Arizona State, USC and Utah should be locked into a tight battle atop the Pac-12 South
The Pac-12 doesn’t have a clear favorite going into 2021, so it’s no surprise this is one of the toughest conferences to project for the upcoming year. Oregon and Washington are a toss-up battle in the North Division, while the South is shaping up to be a wide-open affair between USC, Utah, Arizona State, UCLA and Colorado. The Trojans claimed the division crown last year, but the Utes won it in back-to-back seasons (2018-19). Arizona State returns nearly every key player from last season, and its ’21 squad should be the best of coach Herm Edwards’ tenure. After a surprise 4-2 stint under new coach Karl Dorrell last fall, can the Buffaloes pull another shocker next season?
Who will win the Pac-12 South in 2021? That was the question posed to Athlon editors and college football contributors.
Pac-12 Football: Which Team Wins the Pac-12 South in 2021?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This is a tough call, but I’m taking Arizona State to win the South this season. The Sun Devils return nearly every major contributor from the 2020 season, including a rising star quarterback in Jayden Daniels and one of the deepest running back rooms in college football. Also, the offensive line is poised to take a step forward, and while there’s no clear No. 1 target in the receiving corps, there’s no lack of talent. The Sun Devils led the Pac-12 in scoring defense last year (23.3 points a game) and the defensive line, linebacker and secondary units all rank among the best in the conference. The schedule does feature tough treks to Utah and Washington. However, USC visits Tempe and Oregon is not on the regular-season slate. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Arizona State, USC or Utah win the South, but I think the Sun Devils return to the Pac-12 title game for the first time since ’13.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMark)
Who NEEDS to win the Pac-12 South? That's easy, USC. The pressure is on Clay Helton to do more than just lead the Trojans to the conference championship game, which they lost last season to an Oregon team that wasn't even supposed to be in the game. Talent is not an issue for USC, on either side of the ball. But as Helton's tenuous job security shows, his Trojan teams haven't been able to maximize that talent. And if Helton's job depends on (at least) winning the division again in 2021, well I hope he's updated his resume. I like Arizona State to be on the top of the South by season's end. Jayden Daniels is poised to emerge as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country and the defense brings back plenty of experience throughout all three levels. Herm Edwards has clearly put his stamp on this program, and it shows in how hard the Sun Devils play every game. The schedule isn't easy, but ASU does get USC in Tempe. So at least Helton won't have to hear it from the home crowd when his Trojans come up short, again.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
Jayden Daniels and Herm Edwards might be the top quarterback-coach in the conference, but I'll lean USC to repeat as Pac-12 South champions. Although you can only learn so much from the Trojans' six-game slate, this team has some incredible top-end talent between quarterback Kedon Slovis, wide receiver Drake London, and edge rusher Drake Jackson. Coaching is a bit of a question mark with Clay Helton constantly on the hot seat, but the defense took a big step forward in its first year under coordinator Todd Orlando. A full offseason should help even more. If USC can continue to produce turnovers with Talanoa Hufanga off to the pros, this could be a sneaky-good defense.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
I don't see how the answer isn't USC. The Trojans have a significant advantage in terms of overall talent compared to the rest of the division and USC will get their toughest division game, against Utah, at home. USC will also host Arizona and UCLA and a cross-divisional game against Stanford. The schedule plays in USC's favor, although road trips to Washington State, Colorado and Arizona State are not to be taken for granted. Clay Helton may be under constant pressure, but he still manages to get the job done and takes USC into the Pac-12 Championship Game for a second straight season.
J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott)
USC has the best quarterback and best roster from top to bottom. If they don't win the South, it'll be time for more uncomfortable conversations with head coach Clay Helton.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@NicholasIAllen)
The Pac-12 South could be college football's most exciting division race with at least four real contenders. Defending champion USC is still the team to beat — and the offense could be special — but the Trojans are beatable. The schedule sets up nicely, though, playing UCLA and Utah both at home, and avoiding Oregon or Washington from the North. Arizona State, UCLA and Utah all play one of the Pac-12 North co-favorites.
The Sun Devils probably have the next best case. Like USC, Arizona State boasts a talented experienced quarterback, deep receiving corps, and even more options in the running game. The ASU defense might be the best in the conference, or at least the division. Plus, the Sun Devils host USC. UCLA took a big step forward in 2020 and brings a lot back — all but one full-time starter on each side of the football, in fact. The Bruins must still improve on defense (UCLA ranked 105th in FBS in success rate allowed last year, for example), but Chip Kelly's offense is finally potent.
Utah consistently fields one of the best defenses in the Pac-12, and even with so much youth and inexperience last year, the Utes ranked in the top 10 nationally in Expected Points Per Play defensively. Not only are all 11 starters back, but every defensive contributor also returns: every player who recorded a tackle for a loss, sack, interception and pass breakup, and every single player who recorded more than one tackle. Quarterback turnover is a rare question among Pac-12 South contenders, but Utah's new signal-caller is Charlie Brewer, who started 39 games at Baylor. Even Colorado proved dangerous in 2020, though the Buffaloes probably overachieved and lost a handful of contributors to transfer. Could Arizona be that sort of team in 2021? It seems unlikely, but modest improvement under first-year head coach Jedd Fisch isn't out of the question. A loss to Colorado or Arizona would likely doom the title hopes of any of the top four.
USC is favored in all 12 regular-season games according to my early CFB Winning Edge projections. But some of the margins are very close, and after tallying the individual win percentages of each, the Trojans would finish with 9.01 wins on average. Arizona State, Utah and UCLA are all projected for 7.7 wins or more. That's an incredibly tight margin for four teams and should make the South race a ton of fun.
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