barr’s role as the Bruin’s most versatile defender. Sophomore tackle Eddie Vanderdoes should to build on his Freshman All-American season last year and emerge as one of the top DTs in the nation. SEASON OUTLOOK: Jim Mora is 2-0 against USC. But he is also 0-3 v. Stanford, and UCLA hasn’t beaten Oregon since 2007. With Brett Hundley returning for his Junior season, UCLA is probably the most talented team in the Pac-12. Will this be the year UCLA gets over the hump and ends the North Division’s domination of the Pac-12? The schedule certainly gives them the opportunity. The Bruins draw both Oregon and Stanford from the North and both have to come to Pasadena. If that weren’t enough, UCLA gets USC at home as well. The Bruins will likely be favored in all 12 of their regular season games this year, but beating Oregon or Stanford twice in one season is a tall order. THE PICK: The Bruins are gonna play three games against the big 2 from the North (Oregon and Stanford) Twice at home and once at a neutral site. Most likely, they’ll go 2-1 in those games. Hopefully for the Bruins, that 1 loss will be during the regular season. Of the big 3 contenders in the Pac, UCLA has the best chance to win the league and represent the Pac in the inaugural College Football Playoff.