Pac-12 Football: Way-Too-Early South Power Rankings
Competitive balance has defined the Pac-12 South since the conference's expansion in 2011. The division's had three teams end the regular season with the best record in as many years: USC in 2011, UCLA in 2012 and Arizona State last season.
However, the South has also played second fiddle to its North counterparts.
Teams from the North have won all three Pac-12 Championship games, and while Arizona State earned the conference's best league record this past season, Stanford ran roughshod over the Sun Devils in the 2013 title game. Indeed, the South is playing catch-up.
But the tide could turn in 2014. While teams from the South face more collective uncertainty than the North, the division's front-runner is a contender to take home the conference championship.
6. Colorado Buffaloes
Final 2013 Record: 4-8 (1-8 in the Pac-12)
Head coach Mike MacIntyre injected some life back into the desperately struggling Colorado football program in his first season, leading the Buffaloes to their best record in three years.
But the road back to relevance is still very long and arduous, and Colorado continues down it without its star player of 2013, wide receiver Paul Richardson, who is headed to the NFL draft.
MacIntyre said in his final press conference of 2013, via CUBuffs.com, that Richardson leaves a big hole. However, the Buffs have plenty of time to adjust.
[Losing Richardson] really hurts our offense if we had to go play a game tomorrow because we’re not as prepared. But good players leave everybody’s team every year. Of course, he’s an excellent player. We just have to find a way to fix it and move [on].
A collection of young players seeing prominent action in 2013 translates to a more seasoned lineup in 2014. Chief among that young core is quarterback Sefo Liufau, who took over the offensive reins midway through the season and showed flashes of brilliance.
Linebacker Addison Gillam was an immediate standout and earned Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America recognition.
Colorado is likely still another season or two away from landing its first bowl bid since 2007—now the conference's longest drought—but MacIntyre has the program headed in the right direction.
5. Utah Utes
Final 2013 Record: 5-7 (2-7 in the Pac-12)
Head coach Kyle Whittingham took Utah bowling in his first seven seasons as head coach, including the program's first as a member of the Pac-12. But the Utes have spent the last two postseasons at home, the result of consecutive 5-7 campaigns.
Losing quarterback Travis Wilson to injury midway through 2013 soured a promising start, which included the Utes' upset of conference champion Stanford and a road win over rival Brigham Young.
Both a finger injury and concussion limited Wilson immediately after the Stanford win, and it's no coincidence the Utes went 1-5 from that point forward.
New offensive coordinator Dave Christensen oversaw some high-scoring teams while in the same role at Missouri and as head coach of Wyoming. Big-play wide receiver Dres Anderson has big-time potential in Christensen's more open style, but Wilson's uncertain future presents a challenge.
Defense has long been the hallmark of Whittingham's Utah teams. Gone are end Trevor Reilly and tackle Tenny Palepoi, but end Nate Orchard, linebackers Jacoby Hale and Jared Norris and defensive back Eric Rowe give the 2014 Utes plenty of talent to remain one of the conference's stingier sides.
Snapping this bowl drought comes down to Utah finding its offensive identity.
4. Arizona Wildcats
Final 2013 Record: 8-5 (4-5 in the Pac-12)
Head coach Rich Rodriguez matched Arizona's single-season high win total from the previous 13 years in each of his first two campaigns. The next step is contending for the Pac-12 South title.
Arizona improved by leaps and bounds defensively in its second year under coordinator Jeff Casteel. Losing stalwarts Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers from the linebackers corps hurts, but the Wildcats are much deeper on defense than when Rodriguez arrived, thanks to his staff's recruiting efforts.
Youngsters like linebacker Scooby Wright and safety Will Parks—Defensive MVP of the AdvoCare V100 Bowl—made an impact in 2013 and will lead a group that should continue its improvement into its third season running Casteel's 3-3-5 stack formation.
Offense is rarely a concern for Rodriguez-coached teams, but the uncertainty Arizona faces on that side of the ball heading into the offseason is the difference between division contention and another season as an also-ran.
With All-American running back Ka'Deem Carey headed to the NFL, Arizona's offense will take on a decidedly different look. Projecting exactly what that look will be is a guessing game at present, as at least five running backs will vie to take over for Carey, and there are four possible contenders for the quarterback vacancy B.J. Denker leaves behind.
3. Arizona State Sun Devils
Final 2013 Record: 10-4 (8-1 in the Pac-12)
An ugly finish marred what was an otherwise stellar season for head coach Todd Graham in his second year leading the Sun Devils.
Arizona State finished the 2013 regular season with the best Pac-12 record and hosted the conference's title game. A seven-game win streak included a road win at UCLA, a blowout of Washington and a romp over rival Arizona to claim a second consecutive Territorial Cup.
However, the Sun Devils suffered a 24-point loss to Stanford just before a confounding 14-point setback to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl, an unfortunate send-off for Arizona State's many seniors.
Departures ravage Arizona State on defense. Will Sutton, Osahon Irabor, Alden Darby, Robert Nelson, Chris Young, Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway all exhausted their eligibility, and Carl Bradford entered his name into the NFL draft on Monday.
The offense could buoy Arizona State as the defense finds its bearings early, however. Quarterback Taylor Kelly was among the nation's most dangerous two-way threats, and wide receiver Jaelen Strong is among the conference's best targets when healthy.
Losing do-everything running back Marion Grice hurts, but D.J. Foster shined stepping into his role as a ball-carrying and pass-catching threat out of the backfield.
Defending their divisional crown is a matter of the Sun Devils getting new contributors—and a lot of them—ready to go quickly. Arizona State faces UCLA in a clash of the South's last two champions in the season's first month.
2. USC Trojans
Final 2013 Record: 10-4 (6-3 in the Pac-12)
Steve Sarkisian faces his share of question marks in his first year as USC head coach. The former Trojans offensive coordinator and Washington Huskies head man inherits a murky roster situation, the result of three years of NCAA sanctions limiting the program's scholarship availability.
The 2014 season carries the weight of three years of scholarship reductions. Sarkisian also lost five key contributors from the 10-win 2013 team, who opted to enter the NFL draft early: center Marcus Martin, wide receiver Marqise Lee, tight end Xavier Grimble, safety Dion Bailey and defensive end George Uko.
Nevertheless, the Trojans have enough talent both returning and coming in to make a run at their first Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. Quarterback Cody Kessler was more than effective by season's end, developing a chemistry with stud wide receiver Nelson Agholor that could develop into one of the premier pass-and-catch combinations in the nation.
USC also has a stable of talented running backs, on par with any group college football has to offer. Tre Madden and Buck Allen were both excellent in stretches as the primary ball-carrier, while power runner Ty Isaac and explosive Justin Davis offer varied looks.
Linebacker Hayes Pullard, who tweeted his intention to return for 2014 on Monday, and standout defensive end Leonard Williams will again anchor a defense that ranked No. 16 nationally in points allowed.
Depth will make or break USC's championship aspirations, which means Sarkisian must bring along 247Sports.com's No. 19-ranked class quickly.
1. UCLA Bruins
Final 2013 Record: 10-3 (6-3 in the Pac-12)
Quarterback Brett Hundley's decision to return to UCLA for his redshirt junior season catapulted the Bruins into the Top 10 of early 2014 rankings and generated a buzz around the program not felt in many years.
How many years? Try 60. Hundley addressed UCLA faithful at a Bruins basketball game against Arizona on Jan. 9, saying he hopes to win a national championship, a feat not accomplished there since 1954.
UCLA certainly won't waltz to a national championship or even the Pac-12 South crown. The Bruins are the division's only team that draws North opponents Oregon, Stanford and Washington, a murderer's row that promises to test the Bruins' mettle.
And, though Hundley is back, there are gaps still to be filled.
Hundley will play behind a more seasoned offensive line, which began coming into its own with three freshmen starting by season's end. However, anchor Xavier Su'a-Filo opted to enter May's NFL draft. The Bruins also lost Torian White to indefinite suspension shortly after injury cut his campaign short.
Shaquelle Evans, the most consistent target in the passing game, is gone, and the injury-plagued corps of running backs never quite had anyone take the reins Johnathan Franklin left behind.
UCLA also loses one of the most high-impact performers in college football, linebacker Anthony Barr, as well as hard-hitting middle linebacker Jordan Zumwalt.
No, it won't be a cakewalk for UCLA. But there's no doubt that the Bruins look like front-runners on paper.
Mora has recruited exceptionally well—for evidence, look no further than the outstanding play of linebacker Myles Jack, the Pac-12's Defensive and Offensive Freshman of the Year. Jack was the face of a 2013 freshman class, 18 of whom played at some point.
That group of 18 includes defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes, who played a prominent role down the stretch. The offensive line trio of Caleb Benenoch, Scott Quessenberry and Alex Redmond also has invaluable experience, which should translate to a more confident Hundley operating in the pocket.