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The Pac-12 South destroys conventional wisdom — and improves

Photo by Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire
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49ers 55, Broncos 10, in Super Bowl XXIV.

Louisville 63, Florida State 20, a week and a half ago.

Villanova 95, Oklahoma 51, at the Final Four earlier this year.

Bears 73, Redskins 0, in the 1940 NFL Championship Game.

By these or other similar blowout-level margins, the Pac-12 South has routed rational expectations in September.

The division is not a complete division. It’s not a heavyweight division the way the ACC Atlantic is. It’s not quite as good as the SEC West — Texas A&M over UCLA supports that claim. However, it has been better than many had a right to expect through one month of the 2016 season.

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The Los Angeles schools — so the wisdom goes — should determine the health and strength of the Pac-12 South. This is hardly irrational thinking. Los Angeles is the most fertile recruiting area. USC and UCLA are sexy programs which should enjoy considerable prosperity and occupy entrenched places on the national radar screen.

Just as Alabama and Florida should be lead dogs in the SEC, and Florida State and Clemson (and Miami — we’re waiting for the Canes to come back) should indeed be power brokers in the ACC, and Ohio State-Michigan should always be a game of supreme consequence in the Big Ten, a healthy Pac-12 South ought to be anchored by the L.A. schools.

It’s a reasonable point, not a foolish one.

And yet… the Pac-12 South has been better than expected this year.

Really?

Really — maybe not beyond all doubt or questioning, but simply as a percentage of the teams in the division.

10 September 2016: Utah Utes wide receiver Demari Simpkins (17) makes a catch and is later hit and drops the ball during a game between BYU and Pac-12 South representative Utah.  The Utah Utes defeated the BYU Cougars 20-19 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire)

10 September 2016: Utah Utes wide receiver Demari Simpkins (17) makes a catch and is later hit and drops the ball during a game between BYU and Pac-12 South representative Utah. The Utah Utes defeated the BYU Cougars 20-19 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire)

USC and UCLA have combined to lose five games in the month of September, before a lot of leaves have even begun to turn. None of the losses have occurred against bad teams, but five losses represents its own searing commentary on the quality of those two teams. USC and UCLA should at least split games against high-end opposition, if those programs are meeting modest expectations.

A damning statistic about the L.A. schools, via colleague Kyle Kensing: Neither program has won a single game against a Power Five conference opponent.

How can the Pac-12 be better than expected?

The other four schools in the division — a majority — have come a long way in a short time. They all faced knife-at-the-throat moments and survived, emerging from paralyzingly stressful situations more confident and hopeful than they could have imagined just a few weeks ago.

Consider:

Utah watched BYU line up for a game-winning, do-or-die two-point conversion attempt in Week 2. Had the Cougars called a good play (they didn’t), the Utes might have carried enormous psychic baggage into their Pac-12 opener against USC. Utah has lived on the edge, but the passing of Troy Williams has transcended many preseason assessments of his capacities. It’s true that the Utes have started quickly before, only to fizzle in November, but Utah easily could have declined this season, and that scenario has already been shoved to the periphery of possibility. It’s unlikely that the Utes will lose ground, which — with a new quarterback — feels like a step forward.

If one accepts that Utah has surpassed expectations, the rest of the argument about the Pac-12 South falls neatly into place.

Pac-12 South tears of joy: Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre wipes tears from his eyes before his television interview after their win over Oregon in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Thomas Boyd)

Pac-12 South tears of joy: Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre wipes tears from his eyes before his television interview after their win over Oregon in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Thomas Boyd)

The Pac-12 South has been dragged down by Colorado since the Buffaloes arrived from the Big 12 in 2011. It was easy to hope that CU would improve itself and lift the division, but the Buffs had to do the deed.

When Colorado watched a 33-17 lead turn into a 38-33 deficit against Oregon last Saturday, the Buffs could have folded, as they’d done so many times over the previous five years. When Colorado retook a 41-38 lead and watched the Ducks march to the CU 7-yard line inside the 1:50 mark of regulation, coach Mike MacIntyre’s team was about to blow it again, eliciting the familiar and tired “Same Old Colorado” refrain which can linger in a team’s head like a bad cold.

This time, Colorado took a big step forward into the sunshine of success. An interception stunned the Autzen Stadium crowd and gave the Pac-12 South’s recent doormat a road victory over the Pac-12 North program which played for the national championship two seasons ago.

That the Colorado win came with a backup quarterback made the conquest that much more transformative and eye-catching. Colorado is no longer an unwanted member of the Pac-12 South family, a team which doesn’t do its fair share.

24 September, 2016:  Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Manny Wilkins (5), who has been guided expertly by offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, scores a touchdown during the NCAA football game between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the California Golden Bears at Sun Devil Stadium. The Pac-12 South beat the North in conference combat yet again. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire)

24 September, 2016: Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Manny Wilkins (5), who has been guided expertly by offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, scores a touchdown during the NCAA football game between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the California Golden Bears at Sun Devil Stadium. The Pac-12 South beat the North in conference combat yet again. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire)

Then come the Arizona schools.

Arizona and Arizona State profoundly disappointed in 2015. Moreover, the Wildcats and Sun Devils did not retain all members of Rich Rodriguez’s and Todd Graham’s coaching staffs. Coaching transitions and a complete absence of momentum suggested that a Grand Canyon-size gulf could have emerged between the L.A. schools at the top and the Arizona schools at the bottom end of the Pac-12 South.

Early-season developments reinforced this possibility.

Arizona fell behind Grambling (!) at home, 21-3 at halftime, before desperately scrambling to win.

Arizona State fell behind Texas-San Antonio, 28-12 in the third quarter, before waking up and scratching out a narrow 32-28 victory.

Even in moments of victory, the Cats and Devils had reason to be profoundly concerned about the course of their 2016 seasons.

Look at them now.

Arizona didn’t beat No. 10 Washington last Saturday, but the team which almost lost to Grambling watched its quarterback blossom in the desert.

This is all one needs to back up the assertion that Brandon Dawkins will give Arizona many successful moments in the future:

Then consider Arizona State.

The Sun Devils played poorly in their opener against FCS member Northern Arizona. Mindful of how poorly the team played a year ago against another FCS team (Cal Poly), it was reasonable to think that ASU was headed for another long and miserable campaign. When the Devils scored 68 points against Texas Tech, they surprised some observers, but Texas Tech’s defense is such a joke that it was hard to take ASU (too) seriously.

When the Devils walked in quicksand for the first 2.5 quarters against UTSA — and barely lived to tell about it — everyone in and around the program had to be very concerned about a Week 4 conference opener against the California team which knocked off Texas the week before.

Arizona State bested the Golden Bears in a classic #Pac12AfterDark donnybrook. The Devils continue to live on the edge… but always the right side of the edge.

It’s in many ways the inverse of how this Pac-12 South season was supposed to unfold. The Arizona schools appeared to be a mess. Utah looked fragile at one point. Colorado began this season as a team which had not crossed a threshold.

Four schools have all taken meaningful steps forward, giving their fans more optimism than they could have expected three weeks ago.

The L.A. schools are down, and yet a majority of the Pac-12 South is up.

Conventional wisdom scored as many points as USC did against Alabama in Week 1.

The Pac-12 South is Alabama in Week 1.

The realm of the rational has been overturned… and a division which felt tissue-thin on the morning of September 10 has become a lot stronger than many observers thought it would.

We’ll see what October does to change — or affirm — the identity of the Pac-12 South.

The Pac-12 South destroys conventional wisdom — and improves

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