With spring practices beginning across the Pac-12, we're taking a look at some of the key players and position groups that could shape the division races in 2017. Thursday, we'll examine the biggest strengths of each team in the North and South. Check back next week for a look at each team's biggest weakness.
Here's a look at the South:
Arizona: If the Territorial Cup was any indication of what’s to come, the Wildcats’ offensive line is a reason for optimism. Granted, it came against a porous Arizona State defense, but the Wildcats ran for 511 yards on 48 carries, and lot of that is a result of solid play up front. Arizona returns four starters on the line, and while the Wildcats will miss left guard Freddie Tagaloa, his injury issues last season made for plenty of experience for Christian Boettcher.
Arizona State: This is more speculation, but Blake Barnett's arrival from Alabama -- and the news that he’ll be eligible to play right away -- should provide an immediate upgrade at quarterback for the Sun Devils. Considering the program was already flush with young quarterbacks who were highly rated during the recruiting process, they wouldn’t have taken just anyone. It didn’t work out in Tuscaloosa, but one can't totally hold that against Barnett considering how little time he got to prove himself and how the Crimson Tide went to a quarterback in a completely different mold. He’s an exciting addition for ASU and the Pac-12.
Colorado: Receiver was a strength as the Buffaloes won the Pac-12 South last season, and every significant contributor returns. Shay Fields, Devin Ross, Bryce Bobo, Jay MacIntyre and running back Phillip Lindsay all had at least 30 catches in 2016 and make up a talented group for quarterback Steven Montez. What makes this group unique is how well balanced it is. There’s not really a clear No. 1 or No. 2; really, it varied from game to game. Ross was the only player last season to lead the team in receiving yards in back-to-back contests.
UCLA: Last season didn’t go according to plan, but the fact remains that when Josh Rosen is healthy, he is as talented a quarterback as there is in college football. The offense’s limitations before he got hurt had more to do its inability to run the ball than any perceived regression on Rosen’s part. Only time will tell, but new coordinator Jedd Fisch’s offensive background seems like a good fit for maximizing Rosen’s strengths, which is when he’s able to sit in the pocket, read defenses and take advantage of his rare arm talent.
USC: Oddsmakers are already listing quarterback Sam Darnold as the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, which should come to no surprise to anyone who watched the Rose Bowl (or the second half of USC’s season). Darnold is the real deal. He can make all the throws. He can run. He’s a good decision-maker. He had a brief fumbling issue early after taking over the starting job, but cleaned that up quickly, and it’s fair to wonder if he’ll leave USC after next season despite having two years of eligibility remaining.
Utah: At the NFL combine, Utah will be tied with USC for the most representatives from the Pac-12, and it could have been more. Defensive end Hunter Dimick, a Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate, wasn’t invited, and Stevie Tu'ikolovatu will be there after spending his final season playing for the Trojans. That’s a quick way of saying Utah hasn’t been devoid of talent recently, particularly on the defensive line. The Utes should again have one of the nation’s best defensive lines, led by Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi.