Colorado was a popular pick to finish fifth or even sixth in the Pac-12 South. So the Buffaloes' status as the division’s only unbeaten football team through three games is either a compliment to them or a commentary about the other schools.
“Maybe all those people that have them at the bottom of the league don’t know what they’re talking about,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said this week.
By that logic, questions should be raised about those who picked Kelly’s Bruins to finish fourth in the South in the Pac-12′s official media poll — with two first-place votes, placing them ahead of Colorado and Arizona State. So far, UCLA is 0-3.
Although most teams have yet to play a conference game, the mid-September trend of Pac-12 football is unmistakable: The South is down. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s description of the division race is “wide open,” a nice way of saying there’s no great team. ESPN’s Football Power Index suggests the division winner could have a 5-4 conference record.
The so-so South ESPN Football Power Index’s updated, projected win totals for Pac-12 South teams (with current records): Utah 7.2 (2-1). USC 6.8 (1-2). Colorado 6.7 (3-0). Arizona State 6.6 (2-1). Arizona 4.8 (1-2). UCLA 2.3 (0-3).
The downturn comes after the South featured five AP Top 25 teams (everybody except Colorado) in November 2014 and received some endorsements as the best division in college football, at least challenging the SEC West. These days, ESPN’s preseason ranking of the South as the worst of the nine divisions in Power Five conferences appears accurate.
Just try making a case for any team as the favorite, at this point.
USC? The Trojans were held to minus-5 rushing yards in a 37-14 loss at Texas, falling to 1-2. UCLA? Kelly’s team is 0-3 for the first time since 1971 and ranks No. 115 in total offense. Utah? The Utes, like USC, have totaled 17 offensive points in their last two games. Arizona? The Wildcats were ripped by Houston. Arizona State? With a chance to go 3-0, the Sun Devils struggled in the middle two quarters at San Diego State. Colorado? The Buffs are unbeaten, but their win at Nebraska was devalued when Troy did the same thing a week later.
USC last season became the first South team to win the Pac-12 title since the conference’s expansion in 2011. But no team from the South is in this week’s AP Top 25. That also happened in September 2016, before USC, Colorado and Utah eventually moved into the rankings.
So there’s time for one or more teams to emerge. More likely, the analytics say, the divisional rivals will knock off one another to the degree that a 6-3 league record probably will be good enough to win the South title — as in 2015, when USC claimed the tiebreaker over Utah.
The Football Power Index projects roughly five conference wins each for USC, Utah, ASU and Colorado. USC is given a slight edge, although the Trojans' overall projection of 6.8 wins is lower than Utah’s 7.2, because Notre Dame remains on USC’s nonconference schedule.
The experience of 2016, when USC started 1-3 (including a loss at Utah) and then won nine straight games, is somewhat encouraging to coach Clay Helton. USC’s veteran players “know the start of a season doesn’t dictate how you finish,” he said.
Freshman quarterback JT Daniels may improve the way Sam Darnold did as a redshirt freshman two years ago. The Trojans also have two disclaimers: They already faced No. 7 Stanford and they haven’t inflated their record by playing an FCS opponent, as Utah and Colorado have.
Oregon State’s presence on USC’s schedule presumably is a factor in the Trojans' favor, as USC skips Oregon and Washington again this season in the conference’s rotation. OSU could play a role in the South race; if the Beavers beat any of their four crossover opponents (Arizona, ASU, Colorado or USC), that would help Utah.
The Utes are done with Washington, but they must play Stanford and Oregon, giving them the most difficult schedule of the perceived contenders.
Arizona State is a wild card in the South race. The only possible explanation for the Sun Devils' being picked last in the South is the voters' derision of coach Herm Edwards' hiring. ASU went 6-3 in conference play last season and returned the league’s best receiver (N’Keal Harry) and a top-tier quarterback (Manny Wilkins). Yet, it was assumed that Edwards would mess up the operation in his return to coaching. That hasn’t happened, even though ASU lost at San Diego State after upsetting Michigan State.