After previewing the North half of the Mountain West in our previous installment, we focus on Senior Editor Chuck Sippl's preview of the South half of the loop. Once again, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with last year’s SU, pointspread, andf over/under records included--Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor...

by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

ARIZONA STATE (SUR 10-3; PSR 6-7; O/U 8-5; Beat Duke 36-31 in Sun Bowl)...Now that Arizona State has achieved double-digit victories two straight years (10-4 and 10-3), third-year coach Todd Graham is thinking of the next upward steps for his program. Among those are to become more gnarly road warriors and thus a factor on the national scene. In the last two seasons, Graham’s Sun Devils are 12-2 SU in Tempe (one loss to Stanford in the 2013 Pac-12 title game; the other loss to UCLA last season when starting QB Taylor Kelly was out with a foot injury). Over those same two years, ASU is only 8-5 SU away from home (5-8 vs. the spread). If the Sun Devils are going to rise another notch and become a “player” on the national playoff scene, that road mark, although not bad, must improve.

Even though dual-threat QB Kelly has concluded his eligibility, the QB position is not a major concern going into 2014, as fifth-year sr. Mike Bercovici has been a respected backup for several seasons and showed last year what he can do. With Kelly sidelined three games by an ankle injury last year, Bercovici was 2-1 in three tough starts, losing to UCLA (but passing for 488 yards), while beating both USC and Stanford. When Bercovici connected with star WR Jaelen Strong on a “Hail Mary” at the end of the 38-34 victory vs. the Trojans, it gave the QB 510 YP and 5 TDP for the game.

Nor will RB be a concern in Tempe, even with multi-talented and 2014 top rusher D.J. Foster moved to a receiver spot. Foster (1081 YR, 6.1 ypc; 62 recs.) was a major double-threat last season, but he is needed more as a pass catcher in 2014. The move of a 1000-yard rusher to receiver is possible because of Sun Devil depth at RB, including soph Demario Richard (478 YR, 5.7 ypc as a true frosh LY), speedy redshirt juco De’Chavon Hayes, and 230-pound true frosh early enrollee Nick Ralston. Plus, there’s proven 6-3 soph power guy Kalen Ballage (3 TDs LY), who has added 17 pounds of muscle to 229 and has been slated to also see action at LB.

There is some concern in the OL and at WR in the potent, uptempo ASU attack, which produced 36.7 ppg last season and was +14 in turnover margin. Up front on offense, the Sun Devils must replace both of its starting tackles. HC Graham calls sr. C Nick Kelly is the best in the league, but Kelly needed surgery on both knees after last season, when Arizona State yielded 39 sacks.

At receiver, ASU will be trying to fill the large voids left by the departure of 6-3, go-to target Jaelen Strong (82 recs., 10 TDC; now with Houston Texans) and the loss of No. 2 WR Cameron Smith (41 recs., 6 TDs LY) to knee surgery in spring. The absence of Smith for the season helped prompt coaches to switch top rusher Foster to receiver. At first, Foster was expected to specialize as a slot receiver. But, by the end of spring, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell stated, “You will see D.J. line up at every position you can possibly imagine.” Norvell also says the Sun Devils’ fast-paced, misdirection attack will mainly line up with two backs and will try to operate at an even faster pace than last year. It might take a while to do that because of the lack of overall team experience in the WR corps. The other key members of the wideout unit are expected to be 6-4 soph Ellis Johnson (11 recs. LY), 6-4 true freshman Terrell Chapman (a four-star recruit), and 6-1 senior Devin Lucien, a graduate transfer from UCLA, where he had 29 recs. last season.

On defense (27.9 ppg in 2014), ASU rebuilt last season after returning only two starters from 2013. This year, 8-9 starters are back from what Graham calls his “hybrid attacking defense,” where pass rushers might be sent from any angle at any time. There were 39 QB takedowns last year, but far too many big plays yielded. The team’s front three is not a major strength, although it might become so if jr. DE Edmund Boateng (2½ sacks LY) and soph NT Tashon Smallwood (2 sacks) continue to develop. Graham says he has five LBs who can play, led by 6-1, 212 jr. “Laiu” Moeakiola (72 Ts, 5 sacks, 10½ TFL LY). And it seems likely that muscular 2014 RB Kalen Ballage will spend more time on defense if he demonstrates a knack as a pass rusher.

Three of four starters return in the secondary, led by sr. S Jordan Simone (100 Ts, 2 ints., 2 fumble recoveries) and a pair a of senior CBs in Kwieshi Brown (3 ints.) and Lloyd Carrington (3 sacks). Promising soph James Johnson appears ready to join Simone at safety. With a veteran secondary, ASU should be able to reduce opponents’ long gainers of last year, when the Sun Devils were a lowly 103rd in the country vs. the pass.

SUMMARY...ASU’s more-seasoned defense of 2015 will have to be at its best from the get-go, as the Sun Devils open vs. potent Texas A&M (in Houston) and must also face USC and UCLA in the first five weeks. But, make no mistake, Todd Graham has his fast-paced offense and attacking defensive scheme fully installed in his fourth year in Tempe. With the strong-armed Bercovici at QB, the Sun Devils will score plenty and figure to be a factor in the Pac-12 South. Improvement on defense will likely determine whether ASU will have a shot at a third straight season of double-digit wins.

SOUTHERN CAL (SUR 9-4; PSR 6-7; O/U 6-7; Beat Nebraska 45-42 in Holiday Bowl)...Things are looking decidedly UP at Southern Cal for many reasons, including the team’s first full recruiting class since USC was put on probation in 2010 for its Reggie Bush-era violations. It will be a couple of years before the Trojans are built up once again to the full limit of 85 scholarships. The previous three years, USC has been able to offer only 15 scholarships each. But HC Steve Sarkisian is optimistic about the coming campaign after depth issues in 2014 were largely responsible for the team’s four losses last year.

In their first season operating Sarkisian’s uptempo, no-huddle attack, the Trojans put up an admirable 35.8 ppg. But even with the presence of prized NFL first-round DE Leonard Williams and stalwart LB Hayes Pullard, USC defenders were lit up for 408 ypg, ranking 76th in the nation. Yes, this is the age of relentless offensive football. But the once-proud Trojan defense was pushed around in each of the team’s four losses (37-31 at BC, 38-34 vs. Arizona State, 24-21 at Utah, and 38-20 vs. UCLA). Four times USC gave up 37 or more points.

Some critics wondered (and rightly so) whether Sarkisian’s fast-paced no-huddle offense was the best style for the team, considering its lack of overall depth and its limitations on defense (274.5 ypg passing; 116th). But Sark was planning for the bigger picture, preparing his team for the better days ahead when Troy’s talent cupboard would again be overflowing. That’s not quite yet the situation, but it’s getting close.

One position Sarkisian is not worried about is QB, where sr. Cody Kessler turned out to be an excellent leader, good protector of the football, and late-blooming Heisman candidate by hitting 69.7% with 39 TDs and only 5 interceptions. Sarkisian asked Kessler to look deeper more often last year. And this year he is asking the senior to bolt from the pocket at times when plays break down, as the Trojan offense sustained 32 sacks in 2014. Promising 6-5 backup Max Browne is now a third-year soph eager for a chance at the controls, with coaches praising his quick reads and improved knowledge of the offense. Untested but promising RS Fr. Jalen Greene, early-enrollee true frosh Ricky Town, and incoming true frosh Sam Darnold give Troy a rich QB pipeline for future delivery.

Last year’s OL returns intact, including NFL-ready C/G Max Tuerk, 6-7 jr. LT Chad Wheeler (torn knee ligaments midseason LY), 6-9, 360 jr. RT Zach Banner, 6-4, 355 soph G Damien Mama, and 6-3, 290 frosh A-A G/T Toa Lobendahn, not to mention 6-2, 320 soph backup G Viane Talamaivao. Moreover, depth worries up front have subsided with the early enrollment of promising bruisers Chuma Edoga & Roy Hemsley. Few teams in the nation can now match Troy in terms of quality beef on the hoof.

Top RB Buck Allen has moved on to the NFL, but two former starters who have been injured in the recent past are eager to step in. A more-muscular 6-1, 196 Justin Davis (595 YR last season) will get the first shot, along with 6-1, 225 Tre Madden. Who was out LY with a toe injury after starting the first six games of 2013. And this year’s blue chip-laden recruiting class has landed Texas speedster Ronald Jones (No. 1 RB recruit by some services) and Texas bruiser Aca’Cedric Ware.

Receiver is a bit of a concern for the Trojan staff, but not because of a lack of quality talent, but because of inexperience and the offseason dismissal of TE Bryce Dixon (4 TDC LY). The most recent USC star WR, Nelson Agholor (104 recs., 1313 yards, 12 TDs LY), is off to the NFL. The likely new go-to target is 6-2, 215 soph JuJu Smith, who grabbed 54 balls (5 TDs) LY as a freshman. 6-1 jr. Darreus Rogers (21 recs. LY) appears to have made a breakthrough in spring. Also eager to help is 6-4 juco Isaac Whitney, an early enrollee who has already impressed. And don’t forget soph CB/WR/KR/long-jump champ soph Adroree’ Jackson, who divided his spring between the defensive unit, the offensive unit, and the track team. USC insiders say Jackson could be the best CB in school history if he just focused on defense.

The defense has a chance to be improved by season’s end merely because of added overall depth after three scholarship-restriction years during which Trojan coaches Lane Kiffin and Sarkisian were hesitant to practice with much defensive vigor for fear of generating key injuries on an already-thin unit. Critics blame that lack of personnel depth (and the failure of coaching creativity in developing some) for the high number of Trojan defensive collapses/harrowing finishes the last few years.

This season, the defensive line will greatly miss the penetrating rush of now-N.Y. Jet Leonard Williams. But the 2015 DL depth is greater after USC landed five promising frosh DL recruits and gained the return of soph DT Kenny Bigelow, redshirted last year due to a torn ACL. Sarkisian has made a priority of bringing taller LBs into the program to counter the many bubble screens and quick passes in the flat of today’s spread attacks. 6-3, 240 true freshman Cameron Smith has already impressed as an early enrollee. And def. coord. Justin Wilcox is eager to welcome a tall, highly-regarded pair of freshman LBs from Utah--6-4 Osa Masina & 6-5 Porter Gustin. Anchoring the LB unit from the outside will be 6-1, 225 Su’a Cravens, a former safety converted with great success to a hybrid OLB spot where he had 3 ints., 5 sacks, and 17 TFL last season.

USC figures to have one of the top CB pairs in the Pac-12 in sr. Kevon Seymour & the ultra-athletic Adoree’ Jackson. Jr. Leon McQuay III returns to start at safety.

SUMMARY...Troy has the OL, RB talent, WR depth, and uptempo system that should allow sr. QB Cody Kessler to make a serious run at the Heisman in 2015. However [and it must be asked], even though Sarkisian’s quick-strike offense can match just about any in the nation, is that style the optimum scheme to protect the still-building Trojan defense? Are Troy’s clock-eating, smash-mouth days totally a thing of the past? USC’s rivals in the South are proven and potent, and the Trojan schedule also includes Stanford, Washington, Cal and Oregon from the North, not to mention rival Notre Dame in the midwest. The offense will be there to contend. Can the Southern Cal defense hold up?

UCLA (SUR 10-3; PSR 5-8; O/U 5-7-1; Beat Kansas State 40-35 in Alamo Bowl)...Three years ago, the Bruins had a young, rebuilding team. But they had a fiery new coach in Jim Mora and a star in the making at QB in Brett Hundley, who had wisely been redshirted and groomed by former head coach Rick Neuheisel. Now, after three years of big plays by the mobile, strong-armed Hundley, UCLA returns a mature, well-rounded team overall, but with a substantial question mark at the most important position.

Mora says the 2015 Bruin starting QB will not named until August. And, even though more than one QB might see action early in the season, most insiders expect prized 6-4 true freshman Josh Rosen (enrolled early and went through spring practice) to be the Bruin starter before too long. One of the returnees who will battle him is 6-1 jr. Jerry Neuheisel, who showed potential and gained the respect of his teammates by replacing the injured Hundley vs. Texas last year in Arlington and leading UCLA to victory, hitting several key passes, including the deep, floating, fourth-quarter game winner. The popular Neuheisel was carried off the field by his teammates. Also in the running this season is dual-threat Asantii Woulard, who showed substantial (and, by the way, much-needed) improvement in spring.

Rosen, a SoCal high school star (90 TDP as a prep) and regarded by some scouting services as the top-rated prep QB in the nation alst year, is expected to eventually develop into a fine passer in the Bruins’ balanced spread offense, but he will never have the “wheels” that Hundley (29-11 as a starter) often flashed to great effect. So offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is modifying the Bruin attack to feature a bit more of the now-improved ground game while Rosen develops as a college passer (or watches while one of the other QBs plays).

HC Mora, never short on bluster, says he wants his team to play for championships. But Mora still seeking his first Pac-12 title and has captured just one South Division crown in three years in Westwood. Now, Mora is likely to be forced in 2015 to navigate the rugged Pac-12 South with a developing true freshman at the helm. Despite Rosen’s early understanding of the attack, his composure, and his good arm, that is a tough task these days when only Colorado is not a South contender.

Elsewhere, the Bruins appear to be well equipped to make a run not only for the South crown, but also for a spot high in the Top 25, with 18 starters back. And, thanks to improved recruiting under both Rick Neuheisel and Mora, UCLA boasts improved depth over the squads in the initial years of Neuheisel’s four-year tenure. Sr. C Jake Brendel and jr. G Alex Redmond lead an OL that demonstrated versatility in dealing with several injuries last year. But there is plenty of room for improvement after yielding a lofty 41 sacks last season. Jr. RB Paul Perkins surprised in 2014 by accumulating 1575 YR and 26 receptions. Perkins’ work load will likely be reduced this season due to the improvement shown by youngsters Nate Starks and Craig Lee in spring, plus the return of slippery third-down back Steven Manfro, who suffered a torn ACL in the first week of the 2014 campaign. And a couple of promising true freshmen are on the way in August.

Seniors Jordan Payton (67 recs., 7 TDs) and Devin Fuller (59 recs., but only 447 yards and 1 TD) lead a WR group that is joined by 6-4 jr. hybrid TE/WR Thomas Duarte (4 TDs), a promising red-zone threat. However, sr. Devin Lucien (29 recs. LY) has left in search of more playing time, transferring to Arizona State after spring. Now, with Rosen stepping in for Hundley, the Bruin receiver group will need to contribute more big plays to make up for Hundley’s 3155 YP and 31 TDP and his 644 YR and 10 TDR.

Even with the loss of Butkus-Award-winning LB Erick Kendricks (145 Ts LY) and NYG draftee DE Owamagabe Odighizuma, the Bruins still have leaders up and down their defensive lineup. Dynamic LB Myles Jack (113 YR and 3 TDR on offense LY) is likely headed from OLB--where he excelled in coverage and even took some turns at CB at times—to the inside, where he can be involved in more plays and help the team’s pass rush (a modest 29 sacks LY). Jack will be flanked by rapidly-emerging jr. OLB Deon Hollins (9 sacks LY), very promising soph Kenny Young, and perhaps soph Cameron Griffin, a rugged “wildcard” athlete with seven years of rugby experience. Jack says that his new assignment inside will be “See ball; hit ball,” and that’s fine with him.

The DL needs more depth and must hone its pass-rush talents, but has a solid nucleus in a couple of NFL prospects--jr. NT/DT Kenny Clark and jr. DE/DT Eddie Vanderdoes (4 runs, 1 TD LY in UCLA’s jumbo package). New defensive coordinator Tom Bradley--32 years at Penn State, the last 11 as def. coord.--says he plans to add a few wrinkles to help get more needed pressure on opposing passers. That would help the experienced UCLA secondary improve its modest 11 ints. of 2014. CB Ishmael Adams, a pugnacious 5-8 sr. with 2 int. TDs and 1 KR TD last year, plays “bigger” due to his uncanny timing and is an irritant to opposing WRs. Former starting S Randall Goforth returns this season after double shoulder surgery in 2014, while Jaleel Wadood--the blue chip recruit who replaced him LY as a true freshman--now gives the Bruin back line quality depth.

PK Ka’imi Fairbairn, who hit 18 of 22 FGs LY, has gradually increased both his distance and accuracy over this first three seasons and seems on track toward his best year.

SUMMARY...Even if QB Josh Rosen is as good as anticipated, the true freshman will undoubtedly go through growing pains that will make it difficult for the Bruins to match last year’s 33.5 ppg. However, the experienced UCLA defense should be able to cut into its 28.1 ppg 2014 allowance. Unfortunately, the Bruins’ conference road schedule is intimidating, with excursions to defending South champ Arizona, physical Stanford, rugged Utah, and triple-revenge-minded Southern Cal. Thus, while the Bruins on paper calculate to being a top-tier team, the end record might not reflect such. And although they’ve posted 10-3 marks the last two seasons, Mora’s Bruins have yet to gain their first Pac-12 title. Winning the finale at USC will be difficult enough. And it must be pointed out that in Mora’s three years in Westwood, muscular Stanford and speedy Oregon have been the ugly trolls under the bridge for the head coach, who is 0-4 vs. the Cardinal and 0-2 vs. the Ducks. Ascending that next step in 2015, even with a quality, well-balanced team--and improved national recruiting--is likely to prove difficult.

ARIZONA (Straight-Up Record 10-4; Pointspread Record 7-7; Over/Under 4-9-1; Lost 38-30 to Boise State in Fiesta Bowl)...Arizona finds itself in an unusual position to start 2015--defending champion of the Pac-12 South! The Wildcats captured their first conference title since 1993 on the final weekend of the 2014 regular season when UCLA lost 31-10 to Stanford and U of A put away arch-rival Arizona State in a satisfying 42-35 Tucson victory. Yes, the Wildcats could not keep pace with either Oregon in the Pac-12 title game (Ducks won 51-13) or Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl (Broncos won 38-30). But in just his third season at Arizona, Rich Rodriguez has established the Wildcats as a new force to be reckoned with in the highly-competitive South Division.

Now, the test for Rodriguez and Co. becomes whether U of A--a team highly dependent upon four key players in 2014--can survive wearing the proverbial target on its back vs. teams such as blue-chip haven Southern Cal, revived Pac-12 power UCLA, up-and-coming Utah, and hated Arizona State (South champs in 2013). Those four key Arizona players are as follows.

SOPH QB ANU SOLOMON...who surprised immediately as a redshirt freshman last year, passing for 425 yards and 4 TDs in his first college appearance in U of A’s opener, a 58-13 rout of UNLV. Three weeks later, the precocious Solomon hurled for 520 yards and 5 TDs, including a game-winning “Hail Mary” in a 49-45 shootout vs. Cal. Solomon passed for 3793 yards overall. He hit only 58% for the season, but compiled and unfreshman-like 28 to 9 TD to int. ratio and directed Rodriguez’ spread-option attack far better than anyone could have been expected.

SOPH RB NICK WILSON...who ran for 1375 yards and 16 TDs. No one expected the 5-11, 199 true freshman to take over so quickly and fill in so well for departed workhorse RB Ka’Deem Carey (1885 YR the previous season).

JR. WR CALEB JONES...6-3 transfer from Texas, Jones quickly became a highly-reliable go-to target for the young Solomon, snagging 73 balls for 1019 yards and 9 TDs in 2014.

JR. ILB SCOOBY WRIGHT III...the lightly-recruited over-achiever who won last year’s Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik Award after turning in monster season in the middle of the Wildcat defense, with 163 Ts, 29 TFL, 14 sacks, and 6 forced fumbles. Not bad for an under-the-radar recruit. One of the many key plays made by the eventual Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year was a game-saving theft of the ball from Marcus Mariota in the late, late going of the Wildcats’ 31-24 upset of Oregon in Eugene (as a 23-point underdog!).

Keeping those four valuable impact players healthy all year will be a big key to Arizona’s prospects in 2015, as the Wildcats have some substantial rebuilding to do on both offense and defense.

The OL must replace its starting center and a pair of three-year starting tackles. But sr. G Cayman Bundage and jr. G Jacob Alsadek return. The Wildcats caught a break last year when Cal OT Freddie Tagaloa (6-8, about 318) decided to transfer from Berkeley to rejoin former Golden Bear off. coord. Joe Michalczik, now the OL coach in Tucson. Tagaloa is a prime NFL prospect who comes on line this season after sitting out 2014. Sr. G/T Lene Maiava (7 starts L2Ys) takes over at RT. Two sr. former walk-ons, Carter Wood and David Catalano, will battle it out at center.

Rodriguez’ version of the spread offense (which he developed at Glenville College in West Virginia and Tulane, helping Tommy Bowden go 12-0...yes, 12-0...in 1998 at Tulane!) has usually been primarily run-oriented, but with quick-strike passing aspects. However, with Tuscon’s deep cast of WRs--including Jones, 5-9 jr. Samajie Grant (45 recs. LY) and 5-7 jr. Nate Phillips (25--RS frosh QB Solomon was given the green light early and often last season. The Wildcats finished 21st in passing in the nation (282 ypg) despite Solomon’s inexperience. Solomon made a lot of key plays by improvising in 2014, but he isn’t as lik
ely to catch opponents by surprise as often this season.

Under the demanding RichRod, the Wildcats consistently play fast and play hard. But even though the depth at U of A has improved during his tenure, Rodriguez admits his team still needs to get bigger and deeper if it is to compete for championships on an annual basis. His defensive platoon is an example, as 6-1, 247 former walk-on Parker Zellers (20 Ts last year) will likely split time at the nose TY, and might start. The defensive unit got some good news in the offseason when 6-4, 262 DE Reggie Gilbert (3 sacks LY as a sr.) was given another year of eligibility by the NCAA because of an injury back in 2011. Still, last year’s defensive unit ranked 103rd in total yards and 118th (281 ypg) in passing. Depth in the DL is perhaps best described as “still developing.”

RichRod’s rather unorthodox 3-3-5 defensive scheme is strongest this season at LB, which is understandable, considering the return of the hard-charging Scooby Wright, whose six forced fumbles helped Arizona finish +8 in TO margin in 2014. The 6-1, 246 Wright is a nice-sized LB, as are 6-1, 265 jr. OLB Derrick Turituri and 6-2, 242 jr. Cody Ippolito.

But changes are forthcoming in the team’s five-man secondary, where only sr. SS/LB Will Parks (81 Ts, 2 ints., 13 TFL last season) returns as a starter. But there is a chance the rest of the back five might be more athletic overall. LY’s starting CB Jarvis McCall--a learning-on-the-job freshman in 2014--was beaten out in spring by jr. DaVonte' West, a former Notre Dame recruit who caught 27 balls LY in Tucson at wideout. Quick 5-11 soph CB Cam Denson is the frontrunner at the other corner, while seasoned backups Jamar Allen & Tellas Jones are the frontrunners at safety. Rest assured that the U of A defensive backfield will be severely tested in the Pac-12 once again this season.

Senior kicker Casey Skowron finished with 20 FGs in 28 attempts last season, but he provided plenty of drama, with an early short miss in the eventual nailbiter vs. Cal, three misses in the 28-26 loss vs. USC, and two misses in the 17-7 loss at UCLA.

SUMMARY...Arizona has a relatively-easy non-conference schedule (UTSA, Nevada, Northern Arizona) and should score lots of points once again in 2015. But even with the presence of uber-impact LB Scooby Wright, the hustling Wildcat defense will likely do more slowing than stopping of opponents in 2015. Any injury attrition to key players could put the Wildcats in a bad way going into their rugged final four games--at Washington, at Southern Cal, vs. Utah, and at Arizona State. If Rodriguez repeats as the Pac-12 South champ in Tucson, it will be time for the rest of the division to officially doff their sombreros.

Note that even with a strong offense and vulnerable defense, the Wildcats went UNDER 9-4-1 last season; 16-9-2 the L2Ys.

UTAH (SUR 9-4; PSR 9-4; O/U 4-9; Beat Colorado State 45-10 in Las Vegas Bowl)...On a positive trajectory. That is the simplest way to describe Utah both at the end of last season and the start of 2015. Now in their 11th season under candid HC Kyle Whittingham, the Utes finished with a 5-4 conference mark, their first winning league record in four years since joining the Pac-12. And, with two senior QBs, a darkhorse Heisman candidate at RB, and a sack-happy defense, just about everyone in the conference expects Utah to continue on its ascent despite its presence in the highly-competitive Pac-12 South, where all but lowly Colorado finished 2014 in the national Top 25.

There are two areas of substantial concern for Utah going into the new season. First, Whittingham lost both his offensive coordinator (Dave Christensen, to A&M, to direct the Aggie OL/run game) and defensive coordinator (Kalani Sitake, to join mentor/friend Gary Andersen at Oregon State) from a Ute team that overcame a slew of injuries but still was strong enough to defeat big-name schools Michigan, UCLA and Stanford--all on the road--plus USC in Salt Lake City in 2014. Now in charge of the offense are QB coach Aaron Roderick and OL coach Jim Harding. The two will not be changing last season’s run-oriented system. To handle the defense, Whittingham lured old buddy, Utah alum, and long-time NFL/Utah asst. John Pease out of a five-year retirement.

The second main area of concern is the rebuilding of the receiving corps after the departure of WR/KR Kaelin Clay (4 receiving TDs, 4 return TDs LY), deep threat WR Dres Anderson, and TE Westlee Tonga. 6-3 sr. wideout Kenneth Scott (48 recs., 4 TDs LY) is back to anchor the 2014 receivers, and Tim Patrick (16 recs. LY) is now a senior. But Whittingham, with big things in mind for 2015, has found a spot for 2013 leading rusher Bubba Poole (607 YR in 2013; 211 LY) as a slot receiver, in addition Poole’s duties as backup RB.

With the Utes’ receiving corps still developing, the offense will be focused all the more on hard-nosed 5-11, 212 sr. RB Devontae Booker, he of the 1512 YR last season after not really taking over as the top ball carrier until Utah’s fourth game. The tackle-breaking Booker (815 yards after initial contact last season) goes into the season being touted as a rare Heisman Trophy candidate in Salt Lake City, and he has no bigger fan than his head coach. Says Whittingham of Booker, “Anyone can get blocked yardage. Blocked yardage, I can do it. But the real barometer, in my opinion, or one of the main barometers in judging a RB, is yards after contact.”

Due to Utah’s inconsistent passing attack, Booker repeatedly had to face defenses loading the “box” last season, and he’s sure to see even more of the same this year. So a lot of Utah’s ultimate success might not depend so much on Booker’s repeated thrusts, but on the performance of senior QBs Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson. The 6-7 Wilson improved his ball security last season, trimming his interceptions from 16 as a soph to only 5 last season (to go with 18 TDP). But Wilson, returning from a career-threatening injury in 2013, suffered from erratic performances (only 57 YP in an OT loss at Arizona State), losing the starting job on two occasions to Kendal Thompson, the quicker 6-2 lefty transfer from Oklahoma. But Thompson (61.5%; 192 YR) also lacked consistency, and then suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game Nine vs. Oregon.

Says Whittingham of presumed QB starter Wilson going into 2015, “He’s going to be hard to unseat this fall, but nothing is set in stone. Kendal Thompson is a talent. He’ll get his chance in fall to show what he can do.” Even though the projected Ute OL has only one senior, Whittingham expects the four returnees to pick up where they left off last season.

The voracious Ute defense has lost its top sacker, DE Nate Orchard (18½ sacks LY; second-round pick of the Browns), but don’t expect a substantial drop-off from last year’s NCAA-leading 55 sacks. There is a dwindling number of teams in the FBS using bona fide 4-3 fronts, especially considering the proliferation of spread offenses. But Whittingham steadfastly recruits and nurtures DLmen for his team so he can rotate two gnarly groups up front. Says the HC, “We’ve got as good a defensive line as we’ve ever had this year.”

Leading the way will be jr. DE Hunter Dimmick, who had 10 sacks last year as a soph. There also are sr. DE Jason Fanaika (5 sacks LY) and jr. DE Pita Taumoepena (5½). And now eligible this season is UCLA transfer DE Kylie Fitts, who impressed in spring. There is also some veteran depth at DT, led by soph Filipo Mokofisi and 6-2, 310 Lowell Lotulelei (4 sacks), the “little” brother of former Ute and current Carolina Panther DT Star Lotulelei.

The strength of this year’s back seven will depend somewhat on the recovery of several quality players who were injured last season. The Utes gave up only 3.8 ypc and 24.9 ppg despite the following attrition. Jr. CB Reginald Porter, expected to start, was lost in August last year with a knee injury. Sr. S Tevin Carter was felled after only four games, but has been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Sr. LB Gionni Paul had 4 ints. despite missing five games with a foot injury. Burly 6-2, 245 sr. LB Jason Whittingham (the coach’s nephew) was able to play only five games, mostly due to a wrist injury.

Sr. LB Jared Norris did make it through the season okay, collecting 116 Ts and 4 sacks. So did jr. CB Dominique Hatfield (38 Ts, 1 int.). So did soph S Marcus Williams (59 ints., 1 int. as a true freshman LY). Spring showed that jr. S Jason Thompson, a one-time QB at Wyoming, is now ready to help out at DB. If Utah emerges from August workouts with the foregoing players healthy, the Utes are going to be deep and experienced in the back seven going into their season opener when Jim Harbaugh and revenge-minded Michigan came visiting to Salt Lake City.

Despite the departure of deluxe return man Kaelin Clay, Utah is again expected to have exceptional special teams, thanks to the booming leg of jr. K Andy Phillips, who hit 12 of 15 FGs of 40+ yards (23 of 28 overall) and has the strength to buck the often-windy October and November conditions in SLC. Plus, there’s sr. Aussie P Tom Hackett (46.7 yards per punt last season).

SUMMARY...With just a little injury luck and some senior improvement at QB, Utah should be in the thick of the South race and in the Top 25 once again. But in order to reach the Pac-12 title game, the Utes are going to need a strong performance in conference road games at Oregon, USC, Washington, and Arizona. Whittingham and his defensive staff have invested considerable time in the offseason devising adjustments to the hard-charging Ute defense after allowing 806 total YR to uptempo spread teams Arizona State (239), Oregon (269) and Arizona (298), all Utah losses in 2014.

COLORADO (SUR 2-10; PSR 6-6; 0/U 7-5)...Colorado appears to be improving, but you had to look hard to notice, considering last year’s weak 2-10 record. The Buffaloes defeated only UMass and Hawaii in 2014, and they were winless in league play (0-9 in the Pac-12) for the first time in 99 years. However, it should be noted that the Buffs endured agonizing, 3-point, double-overtime defeats vs. both Cal and UCLA, lost by only 5 points vs. Oregon State, and by only 4 points vs. rugged Utah on a fourth-quarter interception return.

Now, in their third year under eternal optimist Mike MacIntyre, there are several indications that the CU will be more competitive, and might even get over the victory hump more often. One indicator might be MacIntyre’s track record. In his third season of rebuilding San Jose State, his Spartans surprised with a 10-2 record (straight-up and vs. the spread), then tacked on a victory vs. Bowling Green in the Military Bowl after MacIntyre was hired in Boulder. Now that the head coach has had two-plus seasons to work on CU’s depth and strength, MacIntyre expects his charges to quickly snap their eight-game season-ending losing streak of last year.

Offensively, MacIntyre clearly has his three-WR scheme in place, as the Buffs produced 439 ypg (37th in the nation) and were 19th in passing. 6-4 junior Sefo Liufau (65.3%, 28 TDs) is the orchestrator of the attack, and he went into spring with instructions to reduce last year’s 15 ints. and 3 lost fumbles. Such a reduction should come this year through greater maturity and, hopefully, a stronger complementary ground game. CU has three experienced RBs of assorted sizes returning, not to mention incoming 5-6 freshman speedster Kyle Evans. The veterans are 6-0, 230 Christian Powell (455 YR last season; has seen some action as FB), 5-10, 195 jr. Michael Atkins II (398 YR; limited by injuries), and 5-8 soph Phillip Lindsay (391 YR, also helps on KRs).

Leading the way at WR is the omnipresent 6-1 sr. Nelson Spruce, who has focused on improving both his and his yardage after the catch after collecting just 1198 yards (but 12 TDs) on his 106 grabs last season. And there is plenty of developing support, with sophs Shay Fields, Bryce Bobo and Donovan Lee combining for 86 receptions last year. Three of five return in the OL, including starting Ts Jeromy Irwin & Stephane Nembot.

It’s this year’s Colorado defense that must improve if CU is to make any substantial move in 2015. Last year’s Buffaloes were 116th at 39 ppg. That overwhelmed unit allowed 5.6 ypc overall, and a totally unacceptable 6 ypc on first down (115th in the country). Thirty times opposing runners bolted for runs of 20 yards or more. Moreover, the sometimes-unnoticeable pass rush produced a weak 22 sacks and collected only three total interceptions. Those numbers are completely unacceptable in an offense-oriented league such as the Pac-12.

However, opponents should find the going tougher against the Buffs this campaign if improved depth and experience have anything to do with it. “Nine-plus” starters are back, including stalwart 6-3, 325 sr. NT Josh Tupou (3 sacks LY) and developing soph DE Derek McCartney (4½). Joining the DL rotation this season will be 6-3, 275 juco Jordan Carrell (8 sacks in the JC ranks LY) and 6-5, 255 Samson Kafulau (DNP in 2014 due to academics).

Incoming at defensive coordinator this season is former South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt, who for the last four seasons served as the LB coach under Jim Harbaugh with the 49ers. To better match up with the many spread attacks in the Pac-12, Leavitt has switched to a 4-2-5 base, with returning junior LB starters Kenneth Olugbode (the Buffs’ top tackler LY with 83) and Addison Gilliam (79 Ts, 3½ sacks) in the middle.

Leavitt has high hopes for last year’s overworked, easily-victimized secondary, which is now restructured. 6-1 sr. Kenneth Crawley returns on one corner as a three-year starter. Tall 6-3 jr. CB Ahkello Witherspoon moves in as a starter at the other CB to match up with the league’s bigger receivers. Former jr. starting CB Chidobe Awuzie (64 Ts LY) has been moved to the 4-2-5's nickel-back in the slot. At safety, returning jr. Tedric Thompson is seeking to improve further after grabbing three ints. as a soph. And former starter Jered Bell is back this season after gaining the okay from the NCAA to play a sixth year. Bell missed both the 2011 and 2014 seasons due to ACL injuries. So Leavitt has some decent material and experience in the back seven. But to noticeably improve, the guys up front must find a way to increase pressure on opposing passers.

SUMMARY...Says MacIntyre, “We need to make a big jump on the defensive side.” Truer words have never been spoken, especially considering CU’s four Pac-12 North foes this season. They include speed-leaden Oregon, muscle-bound Stanford, and wide-open Washington State. That’s in addition to the many well-established, uptempo attacks in the South. If the Buffs can beat bitter rival Colorado State and the Rams’ rebuilding offense in Denver Sept. 19, Colorado has a good chance to be 4-0 moving into the Pac-12 season. With 13 games in 2015 (because of a trip to Hawaii), the Buffs must win seven to go “bowling.” MacIntyre has pulled a similar trick at San Jose. But it might be asking a lot from a team that is just 4-32 in Pac-12 play the last four years. So even though the Buffaloes appear to be ascending, the head coach might find himself on the hot seat if the trajectory isn’t steep enough.



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