Pac-12 preview: USC, Utah bring plenty of intrigue

NCAAF

The school soccer world is altering in fairly just a few overdue methods. The NIL saga has been made as sloppy and dramatic as possible, partly due to an entire lack of regulation on the NCAA stage, however it nonetheless represents an enormous step ahead for the rights of athletes. The enlargement of the Faculty Soccer Playoff … nicely … I’ll assume that it nonetheless occurs in some unspecified time in the future even when the method for increasing it has turned out every bit as messy as NIL. (It is nearly like there is not any one in command of faculty soccer or one thing!)

There are lots extra fights to return on the subject of reshaping the game’s future, however within the meantime we have a minimum of determined to examine a straightforward field. Final week, the NCAA introduced it might permit conferences with championship video games to ditch divisions and permit its prime two groups to play in stated title recreation; inside minutes, the Pac-12 announced it might be doing simply that and beginning in 2022. This yr’s Pac-12 championship recreation individuals would be the two groups with one of the best convention document.

For the needs of this preview collection, we’ll hold the division construction, nevertheless: South this week, North subsequent week. The 2022 schedules are nonetheless primarily based on these divisions, in any case. So whereas it is doable (however extremely inconceivable) that nobody from this group of six groups performs for the Pac-12 title in Las Vegas on Dec. 2, let’s speak in regards to the artist previously often known as the Pac-12 South.

Earlier previews: MWC West | MWC Mountain | AAC (Nos. 6-11) | AAC (Nos. 1-5) | MAC East | MAC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | Conference USA (Nos. 6-11) | Conference USA (No. 1-5) | Independents


2021 recap

The Pac-12 South did not lack for plot in 2021, although most of it was discouraging. UCLA started the season with flashy wins over Hawai’i and LSU, and rapidly jumped to thirteenth within the AP ballot, solely to lose to Fresno State, fall out of the polls and end a strong however unspectacular 8-4. USC fired Clay Helton two weeks into the season, wobbled for some time, then collapsed to 4-8. Arizona State began 5-1 and climbed into the highest 20 however misplaced 4 of seven down the stretch. Arizona and Colorado, in the meantime, went 1-1 in opposition to one another, 1-1 in opposition to FCS groups and 3-17 in opposition to everybody else.

Utah, nevertheless, simply stored getting higher. The Utes started the season 1-2 however received 9 of 10 after Cameron Rising took over at quarterback. They beat USC by 16 and UCLA by 20, then stomped Oregon twice by a mixed 76-17 to win the Pac-12. They practically received a basic Rose Bowl in opposition to Ohio State, too. It was a ray of daylight in a cruddy yr for the Pac-12, and it arrange Utah as an awfully attention-grabbing crew for 2022.


2022 projections

(For additional context, Oregon is the one Pac-12 North crew with a projected convention win whole greater than 5.0, so the South ought to certainly produce a minimum of one of many groups within the Pac-12 championship recreation. And it is extra seemingly than the North to provide each groups.)

SP+ tasks UCLA and Arizona State in a limbo of kinds. UCLA would possibly replicate final yr’s efficiency except its protection improves, and ASU has seen such dramatic roster turnover in key areas that the Solar Devils are moderately unattainable to mission in the meanwhile. (Arizona and Colorado: simpler to mission.)

Essentially the most attention-grabbing groups right here, nevertheless, are Utah and USC. The Utes have by no means completed greater than twelfth in SP+ beneath Kyle Whittingham, however that is the place they begin in 2022. And USC is even more durable to mission than ASU.

Lincoln Riley’s first Trojans crew has taken on 18 transfers and counting, together with star quarterback Caleb Williams (Oklahoma) and defending Biletnikoff-winning receiver Jordan Addison (Pitt). However USC graded out horribly final season, and a depressing protection hasn’t taken on the identical sort of star-power improve. Protection will nearly definitely forestall the Trojans from residing as much as burgeoning preseason expectations, however they may nearly definitely exceed the meager SP+ projections.


Burning questions

Will this be Whittingham’s finest Utah crew? Seventeen years in the past, City Meyer left Utah for Florida; his defensive coordinator, Whittingham, a holdover from the Ron McBride period, stayed behind to pilot the ship. It is protected to say he has completed it nicely. The Utes went 13-0 in 2008 and earned a transfer from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 in 2011. After some stumbles, they’ve risen to the problem, successful two South titles up to now 4 years and taking the Pac-12 crown final fall. They’ve completed most of this and not using a nice offense — from 2005 to ’18, the Utes averaged a 54.4 rating in offensive SP+.

In 2019, nevertheless, Whittingham rediscovered his offensive soulmate: coordinator Andy Ludwig. Utah’s OC from 2005 to ’08, Ludwig developed some new tips over time, and beneath his watch the Utes’ offense has ranked sixteenth, thirtieth and 14th the previous three years. Beginning with Utah’s 42-26 win over USC on Oct. 9, Rising, a Texas switch, was the No. 5 quarterback within the FBS, per Whole QBR, finishing 65% of his passes and averaging 7.9 yards per non-sack carry. Utah averaged 39 factors per recreation over its final 10. Rising is again, as are main rusher Tavion Thomas, big-play receiver Devaughn Vele, dynamite tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid, and a good 60% of final yr’s offensive line begins.

Utah most likely will not subject its finest protection this yr, however it should not be a legal responsibility. Six starters are gone, however the duo of finish Van Fillinger and deal with Junior Tafuna up entrance, linebacker Gabe Reid (a Stanford switch) and ace corners Clark Phillips III and Zemaiah Vaughn guarantee a stage of star energy. Sophomores, equivalent to rover Karene Reid and security Cole Bishop, may very well be prepared for star turns. Line depth is a priority, however this ought to be a reasonably typical Utah protection. Combining that with probably the greatest QBs within the nation appears like an awfully tantalizing mixture.

Has the switch portal fastened a dismal USC protection? In his most up-to-date Way-Too-Early Top 25 (possibly simply an early prime 25 at this level?), colleague Mark Schlabach ranked USC fourth within the nation. It is not prefer it would not make some sense. Lincoln Riley, essentially the most profitable under-40 coach in faculty soccer, has come to city from Oklahoma, and he introduced quarterback Caleb Williams with him. Addison, Mario Williams (additionally from OU) and different transfers might crew with holdovers Tahj Washington and Gary Bryant Jr. to kind an absurd receiving corps. Former Oregon working again Travis Dye is an improve, too, and the road might begin 4 seniors, together with all-conference left deal with Andrew Vorhees. The Trojans are nearly assured to exceed the No. 24 offensive projection above.

They will must play protection, too, although. That may not go as nicely.

USC has fielded just one top-20 protection, per SP+, up to now eight years. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who got here from Oklahoma with Riley, fielded a top-15 unit in 2020, however his different two at OU ranked forty eighth and 58th. When he is bought the fitting attackers in his entrance six, Grinch can unleash a relentless and extremely enjoyable protection. When he would not, they simply get burned rather a lot.

In defensive finish Solomon Byrd (Wyoming) and linebackers Eric Gentry (Arizona State), Romello Height (Auburn) and Shane Lee (Alabama), USC has definitely added some switch firepower to go alongside deal with Tuli Tuipulotu. However is it sufficient? And might a totally redesigned secondary — 5 of final yr’s prime six are gone, although nickel Max Williams (injured in 2021) and transfers Mekhi Blackmon (Colorado cornerback) and Bryson Shaw (Ohio State security) are additions — maintain up even when the attackers up entrance are creating havoc? These solutions will decide whether or not USC exceeds these projections by just a little or rather a lot.

Talking of poor defenses … will UCLA’s be any higher? When Chip Kelly likes working with somebody, he retains doing it. His defensive coordinator over his first 4 seasons at UCLA was Jerry Azzinaro, who was his line of defense coach at Oregon (2009-12) and with each the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles (2013-15) and San Francisco 49ers (2016). Sadly, UCLA averaged an 86.0 rating in defensive SP+ and peaked at solely 76th final yr. The Bruins blitzed continuously (seventh in blitzes per dropback) however hardly ever bought residence (a hundredth in sack price), and whereas a protected secondary largely restricted huge performs, they continuously fell sufferer to each strong run video games and quick-passing video games.

Azzinaro resigned in January, however Kelly nonetheless wished an skilled hand: He selected Invoice McGovern, his OLBs coach at Philadelphia and a university assistant for about three-quarters of his practically 40-year teaching profession. He has primarily been a linebackers coach, and he has some thrilling gamers to educate. Kelly introduced in 4 linebacker transfers — North Texas sophomores Gabriel and Grayson Murphy (a mixed 15.5 sacks, 22 run stuffs), Hawaii’s Darius Muasau (seven and 14 in these classes) and former Washington blue-chipper Laiatu Latu. Throw in Wyoming nook Azizi Hearn, and the Bruins did some good portal work. That was needed, as 9 of final yr’s prime 12 defenders, by way of snap counts, are gone. There’s large change on this aspect of the ball.

It could be a disgrace if poor protection once more wrecked what may very well be a fantastic offense. The Bruins have been twelfth in offensive SP+ in 2021, they usually have a veteran assault helmed by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and 1,100-yard rusher Zach Charbonnet. Three line starters are gone, however Kelly added Rutgers deal with Raiqwon O’Neal to what’s nonetheless a veteran unit. The highest three receivers are gone, however once more the portal might have offered assist: Duke’s Jake Bobo and UCF’s Titus Mokiao-Atimalala are strong choices. It may be tough to exchange dynamite tight finish Greg Dulcich, however the offense ought to nonetheless be wonderful. It is as soon as once more the protection that may very well be an issue.

What’s left of the Arizona State offense? Jayden Daniels handing the ball to Rachaad White, ceaselessly working himself behind the all-conference duo of left guard Dohnovan West and left deal with Kellen Diesch and throwing to Ricky Pearsall, LV Bunkley-Shelton and White, all with performs known as by Zak Hill. That was the Arizona State offense in 2021, and it labored fairly nicely. The Solar Devils ranked first nationally in speeding success price and sixth in three-and-out proportion; a scarcity of huge performs stalled some drives and resulted in a No. 36 rating in offensive SP+, however with Daniels and his receivers scheduled to return, together with backup working again DeaMonte Trayanum, that appeared like one thing to construct round.

Not one of the folks within the earlier paragraph are taking part in or teaching for Herm Edwards’ Solar Devils in 2022. Hill and lots of different assistants, together with defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce, resigned due to findings of NCAA violations, and quite a lot of starters on each side of the ball transferred. ASU has fallen from thirty second in returning manufacturing in February to 93rd at this time, and whereas switch portal additions have helped hold the expertise stage afloat — amongst them are quarterbacks Emory Jones (Florida) and Paul Tyson (Alabama), working again Xazavian Valladay (Wyoming), offensive guard Chris Martinez (SDSU), defensive deal with Nesta Jade Silvera (Miami) and nickel Khoury Bethley (Hawaii) — the turnover has been immense.

The protection nonetheless has depth up entrance and playmakers in linebackers Kyle Soelle and Merlin Robertson, however the offense is ranging from scratch, proper right down to offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas, who joined this system in February. Jones (or Tyson) and the duo of Valladay and Daniyel Ngata might kind a strong backfield, however the receiving corps is unproven and one of the best linemen are gone. There would possibly nonetheless be a top-50 crew right here, however it’s laborious to say that with confidence.

Was final yr a low level for Arizona and Colorado (or does it get decrease)? We name this a development:

Arizona, 2012-14: 0.650 win proportion, 39.0 common SP+ rating

Arizona, 2015-18: 0.440 win proportion, 65.8 common SP+ rating

Arizona, 2019-21: 0.172 win proportion, 103.0 common SP+ rating

The Wildcats have received one recreation for the reason that begin of the abbreviated 2020 season. The protection hasn’t ranked within the prime 60 since 2014, and after a sustained run of high quality, the offense plummeted to 119th final yr. Second-year head coach Jedd Fisch did not inherit a lot and did not do a lot with what he inherited.

In the meantime, since popping out of nowhere to win 10 video games and a South title in 2016, Colorado has received both 4 or 5 video games yearly since. Granted, that features a 4-2 document in 2020, however even that was a bit on the lucky aspect — the Buffaloes have been outscored by 19 factors and ranked simply 67th in SP+ that yr.

After a long term of mediocre play, the underside dropped out in 2021. The Buffs plummeted to 104th in SP+. The protection was sometimes respectable, however the offense averaged 15.6 factors per recreation in opposition to opponents who weren’t Arizona or from FCS. Expertise ranges are strong this yr, however nearly no returnee stood out statistically, and from the angle of pure recruiting rankings, that is barely a power-conference roster. In Karl Dorrell’s third season in cost, Colorado isn’t a projected favourite in a single recreation.

Arizona would not have far more from a expertise perspective, however the switch portal brings hope. Washington State switch Jayden de Laura was a minimum of a mean quarterback final season, and former UTEP receiver Jacob Cowing is without doubt one of the finest deep threats within the nation. New defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen would not inherit a lot, however the secondary is skilled and aggressive.

Hope is relative, nevertheless. Neither crew is projected to win greater than 3.3 video games on common. There is a good distance again to competitiveness right here.


My 10 favourite gamers

It most likely says one thing that there have been just a few thrilling quarterbacks to select from and nearly no standout defensive linemen.

QB Cameron Rising, Utah. He started 2021 on the bench and ended it as probably the greatest quarterbacks in America. And he is bought a hell of a supporting solid round him this yr.

QB Caleb Williams, USC. As a real freshman at Oklahoma, Williams accomplished 65% of his passes with 21 TDs to 4 INTs. And whereas he would not run usually, he averages practically 10 yards per carry when he does. Actual deal.

RB Zach Charbonnet, UCLA. The 220-pounder rushed for 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns final yr. He’s a scary sight within the open subject, and Chip Kelly’s offense places him within the open subject fairly a bit.

WR Jacob Cowing, Arizona. In a play-action heavy UTEP assault, the senior from Maricopa, Arizona, wanted solely 69 receptions to realize 1,354 yards and rating seven occasions. He instantly turns into one of the harmful slot receivers within the Pac-12.

LT Andrew Vorhees, USC. The left deal with place is as demanding because it comes, and the 6-foot-6, 325-pound Vorhees allowed zero sacks and blew solely 0.8% of his blocks final yr, per Sports activities Information Options. He’ll be fairly an asset for Caleb Williams.

RT Braeden Daniels, Utah. A primary-team all-conference performer, per Professional Soccer Focus, Daniels allowed solely two sacks all season. And as a Utah lineman, it is protected to say he is as imply and bodily as might be.

OLB Grayson Murphy, UCLA. The North Texas switch recorded a havoc play (a deal with for loss, cross defensed or compelled fumble) on 3.4% of his snaps final yr. He is a ferocious blitzer and disruptive run-defender regardless of his 235-pound body. His numbers simply barely trump these of his brother (and fellow Bruin), Gabriel.

LB Kyle Soelle, Arizona State. He made a deal with on 13% of his snaps, generated stress on 20% of his pass-rush makes an attempt, made 11 run stops at or behind the road and allowed a 17.4 QBR in protection. He is completely dynamite, and ASU would possibly want him to be even higher this yr.

CB Clark Phillips III, Utah. The four-star signee instantly lived as much as the hype as a redshirt freshman, selecting off two passes, breaking apart 12 extra and permitting a forty five.4 QBR regardless of taking over most opponents’ No. 1 receivers.

CB Nigel Bethel Jr., Colorado. He missed half the season due to harm, however he was on tempo for an unbelievable season. By six video games, he had allowed only a 5.1 QBR as main protection man. 5.1!

Honorable mentions: QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson (UCLA), RB Travis Dye (USC), TE Dalton Kincaid (Utah), LT Raiqwon O’Neal (UCLA), LG LaDarius Henderson (Arizona State), DT Tuli Tuipulotu (USC), DT Kyon Barrs (Arizona), CB Azizi Hearn (UCLA), NICKEL Khoury Bethley (Arizona State), CB Treydan Stukes (Arizona)


Anniversaries

In 1982, 40 years in the past, the Invoice McCartney period started at Colorado. What adopted have been the best 20 years within the college’s soccer historical past. McCartney’s Buffs received solely seven video games in his first three years however turned an annual bowl presence within the late Eighties, then broke by means of with back-to-back 11-win seasons in 1989 and ’90 and a share of the 1990 nationwide title. Below McCartney and successor Rick Neuheisel, they pulled off top-10 finishes 4 occasions between 1994 and 2001.

In 1987, 35 years in the past, Terry Donahue’s peak started at UCLA. Donahue set a bar too excessive for just about each UCLA coach who has adopted, engineering 12 ranked finishes, 5 top-10s and 4 Rose Bowl berths in 20 years. However the Bruins went to a brand new place when Oklahoma quarterback Troy Aikman transferred to UCLA in 1987. Aikman threw for five,298 yards in two years, because the Bruins received 20 video games and spent two weeks at No. 1 in 1988 — their solely two weeks there up to now 55 years.

In 1992, 30 years in the past, the legend of the Desert Swarm took root. The 14-year Dick Tomey period at Arizona featured a pair of top-10 finishes and 7 bowls, however it’s primarily identified for protection. The Wildcats allowed 10 or fewer factors seven occasions in 12 video games in 1992, then did so six extra occasions in 1993. The Wildcats’ offense could not maintain up its finish of the discount in 1992, they usually went simply 6-5-1, however they broke by means of on each ends the following season, after they went 10-2 and beat USC and Miami by a mixed 67-7.

In 2002, 20 years in the past, Utah fired Ron McBride. Over a 13-year tenure, McBride had raised the bar in Salt Lake Metropolis, pulling off a top-10 end in 1994 (the college’s first ranked end) and attending six bowls. However the college made one of the impressed hires you may ever see after bidding adieu. City Meyer proceeded to go 22-2 over two seasons earlier than handing the reins to Whittingham for his personal unbelievable run. McBride raised the bar, and Meyer and Whittingham stored elevating it.

In 2012, 10 years in the past, Lane Kiffin’s USC disillusioned. After a short setback as NCAA sanctions shrank the scholarship rely a bit, Kiffin had engineered a bounceback in 2011. USC went 10-2 and completed within the AP prime six for the eighth time in 10 years. The Trojans started 2012 at No. 1. All was proper on the planet. However a 6-1 begin became a 1-5 end, and after a 3-2 begin the following season, Kiffin was famously fired on the LAX tarmac.

USC’s final 10 seasons have featured only one top-10 end and one convention title. The Trojans are simply 22-21 over the past 4 seasons. It has been a misplaced decade. Lincoln Riley certain looks as if the proper coach to drag this system out of its doldrums, however it’s a tall job.

In 2017, 5 years in the past, Arizona State fired Todd Graham. Graham isn’t precisely thought to be the best coach to work with, and since back-to-back seasons in 2013 and ’14, he had gone simply 18-20 in his final three seasons. His firing wasn’t a complete shock, in and of itself. However every part that adopted was unusual. Athletic director Ray Anderson, a former agent, employed Herm Edwards, a former consumer. Edwards hadn’t coached since 2008 and hadn’t coached in faculty since 1989. Anderson deployed each company buzzword within the MBA parlance in asserting and justifying the rent, and after 4 seasons Edwards has … mainly been Graham, however with alleged recruiting violations.

Graham’s final 4 years: 0.549 win proportion

Edwards’ first 4 years: 0.581 win proportion

Edwards’ 4 seasons have been neither successful nor a failure, however he’ll want lots of new blood to return by means of to maintain the ship afloat this yr.

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