Pac-12 South Preview: Darnold, Rosen Lead The Way

Last season, the Pac-12 South played second-fiddle to the Pac-12 North. Colorado came out of nowhere to garner the bid in the conference title game. Though by the end of the year, it was clear that USC was the best team in the division -- if not the entire Pac-12.

Heading into the upcoming year, USC is the unquestioned favorite. Signal-caller Sam Darnold looks like a Heisman Trophy contender. Additionally, the quarterback across town (Josh Rosen) is no slouch, either.

Arizona 


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Arizona had a horrible 2016 -- going 3-9. The highlight of the season was a 56-35 victory in the season finale over in-state rival Arizona State.

Rich Rodriguez has been plagued by a lack of depth on the defensive side of the ball. His funky 3-3-5 alignment is predicated upon speed, though there's a glaring deficiency as it pertains to size up front. To illustrate how dire the situation is along the defensive line, all three projected starters (Parker Zellers, Larry Tharpe Jr., Justin Belknap) were walk-ons.

At linebacker, the team's top five tacklers from last year are all gone. As such, there will be plenty of growing pains from this inexperienced unit. Brandon Dawkins showed some flashes at quarterback last season. He's got a nice frame, a big arm, and good top-end speed. He'll need to continue in his development if the Wildcats are to surprise.

There's really no other way to say this...Arizona will struggle immensely in 2017. It could be Rich Rod's last year in Tucson.

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Arizona State


Arizona State will be a fascinating team to watch for in 2017. Todd Graham is most certainly on the hot seat in Tempe -- particularly since Arizona State was the second-worst defense in the entire country last year (allowing over 520 yards per contest). Two 10-win seasons were also followed by consecutive sub-.500 years, which raises questions about Graham's long-term future.

Alabama transfer Blake Barnett will get the chance to be the starting signal-caller. Though he's long on talent, he's short on tangible experience. The receiver duo of N'Keal Harry and John Humphrey is potentially very lethal. Senior running back Demario Richard could contend for All-Conference honors.

When it comes down to it, Arizona State needs to improve on the defensive side of the ball. The team will likely be involved in a number of high-scoring games. But if the Sun Devils can't stop anyone, it really won't matter. ASU will host USC and Oregon -- though they'll have road games at UCLA, Stanford, Utah, and Texas Tech. Will the O/U for the game in Lubbock be set at 100?

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Colorado


Colorado surprised everyone by winning the Pac-12 South a season ago. Head coach Mike MacIntyre did a phenomenal job of developing the talent within his program. Fast-forward to 2016, and the Buff certainly will not be sneaking up on anyone.

The receiver trio of Bryce Bobo-Shay Fields-Devin Ross is both experienced and super talented. Senior running back Phillip Lindsay has proven to be a productive runner during his career in Boulder. With three seniors starting along the offensive line, MacIntyre hopes this collective unit can help ease the transition of Steven Montez from backup to starting signal-caller.

Save for one of the corner spots, the entire starting defense will be made up of upperclassmen. JUCO transfer NT Javier Edwards registers at 6'3" and a whopping 350 pounds. He, along with Derek McCartney -- will make up a fierce front seven for the Buffs.

It will be fascinating to see how this team does in 2017. As mentioned above, no longer will Colorado be thought of as a cupcake. It's one of the best-coached teams in the conference, and has experience all over the field. The team also has a favorable schedule, as it'll see Washington and USC at home.

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UCLA 


This might be a make-or-break year for Jim Mora. After three solid seasons in Westwood, the program fell with a considerable thud last year. Coming off of a 4-8 season, Mora made multiple moves within his coaching staff as a means to shake things up -- including the hiring of Jedd Fisch as the offensive coordinator and former NFL player Hank Fraley as the offensive line coach.

The success -- or lack thereof -- for this year will begin and end with Josh Rosen. If UCLA can protect its star signal-caller, the Bruins will have a good year. Outside of USC, it boasts the best talent in the division. The entire running back group returns, as does the vast majority of the receivers. Defensively, all-everything freshmen Darnay Holmes and Jaelan Phillips figure to be big-time contributors right off the bat. The defensive line group is also deep and talented.

UCLA opens the season at home versus Texas A&M -- though a sneaky-tough road contest at Memphis comes two weeks later. The road slate is also not for the faint of heart -- as the Bruins will travel to Palo Alto, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and to the Coliseum.

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USC


At the conclusion of last season, one could've made the argument that USC was one of the country's best teams.

A Rose Bowl victory over Penn State punctuated the coming out party for Darnold. The San Clemente native has a big arm, but also has surprising mobility for a player of his size. He can make throws to all parts of the field, and rarely gets rattled. It would be a major surprise (barring injury) for Darnold to not be a Top-10 NFL Draft pick next April.

USC has arguably the conference's best secondary, and a front seven resembling that of a group from the Pete Carroll era. Ronald Jones is absolutely electric in the backfield. The Trojans also have a nice receiver mix of smaller, shiftier options mixed in with bigger targets.

This is the most talented team in the entire conference -- regardless of division affiliation. Should the Trojans remain healthy at key spots, you'll be seeing them in the College Football Playoff.

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Utah


Utah had another ho-hum year in 2016 -- winning nine games again under long-tenured head coach Kyle Whittingham. This year might not go as smoothly when delving into the depth chart.

The Utes lose four starters from last year's offensive line group. They also lost their entire starting secondary from a season ago. As such, the team will be relying on senior QB Troy Williams to put up some points. There's a lot of unknown on both sides of the ball. However, the Utes are excellent when it comes to player development. The fall camp period will be immensely significant in terms of piecing together a depth chart.

At this point, the Utes may be the biggest unknown in the division. We do know that Whittingham and his staff will showcase a well-coached team. With that said, the talent level might not be up to where it was over the last few seasons. The "Holy War" contest versus BYU will take place in Provo this season. The road schedule is also no fun -- as road dates with USC, Washington, and Oregon are littered throughout the slate.

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Projected Order Of Finish

1. USC

2. UCLA

3. Colorado

4. Utah

5. Arizona State

6. Arizona

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