Early 2014 Pac-12 South power rankings: As UCLA-USC goes, so goes the division

Jeff Gross

The Bruins and Trojans feature plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, while both Arizona schools will try to keep their programs headed in the right directions. It's way too early in 2014 to come up with definitive division standings, but Scott Coleman eyeballs how the six teams look to stack up.

The Pac-12 is a conference on the rise right now, and an argument can be made that it was perhaps a hair better than the SEC from top to bottom last season. The South Division wasn't quite as good as the North in 2013, but with plenty of talent returning for next year, it should be an excellent race. It seems like there are at least three, if not four, teams that could be legitimate contenders for the division crown.

1. UCLA Bruins

2013 Finish: 10-3, second in Pac-12 South, No. 16 in AP and Coaches

Returning Starters: 16

Quarterback Brett Hundley's decision to return to college made Jim Mora's Bruins the team to beat in the South. Despite having to operate behind an inexperienced offensive line, Hundley finished third in the conference in passer rating last season and will have plenty of weapons around him moving forward, including five of his top six 2013 targets.

The Bruins return nine starters on offense, though the loss of top wide receiver Shaq Evans shouldn't be overlooked. An offensive line that started three freshmen for most of last season could be one of the best in the conference, even with first-team All-Pac-12 guard Xavier Su'a-filo leaving for the NFL. UCLA should also feature quite the mix out of the backfield with Paul Perkins, Jordon James, and linebacker-turned-tailback Myles Jack likely to split carries. Jack could be a darkhorse candidate for the Heisman if he gets enough touches.

UCLA will lose a considerable amount of talent on defense. Consensus All-American linebacker Anthony Barr heads to the NFL, with three other members of the front seven also leaving. Still, the defense should be solid enough to justify a preseason top-10 ranking, with Jack and former five-star lineman prospect Eddie Vanderdoes among those who'll need to step up.

The Bruins are also the South team likeliest to find an impact freshman, as they currently hold the division's top recruiting class on the 247Sports Composite.

2. USC Trojans

2013 Finish: 10-4, third in Pac-12 South, No. 19 in AP and Coaches

Returning Starters: 13

After an up-and-down campaign in 2013, the Trojans will hope for stability under new head coach Steve Sarkisian, formerly of Washington. Sarkisian, a former USC assistant, posted a 34-29 record with the Huskies while leading a respectable rebuild.

The rest of the offseason was rough for USC, as it was ravaged with early NFL Draft declarations, losing starters in Marqise Lee, Dion Bailey, Morgan Breslin, Xavier Grimble, Marcus Martin, and George Uko. But, there's considerable talent remaining in Southern California.

Quarterback Cody Kessler returns for his junior season after an impressive finish to his sophomore campaign. Javorius Allen and Tre Madden are also expected to return, giving the Trojans two quality running backs. Lee leaving for the NFL will leave a void among the wide receivers, though Nelson Agholor could be primed for a breakout season as the No. 1 option down the field.

The determining factor as to just how good the Trojans will be: the defense, which Football Outsiders ranked as the country's fifth-best in 2013. It loses talent to the NFL, and new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will have his hands full, but the talented coach should be able to build a strong unit around star defensive end Leonard Williams.

3. Arizona State Sun Devils

2013 Finish: 10-4, first in Pac-12 South, No. 20 in Coaches, No. 21 in AP

Returning Starters: 10

The defending division champs will lose a lot next year, especially on the defensive side of the ball, with just three starters set to return. It could be a long year for Todd Graham if the Sun Devils are unable to find adequate replacements for defensive stars Carl Bradford, Alden Darby, Will Sutton, and others.

Fortunately for the Devils, quarterback Taylor Kelly returns, with two years of starting experience under his belt. Kelly should be one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12 next season, with plenty of weapons around him. Also returning is wide receiver Jaelen Strong, an NFL prospect who might just be the top wideout in the conference. Speedster running back  D.J. Foster will also return, and he will need to step up in a big way to replace Marion Grice out of the backfield.

Offense shouldn't be the issue in Tempe. It's going to be whether or not ASU can consistently get stops.

4. Arizona Wildcats

2013 Finish: 8-5, fourth in Pac-12 South, unranked

Returning Starters: 12

The Wildcats have won eight games in each of Rich Rodriguez's first two seasons in Tucson, and that will likely be the benchmark once again in 2014.

Ka'Deem Carey, who was arguably the best running back in the country last season, decided to turn pro. Carey was the best offensive player in school history, and while the Cats do have a few options to replace him, his departure will be evident from day one. Also gone is quarterback B.J. Denker, who was pretty inconsistent in his lone season as the starter. Look for redshirt freshman Anu Solomon or Texas transfer Connor Brewer to take over the job.

While Arizona will have a new starting quarterback and running back, there is reason for optimism. Four offensive linemen return, and thanks to incoming transfers Davonte Neal and Cayleb Jones, UA may have the best group of wide receivers in the conference.

The defense, which in 2013 slashed its 2012 yards-allowed-per-play figure by more than half a yard, returns six starters.

5. Utah Utes

2013 Finish: 5-7, fifth in Pac-12 South, unranked

Returning Starters: 10 or 11

Last season was widely disappointing for the Utes, who dropped five of their final six games after upsetting Stanford in mid-October. Kyle Whittingham made (even more) changes to his staff, bringing in former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen to oversee the offense. If the program doesn't turn things around in 2014, Whittingham could find himself out of a job this time next year.

The Utes return about five players each on offense and defense. Quarterback Travis Wilson could be gone due to injury -- Adam Schulz did pick up some experience late in the year and would be the odds-on favorite to win the job. Dres Anderson cracked 1,000 yards last year and could be one of the top wideouts in the league if he can get the ball. And there is some talent on defense, with defensive end Nate Orchard and safety Eric Rowe set to return.

Still, with all of the turnover on the roster, becoming bowl eligible is probably a realistic goal for the Utes.

6. Colorado Buffaloes

2013 Finish: 4-8, last in Pac-12 South, unranked

Returning Starters: 15

Colorado has been unable to get out of the cellar in the South since joining the conference three years ago. With quite a few starters returning on both sides of the ball, the Buffs could challenge Utah for fifth place.

Sefo Liufau seemed to get a little better each week after taking over as the starting quarterback in October and has a bright future. All-Pac-12 wide receiver Paul Richardson turning pro early was a real blow to the offense, though Nelson Spruce should be able to fill his shoes a bit as the go-to wide receiver.

The defense was a real mess last year, ranking 115th nationally in points per game allowed. While the unit should improve somewhat, it will likely keep Colorado from winning more than four or five games once again. The rest of the conference is just that good. However, Mike MacIntyre has the program headed in the right direction.

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