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Pac-12's South Division set to overtake North

6/23/2015
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Balance of power shifting south in Pac-12

ESPN college football reporters Chantel Jennings and Ted Miller discuss the Pac-12 South's depth and whether any team in the division can challenge Oregon.

When the Pac-10 expanded to 12 teams in 2011, no one suggested that the new divisions should be called "Champions" and "Roadkill," but that would have been almost as accurate as calling them the North and South, as conference poobahs would eventually decide to do.

A team from the South hasn't won the Pac-12 and, in fact, a team presently in the South division hasn't won the conference since USC in 2008. While a South defender might reasonably volunteer that the only teams to win the conference since 2009 are Oregon and Stanford, meaning four North teams are just as woeful, that doesn't change the surprising geography of conference domination. After all, the worry in 2011 was the South would throw a chokehold on recruiting and would thereby own the conference.

Ah, but things shifted a bit last year, even though Oregon still took home the Pac-12 title. Five teams from the South ended up in the final AP poll, compared to just one -- the Ducks -- from the North. The expectations for the 2015 preseason poll is much the same: USC, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and Utah all look like legitimate Top 25 teams, while only Oregon and perhaps Stanford will get significant consideration in the North.

But what about that elusive title? Is this the year a South team -- finally! -- gets to call itself Pac-12 champion?

Maybe.

At least, there are plenty of reasons to make that projection.

While some might see last year as irrelevant, there's a lot more of "last year" coming back in the South than the North. While both divisions welcome back 45 starters on offense, the South also has 45 starters coming back on defense, compared to just 31 in the North. And these aren't just anonymous returning starters. Of the 21 2014 first- or second-team All-Pac-12 players returning, 16 will be playing for South teams this fall.

The South welcomes back five experienced quarterbacks, if we include Arizona State's Mike Bercovici. The North welcomes back just two, though Washington State's Luke Falk took over for an injured Connor Halliday and mostly played well over the final third of the season.

Further, the preseason team-by-team breakdowns include a lot more questions in the North than the South.

  • Oregon is replacing the best player in its history, Heisman Trophy winning QB Marcus Mariota.

  • Stanford, the conference's defensive leader, welcomes back just four players on the mean side of the ball, meaning the Cardinal might have to change its style this fall.

  • Washington, with just nine returning position players, appears to be rebuilding in Year 2 under coach Chris Petersen.

  • Oregon State said goodbye to longtime coach Mike Riley, and new coach Gary Andersen is significantly changing schemes on both sides of the ball. The Beavers also have just two returning starters on defense.

  • Washington State lost six of its final seven games last year as things turned sour in Year 3 under Mike Leach, and the Cougars are breaking in a new defensive coordinator in Alex Grinch, who has never coordinated a defense before.

  • While most signs point to California taking a big step forward this season, it nonetheless had one of the nation's worst defenses in 2014, one that yielded nearly 40 points per game.

The South?

  • UCLA needs a quarterback, but the expectation is touted true freshman Josh Rosen will fit in nicely with 20 returning starters (including specialists).

  • USC has some questions with its defensive line and depth and whether it's truly ready to rejoin the nation's elite, but the talent is there.

  • Arizona State needs playmakers on defense and at receiver, but what the Sun Devils have coming back makes them a contrarian pick to keep the South title out of Southern California.

  • Arizona has some questions on its offensive line and on defense around All-Everything linebacker Scooby Wright, but after spring practices typically woe-is-me Rich Rodriguez seemed curiously encouraged, perhaps because he's got all his skill back on offense.

  • Utah? It might have the best lines in the conference on both sides of the ball, as well as the best running back in Devontae Booker. The Utes might be the most undervalued team in the Pac-12.

  • Colorado isn't going to be a factor in the South race, but the Buffaloes should be much improved.

Of course, this scribbling won't win any games. You could make a case that Oregon is still the team to beat, particularly if things go well early with QB transfer Vernon Adams, who will be surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast. More than a few times in history, a favorite media angle went splat when toe met leather.

But there can be no question of the preseason theme with the Pac-12. It appears the South is finally rising.