Pac-12 Football: Is Arizona State favorite to win South division?


There are a lot of great teams in the Pac-12, and with five of the six teams who play in the South Division finishing last season ranked in the AP top-25, it can be hard to decipher who will represent them in Pac-12 Championship Game.

When people talk about winning a national championship, they talk about the College Football Playoff. When people talk about the College Football Playoff, they talk about the odd conference out. And when people talk about the odd conference out, they talk about parity, cannibalization, and conference championships.

Perhaps the conference, and particularly the division, with the most parity, and highest chance of cannibalizing, beating each other and preventing their conference from snagging one of the four playoff spots, is the Pac-12 South.

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Last season, Arizona, ranked 19th, won the South, barely beating out Arizona State, UCLA, USC, and Utah. Those teams finished 12th, 10th, 20th, and 21st, respectively. Every single one of those teams are projected to win at least seven games in 2015 by the oddsmakers in Vegas, and each slated to play nine games in conference. With all that said, it is really easy to see how quickly the division can implode.

USC is not just the media favorite to win the South — they actually seem to have the best shot. They’re pegged as the clear-cut favorite, but things wont be easy for USC this season. 2015 will be far from a waltz for the Trojans, with Arizona State nipping at their heels if not pulling a hair ahead for a photo finish. If Josh Rosen can put together a truly outstanding freshman season at UCLA, then the Bruins will be right there as well.

It is improbable that Arizona, even behind Anu Solomon and “Rich Rod”, can put together a season like their last. After winning the South, most people still knew that they weren’t the best team in the division. Utah also has the potential to find themselves in a footrace, but chances are they do what they did best last season and ruin a few high hopes as the biggest buzz kill in the conference.

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Last year they handed UCLA a painful 30-28 loss on a night where a win would have made the Bruins a top-5 team. They also beat both USC and Stanford by three points a piece, in hindsight partly causing USC miss out on a conference championship matchup with Oregon. They also contributed to a painful 5 loss season for the Cardinal.

At Pac-12 Media Days, the media voted and agreed, indicating that USC, ASU, and UCLA were the only teams with a real shot at representing the South. Arizona and Utah did not receive any first place votes. So if it comes down to the Trojans, Sun Devils, and Bruins, who will pull away at the end of the season, and who will be left in the dust?

Let us first look at UCLA. The Bruins no longer have their star dual-threat quarterback Brett Hundley, who was drafted by the Green Bay Packers this offseason. To replace him, they have true freshman, high school phenom, Josh Rosen. Ranked the No. 1 quarterback in his class, he is a special talent. Some have gone as far as calling him a once in a generation talent, though that is a bit much considering he has never even taken a snap in competitive college football game.

The unknown is perhaps the scariest thing in sports, and the Bruins don’t know yet what they really have under center — but they have an idea. They also don’t know what they have defensively, after hiring Tom Bradley as their new defensive coordinator — but again, they have an idea. They do, however, know what they have at running back and offensive line, as they return the Pac-12’s reigning rushing champion in Paul Perkins and the most offensive line starts in the nation.

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Because it’s not yet clear what UCLA has going for them, and their season could realistically see anywhere between seven and 11 wins, we’ll count them out, and assume they finish third in the South Division. That leaves USC and ASU.

USC has the Heisman hopeful Cody Kessler at quarterback, but lose three key players from last season. Without their leading rusher Javorius Allen, and AP All-Americans Leonard Williams and Nelson Agholor, Steve Sarkisian will have to rely on younger talent like Su’a Cravens, Adoree Jackson and Juju Smith. They return their full offensive line from last season, and many would say that all this, along with added depth and another full offseason for the younger guys, is enough to not only win the South, but the conference. This, however, is simply not the case.

Opening in-conference play against Stanford will be hard enough, but it is their next matchup that could end up defining their season. On Saturday, September 26th, USC will visit Tempe for a matchup sure to draw national attention. They also play Oregon and UCLA to close out the season. We’ll come back to the ASU and USC matchup, but let’s first look at Arizona State.

Mike Bercovici will be a full-time starter for the first time in his career after a very productive three-game stint last year when Taylor Kelley went down. He looks to help an experienced Sun Devil team continue their success. They return 16 starters, but not Jaelen Strong, who was a critical part of the offense on top of being one of the best receivers in the conference. D.J. Foster, will return this season after switching from running back to receiver, ideally helping fill the hole that Strong has left.

Both USC and ASU will likely finish 2015 with 9 or 10 wins, and if they tie, ASU will have the advantage. Mike Bercovici beat the Trojans last year in his second career start, but he needed a hail mary to do it. This year, he wont. ASU will beat the Trojans early on, and from there, the tiebreaker will carry them into a Pac-12 Championship Game. Still, don’t count out anyone (except Colorado) in the Pac-12 South.

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