- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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In 2012, Arizona's defense surrendered 35.3 points per game. That's bad. This past season, Arizona yielded 24.2 points per game. Much better.
Every season, offenses and defenses improve or regress. Oregon State had the most improved defense in the conference in 2012. It regressed the most in 2013.
So who is poised to make a big jump this fall? We're breaking it down by division. We looked at the North on Monday, when we projected the Beavers to again reverse course, this time in a positive way. Today it's the South.
A couple of surprising entrants here. Who expected to see Arizona State in the bottom three? And Utah, traditionally, is a defense-first team.
Truth is, neither Arizona State nor Utah played lousy defense last year. Part of the points-per-game issue here is schedule: They played against the nation's two toughest schedules last year. Neither padded its stats with single-digit efforts against overmatched nonconference foes. The Sun Devils ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense against conference foes, and the Utes ranked eighth.
The Sun Devils also ranked first in the conference in forced turnovers (33) and third in sacks per game (2.86).
Still, Arizona State gave up 30 or more points seven times last year. The Utes gave up 51, 44 and 49 in losses to Oregon State (in overtime), Oregon and Washington State.
Turning from the past to the present prospects, the Sun Devils and Utes are both replacing several key players heading into 2014. As we've previously noted, not only did Arizona State lose nine starters, it lost all of its defensive stars. Six of the departed players were first-team or second-team All-Pac-12. Two others were honorable mention.
While stranger things have happened, Arizona State's defense is not the most likely Pac-12 unit to improve its 2013 performance this fall.
Meanwhile, Utah also has some questions. Outside linebacker/defensive end Trevor Reilly, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection, was highly productive. Defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi was second-team All-Pac-12 and a load in the middle. Big corner Keith McGill was an NFL draft pick and linebacker Jacoby Hale blew out his knee this spring, a huge drag.
That said, the Utes have more obvious answers than the Sun Devils, starting with DE Nate Orchard, an NFL prospect, whom Kyle Whittingham and coordinator Kalani Sitake -- read his thoughts here -- are high on. The return of versatile defender Brian Blechen, who missed the 2013 season because of injury, also will provide a boost. Sitake seemed pretty optimistic about his defensive line, where success starts for a defense, particularly a 4-3.
Colorado fans have been waiting patiently, so here's the reward: The Buffaloes seem the most likely to improve in 2014, though the conference's depth at quarterback is going to stress every defense in the league.
While the Buffs aren't likely to make an 11-point improvement, as Arizona did last year, there's reason to believe they can cut five-plus points from their 2013 points-per-game average.
While the pass rush is a question -- it was among the nation's weakest last year even with Chidrera Uzo-Diribe -- all three levels, most notably the secondary, seem likely to improve. The Colorado schedule is also more forgiving than those of Arizona or Utah.
1dChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell