TEMPE, Ariz. — There is little argument that USC and UCLA face the greatest annual pressure to succeed among the Pac-12 South’s six football programs. The two Los Angeles schools boast the greatest traditions in the conference; they play in the nation’s second largest media market; and they were picked to finish first and second in the division this season in the Pac-12’s annual preseason media poll.
If you toss out Colorado — based on its last-place finish in each of its five conference seasons (it tied for last place with Arizona in 2011) — which of the South Division’s other three teams faces the greatest pressure heading into the 2016 season?
Is it Arizona State, which enters the season with an inexperienced quarterback, four new starters on the offensive line, five new assistant coaches, and a revamped secondary?
Is it Arizona, which lost five of its last seven games last season, ranked 10th in the conference in total defense and scoring defense (466.9 yards per game and 35.8 points per game), and is perilously thin on talent and bodies along its defensive line?
Or is it Utah, where junior college transfer QB Troy Williams has been handed the reins as the Utes try to take the next step in the program’s Pac-12 evolution before graduation robs them of a lot of talent?
Today’s U caught up with three well-known beat writers covering each program for their thoughts.
From Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic/azcentral.com, who covers ASU:
“For the first time since (coach) Todd Graham’s first season, the Sun Devils didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason AP Top 25. Put simply, no one expects much from this year’s Sun Devils. No one. At the same time, there’s pressure. For one, back-to-back mediocre seasons would make the previous back-to-back 10-win seasons look more like a fluke than a sign of things to come. But perhaps more important, Arizona State is about to start the final phase of a massive Sun Devil Stadium reconstruction. Programs generally like to jump into such things with momentum, not back-to-back appearances in lower-level bowls. That kind of mediocrity is a tough sell in a pro-sports market.
“Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez flirted with the South Carolina job over the summer, but chose to stay in Tucson. He overhauled his defensive staff, which already has helped with recruiting. It just seems like he has more of a cushion if things go sideways this season. And perhaps the biggest thing in his favor: If the Wildcats struggle, a lot of fans will turn their attention to Sean Miller’s basketball program in October.
“Hard to believe, but over the last two seasons, Utah has more wins than any other Pac-12 South team; more than USC, more than UCLA. And with one of the nation’s best defensive lines, the Utes may challenge again this year. Coach Kyle Whittingham is in fine shape.”
From Anthony Gimino of tucsonnewsnow.com, who covers Arizona:
“Utah is now on solid Pac-12 footing and is the program I expected it to be — tough to beat, capable of making a run at the division title more often than not. No heat on Kyle Whittingham.
“Arizona shouldn’t be in a rush. (Coach) Rich Rodriguez’s reset on defense, combined with the program’s new recruiting muscle and an already-strong 2017 class, points toward a good future, even if the Wildcats tread water this season. This is RichRod’s fifth season. (Arizona’s winningest football coach) Dick Tomey didn’t start rolling at Arizona until his sixth, so there’s precedent for being patient.
“That leaves the Sun Devils. The expectations are always higher in Tempe than in Tucson, as is the need to make a splash in a much-more competitive sports market. Todd Graham’s boasting, at least in previous seasons, wouldn’t look so good if he posts back-to-back middling records.”
From Kyle Goon of the Salt Lake Tribune, who covers Utah:
“There does seem to be a little added heat on the Arizona schools this year. Todd Graham stalled out last season after a brisk start to his tenure, and being in Tempe obviously puts him against a bunch of pro teams competing for interest. RichRod’s overhaul of his staff signals that something dramatic needed to change only a year after the Wildcats won the South.
“But Utah needs to win this year if it wants to continue to generate momentum. If you look at Utah’s strongest units — defensive line, cornerback, offensive line — there’s a ton of seniors, which is why they’ve been highly touted this fall. Their strength is in the trenches and the secondary, and their success will rely entirely on how they place pieces around those strengths.
“The table is set for a significant drop-off next season when a lot of the experience leaves. Defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei and free safety Marcus Williams are also threats to enter the draft early. While the Utes feel good about the talent they added this offseason, they need to keep pushing forward — getting to the Pac-12 title game this year would be the next step. If the passing game holds them back again despite adding a four-star junior college transfer, Whittingham could face considerable scrutiny for how the offense has stalled out. Another change at offensive coordinator wouldn’t sit well, either.”
Two of the writers chose ASU, with Goon also acknowledging the challenges Graham faces in Tempe.
Adding to Graham’s pressure at ASU is the results-now approach of athletic director Ray Anderson. In less than three years on the job, Anderson has hired 14 new coaches at ASU and they have largely been high-profile hires, including basketball coach Bobby Hurley, swimming’s Bob Bowman (Michael Phelps’ coach) and wrestling’s Zeke Jones, who won silver in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, and coached the 2012 U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling team in London.
It would be inaccurate to say Graham is on the hot seat this season, but if he produces another mediocre season like last year’s, even with the rampant inexperience on this roster, he will enter the 2017 season in a decidedly uncomfortable position. Anderson has little patience for anything but excellence.