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Duck Dive: Updates and Predictions for the Pac-12 South

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Going deep with personnel changes and projecting every Pac-12 game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Oregon at USC Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every week this summer from the middle of June through the beginning of September, I published a Duck Dive article on each Pac-12 team. Those articles included podcast interviews with knowledgeable publishers, thorough roster reviews, and win total predictions with information that was current at the time. Since publication, both the schedule and available personnel have changed at every school.

In my opinion, those changes haven’t fundamentally altered what I believe will be the order of finish in the Pac-12, because the teams I projected to do better were the teams best situated to handle unforeseen losses. But for the sake of posterity (and putting down markers for accountability), this article and tomorrow’s follow-up about the Pac-12 North will provide comprehensive personnel updates and win predictions.


USC TROJANS

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 UCLA at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

USC unavailabilities since July 7th, 2020

OFFENSE DEFENSE
OFFENSE DEFENSE
OL Frank Martin opt-out DL Jacob Lichtenstein opt-out
OL Bernard Schirmer opt-out DL Trevor Trout injury
WR Munir McClain suspension DL Jay Tufele opt-out
TE Ethan Rae injury ILB Jordan Iosefa surgery
ILB Solomon Tuliaupupu surgery
ILB Eli'Jah Winston injury

Since publication, USC’s #75 OL Vera-Tucker opted out and then back in again, which was a relief to the Trojans because he’s probably their best returning lineman, although he’ll be playing out of position at left tackle instead of guard. I think the losses of the 4-star Martin and the Juco Schirmer are significant, however - Martin was one of surprisingly few USC linemen rated above a 3-star, and Schirmer was one of very few experienced players. They were already thin at offensive line — Alicia had a great line about it quoted in the original article — and these departures further the issue that USC really can’t afford a single o-line injury.

McClain’s story is crazy, involving a federal investigation into unemployment benefits and a student protest. I don’t know if it’ll be cleared up before they play, and the fact that Coach Helton has suspended him compounds a surprisingly thin WR room. USC has only seven available scholarship receivers on the roster in an offense that usually wants to put four on the field. Three are excellent returners and two more are 4-stars (untested but probably very good too), but an injury to anybody but slot receiver and they will by necessity play a 3-star who’s never seen the field.

On the defense, I still think the bigger story is that new DC Orlando’s structure is a big change from former DC Pendergast’s. That would create issues in a pandemic season even if I thought that they had the right personnel for a 3-4 or that Orlando would reduce explosive plays surrendered (and I don’t, to either question). Tufele is a big loss, he was probably my favorite of their interior DLs. I think Lichtenstein and Trout would have been backups, but USC could have really used that depth given that they’re moving their best DL from last year, #99 DE Jackson, to OLB.

The starters at inside linebacker are probably fine with #1 ILB Gaoteote and #26 ILB Mauga, but the three guys they’ve lost to injury were my top three candidates for the backup spots and now I think they’re vulnerable in terms of depth, with a lot of untested 3-stars at second string. They’ve moved 4-star #19 DB Scott to ILB to help; hard to say if he’s ready for the change.

USC Predictions

Even with the departures, this remains the most talented team in the league on paper. I’m not a fan of the head coach (seems like USC fans aren’t either) and I’ve documented a couple years of roster management problems. I think they have a formula to win, but it’s becoming clear that there’s a formula to beat them, too. They’re surprisingly thin at a few spots (WR, OL, ILB) especially after their recent departures, I’m not convinced the change of the entire defensive scheme and coaching staff will go smoothly, and I don’t think this is a well enough run team to win every game that they should and go undefeated. I’ll pick their chilly late-November visit to Salt Lake City as their trip-up game: the home team is 9-1 in that series dating back to World War II.

Projected record: 5-1, with a road loss at Utah


ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS

Arizona v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Arizona State unavailabilities since July 21st, 2020

OFFENSE DEFENSE
OFFENSE DEFENSE
WR Elijhah Badger ineligible
WR Jordan Kerley opt-out

The Sun Devils’ 2020 recruiting class included four blue chip wide receivers, and given their personnel losses there over the last two years, I had assumed they would get most of the reps as true freshman. But between Badger’s academic ineligibility and the recent depth chart release, it looks like they’re going a different direction - featuring one experienced returner in #84 WR Darby, another far less experienced returner in #19 WR Pearsall, and only putting two of those four 2020 recruits on the depth chart at all and filling the rest of the spots out with inexperienced and modest talents.

The depth chart appears to confirm what I suspected about new OC Hill from Boise St, that he’s converting the offense to a heavy 12-personnel offense from the spread attack over the last several years (I didn’t care for former OC Likens’ execution of it but I thought it was a better schematic fit for this talent). There are two different TE/FB type positions (Y and F) listed on the chart, filled in with modest talents I wasn’t too impressed with in film study in previous years … that may be why they brought in the unranked transfers of #80 TE Horn and #87 TE Stivers from UMass and Harvard, respectively, though they aren’t high on the depth chart.

Defensively, I haven’t seen any personnel changes, although as Hod and I discussed on the podcast it does appear that new co-DCs Pierce and Lewis are in fact changing the structure to a 4-3. I’m not convinced this is a great move during a pandemic and given that they haven’t been recruiting for a four-down front or for the linebacker responsibilities it entails, and it sacrifices one of the DBs on the field from a secondary that many ASU fans believe is their strongest unit.

ASU Predictions

The Sun Devils will be implementing scheme changes on both sides of the ball, and are going up against an overall more talented team on the road in the opener. Every edge I can think of goes USC’s way so I agree with Vegas and think they’ll fall short at USC. I like ASU against Cal because the frontline talent is just much better and I think any depth problems they encounter (especially at offensive line, which I think may be the worst situation in the league) won’t have hit them by that point. The rest of ASU’s schedule is so far behind them in talent that even if some of the problems I’ve noted become a factor, they should be able to overpower the rest of the South. Their toughest game is against Utah but they get it at home; I think they hang on in that one because I don’t trust Utah’s entirely new secondary against ASU’s talent in the passing game, but it should be interesting.

Projected record: 5-1, with a road loss at USC and nail-biter wins vs Cal and Utah


UTAH UTES

Utah v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Utah unavailabilities since August 24th, 2020

OFFENSE DEFENSE
OFFENSE DEFENSE
WR Jaylen Dixon transfer CB Bronson Boyd transfer
RB TJ Green transfer DB RJ Hubert injury

Utah had six WRs with at least 150 receiving yards last year (they really distributed the ball evenly), and probably would have had a seventh if #18 WR Covey hadn’t gotten injured. Between graduations, suspensions, Dixon’s transfer, and getting Covey back, they’re down to four experienced WRs on the 2020 squad. On the recently released depth chart, they only list those four plus an untested walk-on in the receiver spots - that’s perilously thin depth. On the other hand, losing Green isn’t really a big deal - he was a fourth stringer last year and Utah returns two guys ahead of him, plus they have two good-looking freshmen who could fill in if they need depth.

The offensive line in that depth chart looks like one of the scenarios that I predicted in the original article, but not the happiest one for the Utes. It would appear that their best looking prospect, #77 OL Olaseni, hasn’t won a job as a tackle and instead is a backup guard. They’ve moved last year’s starting right guard to left tackle, which I have my doubts about, and will have a new starting RG plus four backups who have virtually no game experience.

As I noted back in August I hadn’t expected Boyd or Hubert to play, and after scanning the depth chart the rest of the defense appears to have played out as Scott and I saw it then.

Utah predictions

It’s tempting to write this team off because they lost so much - almost all the defense and much of the offense including the three most important players. But I think it’s a high-floor team since they’ve got multiple decent options at all the skill positions. Even though the offensive line wasn’t great last year, I’d still take their experience over some of the really problematic units of the opponents that they’ll face. On defense they replace just about everybody except the defensive ends and one linebacker, but I expect the coaching continuity and identity of this team to keep the step back from being enormous. I think that’s worth three wins over teams that are at or below their level, plus a surprise upset. But it’s still a step back and I think they’ll struggle with some teams that they put away easily last year.

Projected record: 4-2, with an upset of USC at home, a loss at ASU, and splitting OSU (home) & Colorado (away on a Friday in the snow)


COLORADO BUFFALOES

Washington v Colorado Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Colorado unavailabilities since June 19th, 2020

OFFENSE DEFENSE
OFFENSE DEFENSE
QB Blake Stenstrom transfer LB Jash Allen transfer
TE Luke Stillwell injury LB Chase Newman transfer
TE Jake Peters not on roster
RB Alex Fontenot injury

Colorado was the only Pac-12 school to avoid any serious opt-outs or transfers, but they still ended up with two of the least encouraging news items over the last week. First, they announced the starting quarterback will be a guy that neither Jack nor I saw coming, #4 QB Noyer, who had converted to safety and at one point hopped in the transfer portal after very limited and unimpressive playing time. I’m not sure what that says about the true freshman I was hoping would win the job, #12 QB Lewis who’s now listed third on the depth chart, or new Coach Dorrell’s boldness.

Second, apparently Fontenot is injured, and not only was he CU’s leading rusher but I had projected an offense built around his hard-running style and lots of heavy 12-personnel sets. We also learned that Stillwell is injured and Peters seems to have never completed his transfer from Arizona, putting a damper on that prospect.

The rest of the team seems to have played out as Jack and I saw it way back in June - the offensive line appears stable, the wide receiver room has some promising returners, the front seven looks like a real strength, and the secondary a big question mark.

Colorado predictions

Odd to say with two new head coaches in as many years, but there’s a lot of continuity on this team. Most of the roster is filled with veterans or at least experienced players from last year, they’ve sorted out their o-line issues which have really been hurting them the last couple years, and their coordinators and several position coaches have been at Colorado for a while. It’s not a high talent team but I like several of their pieces, especially on defense, and I think their continuity comes at a premium in a pandemic year. The QB and RB situations are troubling, but if they turn out to be at least manageable, I think the Buffs are better situated than most of the lower half of the league.

Projected record: 3-3, with wins against UCLA & Arizona, losses to USC & ASU, and splitting Stanford on the road & Utah at home


UCLA BRUINS

UCLA v. USC Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

UCLA unavailabilities since August 4th, 2020

OFFENSE DEFENSE
OFFENSE DEFENSE
OT Jake Burton transfer DL Steven Mason suspension
RB Jahmon McClendon transfer DL Martin Andrus injury
WR Ethan Fernea one-game sit LB/DL Sitiveni Kaufusi injury

There haven’t been many changes since my preview, but they’re all negative. I thought the keys to UCLA fixing its offense were making a change at QB, strengthening the OL, and simplifying the playbook … and the opposite of each appears to be happening.

UCLA released a depth chart this week, but it was quickly dismissed by most of the media covering this beat as deceptive since it refers to a 3-4 defense that no one thinks the Bruins will actually employ in 2020. On the offense, it backs up what Coach Kelly said last month about moving a transfer QB to WR and entrenching the problematic #1 QB Thompson-Robinson as starter, which David was emphatic about when we talked … in fact, true freshman 4-star #9 QB McQuarrie isn’t even listed; both backups are walk-ons.

It appears there’s no hope of fixing the other two systemic problems David and I discussed, which are the offensive line and the bizarrely complex and ever-shifting playbook. Burton was probably their most reliable lineman and the new depth chart lists a walk-on at center as well as severely undersized guards. And according to Thompson-Robinson, the playbook has gotten even bigger.

On defense, most observers believe the Bruins have switched to a 4-2-5. Here’s a rundown from 24/7 on what they believe the actual depth chart will be - the important part is that they believe the Bruins will convert six low-to-mid 3-star OLBs to DEs, two Jucos and four freshmen, who have seven combined FBS tackles between them in their careers.

The rest of 24/7’s projected roster reads similarly to my original article, which was not rosy.

UCLA predictions

The Bruins still have some talent on the roster that Kelly hasn’t run off yet, enough to be the third most talented team in the division. As such, I think they have a few winnable games on the schedule against a very weak South. But they’re simply too mismanaged to get more than one, and they draw Oregon in Autzen from the North.

Projected record: 1-5, with a win vs Arizona at home


ARIZONA WILDCATS

Arizona v Oregon Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Arizona unavailabilities since July 16th, 2020

OFFENSE DEFENSE
OFFENSE DEFENSE
OL Edgar Burrola suspended LB Tony Fields transfer
WR Jalen Johnson suspended LB Colin Schooler transfer
WR Brenden Schooler transfer LB Kylan Wilborn transfer
WR Jaden Mitchell injury LB Jack Koceman opt-out
RB Bam Smith transfer DE JB Brown opt-out
RB Frank Brown injury

On the day I published my Arizona preview saying that at least the Wildcats had their linebacker situation squared away, Fields announced his transfer out of the program, followed soon thereafter by Schooler and Wilborn … meaning all three of their 2017 Freshmen All-Americans had left the program.

Defensively, I think this program will be a mess. They’re undergoing a scheme change to a 3-4 under new DC Rhoads, which won’t be as radical of a shift from the 3-3-5 they’ve been running for years as the 4-3 he’d employed for much of his career. But in the recently released depth chart, I recognize very few of the eight backers listed after all those departures. Given how poorly Arizona recruits I doubt this will go well.

The offense should be better off. I think #17 QB Gunnell is a bright spot - he was fifth in the league in passer rating last year and I think is a much better fit for OC Mazzone’s scheme. Their losses at the skill positions are manageable, and the OL got some good news when #78 OT Laie decided to opt back in which should mean a stable and experienced starting group (if quite short on talent).

Arizona predictions

With the lowest talent level in the league and starting from scratch on defense, I expect opponents to score at will against the Wildcats. The offense has some promising signs but I simply don’t think it’ll be good enough to win the inevitable shootouts.

Projected record: 0-6


Poll

Who will win the Pac-12 South?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Arizona
    (1 vote)
  • 18%
    Arizona State
    (33 votes)
  • 10%
    Utah
    (18 votes)
  • 6%
    Colorado
    (11 votes)
  • 63%
    USC
    (113 votes)
  • 1%
    UCLA
    (2 votes)
178 votes total Vote Now