As the 2015 college football season commences, there is a Pac-12 program that returns 14 starters — including its quarterback, star tailback, leading receiver and four offensive linemen — from a squad that finished last season with a 9-4 record.
That team is Utah. And for all of the reasonable optimism that might be felt in Salt Lake City this season, the media who cover the conference voted the Utes to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South — ahead of lowly Colorado, and nobody else.
Why? It’s simple: the Pac-12 South might be the most talented, competitive division in any major college football conference this season.
And the North, while still boasting a top-10 Oregon team — goodbye Marcus Mariota, but hey there, Vernon Adams — and No. 21 Stanford, appears to lack the depth and star power of the South.
USC, the media’s pick to win the Pac-12 championship, possesses a blend of talented veterans (Cody Kessler, Su’a Cravens) and young stars (Adoree’ Jackson, Juju Smith-Schuster).
Arizona State, picked to finish second, has an experienced defense, a fifth-year senior quarterback (Mike Bercovici) and several offensive playmakers.
“Our talent, our speed, our physicality is all at a different level,” ASU coach Todd Graham said, “but so is everybody else. This is one of the most competitive places to be in the country.”
UCLA, picked to finish third, is loaded with returning stars, too — tailback Paul Perkins, linebacker Myles Jack, receiver Jordan Payton — and might have been the favorite to win the conference if not for the departure of star quarterback Brett Hundley (and the subsequent installment of true freshman Josh Rosen as the new starter).
Even the Arizona Wildcats, picked to finish fourth, are ranked 22nd nationally and, oh yeah: they won the South Division last season.
But, as Bruins coach Jim Mora noted at Pac-12 Football Media Days, the North has owned the conference championship in recent years. Oregon and Stanford have combined to win the past six titles, four of which required a victory against a South team in the Pac-12 title game.
“I think as a whole, the Pac-12 is tremendously competitive,” Mora said. “It's hard for me to anoint the Pac-12 South. We haven't even won the Pac-12 championship in years. But I can tell you, whoever comes out of the Pac-12 South representing the South in the Pac-12 championship game will have earned it, day-in and day-out, week-in and week-out on that field, because it's going to be as challenging as it gets.”
So, what accounts for the apparent shift from North to South? Part of the equation, certainly, is that teams such as Arizona, ASU and UCLA that hired new coaches prior to the 2012 season now have established foundations upon which to build.
And, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said, there’s a commitment to football at those schools that might not have existed before.
“Everybody's putting money into the programs, reinvesting in football, so to speak,” Rodriguez said. “I think a lot of the talent that's been out West that maybe had left the western part of the country, going somewhere else, is now staying out here because they see that commitment.
“We're one of them. But the other schools in our division and in our league are doing it. So I think the Pac-12 South is probably going to be better this year than it's ever been ... and I think it's going to stay that way into the future.”
Last season, preseason Pac-12 talk centered around the league’s wealth of quarterback talent, with Mariota and Hundley at the forefront. But this batch of passers isn’t bad, either: USC’s Cody Kessler is probably the headliner, with Cal’s Jared Goff, Adams, Bercovici, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and Arizona’s Anu Solomon not far behind.
And, of course, until a Pac-12 South team knocks off Oregon or Stanford — those teams, not surprisingly, were picked to finish first and second in the North — in the Pac-12 title game, it’s hard to truly declare that the balance of power has shifted.
But it should be fun, regardless, to watch those teams beat up on each other every week.
“One game could be the difference between second place or fifth place or third place or fourth place,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “That's how tight it was last year, and it very well could repeat itself.”