The Pac-12 South football race widened as 2018 began. This week’s upheaval in the division was both unsurprising, with quarterbacks Sam Darnold of USC and Josh Rosen of UCLA departing for the NFL, and stunning, with Rich Rodriguez being fired as Arizona’s coach.
What does it all mean for Utah? Undoubtedly, the Utes will be picked among the South’s top teams going into the season – again.
The Utes earned some distinction as the Pac-12′s only bowl winners of 2017. Yet their modest success with a 7-6 overall record came after they were picked to finish second in the official media poll and ended up fifth in the South with a 3-6 conference mark. So if they’re picked second or so again, which is very possible, they’ll have to do a better job of living up to that expectation.
The Pac-12′s scheduling rotation hurt the Utes in 2017, and that logically will be the case again next year. Utah didn’t play Oregon State and California, the North’s worst two teams. The Utes went 3-2 against their South rivals, but were 0-4 against the North. That’s why they finished fifth in their division, and that’s also why next season’s forecast is complicated. Theoretically, the Utes could sweep their South opponents, but finish only 5-4 and fail to win the division title.
So they have to figure out a way to pick off a couple of wins among those four games: home vs. Washington and Oregon, away vs. Washington State and Stanford.
Having said that, the weakening of their South opponents can only be good for the Utes. Utah plays Arizona, USC and UCLA in a three-week stretch of October. Rodriguez’s firing, stemming mainly from his personal conduct off the field, creates some unknowns for the Wildcats. Arizona’s offense is built around quarterback Khalil Tate, who took the job soon after the Wildcats lost to Utah in September, and the new coach certainly would want to tailor his scheme to Tate’s skills. But the coaching change has to be disruptive.
USC probably will be picked to repeat as the division champion, but the Trojans appear shockingly unprepared to replace Darnold (USC also is losing running back Ronald Jones II to the NFL). UCLA already was unsettled before Rosen left, with coach Chip Kelly replacing Jim Mora, and nobody’s sure what the Bruins’ offense will look like in 2018. Arizona State is a mystery with coach Herm Edwards and a new offensive coordinator.
So the changing landscape elsewhere has to be viewed as favorable to Utah, with the bulk of its personnel returning and the coaching staff intact. The next step is for the Utes to improve, aside from merely hoping their opponents get worse.