UCLA was the Pac-12's surprise team last year after the Bruins won the South for the second consecutive season—the only difference is that last season the Bruins didn't back into the Pac-12 Championship Game as they had in 2011.
This season could see an even more competitive Pac-12 South, with at least three teams serious contenders for that division's crown.
The Arizona Wildcats return all 11 starters from their defense and that in itself is a reason to tip the scales toward Tucson, Az. Some pundits may point out that returning an entire unit that finished last in total defense in the Pac-12 is no reason to celebrate. But last year was the team's first under new head coach Rich Rodriguez and it will have now had a year to adjust to all of the changes.
This is also a team with so much upside. Arizona did beat Oklahoma State, Washington and USC last year, and it had Stanford on the ropes until losing 54-48 in overtime. There were some blowouts as well; Arizona lost 49-0 to Oregon and 66-10 to UCLA.
But this team will surprise some Pac-12 teams (and its fans) this season.
Offensively, the Wildcats lose quarterback Matt Scott, the Pac-12's most prolific passer in 2012, but they do have Jesse Scroggins waiting in the wings. Scroggins originally played as backup to Matt Barkley at USC, but went the JUCO route for a year before getting picked up by Arizona.
Where will Arizona finish in the Pac-12 South?
Scroggins was originally looking for a pro-style offense while he was a senior in high school. From Scout:
"I'm looking for a pro-style offense, everything is about pro-style and getting you ready for the next level after college," said Scroggins. "A pro-style offense and a great academic background is what I'm looking for, because I want to major in business or sports medicine."
It'll be interesting to see how Scroggins performs under Rodriguez' spread-option, but it's worth noting that Scroggins isn't a pocket passer with two feet mimicking anchors—he has quick feet and can dance around the backfield to buy some time. If scouting reports are any indication, Scroggins may be ready to flourish. Rivals' recruiting analyst Barry Every said this about Scroggins over three years ago:
A definite redshirt will be in store for him allowing him physically mature. I would not expect him to get any meaningful playing time until his third year in a program.
Running back Ka'Deem Carey returns on the offense and while other Pac-12 running backs were receiving accolades from media members across the country, Carey got a little ignored. Carey was the nation's leading rusher in 2012, rushing for 1,929 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Except for a couple holes on the offensive line and replacing receiver Dan Buckner, the Wildcats should be one of the more experienced teams in FBS.
The Wildcats have a decidedly softer non-conference schedule this year, as well. Last year, Arizona played Toledo, Oklahoma State and South Carolina State—this year, it plays Northern Arizona, UNLV and UTSA before traveling to Washington for its conference opener on Sept. 28.
With the newness of Rich Rodriguez now a distant memory, Arizona will be strongly challenging both USC and UCLA for the Pac-12 South.