Somewhere along the line, Steve Sarkisian picked up the nickname “Seven-Win Sark” (lately, he is more appropriately associated with “Cutty Sark”), and its originator didn’t mean that as a compliment. But after winning nine games last year in his first year as head coach of the USC Trojans, Sarkisian has all the pieces necessary to win the Pac-12 South and make a run at a national championship (provided, of course, he doesn’t mix his meds with alcohol).
Pac-12 media members predicted in August that USC would ultimately emerge as the class of the conference, but the Trojans first must navigate their own division, probably the toughest in college football.
The South is loaded with contenders. While USC is favored, Arizona State, UCLA and Arizona have the pieces to win. No one should count out Utah, either. Count out Colorado, which has no chance, but that means the South is a five-way fight, just as it was a year ago when Arizona surprisingly won the division.
Four of the five – No. 10 USC, No. 14 UCLA, No. 16 Arizona State and No. 22 Arizona – will open the season ranked in the top 25 of the ESPN/Coaches poll. If form holds, these teams will spend the season beating up on each other.
However, if Sarkisian finally emerges as good an in-game coach as he is a recruiter — he’s never been great in-game — USC is the pick to win.
This is how we forecast the division:
1. USC (9-4 last year)
Two years after abandoning the Washington Huskies to return to USC, where he served as an assistant under Pete Carroll (2001-03, ’05-08), Sarkisian will preside over the Pac-12 title favorite. Although they lost six players in the NFL draft, the Trojans return 14 starters. The headliner is quarterback Cody Kessler, who directed an offense that averaged 35.8 points in 2014.
Kessler is surrounded by some of the conference’s top line and receiving talent. Scoring won’t be an issue. But defense will be. The Trojans lost All-America end Leonard Williams to the NFL. The Trojans need to show improvement after allowing more than 400 yards per game. Even if the Trojans don’t improve much defensively, they still have sufficient talent to win at least nine games.
USC has won 19 contests over the past two years while losing eight, and five of those eight came by less than a touchdown. Two of the five occurred last year, on an Arizona State Hail Mary and a Utah TD with eight clicks on the clock. Blame both on coaching and strategy errors. Put another way, blame Sarkisian for dubious decision-making.
A senior, Kessler is a weapon for which USC opponents won’t have an answer.
Overshadowed in the Pac-12 last year by Mariota, Kessler is a Heisman candidate himself after completing 69.7 percent of his passes while tossing 39 touchdowns against five interceptions.
This year, with Nelson Agholor and George Farmer gone, Kessler will have a less-experienced receiving corps. JuJu Smith-Schuster will likely be Kessler’s primary target after catching 54 passes for 724 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman.
USC’s most intriguing player is sophomore Adoree’ Jackson, a cornerback and special-teamer who could also be used as a wide receiver, making him USC’s first three-way player in nearly 20 years. The Trojans are already touting Jackson as a candidate for the Heisman, Thorpe and Hornung awards.
In addition, USC sports a massive offensive line and veteran defense. And did we mention that USC had the nation’s No. 2 2015 recruiting class, according to composite rankings?
The Trojans have a soft non-conference slate (Arkansas State, Idaho), but face a rugged run after that: Stanford, at Arizona State, Washington, at Notre Dame and Utah. For good measure, the Trojans play their regular-season penultimate at Oregon Nov. 21.
USC has the talent the run the gauntlet, but will become a national title contender only if coordinator Justin Wilcox can improve the defense, mauled by Boston College, Arizona State and UCLA last year.
2. Arizona State (10-3-0)
In three seasons in Tempe, head coach Todd Graham has transformed the ASU program into one that routinely produces 10-win seasons, and 2015 should be no different despite the graduation loss of Taylor Kelly, a three-year starter at quarterback. That’s because Graham will hand the ball to Mike Bercovici, who demonstrated in three relief appearances last year that he can be elite.
That’s also true because Arizona State returns 12 starters, including seven on defense, from a 10-3 team that defeated Duke 36-31 in the Sun Bowl and finished 12th in the final Associated Press poll.
Although Bercovici started only three games while Kelly sat with injuries, he threw for 1,445 yards and 12 touchdowns, saving his best performance for his first career start, against UCLA Sept. 25. Setting school records for completions and attempts, Bercovici went 42-for-68 for 488 yards and three touchdowns. Or maybe the USC game was his best: Bercovici threw for 510 and five TDs.
Even with such explosive numbers, Graham will lean a lot on dual threat D.J. Foster (nine rushing TDs, three receiving) and a trio of outstanding backs, Demario Richard, Kalen Ballage and Gump Hayes. A freshman last year, Richard rushed for 487 yards and four TDs and led all Sun Devil backs in yards per carry with 5.7.
ASU has question marks at wide receiver and offensive tackle, but enough overall talent – Graham calls this “ASU’s best team ever” — to contend for the Pac-12 title if it can successfully negotiate a daunting schedule.
The Sun Devils open at Texas A&M and play three of their first four conference games against USC, UCLA and Utah. If ASU emerges from that stretch relatively unscathed, they play three of their final five at home, and the two road games are at Cal and Washington State.
3. UCLA (10-3-0)
UCLA won 10 games for the third consecutive season in 2014 and finished as the No. 10 team in the final AP poll. But the sense in Westwood was that the Bruins underachieved, given the manner in which they struggled against lesser opponents (California, Colorado, Washington) and gagged against Stanford (31-10) at the Rose Bowl with the South Division title on the line on the final weekend of conference play.
UCLA’s key player, quarterback Brett Hundley, has moved to the NFL. Mora was left to choose, leaving coach Jim Mora to choose for 2015 between red-shirt junior Jerry Neuheisel, who orchestrated a victory over Texas last year in Hundley’s injury absence, or 18-year-old five-star recruit Josh Rosen, a true freshman from Manhattan Beach, CA.
Late last week Mora chose Rosen, given his superior arm, upside in the program and the fact he ran an offense similar to UCLA’s while in high school. Rosen inherited a bounty. Not only does UCLA return 17 of 22 starters from the 10th-ranked team in the nation, 13 of the 17 earned at least honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2014. With that much talent, UCLA seems primed to win the league title.
Given UCLA’s inexperience at quarterback, Mora is expected to emphasize the run and make junior Paul Perkins, who started 11 of 13 games last year, the focal point of his offense. Perkins produced 1,575 yards, an average of 121.2, and scored nine touchdowns last year.
Mora made one significant staff addition during the offseason, hiring defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who has 35 years of coaching experience, including 30 at Penn State, and comes to the Bruins from West Virginia, where he was associate head coach. Mora has assigned Bradley the task of transforming the UCLA defense into a more cohesive unit.
Bradley’s best player should be junior Myles Jack of Bellevue, who will move from outside to inside linebacker in an attempt to get him closer to the ball and increase his chances of making plays. Jack, who saw spot duty as a runner on offense the past two years, is a 230-pounder strong enough to stuff the run and fast enough to cover receivers.
UCLA gets one schedule break: it won’t have to face Oregon in a division crossover game. The Bruins will, however, play four of their toughest games – Arizona, Stanford, Utah and USC – away from the Rose Bowl. The Bruins will also be on the road three times in November, when division titles are determined.
But it won’t take until November to size up UCLA. The Bruins draw Arizona and Arizona State in their first two conference games, and their fate rests with a freshman quarterback.
4. Arizona (10-4-0)
Under fourth-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, and following years of mediocrity, Arizona has joined the conference elites. Last year, the Wildcats won 10 games, claimed the South Division title and recorded their first AP Top 25 finish since the “Desert Swarm” days of the late 1990s. The question now is whether Rodriguez and the ‘Cats can take the next step after losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.
All indications are positive. Arizona faces a favorable schedule, features an offense that should average 40 points per game and a defense competitive with the best in the conference.
Arizona opens with UT-San Antonio before traveling to Reno to play Nevada and entertaining Northern Arizona in Tucson. By Sept. 26, the Wildcats should be 3-0 when they host UCLA. If they can beat the Bruins, the Wildcats will become an early South Division favorite and Rose Bowl contender.
After that, Arizona’s toughest stretch will come in Week 9 and Week 10 when the Wildcats play at Washington and USC. While Arizona’s schedule does not include a bye, the Wildcats avoid Oregon and will have an extra week off to prepare for the Pac-12 title game if they get that far.
They should come close behind sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon and weapons such as sophomore RB Nick Wilson and junior WR Cayleb Jones.
Solomon, the first holdover QB starter at Arizona since Nick Foles in 2010-11, threw for 3,793 yards and 28 TDs in his first year of directing Rodriguez’s up-tempo offense. Jones, who caught 73 passes for 1,019 yards and nine touchdowns last year, has the size and speed to stretch the field and abuse defensive backs. Wilson ran for 1,375 yards (105.8 average) and 16 touchdowns.
Even with glittering stats, Arizona’s offense could be more efficient. Last year, the Wildcats averaged 34.5 points despite ranking 89th nationally in third-down conversions and 86th in red zone TD percentage. With a year under his belt, Solomon should be able to lead the offense to 40 points per game even with an offensive line that will feature three new starters.
Junior LB Scooby Wright is not only Arizona’s best defensive player, he’s one of the best in the country. After recording a monstrous 163 tackles, including 29 for loss and 14 sacks last year, Wright won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Lombardi Award and Chuck Bednarik Award, all presented to the nation’s top defender.
Behind Wright, Arizona will have a new-look secondary, in which Williams Parks and Jarvis McCall are the only returning regulars. Expected to join them in a five-man group are sophomore CB Cam Denson, senior FS Jamar Allah and junior S Tellas Jones.
Under Rodriguez, Arizona has won 26 games in three seasons, most in any three-year period in school history. He has what appears to be his best team. It will have to play 12 consecutive weeks without a bye, but if the Wildcats can win their first four they will be well on their way to closing the deal.
5. Utah (9-4-0)
Head coach Kyle Whittingham is probably feeling very good, if not great, about his team’s prospects for 2015. The Utes are coming off their best campaign as conference member (9-4), and return key operatives from a club that routed Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl and finished No. 21 in the Associated Press poll.
On the other hand, both defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen bolted the program in lateral moves, Sitake striking out for Oregon State, Christensen for Texas A&M. Utah will have its eighth offensive coordinator in eight years this fall, calling into question whether the Utes can maintain momentum.
Although the Utes open at home against Michigan and a 10-win Utah State team before traveling to Fresno State, they have a reasonably good chance to start 3-0. Once conference play commences, the Utes will probably be favored against California, Oregon State, Washington and Colorado. It’s the remaining five that will define this Whittingham team: Home contests with Arizona State and UCLA and road games at Oregon, USC and Arizona.
The Utes finished second in the Pac-12 in total defense last year (393.5 yards per game), fourth in scoring defense (24.9 points), and had the best special teams in the country. But Utah also had the worst passing offense in the Pac-12 at 197.7 yards per game, ranked eighth in scoring (31.3) and last in yards per play (5.3).
Travis Wilson, whose erratic play twice cost him the starting job last year before he regained it late in the season, is the presumptive No. 1 quarterback after posting respectable numbers: 18 touchdowns, only five interceptions, a 60.7 completion percentage. This year, Wilson’s primary target figures to be senior Kenneth Scott, who caught 49 balls for four touchdowns last year.
With the graduation losses of three other veteran receivers, sophomores Jameson Field and Kenric Young will get their chances.
One of Utah’s primary offensive weapons is senior running back Devontae Booker, who amassed 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and could contend for the conference rushing title if an offensive line anchored by Isaac Asiata and center Siaosi Aiono continues to improve.
Defensively, the Utes lost Ted Hendricks Award winner Nate Orchard (18.5 sacks), but get back linebacker Jared Norris (116 tackles, 13 for loss), DE Hunter Dimick (10 sacks) and DT Lowell Lotulelei, one of the conference’s best run stuffers.
If the Utes take care of business in games in which they will be favored, and then win two of five against Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA, Arizona and USC, they’ve got a great shot at a major bowl game and another national ranking.
6. Colorado (2-10-0)
Five teams from the Pac-12 South won at least nine games last year. Colorado lost to all of them. The Buffaloes not only play all five again (Arizona, ASU, USC. UCLA, Utah), they also draw Oregon (13-2), Colorado State (10-3) and Stanford (8-5). Might as well phone in the season, right?
Colorado won only two games (2-10) in head coach Mike MacIntyre’s second season and went winless in conference play (0-9) for the first time in 99 years. At the root of those sorry stats: The Buffaloes ranked 102nd nationally in rushing defense (204.8 yards per game), 116th in scoring defense (39.0) and might have gone 0-12 if they hadn’t ranked 40th – up from 90th in 2013 — in total offensive yards per game (439.2).
While Colorado’s bottom line was grim, it wasn’t as grim as would appear. Four of the Buffaloes’ nine league defeats came by five points or fewer, including double-overtime losses to California (59-56) and UCLA (40-37).
This year, Colorado will face a pair of nasty three-game stretches: Oregon (3), Arizona (19) and Arizona State (12) from Oct. 3-17, and UCLA (10), Stanford and USC (20) from Oct. 31-Nov. 13. All but Stanford finished on the Associated Press Top-25 list last year and the Cardinal is expected to top last year’s uncharacteristic 8-5.
But Colorado starts with a favorable non-conference slate: Hawaii, Massachusetts, Colorado State and Nicholls State, giving the Buffaloes a window to establish some momentum, especially with many of their key players returning.
Junior Sefo Liufau will start at quarterback, hoping to build on his sophomore success. He threw for 3,200 yards and 28 touchdowns while completing 65.5 percent of his passes and set or tied 39 single-game, season or career records. Liufau’s main focus will be cutting down on his 15 interceptions that led the Pac-12.
Liufau’s primary target again will be All-America Nelson Spruce, a looming No. 1 NFL draft pick who caught 112 passes for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
No matter how good Liufau and Spruce are, the Colorado defense requires a total re-boot. The Buffaloes have allowed at least 30 points in a game for five consecutive years, which is why MacIntyre brought former South Florida coach Jim Leavitt in as his new defensive coordinator.
Given Colorado’s record last year, this is either good or bad: Leavitt will inherit the team’s five leading tacklers from a year ago, including linebackers Kenneth Olugbode and Addison Gillam who had 70 and 64 tackles, respectively. Gillam also topped the team in tackles for loss with nine. The Buffaloes also return DL Josh Tupou, a three-year starter.
Colorado has an effective offense, but unless Leavitt can get the defense to generate more than the 11 turnovers it forced last year, the Buffaloes are looking at three or four wins and the possibility of another winless mark in Pac-12 play.
Tuesday: Pac-12 North