A third of the college football season has come and gone. It seems like a good time to break down the Pac-12 South division.
Through four games, USC looks like the team everybody expected it to be. Although it took the Trojans an overtime period to beat Texas, and they had a tough time taking down Cal, they have looked impressive thus far. Ronald Jones and freshman standout Stephen Carr have lifted the Trojans to the fourth-ranked rushing offense in the Pac-12.
The ground game has been something that’s allowed the Trojans to establish a multi-dimensional offensive attack, control the clock and move the chains. At quarterback, Sam Darnold has been able to consistently stretch the field with his arm, while displaying prime time play-making ability and simultaneously living up to the preseason hype. Darnold has been aided by wideout Deontay Burnett (who ranks second in the Pac-12 in receptions) and sure-handed tight end Tyler Petite.
On defense, linebacker Cameron Smith leads the unit well, recording 35 tackles over four games, despite the fact he was suspended for the first quarter against Western Michigan. Although the Trojans defense has been average at best, it has done a good enough job limiting opponents’ point totals to win games. With the Trojans’ level of explosiveness and play-making ability on offense, I stand by my preseason prediction that they will go undefeated and win the Pac-12 this year.
Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils are a team that’s surprised everybody so far. Quarterback Manny Wilkins ranks third in the Pac-12 in total offense, while showing he can use his feet to extend plays. Big-bodied receiver N’Keal Harry has looked great, with back-to-back dominating performances against Texas Tech and Oregon.
On defense, the Sun Devils have been atrocious. They’re in the bottom third of the Pac-12 in every defensive statistical category (total, rush and pass defense).
Although their defense may be bad, the ultimate Achilles heel for ASU is its horrible offensive line. The o-line has been consistently dominated in the trenches. Worst of all, the offense hasn’t been able to maximize the potential of talented running back Kalen Ballage.
Although they might not be contending for a Pac-12 title, the Sun Devils look like a team that can stay with any opponent. Having a talented quarterback lined up under center gives them a chance in every game. Thus far, they’re 1-0 in conference play, and there’s no reason to believe they don’t have the ability to win seven games.
The Utah Utes have won all four of their games on defense. Thus far, the Utes have held opponents to 18.8 points per game and rank third in the Pac-12 in total defense. Their secondary is led by cornerback Casey Hughes, who forced two fumbles in the game against Arizona last weekend. He is joined by the talented safety tandem of Chase Hansen and Corey Ballard. The Utes’ secondary has outstanding takeaway ability, which allows them to flip the dynamic of any game instantly.
On offense, they’ve looked significantly less impressive, but still have the ability to score enough points to win. Anytime there’s a team with a great defense, the primary job offensively becomes protecting the football. Quarterback Tyler Huntley has done just that, completing 73 percent of his passes with only two interceptions.
Unfortunately for the Utes, Huntley suffered a shoulder injury against Arizona and his status for this weekend remains up in the air. If he’s unable to play in the game against Stanford in two weeks, former starter Troy Williams will be the one lining up under center. Although Williams adds a new element to the offense with his ability to take off and run, he’s struggled with turnovers in the past, throwing eight interceptions last season. If their defense is able to keep up their dominant play, then I believe the Utes will win double digit games.
Thus far, the UCLA Bruins have been the epitome of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde team. UCLA is great on one side of the ball, but horrible on the other. Defensively, the Bruins rank dead last in rushing defense and total defense. Consistently stopping the run is something they’ve shown an inability to do. While the Bruins passing defense ranks in the middle of the Pac-12, they haven’t exactly been lights out either.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Bruins are a completely different story. They rank first in total offense. Quarterback Josh Rosen has made headlines this year for his big-play ability, excellent precision passing and orchestrating the biggest comeback in college football in the last decade in the season opener against Texas A&M.
It’s no secret that Rosen is a special player, and I don’t think it would be surprising if he was taken high in the first round of the NFL draft come April. As with any good quarterback, having him under center instantly gives the Bruins a chance of winning every time they take the field. Rosen is aided by several talented wide receivers in Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews, as well as tight end Caleb Wilson.
Running back Soso Jamabo is also starting to get into his rhythm, after having his first 100-yard game against Stanford last week. I think the Bruins will rebound and ultimately get better despite the fact that they are coming off two tough losses to Memphis and Stanford. Since their units on each side of the ball are performing at opposite ends of the spectrum, they’ll end up playing a lot of high-scoring games the rest of the season.
If their defense doesn’t improve, it’ll be hard for them to outscore opponents consistently.
The Buffaloes have been a team that’s simply hard to evaluate. Their first three wins came against non-Power Five opponents, two of which were against teams that Colorado paid to come play them.
The Buffs’ first conference matchup against the Washington Huskies was a disaster. They got dominated on both sides of the ball, ultimately losing 37-10.
In the secondary, the Buffs have one of the best cornerbacks in college football with junior Isaiah Oliver. The Buffs can feel comfortable about neutralizing a team’s number one wideout, as Oliver leads the team with seven pass breakups and two interceptions.
He is a ballhawk and is also truly a special talent. The Buffs run defense against Washington was “pitiful,” as Coach Mike MacIntyre put it, allowing the Huskies to reach nearly 300 yards on the ground. This was their first true test against a talented running back, and they definitely failed.
If they want to be a legitimate contender in the Pac-12, they’re going to need improvement in this area, especially with Jamabo, Jones and Patrick Laird on their schedule. If the Buffs can improve their run defense, I think they can easily have one of, if not the best, defenses in the Pac-12.
On the other side of the ball, the Buffaloes have struggled with execution. They rank second to last in total offense. Between a struggling offensive line, a wide receiving core that hasn’t lived up to its sky-high expectations and quarterback Steven Montez’s turnovers, the Buffaloes haven’t been able to capitalize offensively.
It’s no secret this team is loaded with talent top to bottom, However, CU is going to need to make more timely plays and consistently move the ball down the field if it wants a chance of contending this year. Despite the Buffs’ solid defense, they’re only going to be able to do so much if the offense can’t put points on the board.
The Arizona Wildcats have surpassed many of their expectations for this season. Although the Wildcats sit at a pedestrian 2-2 record, both of their losses were by less than a touchdown. Furthermore, they lead the Pac-12 in rushing offense. Between speedy quarterback Brandon Dawkins and running back JJ Taylor, the Wildcats have the ability to take teams on a game-long track meet.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats haven’t had the same success passing the ball as they have had running, as they rank dead last in the Pac-12 for passing offense. Dawkins also has a Blake Bortles-esque knack for turning the ball over, something that killed the team in their 30-24 loss to the Utes.
If Arizona wants to find more success on offense, it needs to get slot receiving extraordinaires Tony Ellison and Shun Brown more involved in the play calling. Both players have shown the ability to elevate the team’s play, so it’s about time they play a bigger role in the offense.
Otherwise, the Wildcats offensive game plan will become more predictable as the season goes on. The teams are also going to stack the box, which will force them to throw the ball.
On defense, the Wildcats have made leaps and bounds from a year ago in defensive coordinator Marcel Yates’s sophomore season. Their points per game total is down over 40 percent to just over 22 from over 38 last year.
Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that they’re performing so well with several freshman playing large roles in the defense. Linebackers Kylan Wilborn and Tony Fields are seemingly in on every tackle, while safety Scottie Young has done a solid job anchoring the secondary.
Losing close games is the norm with any young team, but I truly feel like the Wildcats are on the rise. If their defense performs up to par and the offensive passing attack gets going and reduces the turnovers, they can be serious contenders. Overall, I expect the Wildcats to finish around .500.
Contact CU Independent Sports Staff writer Jack Stern at firstname.lastname@example.org.