<
>

Rising Pac-12 South will continue to eclipse North in 2015

1/20/2015

The Pac-12's South Division went 15-10 against the North in 2014, the first season since expansion in 2011 that the South bested the North. Of course, Oregon still won the conference crown -- in dominant fashion over Arizona, in fact -- so the South still has never won the Pac-12 title.

Perhaps the dominant Pac-12 theme heading into 2015 will be how that figures to change next December. After going a feckless 9-17 against the North in 2011, the steadily improving South is now clearly the superior division. With five ranked teams at season's end, the South was much deeper than the North in 2014, though Oregon maintained the Ducks/Stanford domination of the conference as a whole for another season.

Yet Stanford slipped in 2014, and it welcomes back just three starters from its dominant defense next fall. Oregon has a nice collection of players returning in 2015 -- it still figures to be the highest-ranked Pac-12 team in the preseason -- but it's also replacing the greatest player in school history in Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

The South's advantage heading into 2015 can be further quantified by who's coming back. For one, the South welcomes back 93 starting position players compared to 76 for the North. That's an average of 15.5 per South team compared to 12.7 for the North.

That difference is most notable on defense. South teams welcome back an average of 7.83 players on defense, while North teams welcome back only 5.17. While Stanford, Oregon and Washington were the top three teams in scoring defense in 2014, the only South team that didn't rank in the top eight was Colorado. Further, UCLA, USC and Utah each welcome back eight starters from defenses that ranked in the top four in yards per play.

On offense, the differences aren't as definitive. The South will welcome back 46 starters compared to 45 for the North, but the South is far more set at quarterback. Four of six South teams have a high degree of certainty at quarterback heading into 2015, while UCLA is the only team with a "Who the heck knows?" QB competition. Though Utah is uncertain between Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson, both have starting experience.

In the North, only California and Stanford are certain at QB. Oregon and Oregon State will be holding wide-open competitions beginning this spring, while Washington and Washington State have returning QBs with starting experience -- Cyler Miles and Luke Falk -- who are far from certain to win the job.

Experience on the offensive line is often vital, and the South also has an advantage there with 22 O-line starters returning compared to 21 from the North (and that includes Oregon offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone, who sat out this past season with a knee injury).

What about star power? Five of the six returning first-team All-Pac-12 players hail from the South, while seven of the 11 second-team members are from the South. Heck, all four first- and second-team specialists are from the South as well.

Finally, 2015 will be the first season of Pac-12 play in which USC isn't yoked with any sort of NCAA sanctions. You might recall the Trojans won the South in 2011 and beat Oregon in Autzen Stadium in the regular season but didn't get a rematch in the title game because they were ineligible for the postseason. While USC won't be at a full 85 scholarships next fall, it has the potential to be as deep as it has been since expansion. It's difficult to believe the Trojans at full strength won't be a factor in the South, Pac-12 and nationally going forward.

Of course, the six-team South is arguably deeper than the 10-team conference USC dominated from 2002-2008 under Pete Carroll, with UCLA and coach Jim Mora, in fact, providing plenty of competition just a few miles down the road -- see three consecutive Bruins wins in the rivalry, as well as consecutive 10-win seasons.

When the conference first expanded, the initial impression was the South would be stronger. In fact, before going with a North-South split, there was significant discussion about splitting up rival teams in different divisions. Yet, for three seasons, the North proved its naysayers wrong.

Now the South appears to be cycling up. If the present trend continues through the 2015 season, it's possible we'll be asking a year from now how long that shifting balance of power will last. Or if it won't become a long-term advance.