Rejoice, football fans! Football is just around the corner. In fact, UCLA is one of the first teams we’ll get to see, as they start their season with a Week 0 matchup against Hawaii. We’ll get to see that game as soon as August 28th! (And no, I don’t know why there is a Week 0 in college football. I just know that it’s a thing that happens with Hawaii for some reason.)
There’s no doubt that the Pac-12 had the worst go of it when it came to covid rescheduling last year. They played just a six-game schedule, with all sorts of last-minute cancellations and rematches. Hopefully, this year will bring us a full season to evaluate where these programs are truly at. With Chip Kelly coming off his best season yet with the Bruins, can UCLA finally breakthrough in this division? Let’s take a look at how I expect things to play out.
Predicting The Pac-12 South Standings
1) The Utah Utes
Kyle Whittingham, head coach of Utah, is one of the most experienced coaches not only in the Pac-12 but in all of college football. He’s currently tied with Mike Gundy of Oklahoma State for the third longest-tenured coach in all of the FBS, having been with Utah since 2005. That’s longer than guys like Nick Saban of Alabama (2007) and Dabo Swinney of Clemson (2008), and behind only Kirk Ferentz of Iowa and Gary Patterson of TCU. In that time frame, Whittingham has compiled a 134-66 overall record at Utah, including an impressive 11-3 record in bowls.
The last time we saw Utah during a non-covid season, they went 11-3 and won the Pac-12 South. Granted, that was a veteran team with a lot more pieces than they have now. But Kyle Whittingham’s system is about as equipped for plug and play as anyone’s. They play tough, physical, sound football and they don’t beat themselves. They are a tough out regardless of the personnel.
The reason I am especially high on Utah this upcoming season is the addition of quarterback Charlie Brewer via the transfer portal. Brewer is about as experienced as it gets at the QB position, a four-year starter at Baylor now entering his fifth year. He did a great job at Baylor under Matt Rhule’s offense, as he is their second all-time leading passer behind only Robert Griffin III. As a graduate transfer, he should bring stability and production to the position at Utah. That’s important because the run game and defense are usually solid under Whittingham.
Trips to USC and Stanford will be key, and they’ll have to get over the Oregon hump, although playing them at home certainly helps. But other than that, the schedule is reasonable. Overall, I expect Utah to be back on top of the standings where we’re used to seeing them.
2) The Arizona State Sun Devils
I’m expecting a good and competitive season from Herm’s Sun Devils. Herm is entering his fourth year as head coach of Arizona State, and interestingly enough, he’s only 17-13 overall, with 11 of those losses coming in conference. But it’s felt much better than that, as many of those losses were close. This team is rarely getting blown out, and they’re almost always putting a sufficient amount of points on the board. Coming into his fourth year, it’s time for this team to take the next step.
Leading the charge is quarterback Jayden Daniels, a dynamic playmaker through the air and on the ground, entering his third year as the starter. With that veteran presence at QB, this team should be able to make some noise in the Pac-12.
I don’t know the exact nature of the recruiting violations of which Herm Edwards is accused, and it’s quite possible that they negatively impact him and this team’s future moving forward. But in the short term–specifically this coming year–I don’t expect that to come into play.
Road trips to UCLA, Utah, and Washington will be key for Arizona State this upcoming season.
3) The USC Trojans
At this point, you’re probably wondering: Why the hell are the USC Trojans ranked so low? They’re coming off a 5-1 season, they’re the reigning champions of the South, and they have one of the best passing games in the country led by a veteran QB. Shouldn’t they be first?
Well, a couple of things. First of all, they were nowhere near as good as their record last year. Weird bounces of the ball, onside kick recoveries, and opponent meltdowns led to them winning multiple games that they should have lost and were in a position to lose. It happens, I get it. But the record was not indicative of their play, and when you have unusual circumstances leading to wins, those wins tend to not carry over the following year. The shortened, easy schedule also contributed to their record–and even with that schedule, their record could have and arguably should have been much worse.
Additionally, the passing game took a step back from 2019 to 2020. While the volume was there with Kedon Slovis and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell‘s air raid, the efficiency wasn’t. Running that system can wear down lesser teams, but without more explosion, balance, consistency, and variability, USC will fall to the superior teams. We saw it for years with Mike Leach when he was in the Pac-12.
Honestly, USC has been a mess organizationally with Clay Helton the past few years. Even putting aside the subpar on-field results, this program continues to screw up their recruiting classes with their management of Clay Helton’s employment and the messaging surrounding it. For the past two offseasons, their indecision surrounding Helton’s future with the team has caused several recruits to de-commit. Then, when they do a 180 and decide to keep Helton, it’s too late, and their recruiting classes have been bled dry. They did manage to turn things around with this 2021 class, which ranks 7th in the nation, according to 247Sports. But USC has been just barely treading water with Helton the past few years. At some point, it’s going to come back to bite them, and I think that point is now.
The good news is that similarly to last year, USC has a pretty easy schedule. They have a tough road matchup with Notre Dame, but that won’t affect Pac-12 standings. The only really tough road conference opponent they face is Arizona State, and USC may even be favored for that game, having won the last two times they faced each other. I do think UCLA is capable of upsetting USC, but at the coliseum, it’s going to be tough.
With the current state of the Pac-12 South, USC probably won’t finish any lower than third, and they may even finish higher. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been and won’t continue to be underachieving under Clay Helton. For a program of their prestige and caliber, we should be expecting more.
4) The UCLA Bruins
I’m not exactly breaking news here by telling you that Chip Kelly has underachieved as head coach of the Bruins. He’s 10-21 in three years at UCLA, and the problems go beyond the record. In comparison, his predecessor, Jim Mora, was 29-11 after his first three seasons at UCLA. During Mora’s final three seasons, after which he got fired, he was 18-20. Mora’s predecessor, Rick Neuheisel, was 15-22 after his first three seasons, and he got fired after his fourth season. In other words, Chip Kelly is doing worse than his fired predecessors, and with a new AD, it’s not hard to imagine Kelly being shown the door after this season if things don’t go well.
On the plus side, Chip Kelly had by far his best season as Bruins head coach last year. UCLA went 3-4 in the shortened season, but their level of play was much better than that. The Bruins lost their four games by a combined 15 points, a far cry from how they’ve looked in losses during previous seasons. If they can clean some things up and figure out how to play their best for a complete 60 minutes, more wins should be on the way. And it’s time. Going into his fourth year, Chip is out of excuses. He has continuity, veterans, and his guys in the building. The roster looks pretty good as well, especially on offense. Now it’s just a question of if they can put it all together and start winning games.
The schedule does pose some challenges. They play all three non-conference games at home, but Hawaii’s unique offense can pose some challenges to teams that haven’t seen it before, and LSU is a tough out regardless of where you play them. The Bruins will have to face Stanford, Washington, Utah, and USC on the road. That’s a tough slate. On top of that, they’ll host Arizona State and Oregon. With this schedule, with some of their defensive questions, and with Kelly’s prior track record, I question how high this team can truly climb in the Pac-12.
To be honest, though, I do think this team is capable of beating USC, their biggest rival. They’ve done it under Kelly before, they almost did it last year, and they had no problem moving the ball against them two years ago. They just couldn’t get a damn stop. But USC is on the downswing, and UCLA is on the upswing. They’ll be underdogs, and it’ll be tough on the road, but it’s not out of the question.
This is Kelly’s best team, and I think they have the potential to be pretty good. I don’t think they’ll win the South, but I certainly think they can be in the conversation.
The problem is, we haven’t seen them do it yet. And until it actually happens, I can’t rank them any higher than this. But I’ll certainly be crossing my fingers and hoping that they prove me wrong.
5) The Colorado Buffaloes
After Mel Tucker did what Mel Tucker does and left Colorado after one season (in a 20+ year coaching career, he’s never stayed at one spot for more than 4 years, and has been with 10 organizations total), Colorado hired Karl Dorrell for his first head coaching job since he spent four years at UCLA from 2003-2007. The Buffs went 4-2 during the shortened season, but only one of those wins was even moderately impressive: a 3 point win at Stanford. Besides that, they got out in front of UCLA big in a 48-42 week 1 win (UCLA tends to forget how to play football early in the season under Chip Kelly) and had moderate wins vs San Diego State and at Arizona. They finished the season with consecutive multi-score losses vs Utah (21-38) and Texas (23-55). I thought Sam Noyer at QB looked solid, but he’s off to Oregon State, and Colorado is back to the drawing board.
6) The Arizona Wildcats
It’s tough to believe that the Kevin Sumlin we saw at Arizona was the same guy who took over at Texas A&M during the first year they moved to the SEC and (takes deep breathe):
- Went 11-2, 6-2 in the SEC, with a 42-13 bowl win over Oklahoma (One loss was a 3 point Week 1 loss over Florida, the other a 5 point loss vs LSU).
- Finished the season with Texas A&M ranked 5th in the AP and Coaches Polls.
- Had Johnny Manziel become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
- Was 2nd in the country in total offense.
- Beat eventual national champion Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, while opening with a 20-0 first-quarter scoring differential. It was Alabama’s only loss of the season.
Although Sumlin was never able to recapture that magic and was eventually fired after six seasons at A&M, it’s not like he was a bad coach. He never finished with fewer than eight wins in a season he coached the entirety of. Compare that to Sumlin’s three-year run at Arizona, from 2018 thru 2020, where he:
- Finished 9-20 overall and a miserable 6-17 in conference play.
- Was unable to turn Khalil Tate, a Lamar Jackson-esque athlete, into a viable starting QB after he had a Heisman caliber season with coach Rich Rodriguez in 2017. Tate now plays wide receiver instead of QB.
- Went 0-5 last year, capped off with a 70-7 loss to in-state rival Arizona State.
Sumlin was obviously fired after that game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they made him walk home. Anyway, I digress, but that’s the state of the program Sumlin has left this Arizona Wildcats team in. Now steps in first-year full-time head coach Jedd Fisch. He’s been in coaching for over 20 years, almost exclusively in the NFL–although he did start his career as defensive coordinator at PK Yonge Developmental School, followed by wide receivers coach/quality control at the now-defunct arena league New Jersey Red Dogs. Humble beginnings, I suppose! And yes, he was with the Patriots and Bill Belichick in 2020 and the Rams / Sean McVay from 2018-2019, although as we have learned, that on its own does not mean much.
I don’t mean to pick on Fisch. He’s been around for a long time in a variety of offensive roles for a lot of organizations. All I’m saying is, he’s a first-time full-time head coach (he was interim coach for UCLA in the latter part of 2017 after they fired Jim Mora) coming to a bad team whose last game saw them lose 70-7. So I’m not optimistic for next year.
Anyway, that should do it. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of speculating and am ready to see how some actual games turn out. Football season, here we come!