Sean and I are here to pick the season win totals for the southern division in the PAC-12. In the podcasts I broke down some more features of each team but I had to get off the fence for these picks.
Arizona - 5.5 - UNDER
Arizona had some bad luck last year, including close losses and injuries, that resulted in a 3-9 season. They do miss both Stanford and Washington from the North Division, and have 7 starters back on each side of the ball. I think they are better than last year's 3-9, but I think they just miss out on a bowl.
Arizona State - 5 - OVER
After a couple of weird sub-.500 years, the Sun Devils get back to a bowl game. (Or else Todd Graham is probably out.) Solid depth at QB and an always-dangerous skill group give them offensive firepower, and the defense has some good returners on the front 7. Feels like a 7-5 team to me.
Colorado - 7.5 - UNDER
Colorado's magical 2016 reached its high water mark in the Pac-12 Championship Game, where they were simply out-talented by Washington. The blowout loss to Oklahoma State didn't help. CU's strength last year came on the back of its marvelous defense, but the Buffs lose a ton of experience: only 3 starters back, plus loss of DC Jim Leavitt to Oregon. Their offense never really impressed me last year (never over 350 yards) and I think they take a slight step back offensively. I really like my home-state Buffs, but not to the tune of an 8-4 year.
UCLA - 6.5 - OVER
If only because we have seen flashes of brilliance from Josh Rosen, and this is literally his year to show up or sit down. Offense should be remarkably better than 2016 if only because of that, and because UCLA seems to always find a talented and durable running back. Mora has recruited vey well defensively during his tenure, so even with only 6 starters back on defense I think they'll hang right in there. A Week 1 win over Texas A&M would put them way ahead of the 6.5 over/under estimate.
USC - 9.5 - OVER
I seriously toyed with taking the under here. But I looked at the schedule, and there are really only 3 defensive backfields that can challenge San Darnold: Stanford, Texas, and Notre Dame. USC should have their way offensively with everyone else on the schedule. Their toughest road game is with Notre Dame, and they avoid late-season trap games. I hope for more parity in the Pac-12 South, but I reluctantly think USC is a 10-win team.
Utah - 6.5 - OVER
Utah's excellent defense will not drop off, and I think the hiring of Eastern Washington's Troy Taylor as OC will spark an offense that has always been an afterthought in Salt Lake City. 6.5 seems low, so I'll take the over.
Arizona - 5.5 UNDER
I think this is Rich Rodriguez’s last year. Many coaches have anonymously said that they think he has lost it. Just three years ago they played for the PAC-12 title game and now Rodriguez is looking to be on his way out. Last year they had only three wins, with their only conference win being over Arizona State in the Territorial Cup. In that game they went 3-8 passing for 77 guards but had 48 carries for 511 yards.
Last year they were crushed by injuries on offense having to play three quarterbacks. Brandon Dawkins returns as the starting quarterback and will be protected by four returning starters on the offensive line.
On defense they have seven starters returning, but I’m not sure how valuable that is given how terrible the defense was last year. They are a really small group in the front seven. They miss Washington and Stanford out of the north so they don’t have to face two teams that would undeniably take advantage of the size disadvantage.
Ultimately, this is a one-dimensional team to me that has struggled to get any kind of a passing attack going. I think their opponents are going to be able to take advantage of the passing deficiency. They get Northern Arizona and Oregon State at home, which are two of their best chances to win, but have to travel to UTEP the week before taking on Utah on consecutive Fridays. It’s tough finding six wins on this schedule.
Arizona State – 5 UNDER
Head coach Todd Graham is coaching on the last year of his contract. He brings on a new coordinator to run the offense and has replaced a lot of position coaches the last few years. When things go bad the first people to go are position coaches. The second people to go are coordinators. The last people to go are the head coaches. Right now, the Sun Devils may be looking at finding a new coach as they look to become bowl-eligible again.
The offense brings back seven starters, three of whom are on the offensive line. At the time that I’m writing this, Graham has said that returning starter quarterback Manny Wilkins is likely to keep his spot heading into this year. There is a logjam of quarterbacks who took starts last year because of injuries and now Alabama transfer Blake Barnett transfers in to add more competition.
The Sun Devils rarely struggle on offense, which is why defense will most likely be the determining factor in the success of their season. They blitz more than anybody else in the conference, but the last two years they have been burned much more than in the past. They have six starters back but it could be that the conference has figured out how to prepare for it and that the defense just hasn’t evolved to present new wrinkles to confuse opposing quarterbacks and coordinators.
They have tricky games to start the year facing San Diego State at home and then the next week travelling to Texas Tech. October could be a big turning point for the Sun Devils. They have a bye week before taking on Washington, visiting Utah, and then hosting USC.
Colorado - 7.5 UNDER
The Buffs are the definition for a regression team. They lose nine starters on a very senior-heavy and talented defense that sent many to the NFL and their defensive coordinator parted for a big payday at Oregon. They have Ricky Gamboa back at linebacker and Ryan Moeller and Afolabi Laguda returning at the safety positions.
The bright side is that the offense has nine starters back. Star quarterback Sofu Liufau graduated and Steven Montez will fill the void. Montez started a couple games last year and performed well. Their offense will not be the problem this year.
USC and washington visit Folsom Field, which unfortunately means a lot of the easy wins are on the road where some games could be dropped to underdogs. Another factor to consider is that the Buffs first bye week is November 18th, after they take on USC at home and before they visit Utah to close the regular season.
UCLA - 6.5 OVER
On the podcast I was very skeptical of the Bruins and Utes but it’s time to get off the fence and plant a flag. UCLA has nine starters back on offense and six back on defense. Assuming Josh Rosen stays healthy the entire year the Bruins should be much better passing, which in turn could help improve on the abysmal rushing attack where they only topped 100 yards in four games. They have six starters back on defense, two on each of the three levels.
The Bruins had four close losses last year and a challenging schedule this year. They open with Texas A&M on the first Sunday followed by a rising Hawai’i team before traveling to Memphis and playing a very dangerous Tiger squad. They have to travel to Stanford, washington, Utah, and USC. I think they can get wins over Hawai’i, Memphis, Arizona, Arizona State, and Cal. They only have to find two more wins and by virtue of me picking the over I think they’ll beat Utah on the road.
USC - 9.5 OVER
The Trojans were last seen topping Penn State in one of the most exciting games of the last few years. They started the 2016 season 1-3 before finishing on a 9-win streak with a big win over eventual conference champion, washington.
Sam Darnold leads the offense in his second season as starter and has two starters back on the line to protect him. Despite losing three starters the Trojans have more career starts now on the line than last year. Running back Ronald Jones also return. While the offense only has 5 starters back in total the guys filling the spots are some of the top recruits out of high school.
On defense they have seven starters back: three on the front line, two players at the second level, and two defensive backs. The lines were the reason the Trojans were able to take care of Washington the way they did. This year they get Stanford at home and miss washington. Troy has dropped 8 of the last 11 to Stanford but could turn the tide this year by getting a much better start than they did last year. They’ll be favorites in every game and looking at their schedule there’s no way they drop three games.
Utah - 6.5 UNDER
The Utes had a lot of close games last year. They had four wins where they won by only one possession but also had 4 losses that were decided by a single score. There are a lot of starters missing from last year’s team though. Only four guys are back on offense and five are back on defense.
The defense has historically been the best part of the team. They have studs all along the front four that terrorize opposing quarterbacks, earning the nickname “Sack Lake City.” Their defense could be stressed this year based on the offense in traditional statistics. We could potentially see the team identity change.
On offense, quarterback Troy Williams is back, for better and for worse. He brings experience but also had a 53.1% completion rate and 15 touchdowns to 8 interceptions. There’s a new offensive coordinator who is coming from Eastern Washington who wants to spread out the offense and speed it up. The offense could live and die with Williams and I’m skeptical.