Last season, five teams from the Pac-12 South — Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, USC and Utah — finished ranked in the Top 25. All won either nine or 10 games and only Arizona lost its bowl game.
Fittingly, the division title wasn’t decided until the final weekend, with Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA all in the mix. USC and Utah were only eliminated the week prior.
“It’s a dog fight every year,” said Arizona State head coach Todd Graham. His Sun Devils won that dog fight in 2013, beating UCLA in the penultimate game of the regular season to advance to the Pac-12 Championship Game. “The margin of error is very small. Obviously there’s great parity, and you’ve got to have a lot of things go right for you.
“I really like our chances,” Graham added. “This will be the best team we’ve had [in four years at Arizona State.]”
Arizona State’s coaching staff isn’t the only one in the the Pac-12 South that expects to be improved. From top-to-bottom, the division should be even tougher in 2015, with all five teams returning numerous key players on both sides of the ball: Devontae Booker, Nick Wilson, Paul Perkins and Cody Kessler on offense; Scooby Wright, Su’a Cravens, Myles Jack and Deon Hollins on defense; and that’s only scratching the surface.
Such competition and depth makes it exceedingly difficult for a program to show tangible evidence of progress, which is precisely the challenge third-year Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre faces.
“It’s the best division in college football,” MacIntyre said, inadvertently adding fuel to an offseason debate raging on sports talk radio airwaves. The Pac-12 South’s reputation is expanding nationally, enough so that some pundits support it as the toughest division in the sports; more so, even, than the mighty SEC West.
While MacIntyre has reason to be bias, he knows just how tough the division is, particularly for a program trying to build after more than a decade of languishing in the doldrums. Last year, MacIntyre endured an 0-9 finish in Pac-12 play, and a regression to 2-10 after the 2013 season’s promising 4-8 finish.
But despite the Buffs’ lack of success since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 — their four wins in 2013 were their most in the last four years — even they contribute to the weekly grind that is the Pac-12. Colorado lost four conference games by a combined 15 points, including to UCLA and Utah by a total of seven.
With a more veteran lineup — “we’re not a JV team anymore,” MacIntyre said — the Buffs could very well factor into that narrow margin of error Graham mentioned. Look for Colorado, behind third-year starting quarterback Sefo Liufau, to spoil someone’s Pac-12 title aspirations.
Don’t think the rest of the division is unaware, however. Each week in the Pac-12 South slate is a potential landmine that can blow up the road to Levi’s Stadium, home of the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The Pac-12 South might be the “best” division in college football; it might not. But it’s certainly one of the most treacherous.