Power Ranking the Best Teams in the Pac-12 South
It can't be ignored.
After years of hoopla claiming that the SEC is the dominant college football conference, the recent success of teams on the West Coast has folks starting to take notice of powerhouse programs in the Pac-12.
Over the last several years, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA have all stepped up, while sanctions have forced former annual national title contender USC to take a few steps back.
With the hiring and firing of several coaches, the dynamic within the Pac-12 continues to evolve, and teams that were once discounted as underachievers have begun to rise to prominence.
Let's take a look at the best and worst South Division teams heading into the 2014 season, as well my pick for the division winner.
6. Utah Utes
Whoever picked the Utes' 2014 schedule clearly didn't want them to win many (if any) games.
The season opens on an easy note at home against the Idaho State Bengals but then immediately ramps up against teams that have had far more success than the Utes in recent years.
Fresno State is next up on the slate, which has been a dominant force in the Mountain West Conference the past several years. The Bulldogs will likely be hungry for a win against a Pac-12 team after their embarrassing bowl loss to USC, and they might just upset the Utes at home.
Utah will then take a road trip to square off against the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor, who, despite a few lackluster years, could easily handle the Utes on their home turf.
The conference schedule includes games at Stanford, UCLA and Arizona State, and the Utes will be facing some of the conference's most talented teams in Oregon and USC at home.
The real question is whether or not Kyle Whittingham will pull off enough wins to retain his position as head coach in 2015.
5. Arizona Wildcats
This may be a controversial call, but the Wildcats are coming in second to last on the countdown.
This may upset Arizona fans, but it could take a few more years for Rich Rodriguez to turn things around in Tucson and get to that coveted Rose Bowl that the Cats have never seen.
After a spring game that leaves the team with more questions than answers in terms of a starting quarterback, Rich Rod will have to "speed" things up to find continued success in the desert—especially with the departure of All-American running back Ka'Deem Carey, who declared for the NFL during the offseason.
The team should easily handle its nonconference games but may find itself up a creek without a paddle when it gets deeper into its schedule against Oregon, USC and UCLA.
The Wildcats' season will end as usual against the Arizona State Sun Devils but this time at home in Arizona Stadium.
The last two games belong to the Sun Devils, and if the Wildcats' play resembles anything from last year, they will lose out yet again to their hated rivals.
4. Colorado Buffaloes
The Colorado Buffaloes may not be a bastion of success just yet, but first-year head coach Mike MacIntyre led them to a four-win season in 2013, after they suffered through the 2012 season with only one win.
The team will be facing some rocky roads, however, considering they will face off against this countdown's top three teams: USC, UCLA and ASU, and two of those games will be played away from the Buffaloes' home turf.
MacIntyre has done this before, leading San Jose State from a 1-12 season in 2010 to a 10-2 season in 2012, as well as the school's only end-of-season BCS ranking, coming in at No. 24. His success at the helm of SJSU's program led to his hiring as the Buffaloes' head coach.
Only time will tell if he can bring his magic to Colorado, but with a solid recruiting class and a slightly favorable schedule, the Buffaloes may just make it to their first bowl game in the MacIntyre era.
Another controversial call: I'm putting UCLA behind ASU and USC.
Though Jim Mora has led the Bruins to incredible success in the Pac-12, they may find themselves having a hard time competing with their crosstown rival USC when it comes to recruiting. Tough times may be ahead for UCLA with the hiring of Steve Sarkisian and the possible resurgence of USC.
UCLA has also never been able to get over the hump of beating Stanford since Mora's hiring, and the shootout against Arizona State at home last season ended with the ASU defense completely shutting down UCLA's offense.
That being said, all three teams are on the rise, and Mora has led UCLA to a 19-8 record in his two short years with the team. He also has an abundance of returning talent on both sides of the ball, with Heisman hopeful Brett Hundley at quarterback and Myles Jack, who played both offense and defense last season, focusing solely on the latter in 2013.
Only time will tell who the best football team in Los Angeles is, but I'm predicting USC to be the front-runner.
Are the Trojans finally back?
After years of sanctions imposed by the NCAA (which are still in place, though they will only last through 2014) and a mostly disastrous campaign led by Lane Kiffin, things may be finally looking up in Troy.
Kiffin, who was fired after an embarrassing blowout loss at Arizona State, was succeeded by Ed Orgeron as interim head coach. Despite the controversy, USC's players showed their true grit and ended the season with 10 wins.
The hiring of Steve Sarkisian will be the start of an interesting era at USC. He completely turned around Washington football, and even though he was never able to beat Stanford or Oregon during his tenure, he could easily turn USC into a contender for the Pac-12 South, as well as the conference championship.
A top-notch recruiter, he was able to pull 5-star recruits John Smith and Adoree Jackson' away from other top programs, which included Notre Dame, Oregon, LSU and UCLA. His last-minute recruiting efforts earned USC the No. 1 recruiting class in the Pac-12.
While Sarkisian is still a question mark, his work thus far has already made him a hero at USC, and his talent pool should be more than capable of executing whatever plays he decides to call come game day.
1. Arizona State
Is Todd Graham the best coach in the Pac-12? Ronnie Lott seems to think so.
Though Graham has been criticized for leaving schools quickly after arriving, he seems to have found a home at Arizona State and has brought his ideals of hard work and discipline with him. He has turned the once underachieving Sun Devils into a formidable force in the Pac-12 South.
After one short season at Pitt, he arrived in Tempe with a vision: to turn Arizona State into a powerhouse football team.
Thus far, he has made good on his promise.
After a mediocre 6-7 campaign led by then-head coach Dennis Erickson in 2011, Graham turned the team around and guided it to the first winning record since 2007. His 2012 record was 8-5, followed by a 10-4 record in 2013. The Sun Devils' unexpected success last season also led them to win their first Pac-12 South Championship, with an 8-1 conference record.
Unfortunately, the success of the 2013 campaign ended on a down note, with a loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game, followed by an upset by Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.
Following the loss to Texas Tech, Graham did what any good coach would do, putting the blame on himself and his staff rather than blaming at his players.
Despite poor play at the end of the 2013 campaign, he remains positive about the upcoming season. Though he will have to replace nine defensive starters, Graham and Co. will return an arsenal of weapons on offense, which should prove to be one of the most prolific in the country.
Heisman dark-horse candidate Taylor Kelly, wide receiver Jaelen Strong and All-American running back D.J. Foster are all returning in 2014, along with a slew of top-rated incoming recruits. With the returnees and new faces, Arizona State could be one of the best in the country.
While any of the top three teams in this countdown could be the Pac-12 South champion, Arizona State has the coaching staff and returning players who are most likely to make it happen again.
Note: Star rankings obtained from Rivals.com.