Clay Helton and USC are the defending champions of a division that has gone undergone plenty of change
If there’s one word that can be used to describe the Pac-12 South headed into the 2018 college football season, it would be “change.” For starters, half of the division is under new leadership as Arizona (Kevin Sumlin), Arizona State (Herm Edwards), and UCLA (Chip Kelly) all made changes at head coach this offseason. There’s also the fact that defending Pac-12 champion USC lost its quarterback, leading rusher, leading receiver and top two pass rushers to the NFL.
With so much uncertainty present in the division, which team is the favorite this fall? Does the Trojans’ talent and coaching stability still give them the edge over the other teams? Or will one of the “rookie” head coaches lead their team to the top of the standings? Or can Colorado or Utah take advantage of all of the changes going on around them?
Athlon editors and contributors size up the Pac-12 South and pick the team they think will represent the South in the Pac-12 Championship Game this season.
Which Team Wins the Pac-12 South in 2018?
Mark Ross (@AthlonMark)
The Pac-12 South is definitely shaping up to be one of the most interesting divisions in college football thanks to a coaching overhaul that has Chip Kelly returning to the conference as well as Kevin Sumlin and Herm Edwards joining the fraternity. How the changes will translate to success on the field for UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State, respectively, remains to be seen, but their arrivals should only add to the excitement and intrigue out west.
Looking at the “stable” teams, USC has to still be considered a threat even with all of the talent lost to the NFL draft. Utah appears to be in the best position to potentially capitalize on the turnover taking place elsewhere in the division, especially if the offense continues to improve. In the end, however, I am going to have to give the benefit of the doubt to the Trojans. Yes, they have to replace several key players, but the cupboard is far from bare for Clay Helton and his staff. Utah will get its shot at the defending champs at home, but in the end I think USC finds a way to finish ahead of the Utes in the standings.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
I feel like you might as well flip a coin, throw a dart or read some tarot cards because this is the definition of a toss-up division. In terms of overall talent, you would probably go with USC defending its title but this will be a young Trojans squad and I'm not sure whoever ends up at quarterback will be able to capably replace half of what Sam Darnold was able to do.
I think Chip Kelly will have UCLA become a pesky out but the Bruins are not quite ready for prime time and there's not much more that needs to be said about Herm Edwards and Arizona State. I think Kevin Sumlin will do wonders with Khalil Tate and the bulk of an Arizona squad returning but it really is now or never for Utah. The Utes get a tough cross-over slate with both Washington and Stanford but get most of their difficult games at home while also returning quite a bit on both sides of the ball. It might not be pretty, but somebody's got to win the South.
John Coon (@johncoonsports)
Utah is the only Pac-12 South team that has not claimed a division title since 2011. Everything lines up perfectly for the Utes to finally break through this season. All other teams in the division are either replacing multiple key playmakers or breaking in new coaching staffs. Utah returns a host of starters on both sides of the ball. The Utes have a dynamic quarterback in Tyler Huntley, a 1,000-yard rusher in Zack Moss, a deep and athletic secondary and the top special teams unit in the league. Utah’s experience and talent across the board will finally translate into its first trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
When Colorado shocked the college football world with its 2016 Pac-12 South title, this was the oft-repeated factoid that followed — Utah is the only program to never win the division since its 2011 inception. Well, the Utes can stop hearing that by the end of 2018. Kyle Whittingham's (above, right) built a consistent Pac-12 program behind defense and special teams, both of which will remain outstanding in the coming campaign.
But the hire of former Eastern Washington assistant Troy Taylor to oversee a more modern offense should pay dividends next season, with Tyler Huntley back healthy at quarterback and the returners having a year in Taylor's system to their credit. The Utes get each of the South's other two most likely contenders, USC and Arizona, at home in Rice-Eccles Stadium. That should make the difference in Utah's favor.
Josh Webb (@FightOnTwist)
The Pac-12 South is wide open headed into 2018. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that half of the teams have new head coaches at the helm. USC, with its returning talent, has to be one of the front-runners to repeat as division champs (not to mention defend its conference title), but there are still a number of question marks surrounding the quarterback position for the Trojans. All told, if there ever was a year for Utah to step in and win the conference, this is their year. UCLA is a wild card with Chip Kelly back in the Pac-12, but look for the Trojans and Utes to battle it out for the division title.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The Pac-12 South is one of the toughest divisions to sort out this preseason. I’m tempted to take Utah here, but the schedule is difficult with crossover games against Washington, Stanford and Oregon. Arizona has the easiest path to a division title and returns dynamic quarterback Khalil Tate. However, the Wildcats are still putting the right pieces into place on defense and beat only one team with a winning record in 2017. For now, I’ll take USC. The Trojans still have a talent advantage on the rest of the league, should be solid in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and won't have to play Washington and Oregon in crossover action.