From 2002 to 2008, USC went 82-9, won a national title, shared another, and was the most feared program in America. They were Alabama, a decade ago. But since Pete Carroll’s departure after the 2009 season, that power hasn’t been seen here. Except for the final four weeks of the 2011 season, a year cut short by an NCAA postseason ban, USC hasn’t returned to that level of dominance. Hiring Lane Kiffin above his head didn’t help. Nor did UCLA’s resurgence to make Los Angeles a two-team city again. And the NCAA scholarship reduction certainly didn’t help.
This 2015 USC team has all of the familiar features of their best teams: a well-experienced and efficient pocket passer, a deep stable of skill players, a disruptive defense, and yes, even a senior linebacker wearing the vaunted #55 jersey… USC is back and here to stay.
This time last year, while every other magazine and website predicted UCLA to win the Pac-12 South, we were the only ones to pick USC. And while no one saw the surge of the South Division coming, it appears that we were a year early with the USC hype. There were certainly flashes of brilliance, almost all coming in the first three quarters, as this small roster wore down and struggled in the 4th quarter. While the program is still building towards restoring the roster to 85 scholarships, the 75 in 2015 is a HUGE step up from the 57 they had suited up in 2014. That boost comes from the Trojans first unofficial win in 2015, Signing Day, where Steve Sarkisian and his staff pulled in the #2 recruiting class in the nation. This is a team that was a Hail Mary (ASU) and last-second touchdown (Utah) away from 11 wins. 11 is a fair benchmark of where the bar should be set this season.
Well, the UCLA football program has come a long way since the 2011 regular season finale when the L.A. Coliseum’s scoreboard read: USC 50 UCLA 0. Since that lowpoint, Jim Mora’s 3-year record of 29-11 is the best start to a coaching tenure in school history. Not only has he turned Los Angeles into a two-team city again, but has even stole back the city title by defeating USC by double-digits in all three seasons. Mora turned around performance on the field, but also provided a much-needed spark on the recruiting trail. His first class (2012) was ranked 19th nationally, while his first full recruiting cycle (2013) resulted in the 7th best class. Twelve of those recruits started as true freshmen in 2013, and are now the veterans of this super-experienced team that returns 18 returning starters. Can this group bring home the school’s first conference title since 1998? Besides losing their top leader on both sides of the ball, the roster is intact and loaded with elite talent.
The South Division has recently been a three-horse race between UCLA, USC, and Arizona State, but the surge of Arizona and Utah last season make this the 2nd toughest division in America. While UCLA has seen drastic improvement over Mora’s tenure so far, the rest of the division has made gains as well.
After an 8-5 year with a very inexperienced team in his first season here, Todd Graham broke the 10-win barrier in 2013. That preseason, while the rest of the nation was enamored with the LA teams, I was the only one to predict Arizona State to win the Pac-12 South – and they did just that. That 2013 team was senior-laden and even in what looked like a rebuilding year in 2014, Graham again won 10 games. The youth of 2014 are now experienced veterans, plus Graham added in some top-notch JUCO talent to compliment the already talented roster. This has a similar feeling to the 2013 preseason, but two years later, the LA teams actually deserve the hype, and the overall talent level of the league has certainly improved. While Arizona State looks like a top 15 or top 20 team, it may only be good enough for a 3rd place finish in the brutal Pac-12 South.
Boise State often gets the credit as the non-AQ team that burst onto the BCS scene; heck, they even renamed their mascot “Buster,” as in, BCS Buster. But actually it was Utah, back in 2004, who originally broke down the barrier. Urban Meyer led the undefeated Utes to the Fiesta Bowl and destroyed Pitt 35-7, then 4 years later Kyle Whittingham led the Utes to the Sugar Bowl and humbled Saban’s Alabama team 31-17. It was that 2008 Utes team that really escalated the pressure on the BCS and its exclusion of lower-tier teams. 3 years later, with the Pac-10’s expansion to 12 teams, the Utes found themselves upgrading to the big leagues, and haven’t been able to reach the same level of success that they had in the Mountain West – until last season. Utah had been stuck towards the bottom of the South Division in each of their first 3 seasons, but the 2014 team was able to break through and bring home a winning record in the Pac-12. But boy was it nerve-wracking. SEVEN of their nine league games were decided by a score or less. The Utes went 5-2 in those contests, clearly swinging from a losing season to one that represented progress in their new league. Was it luck or ol’ fashioned hard-nosed grit. I think it was some of both, but the team looks even stronger heading into 2015. However, will Utah’s development and progress be able to keep pace with the rest of the league, a surging conference/division that looks stronger than ever?
In 2008 Mike Stoops brought Arizona back to bowl season for the first time in a decade. After a few more bowl trips, Rich Rodriguez stepped in and in his third season, brought home the South Division title. It was an unlikely road to the top, especially with a freshman quarterback in the 2nd hardest division in America. The South title was the schools first and only Pac-12 title of any sort, besides sharing the Pac-10 crown in 1993. In fact, Arizona is the only original member to have never earned a trip to the Rose Bowl – and despite being on the fringe of Playoff talk last December, I don’t expect the Wildcats to be anywhere near the roses this fall.
Given Colorado’s struggles, it must be hard for the younger generation of college football fans to imagine that this program was once feared, and earned both a national championship and a Heisman Trophy in the 1990s. After the successful Gary Barnett era, the wheels began to fall off under Dan Hawkins (21-40 from 2006-2010), but then hit rock bottom since the conference move from the Big 12 to the Pac-12. It is quite strange to reflect on the 2007 Independence Bowl, a game that featured Alabama and Colorado as comparable 6-6 peers. Since that loss, CU is just 23-62. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, CU is 4-33 in league games, 10-39 overall, and just 3 FBS teams have fewer wins over that span. How can this issue be fixed, what needs to be done?
It was actually Colorado, not Nebraska, who was the first program to declare its departure from the unstable Big 12. CU headed west, where they cite that a majority of alumni are based out of. It usually takes teams a few years to adjust to a conference change; the style of play, opponents, and recruiting territories are all new. But we are now in year 5 in the Pac-12 and there is no sign of leaving the South Division’s cellar. Fellow expansion-partner Utah finally broke through with a winning record in the conference last season, but Colorado remains entrenched in last. Well, it is Mike MacIntyre’s 3rd season here, and if his prior stint at San Jose State is any indicator, the third time’s the charm. His progression there went 1-11, 5-7. 12-1! While there is no way in heck that Colorado approaches that 3rd year figure, there is also no doubt that progress is being made, regardless of it that will be reflected in the win column. CU is installing a state-of-the-art facility, which finally marks some catching up to their Pac-12 adversaries. Keeping pace with on-field progress, however, is a different issue – especially in the red hot Pac-12 South.