Are the Trojans the team to beat in the Pac-12 South?
Utah is the reigning Pac-12 South champion, but the 2020 race to win the division title should feature a tight race between the Utes, USC and Arizona State. Utah returns only two starters on defense and must replace offensive standouts in quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss. USC coach Clay Helton is squarely on the hot seat going into 2020 and needs a big year to avoid the offseason uncertainty that surrounded him after ’19. With Kedon Slovis and a deep group of receivers in place, the Trojans won’t have any trouble scoring points. However, the Trojans have to get better on defense to win the South Division and push for a conference title. Arizona State is on the right track under third-year coach Herm Edwards and returns one of the nation’s rising stars at quarterback in Jayden Daniels. The Sun Devils have question marks in the trenches and need to restock the playmakers around Daniels.
So which team should be labeled the early favorite to represent the South in the Pac-12 Championship Game? That was the question posed to Athlon editors and a few college football contributors. As you can see from the responses below, it's shaping up to be a wide-open race.
Pac-12 Football: Which Team Should be the Favorite in the South Division for 2020?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I think USC, Arizona State and Utah (in some order) are the top three teams in the Pac-12 South for 2020. All three programs have flaws going into this year, but I would lean with Clay Helton’s Trojans at No. 1 – for now. USC returns 19 starters this fall, including quarterback Kedon Slovis and one of the nation’s top receiving corps. While the passing game isn’t a concern, Helton and play-caller Graham Harrell need more out of the ground attack and have to break in two new tackles along the offensive line. Helton’s decision to make significant staff changes brought upgrades on the defensive side of the ball. New cornerbacks coach Donte Williams is regarded as one of the Pac-12’s top recruiters and will immediately help a secondary that struggled last season. Additionally, new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando should provide a boost to a unit that returns 11 starters for 2020. USC will be tested early with Alabama in the opener, along with games against Arizona State, Utah and California before the halfway point of the season. However, with Utah breaking in a new quarterback and a handful of starters on defense, and Arizona State needing to restock the skill talent around quarterback Jayden Daniels, this division feels like it’s USC’s to lose.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Isn't it pretty much now or never for Clay Helton at USC? The Trojans have been through some rough times and it's starting to carry over to the recruiting trail, but there's still a lot of talent on this roster. It starts with quarterback Kedon Slovis, who has every key contributor back with the exception of leading receiver Michael Pittman Jr. The defense also returns quite a bit. Contrast that to defending division champion Utah, who has to replace quarterback Tyler Huntley and workhorse running back Zack Moss, and that's before getting into the personnel and losses on one of the nation's top defenses.
Arizona State is going to be a threat with quarterback Jayden Daniels primed to take another step forward, but the Sun Devils have to replace a 1,000-yard rusher (Eno Benjamin) and receiver (Brandon Aiyuk) and I would still give USC the talent advantage. The Trojans will have to earn the division title with road games against the aforementioned Utes and Oregon on the schedule as well as a crossover date with Washington, but their season opener against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, also should help get USC ready for the conference grind.
The Trojans have certainly failed to live up to expectations before but the timing could be just right for USC to reclaim its division. Desperation can sometimes serve as a good motivator too.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
Utah has run the Pac-12 South for the past two years, but with Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss graduated, it's time for a new champion. Arizona State is one of our top teams on the rise this season, and for good reason. The Sun Devils knocked off three top-25 teams last season and only lost one game by double digits. Quarterback Jayden Daniels had an impressive freshman season with 8.7 yards per attempt and 17 touchdowns to two interceptions, and it's easy to see him taking a big step forward. ASU has taken a big step forward on defense, and with only three starters leaving on that side of the ball, all the pieces are there to build a Pac-12 contender.
Josh Webb (@FightOnTwist)
Right now it's hard to look past the Arizona State Sun Devils as a potential favorite the Pac-12 South this year. Not only did they recruit six players from the 247Sports Composite Top 300 rankings, but they pulled in five of them from California. Herm Edwards is doing work and he already has a number of talented players and transfers to bolster the roster prior to his stellar recruiting class.
Then there's the matter of player development. The Sun Devils have done a tremendous job of developing players and putting them in the best position possible to succeed. The team has improved every year under Edwards and continues to showcase its growth in big games against the conference's best teams. The Sun Devils took care of No. 6 Oregon last year, knocking them out of College Football Playoff consideration, and did so in a fairly low-scoring affair for a Duck game; the final score was 31-28. In previous years ASU also has conquered USC, Utah, Washington State, and more.
This is a program on the rise with a blue-chip quarterback in Jayden Daniels leading the offense and he has a host of talented wide receivers he can target. The general consensus pick to win the Pac-12 South this year might be Utah or USC, but of all the programs in the division, it's Arizona State that shows the most promise based on what Edwards and his staff have been able to accomplish, on and off of the field.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@NicholasIAllen)
I am really high on USC this year for a lot of reasons. Despite their struggles on the recruiting trail over the last two cycles, the Trojans still have the most talented roster in the Pac-12, both in terms of average recruiting rating throughout the roster and my own Roster Strength ratings that attempt to adjust for experience and production. USC is a legitimate top-15 team nationally.
But USC has also underperformed relative to expectations in recent seasons under Clay Helton, so it is difficult to trust the Trojans to win the games they should be expected to win. And, in 2020, the schedule does USC no favors. Road games against Utah (on a Friday night, no less) and Oregon are going to be difficult. Drawing Washington from the North rotation is challenging as well.
Utah is in a very different situation. The Utes have modest talent ratings and lose a ton of production on both sides of the ball, but the program should get high marks for head coach Kyle Whittingham’s ability to develop players. Utah’s schedule also sets up quite nicely compared to USC, especially the weeknight home game against the Trojans and the absence of Oregon. Though I think USC is a better team on paper, Utah has a wider margin for error, and should therefore be the favorite.