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Yes or no? Trying to Make Sense of the Pac-12 South in 2015

The Pac-12 South features four teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 and five that finished in the polls a season ago. All have major question marks ahead of the 2015 season, yet each could be — should be? — improved over a year ago.

And, speaking of improved, the division’s last-place finisher in 2014, Colorado, may have made the most strides of any Pac-12 South team.

Put those ingredients together, and the end result is chaos; pure, unadulterated chaos. The 2015 Pac-12 South season could be wilder than the 2014 installment — and last year saw five teams still in the hunt for the conference championship midway through November, with three jockeying for a Pac-12 Championship Game berth on Black Friday.

Untangling the likely mess that is the Pac-12 South race takes Sherlock Holmes levels of deduction. Frankly, I lack the insight of Sir Conan Doyle’s super-sleuth, and I can’t pull off an ear-flapped cap.

Nevertheless, I’ll break out the magnifying glass and pipe and examine why the Pac-12 South’s contender can win the division — and why each can’t.

Should Colorado win the South, you can consider my sleuthing career a spectacular bust.

ARIZONA WILDCATS

Why They’ll Win the Pac-12 South

The defending divisional champions were picked fourth in the preseason media poll, which prompted head coach Rich Rodriguez to point out that’s where the Wildcats were tabbed a year ago.

Arizona is flying under the radar somewhat, despite returning arguably the best wide receiving corps in the nation, Rodriguez’s first two-year starter since arriving at UA, and the nation’s top linebacker, Scooby Wright.

On paper, this is Rodriguez’s best team in his years with the Wildcats.

Why They Won’t

The Wildcats play a brutal schedule sans bye week. Attrition could easily wear this team down by late October and into the final month, the ill effects of which it experienced firsthand a season ago.

Quarterback Anu Solomon played much of the last month on an injured ankle, which limited Arizona’s typically explosive offense. Losing either Solomon or running back Nick Wilson greatly alters the outlook for the defending champions.

ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS

Why They’ll Win the Pac-12 South

Scoring points has been of no issue for Arizona State since head coach Todd Graham and his staff arrived. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s super-charged the Sun Devil attack, and this year’s version may well be his most explosive yet.

The move of D.J. Foster to wide receiver opens up a new world of possibilities for the Arizona State offense, which will be run by pass-first quarterback Mike Bercovici.

Why They Won’t

Arizona State’s defense struggled mightily against premier Pac-12 South opponents, surrendering a combined 138 points to Arizona, UCLA and USC. Much like the Sun Devil offense, the defense relies on home-run plays.

Such a philosophy works with Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Robert Nelson in the lineup. Replacing them proved difficult in 2014, and it remains to be seen if a more experienced rotation in the coming season can replicate the 2013 team’s efforts.

UCLA BRUINS

Why They’ll Win the Pac-12 South

No team in the conference is more veteran than UCLA. The Bruins return the Pac-12’s leading rusher, Paul Perkins, an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver and the entire offensive line and every defensive starter but two.

UCLA’s collection of veterans contributed to back-to-back 10-win seasons, and are primed to break through to an even higher level of success in 2015.

The Bruins feature one of the best front sevens in college football, with tackle Kenny Clark and end Eddie Vanderdoes on the line, and the talented linebacker duo of Myles Jack and Deon Hollins behind them. Opponents will find running the ball difficult, and the secondary re-adding safety Randall Goforth promises to make throwing on UCLA equally challenging.

Why They Won’t

Of the few positions head coach Jim Mora had to replace, the most significant is quarterback. Mora announced true freshman Josh Rosen would take the reins last week.

Rosen will endure inevitable growing pains, but the key for UCLA is he get them out of the way quickly. The Bruins’ open conference play at Arizona on Sept. 26, then host Arizona State a week later.

If Rosen struggles through the first month, the Bruins could be eliminated from contention before Columbus Day.

USC TROJANS

Why They’ll Win the Pac-12 South

The media’s pick to win not only the Pac-12 South, but the conference championship as a whole, returns some valuable pieces from a nine-win team. Chief among the veterans is quarterback Cody Kessler, a USC record-setter and one of the top Heisman Trophy contenders in the coming campaign.

Surrounding him are a variety of playmakers. Kessler is operating behind one of the most veteran lines in college football. He’ll also have a more diverse group of receivers to target this year than last.

Sophomores JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson lived up to their 5-star recruiting billing last year, and figure to play key roles as sophomores. Jackson will also be crucial to the defense as its lock-down corner.

Why They Won’t

USC struggled in road games last year, losing at Boston College, Utah and UCLA. This continued a trend that prevented head coach Steve Sarkisian’s Washington teams from contending for the Pac-12 championship.

With road games against Arizona State and Oregon in conference play this year, and the every-other-trip to Notre Dame in the nonconference slate, USC faces one of the most treacherous road schedules in all of college football.

UTAH UTES

Why They’ll Win the Pac-12 South

In a division full of uptempo offenses, Utah’s blend of run-first offense complementing a stingy defense poses a unique challenge. The Utes like to grind down the tempo, and do so successfully with one of the most stifling pass-rushes in college football.

Losing defensive end Nate Orchard is a challenge, but Utah consistently replaces top-flight defenders with equally productive stand-ins. The pass-rush should be fine, particularly given the Utes return a stacked linebacker corps with Jared Norris and Gionni Paul.

The grinding defense, combined with a dominant special teams — punter Tom Hackett might be the best in the nation — works nicely with the run-based offense. Back Devontae Booker may be the best Utah has had at the position.

Why They Won’t

Quarterback play has been a lingering problem at Utah since the Utes’ perfect 2008 campaign. Despite Travis Wilson’s return, questions about the position remain. Can Wilson sustain the flashes of brilliance he’s shown at times in his previous three years as starter, or will Utah have to turn the signal-calling over to Kendal Thompson?

Establishing the threat of a pass is essential to open lanes for Booker, and Utah struggled to do so in the latter-half of the 2014 season.

A continued inability to throw will hinder Utah’s ground-and-pound scheme.

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