The Pac-12 South needs to find its true North very quickly

The SEC West and the Pac-12 South — these were the two best divisions in the two best conferences last season. Ohio State and Michigan State, from the same Big Ten division, both occupied the season-ending (post-bowl) top five last January, but in terms of a top-to-bottom division, the SEC West and Pac-12 South stood above all the others.

As the 2015 season began, most pundits were expecting chaos and plot twists — but this didn’t necessarily mean that each division would suffer as a collective whole.

Three weeks into the season, it’s too early for a definitive verdict, but there’s cause for concern in the SEC West, and there’s reason for outright panic in the Pac-12 South. This is one of the many tension points brought to the surface by the first three weeks of the season, but by week three in particular.

In the SEC West, Auburn and Arkansas are in major trouble, with Mississippi State — not expected to do much this season — fighting an uphill battle. However, for each team that’s struggling in the division, there’s a positive counterbalance: LSU, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M have done as well as their fans could have reasonably expected, and in some cases, much better. Alabama is wounded, but the Tide certainly have the makings of a team that could still be in the hunt two months from now.

It’s in the Pac-12 South where concerns flow more fully through the division. Yes, some teams have not really taken a tumble yet, but no one team has yet made a huge national statement. This coming weekend will tell us a lot about the division as a whole.


College GameDay, as you almost surely know by now, will make its way to the Old Pueblo this Saturday for the UCLA-Arizona clash, the battle of unbeatens in the Pac-12 South. That’s certainly a compelling game, and it’s quite true that the winner will certainly get a leg up on the competition in the battle for a division title. However, as fun as early-season matchups of unbeatens might be — we’re talking about preferences and tastes here, not facts or empirical truths — give me the early-season survival game over the early-season unbeatens any day of the week.

Late October and November are when I want my clashes of the titans. In late September, at the start of conference play, I want games drenched in desperation between teams which have already given themselves very little margin for error over the next two months.

What I’m saying is this: Give me USC at Arizona State over Bruins-Wildcats. The Sun Devils and Trojans play a game on Saturday in which the future becomes extremely dark for the losing side. The team which falls short in Tempe could afford, at most, one more loss over the rest of the season. Neither Arizona State nor USC could possibly call this season a success with more than three losses. Arriving at two losses on the night of September 26 would be a living hell… or for a team named the Sun Devils, the equivalent of permanent banishment to the North Pole.

Some two-loss teams across the country — think of Arkansas as a particular example — seem to exist beyond all hope at this point. The Razorbacks have to go to Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss. Any possible chance of having a season which would live up to expectations is just about gone. For ASU and USC, that’s not quite the case. We have seen teams lose once in September or early October — USC, in fact, is a team which wrote the graduate school seminar on how to do this in the old Pac-10 — and still win both the conference and the Rose Bowl.

However, for USC, this is not a Pete Carroll world. It’s a Steve Sarkisian world. The man who seemed out of his depth at Washington; left Seattle without having done much of anything; and then allowed the final 90 seconds of Saturday’s game against Stanford to dwindle away — instead of kicking a field goal with 45 to 50 seconds left, as he absolutely needed to do — is the man in charge of the Trojans. He’s headed on the Lane Kiffin Highway to Nowhere if he can’t win this game against the Sun Devils.

As for Arizona State, the most alarming part of the first three games of the season is not that the Sun Devils have lost a game. Weirdly enough, their game against Texas A&M was their best performance of the three. Sparky regressed in a big way against Cal Poly in week two and was little better over the first two and a half quarters against New Mexico last Friday. Mike Bercovici, who dazzled at times last season and appeared ready for a breakout 2015, has been thunderously underwhelming, a story unto himself not because of his presence, but because of his absence as a forcce on the field. Sure, ASU misses Jaelen Strong a ton, but the departure of one wide receiver should not translate into the profound deterioration of Todd Graham’s high-octane offense.

USC, under beleaguered coordinator Justin Wilcox, is extremely vulnerable on defense. If Bercovici and the ASU offense can’t break through in this game, it would be fair to stay that this stumbling offense would exist in a state of crisis. If, however, the arrival of conference play snaps this offense into a wakeful and razor-sharp unit, the Sun Devils can make their climb to the top of the Pac-12 South.


Let’s take on the UCLA-Arizona game, though, while we’re discussing the Pac-12 South. Arizona has a built-in reason for losing this game — the injury-based absence of Scooby Wright — but with a revived Stanford just around the corner on the schedule, the Wildcats can’t make excuses. By hook or by crook, they need to win this game, because if they don’t, an 0-2 conference start would become a pronounced possibility.

For UCLA, a close-shave win over BYU isn’t a good win; it’s a great win, at least in the present moment. Stopping Tanner Mangum on a last-minute drive is not easily done, but the Bruins’ defense — showing far more heart than the defense across the way in L.A., inside the Coliseum against Stanford — found the intestinal fortitude championship teams manage to display in the midst of man-making motivational moments.

Yet, for all that UCLA has done thus far, it’s just as clear that Josh Rosen — the player who needs to be reasonably good (not spectacular) for the Bruins to excel in 2015 — has a lot to work on.  Playing a road night game against a conference foe for the first time this season will be a huge challenge, and if Rosen can’t answer the bell, the possibility of an October spent adrift at sea becomes disturbingly real for Jim Mora, Jr.

The simple summation of Bruins-Cats: Even though neither team has lost a game, a loss this Saturday would apply a fresh wave of considerable pressure to the rest of the season. It’s a little too early in the year to say that these teams are playing with house money.

There’s one more stop we have to make on this tour of the Pac-12 South.


The Utah Utes took care of Michigan, but we know that Michigan isn’t Michigan just yet. Utah was less than convincing against a Utah State team which got whacked by a Pac-12 North squad, Washington, this past weekend. The Utes aren’t in trouble — no one’s suggesting as much. However, they face an early moment of truth just the same against Oregon this weekend. With Vernon Adams’ injured finger casting doubt over his availability for this game, the Ducks — despite their solid performance at Michigan State (one which would have produced a victory had Adams made an easy throw in the final minutes of regulation) — are a mystery team. Utah is getting Oregon at the right time, and a victory by the Utes would do wonders for the Pac-12 South’s perception, in the region and across the United States.


As the season moves along; the non-conference cupcakes begin to diminish in number; and conference play arrives for the leagues which play nine games (hello, Pac-12 and Big 12!), plenty of national storylines will emerge about FBS pretenders and contenders. However, this reality is never more dramatically apparent than in one specific corner of the country: the Pac-12 South.

“It gets late early out there,” Yogi Berra used to say. It makes for the best kind of college football drama — the kind in which seasons are on the line (or very close to it) before the calendar even turns to the month of October.

The people of Los Angeles want to enjoy the Dodgers in October… but not because USC football is toast.

The people of Phoenix want to cheer on the Arizona Cardinals, who once again lead the Seattle Seahawks by multiple games in the NFC West… but not because Arizona State’s season lies in ruins after just four weeks.

It’s already crunch time in the Pac-12 South. A tough division will try to avoid falling on tough times this weekend, but in the case of ASU-versus-USC, at least one team won’t avoid the all-encompassing misery of two losses in one calendar month.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |