In the South, it looks like it's USC ... and then everyone else.
On Wednesday, we previewed the Pac-12 North, where Washington is expected to be a heavy favorite to repeat as the division football champ.
Today, a primer on the Pac-12 South, where it’s USC … and everyone else.
Here’s how I see things unfolding:
1. USC (2016 record: 10-3, 7-2 Pac-12)
2. Utah (10-3, 5-4)
3. UCLA (4-8, 2-7)
4. Colorado (10-4, 8-1)
5. Arizona State (5-7, 2-7)
6. Arizona (3-9, 1-8)
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South game of the year: Utah at USC, Oct. 14. In quarterback Sam Darnold’s first start for USC, the Utes defeated the Trojans 31-27 in Salt Lake City last season. USC hasn’t lost since.
Team on the rise: UCLA. The second tier of teams in the South appears a mixed bag. Touted quarterback Josh Rosen missed much of last season because of a shoulder injury. If he can stay healthy, the Bruins might have a shot to challenge USC for the South title.
Team on the decline: Colorado. The story of the year in the conference — if not the nation — last season, the Buffaloes lost nine starters on defense (including safety Tedric Thompson, the Seahawks’ fourth-round draft pick) and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who is now at Oregon as the conference’s highest-paid coordinator.
Easiest schedule: Colorado. The Buffaloes open with a neutral-site game against rival Colorado State, then host Texas State and Northern Colorado to close out their non-conference schedule.
Toughest schedule: UCLA. The Bruins open against Texas A&M and travel to Washington (Oct. 28), Utah (Nov. 3) and USC (Nov. 18).
New faces to know: Former Michigan assistant Jedd Fisch is Jim Mora’s third offensive coordinator in three years. … Troy Taylor, Jake Browning’s coach and mentor at Folsom (Calif.) High School, is Utah’s new offensive coordinator — the eighth coordinator in nine years under Kyle Whittingham. … Phil Bennett is the new defensive coordinator at Arizona State.
Don’t forget about: J.J. Taylor, running back, Arizona. The fast freshman rushed for 265 yards in just seven quarters during his first two college games last fall before suffering a broken ankle against the Huskies. He’s back and joins veteran Nick Wilson in a formidable backfield.
Offensive player of the year: Sam Darnold, quarterback, USC. Against perhaps the best secondary in UW history, Darnold was better than anyone against the Huskies last season, throwing for 287 yards and two touchdowns (and two interceptions) in the Trojans’ upset at Husky Stadium. He was even better in the Rose Bowl — 453 yards and five touchdowns — and the third-year sophomore enters 2017 as the odds-on Heisman favorite and projected top pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
Defensive player of the year: Lowell Lotulelei, defensive tackle, Utah. The Utes consistently have one of the conference’s more-productive defensive lines, and the 310-pound Lotulelei is Utah’s best.
South breakout candidates:
Armand Shyne, running back, Utah. He was the Utes’ leading rusher in early October before a season-ending knee injury. The door is open for him to take over as the featured back.
Marlon Tuipulotu, defensive tackle, USC. The longtime UW commit made an 11th-hour flip to the Trojans — and now is a potential starter as a true freshman on the USC defensive line.
Darnay Holmes, cornerback, UCLA. The top-rated cornerback in the 2017 recruiting class could jump in immediately as a starter for Bruins’ young defense.
Pac-12 champion: Washington. Even with John Ross III’s early departure to the NFL, the Huskies’ offense has a chance — a good chance — to be even better behind a deep backfield, a stout line and a veteran quarterback.