1 Big Question for every team in the Pac-12 South*
Every Pac-12 team—heck, every team in the country—has at least one big question mark heading into the 2022 campaign.
While, yes, the conference has done away with divisions for the first time since expanding to 12 teams in 2011, for our purposes, we’ll break down our Big Questions into the previous divisions.
Here’s a look at the Pac-12 South:
Arizona: Does a bigger roster equal more wins?
When Jedd Fisch took over the Arizona football program in 2021, he did not just inherit a team bereft of talent from Kevin Sumlin.
He inherited one hurting in sheer roster size after Sumlin all but coasted on the recruiting trail in his last two seasons at the helm. Fisch went to work in a hurry, turning in one of the top recruiting classes in the country in February. Despite winning just one game last year, the Wildcats scored a Top-25 class, according to 247Sports. They enter this year with half the roster being turned over.
“We have a sign in our building that says, ‘No one rises to low expectations,’” Fisch said in a press conference soon after signing day. “So we tried to make them as high as we possibly could, and we’re really excited about the … domino effect. They just kept coming. Toward the end, you’re bringing in guys that were committed to top programs — that had offers from every program in the country.”
Better numbers and better talent will pay off in a few ways for the Wildcats.
First and foremost, Arizona will have better depth, something that has plagued the Cats back to the Rich Rodriguez days. RichRod had a knack for finding some talented chips, but he often relied on them too much and wore them out. Sumlin barely moved the needle in Tucson, evident by Year 3.
Fisch should also be able to be a bit more creative in Year 2. Fresher bodies equal more rotations, which will equal more flexibility in play-calling.
Most importantly, Fisch should be able to get some guys trained up in the right way. The dividends might not be evident early, but by October, some of the youngsters should be ready to get their feet wet.
Arizona State: Can Herm Edwards pull himself off the hot seat?
There aren’t many college football pundits more plugged in than CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd.
But it doesn’t take inside sources to tell you that Sun Devils head coach Herm Edwards is in hot water down in the desert. Dodd has Edwards as one of two head coaches in the “win or be fired” category, along with Nebraska’s Scott Frost.
But, look, Edwards has been here before.
Last June, Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel reported that the NCAA was investigating the Arizona State football program. The Sun Deviled played all of last year under a looming cloud, but they still had an 8-4 regular season. That was before massive staff and player upheaval, though, which saw five coaches either resign or be fired and 17 players enter the transfer portal, including quarterback Jayden Daniels.
Colorado: Can Brendon Lewis hold off JT Shrout for the starting quarterback role?
I went into this a bit on Sunday in my Gold Nuggets column, but this topic is going to be much discussed in these parts over the next month.
Aside from Arizona State, where former Florida quarterback Emory Jones looks like a shoo-in to assume the starter position, Colorado is the only other team in the league with doubt at the position.
Karl Dorrell insists that the starting gig is Brendon Lewis’ to lose, but Shrout, the former Tennessee transfer, shouldn’t be counted out.
Lewis played like the scared freshman he was last year, only once attempting more than 30 passes and never really showing the wheels that had been his hallmark. Yes, he threw just three interceptions. But that’s because he so rarely tested himself.
If he continues to show pause, look for Shrout to try to out-gun him.
UCLA: Can Bill McGovern turn around the defense?
Well, he can’t get much worse than Jerry Azzinaro, the Bruins’ famously recalcitrant yet otherwise yielding former defensive coordinator.
For almost four years, Azzinaro refused to talk to the media. In those seasons, the Bruins ranked No. 104, No. 116, No. 103, and No. 73 in scoring defense in the country. You wouldn’t want to speak to the media, either.
His attitude didn’t do much to engender much appreciation from fans, who soured on him pretty quickly.
— Willson is an All-Star! (@writer0076) September 19, 2021
McGovern is off to a better start with the fans and the press, having at least addressed the collective during spring ball, but the jury is still out on his impact on the UCLA defense.
The question within the question is simple: Can he improve a passing defense that has been more welcoming than a neighbor with a plate of cookies? The Bruins ranked 86th, 129th, 113th, and 103rd out of 130 teams in opponent passing yards per game the past four years. By last year, UCLA was starting to win its fair share of shootouts, but Kelly doesn’t want to have to outscore every opponent every week.
The Bruins have added some nice pieces to the defense through the transfer portal, including defensive back Azizi Hearn, linebacker Darius Muasau, and former North Texas twins Gabriel and Grayson Murphy, both edge rushers. But they have not recruited particularly well, so reinforcements are going to have to come from within. And on a defense that lost more than half its starters, that doesn’t bode well.
McGovern has his work cut out for him.
USC: Can Lincoln Riley make the talent mesh?
CBS Sports named the Trojans the biggest “mystery” team in the country for a reason.
As much talent as the Men of Troy may have, we have no idea if all these terrific ingredients will add up to a good recipe.
On paper, it looks great. Caleb Williams follows Riley to Los Angeles. Jordan Addison follows soon after, bringing with him the 2021 Biletnikoff Award.
All told, the Trojans added 12 (twelve!) players through the transfer portal, including a bevy of other potential starters. Former Washington All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection Terrell Bynum and ex-Oklahoma stud Mario Williams will contribute immediately in the passing game. Former Oregon running back Travis Dye is expected to join Caleb Williams in the backfield.
USC also may have added four defensive starters in transfers Shane Lee (linebacker, Alabama), Romello Height (linebacker, Auburn), Latrell McCutchin (defensive back, Oklahoma), and Mekhi Blackmon (defensive back, Colorado). What are the two common threads here? The Trojans raided the Pac-12 and potential College Football Playoff rivals.
And of course, Heritage Hall boasts plenty of home-grown talent from the Clay Helton era.
But as the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Troy.
Riley’s got his work cut out for him.
Utah: Can Cameron Rising find a go-to guy?
More than 1,100 of Utah’s 3,000 passing yards went to tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid. No Ute wideout had more than 514 yards, and that was Britain Covey, who is now off to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Utes’ leading returning receiver in terms of production is Devaughn Vele, who had 23 grabs for 389 yards and a score last year.
If Cameron Rising is going to have the season many expect out of him, he’ll need to develop a rapport with a No. 1 target. Might that player be a blast from the past?
Jaylen Dixon has been all-but-forgotten in the Utah passing game, but it wasn’t eons ago that he was the team’s second-leading receiver as a redshirt freshman in 2018. He had 589 yards on 32 receptions that year—18.4 yards per catch—with two 100-yard games, including 114 yards and a score on nine catches against Northwestern in the 2018 Holiday Bowl.
Jaylen Dixon has had one impressive first season with the Utes pic.twitter.com/Dqf4EkHK0L
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 28, 2018
After a decent sophomore season, Dixon entered the transfer protocol and then sat out the 2020 season because of personal problems, then returned to the team in 2021 and had five receptions for 76 yards.
The speed is still there, though, and if his head and heart are in the right place this year, Rising won’t have to look far for his new favorite target.