Sparky, the Sun Devil mascot
Arizona State may be the next team to throw the Pac-12 South into chaos.
Bring it. Chaos is good for college football.
The UCLA Bruins have been back-to-back South champions ever since the league began holding a conference championship in 2011. It hasn't been much of a championship game.
USC was expected to be the best South team in 2011 and it was. Due to NCAA sanctions, the Trojans were ineligible to play in the inaugural 2011 Pac-12 Championship.
UCLA backed its way in to the conference championship like a cement truck. With grinding gears and lurching movement, the gutty little Bruins were gutted 49-31 by the the Oregon Ducks in the conference championship.
Last year's 7-5 regular season record took USC out of the 2012 Pac-12 Championship and into the Sun Bowl debacle. The South's heavyweight had been reduced to a bantamweight.
UCLA improved greatly in 2012 under new head coach Jim Mora but it still had some ugly games. UCLA lost 35-17 to Stanford in its last regular season game. The following week UCLA out-passed and out-rushed the Cardinal in the Pac-12 Championship. The Bruins missed a 52-yard field goal which would have sent the game into an epic overtime. Stanford won 27-24.
This year we may see neither UCLA nor USC in the Pac-12 Championship.
Preseason polls are scarce right now but Phil Steele has his Top 40 out. USC is ranked No. 7 and UCLA is ranked No. 31. Arizona State is ranked No. 27.
Even after playing in two Pac-12 championships, UCLA is still not getting respect. Losing 50-0 to rival USC and still playing for the 2011 Pac-12 title the following week probably didn't help its credibility.
USC, on the other hand, may be getting too much respect after last season's gut-wrenching dog-and-pony show. Switched jerseys, under-inflated balls, tiffs with reporters, clock mismanagement, a matador-style rushing defense against an ACC team that had to get a waiver to be bowl eligible...you get the picture.
What shot does Arizona State have of punching its way to the conference championship? It will have to win the South.
Only two South teams play both Oregon and Stanford—UCLA and Utah—which means (spoiler alert) they'll probably have at least two losses this season.
The Utes are still getting their feet wet as Pac-12 members but they are getting ballsy. They scheduled Stanford for Homecoming.
UCLA gets a mid-season shock treatment with back-to-back road trips at Stanford and at Oregon. Maybe they will have recovered from their date with Cornhusker Nation in Lincoln, Nebraska on September 14. Maybe not.
Arizona returns almost everyone from its defense which is good news. If its defense does not improve upon last year's performances, then it is bad news.
USC's offense looks loaded behind an unknown quarterback but its cornerbacks are a definite weakness. Trojan fans might as well get used to seeing scores like 58-45 if the secondary does not improve.
Colorado is...Colorado. 'Nuff said.
This leaves us with the fly in the ointment: Arizona State.
If USC and UCLA beat Arizona State then the South Champion will likely be the winner of the USC vs UCLA game. If the Sun Devils split their two games against USC and UCLA, things get dicey.
It is easy to resolve a tie between two teams when both play each other. The conference's first tie-breaker is head-to-head competition.
But what if a three-team tie between USC, UCLA and Arizona State occurred in the South? The Team A beats Team B, Team B beats Team C and Team C beats Team A scenario is a nightmare. Ask the Big 12 or Big Ten.
Arizona State is good enough to win the South—its defense will be stifling. Its pass rush will resemble a hot knife slicing through butter. The offense is loaded featuring quarterback Taylor Kelly and running back Marion Grice.
The Sun Devils look ready to move on from the eras of Larry Marmie-Bruce Snyder-Dirk Koetter-Dennis Erickson. Head coach Todd Graham already has a higher winning percentage than any of them.
If it can survive a tough four-game stretch of Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame at Arlington, Tex., all systems are go until mid-November when Arizona State plays Oregon State, at UCLA and Arizona.
Everything points to a breakout season for Arizona State. It must beat Wisconsin, Stanford and Notre Dame to impress pollsters quickly. Stronger competition from within a division also bolsters the league's credibility.
The devil is in the details.
Let the chaos commence.