Can the Bruins return to the Pac-12 title game?
With six teams expected to be ranked in the preseason polls, the Pac-12 should provide plenty of must-see games during 2014.
On paper, the South Division appears to be a three-team race between Arizona State, UCLA and USC. Arizona is slightly behind the top three teams, but if Rich Rodriguez can find a few answers on offense, the Wildcats will be a sleeper team. Utah and Colorado will likely be picked in the bottom two spots in predictions. However, both teams are capable of pulling an upset or two in 2014. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Buffaloes and Utes both found a way to get bowl eligible.
UCLA played for the conference title from the South Division in 2011-12, while Arizona State claimed the title last season. The South is 0-3 in Pac-12 Championship appearances, but the Bruins, Sun Devils and Trojans are all capable of ending that streak in 2014.
It’s tough to pinpoint a favorite, as all three teams have plenty of concerns and strengths going into the season.
UCLA continues to trend upward under coach Jim Mora, while USC finished 10-4 under an interim coach. Arizona State is the defending South Division champs, but the Sun Devils must replace most of their core on defense.
Arizona State, UCLA or USC: Which Team Wins the Pac-12 South?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
While I think Arizona State is a top 15-20 team nationally, I would choose between USC and UCLA for the top spot in the South Division this year. And it’s a close call between the crosstown rivals, but I give a slight nod to the Bruins. UCLA coach Jim Mora has the Bruins on the rise, winning 19 games over the last two years, which is the most for the program since Bob Toledo won 20 games from 1997-98. Sure, there are some personnel losses to overcome, but quarterback Brett Hundley should continue to develop as a passer after an offseason to work under coordinator Noel Mazzone, and the Bruins have a plethora of talented skill players. The offensive line will miss guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, but Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche, along with the development of several young players should help this unit progress in 2014. Despite the departure of linebackers Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr and defensive end Cassius Marsh, new coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has no shortage of talent to mold. The Bruins could have the top secondary, linebacking corps and defensive line in the conference – and three top-20 recruiting classes certainly helps to improve the overall talent of the roster. The schedule isn’t easy, but UCLA hosts USC, Stanford, Oregon and Arizona. Road tests at Washington and Arizona State will be tough, but a 7-2 mark would probably be enough to win the division. There’s no question the Pac-12 is one of college football’s toughest conferences, and USC’s improvement under Steve Sarkisian will add another element to the South Division. However, not only does UCLA have all of the pieces to win the South, there’s more than enough talent here to win the Pac-12 in 2014.
Kyle Kensing, (@Kensing45), CFBHuddle.com and BleacherReport.com
UCLA is the Pac-12 South favorite--and really, it's not close. Each South contender has its glaring concerns heading into the season: USC is talented but the depth issues brought on by NCAA sanctions reach their peak in 2014. Arizona State is completely overhauling its defense. Arizona is left replacing a two-time All-America running back, its starting quarterback and still has strides to make defensively.
But UCLA is no favorite-by-default. The South has plenty of good teams; UCLA is a great team. Jim Mora's first two seasons at the helm were building to 2014. He's working with the most veteran starting lineup in the conference. Quarterback Brett Hundley's decision to return for his redshirt junior season should pay dividends, as he has the Pac-12's deepest and most diverse wide receiving corps.
The indecisiveness that sometimes vexed him in the pocket last season should be improved with an offseason of work, but he will also be playing behind a considerably more experienced offensive line.
Mora and his staff loaded up on defensive talent in each of their three recruiting classes. Obviously Myles Jack was a revelation as a freshman, and Zach Whitley can have similar impact this season. If Whitley can make a similar transition to the college game as Jack, UCLA will again have one of the better linebackers corps in the nation, with Eric Kendricks as its anchor. The secondary was young last year and should be improved in 2014. Ishmael Adams was coming along nicely at season's end in 2013 and could be on the cusp of a star turn.
The sky's the limit for the Bruins if they can put it all together. Nevermind a divisional title, UCLA just may be the favorite to win the whole conference.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
UCLA has been building to a breakthrough season for several years, and 2014 might be the one where the Bruins start to join the Pac-12 elite. Last season was UCLA’s first 10-win season and first top-20 finish since 2005. Don’t forget that a year ago UCLA had the unfortunate schedule that included back-to-back road games against Stanford and Oregon. I doubt UCLA could have defeated either of them anywhere, but imagine if UCLA had an easier draw from the Pac-12 North. The Bruins get both this season at home and a road trip to Washington. That’s not easy, but UCLA should be ready for the challenge. With three consecutive top-20 signing classes and the return of Brett Hundley, UCLA will rival USC as the top roster in the South. There’s a lot to like here with young talent, not least of which Myles Jack, the linebacker/running back combo. Four offensive linemen return among 15 total returning starters from a team that beat USC by 21 last season and only lost to division champ Arizona State by five.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
This is a fascinating debate that has many different angles making it virtually impossible to decide. The best starting 22 goes to USC, but the Trojans have the smallest margin for error with little depth on the sanctioned roster. The best starting quarterback goes to UCLA, but the Bruins will play the toughest schedule of the three. And the best head coach of the bunch is in Tempe, but Todd Graham has the most to replace. All three schedules are nasty as the Pac-12 could be the best league in the nation and all three teams will play each other — one at home and one on the road. Both USC and Arizona State miss Oregon in crossover play while the Bruins welcome the Ducks to town on Oct. 11 (as well as Stanford, USC and Arizona). All three will likely have to play on the road in the Pac-12 Championship game considering how difficult the division slate could be in the South. Arizona State might have the most question marks but it has the best combination of coaching, quarterback play, scheduling and depth chart. In a three way tie, Arizona State gets the nod because it will get two weeks to prepare for a potential division championship game on Thursday, Sept. 25 against the Bruins.
Arizona State is the defending division champions, but I think the Sun Devils will have a hard time replacing some key pieces, most notably two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton. I think it will come down to the two Los Angeles schools and while I feel that USC is in position to make some noise in Steve Sarkisian's first year at the helm, I'll give the edge to its crosstown rivals this season. Jim Mora has clearly put his stamp on this program in just two seasons, going 19-8 overall and 12-6 in conference play. This year's team could take the next step with quarterback Brett Hundley, a potential Heisman Trophy contender, running the offense and stud linebacker Myles Jack wreaking havoc on the other side of the ball, as well as making an impact as a running back. UCLA has some holes of its own to fill, but it has the edge over USC and Arizona State when it comes to quarterback and returning starters. The Bruins have to go to Tempe to play the Sun Devils and Seattle to face Washington, but they get to host the Trojans, as well as Oregon and Stanford. The schedule's not easy, but the pieces seem to be in piece for Mora to lead UCLA to a pretty special season.