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The UWDP Premature PAC 12 Preview - South Division

We start our far-too-early prognostications with a look at how the PAC 12 South might shape up in 2016.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It's over, folks.   I suppose it is time to come to grips with that fact.

No more finding of creative excuses to get out of Saturday afternoon chores. No more justifying the claiming of the family basement in order to perform "research for the blog." No more dressing up the family shih-tzu in UW gear while dressing down my neighbor for provoking me by posting an Oregon-logo yard sign in his overgrown garden (he doesn't even really like the Ducks). No more college football.

Well, at least for a few more months.

To hold us over until spring ball, it is always fun to initiate the debate on just how good we think our team will be relative to the others in the PAC going into a season that is but a mere nine months away. Such analysis is pure folly, of course. We know nothing of how the roster will shape up, which recruits will be ready to contribute, how rehabilitated key injured players will be, how new coaches will fit in, or which no-names will emerge as stars in the season ahead.

That's just for the Huskies. Imagine the comedy of trying to fill in those gaps for teams that most of us may have seen no more than twice last season.

Now that I've stated that caveat, allow me the opportunity to proceed out onto the thin ice of prognostication.
The PAC 12 continues to race towards that idealistic goal of "parity" as evidenced by the competitiveness of the 2015 season. Given the massive turnover of talent at key positions - including a forecasted turn of 75% of the conference's starting quarterbacks - that race to parity ought to continue with even more fervor in 2016. But there are some knowns that we can draw upon in trying to piece together a picture of how things may well turn out in the divisional races a year from now.

This will be a two-part column.  Today we start with the South.

Widely expected to be the "dominant" division in the PAC 12 in 2015, the South division ended up featuring a collection of talented but evenly matched teams. Injuries, crazy plays and bizarre incidents (Shots for Sark?) conspired against each of the teams in that division and led to a final outcome that few people had predicted in the midseason, much less the preseason.

The South projects in just as mangled a mess as it finished this past season. Let's discuss.

1.  UCLA

Key Losses: LB Myles Jack, WR Jordan Payton, RB Paul Perkins, DT Kenny Clark, OL Jake Brendel, OT Caleb Benenoch, WR Thomas Duarte

Analysis: This is still a QB-driven league and UCLA returns the brightest young QB in the conference. Josh Rosen has all the physical tools, a strong and accurate arm, and just enough mobility to sting a team when plays break down. While he will be missing a ton of key playmakers from the 2015 roster, not to mention having to contend with an overhauled offensive line, he is the kind of talent that can elevate an offense. I expect the implementation of a more traditional pro-style set of plays (with tempo), given the presence of new OC Kennedy Polamalu and QB coach Marques Tuiasosopo. This approach seems to fit the talent on hand and could help Rosen really explode as a legit Heisman candidate.

Defensively, UCLA has been stocking the pipeline with many young studs who should help that unit elevate. DT Eddie Vanderdoes returns with designs on fulfilling his vast potential while young players like DB Randall Goforth, DB Ishmael Adams, and LB Jayon Brown will be counted on to become leaders. This isn't a top-of-conference type of unit, but they have enough talent to create opportunities for the Bruins' offense and to keep up with every other team in the PAC.

Ultimately, I expect UCLA to take the South division in a close race. All bets are off if Jim Mora opts to move to the NFL in the next month.

Projected Record:  6-3 (+ tiebreaker)

2.  Utah Utes

Key Losses: QB Travis Wilson, RB Devontae Booker, WR Britain Covey (mission), LB Jared Norris, LB Gionni Paul, DL Jason Fanaika

Analysis: Never was there a team that might benefit more from subtraction than Utah could given the departure of QB Travis Wilson. I hate to trash a four-year starter, but the truth is that Wilson could never rise above the ranks of "mediocre." Given the stoutness of that Utah defense and the string of quality RBs - which will continue with next year's starter Joe Williams - "mediocre" was the albatross that held back this iteration of Kyle Whittingham's team in 2015.

Next year's offense will look a lot like this year's, but more efficient with a few fewer grossly negative plays mixed in. It will complement well another Utah defense that projects as a South division leader. Whittingham continues to reload with big tough guys in the middle of his defense. DT Lowell Lotulelei is already a star and should take a Danny Shelton-esque step forward as a line-plugger in 2016. Similarly, DE Kylie Fitts looks like a stud.  Utah has players.  I like the how this no-name unit projects.

I see Utah giving UCLA all it can handle but ultimately falling a tie-breaker short of beating them out for the South.

Projected Record:  6-3

3.  USC Trojans

Key Losses: LB Su'a Cravens, QB Cody Kessler, RB Tre Madden, DL Claude Pelon

Analysis: The Trojans enter the offseason as stable a group as they've been in quite a few years. The roster will finally reach a full 85 following this recruiting cycle. The coaching staff, even with a few new faces, has just enough continuity across it to give the sense of routine that players generally crave.

On the field, the Trojans will be a young team just about everywhere. However, they boast some of the elements that make for a very competitive team. Their offensive line is anchored by OT Zach Banner and will return a couple of studs in OG Damien Mama and OL Toa Lobendahn. They've got enough talent at each level of the defense - led by DB Adoree' Jackson - to give opposing offenses pause. They've got playmaker depth at WR and RB. Finally, they've got a young QB in Max Browne that many people, myself included, project as a PAC 12 star.

USC is still going to have to play young guys at times - particularly if they suffer roster attrition or injury. That fact alone may cause them to lose a win or two along the way. I project them third in the South in 2016.

Projected Record:  5-4

4.  Arizona Wildcats

Key Losses: WR David Richards, LB Scooby Wright, RB Jared Baker

Analysis:  That Rich Rodriguez returned to Tucson after having flirted with jobs closer to his roots in the southeast speaks volumes about what he thinks his young team - or, more precisely, his offense - is capable of in 2016. Led by returning starters QB Anu Solomon, WR Cayleb Jones, and RB Nick Wilson, Arizona's offense may well be the most potent in the PAC in 2016. There are some questions as to whether or not Solomon can ever be accurate enough or if Wilson can ever be healthy enough. Assuming they each can be, the sky is the limit there.

It is the Wildcat defense that looks like a dumpster fire in a gasoline storm. RichRod jettisoned his longtime confidant Jeff Casteel in a coaching staff shakeup that speaks to just how dire a situation Arizona is in from both a talent and depth perspective. Most likely, the Wildcats will quit their 3-3-5 scheme in favor of something that makes use of more versatile linebackers who can flex between coverage and pass rush. The problem? Which athletes are they expecting to run it?

Given how much pressure Arizona's own offense puts on their defense, I don't have a lot of confidence that they'll be able to stop many Pac 12 offenses. How many they can simply outscore remains to be seen. I'm guessing that is about a 50/50 proposition, good enough for fourth in the division next season.

Projected Record:  4-5

5.  Arizona State Sun Devils

Key Losses: QB Mike Bercovici, RB DJ Foster, DB Jordan Simone, CB Lloyd Carrington, LB Antonio Longino

Analysis: The Sun Devils are a team that I generally root for.  However, I'm not sure that there was a more disappointing bunch in the all the PAC last season.  As they look forward, one could argue that a turnover in personnel is much needed.  Thus, watching all of those key players - including senior QB Bercovici - walk out the door might be a blessing in disguise.

That might be true.  ASU does return some interesting pieces on offense.  Both of their running backs - Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage - are back and could compete with Oregon for having the best RB tandem in the league.  I also have to admit that I think ASU has two good QB prospects in Manny Wilkins and Brady White competing for the starting job.

My bigger concern is their defense.  Not only do they lose a ton of good players, but the regression to the mean on their turnover generation stats (particularly fumble recoveries) exposed just how ineffective the Todd Graham all-blitz scheme actually is.  As opposing coaches get more familiar with handling it, ASU gets less effective in running it.  Until we see what their personnel looks like and how Graham evolves, I"m bearish on the Devils.

Projected Record:  4-5

6. Colorado Buffaloes

Key Losses: WR Nelson Spruce, RB Christian Powell, DB Jered Bell, DB Ken Crawley

Analysis: Good news, bad news for the Buffs heading into 2016.  The good news?  They return just about all of their best players.  QB Sefo Liufau, WR Shay Fields, RB Phillip Lindsay, CB Chidobe Awuzie, LB Addison Gillam, and LB Kenneth Olugbode have developed into legit PAC 12 players.

The bad news for Colorado is that their improvement trajectory has been matched by just about every team ahead of them in the PAC 12 South.  The reality is that just having "PAC 12 players" is no longer enough to ensure bowl eligibility.  You've got to have a stud QB, one or two game-breaker types, and enough depth on the lines to give yourself a chance at a few wins in the conference.  It's not clear to me that Colorado has any of that.  Until I see that they do, I can't bump them up.

Projected Record:  2-7

So, there you have it.  My detailed if not foolish attempt at projecting the South division for 2016.