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A look at the Pac-12 South: USC is favored, but Arizona State, with Herm Edwards, could be the big story

Forget those pesky X’s and O’s. Maybe all it takes to win the Pac-12 South is redirecting one’s vast internal resources to foster a multidimensional approach that will leverage innovative synergies into elevated results.

Arizona State either provided a novel blueprint for success when it hired coach Herm Edwards and announced a new NFL-style management structure or merely took corporate-speak to unprecedented levels of gobbledygook.

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Either way, it figures to be fascinating.

Edwards was one of three new coaches hired to help shift the balance of power away from defending Pac-12 champion USC in the South Division.

UCLA brought in Chip Kelly in hopes of making the Rose Bowl a regular destination beyond its home games. It may take at least a year to get there, considering that sports betting website Bovada listed the over-under on the Bruins’ victory total this season at 5½.

Arizona imported Kevin Sumlin from the football hotbed of Texas, where he won twice as many games as he lost during a decade at Texas A&M and Houston. The Wildcats would probably settle for seven or eight wins a season and an absence of the allegations of workplace misconduct that accelerated predecessor Rich Rodriguez’s dismissal.

The heavy turnover in the South leaves USC’s Clay Helton, entering only his third full season, as something of a dean in the division alongside the more established Mike MacIntyre (entering his seventh season at Colorado) and Kyle Whittingham (entering his 14th season at Utah).

The Sun Devils didn’t seem to mind that Edwards had not coached in nine years (other than a high school all-star game) or worked at the college level since he was an assistant at San Jose State in 1989. At 64, Edwards is giving new meaning to giving it the old college try.

Here’s a look at the division heading into training camps, in predicted order of finish:

USC coach Clay Helton holds up the winner's trophy after the Trojans beat Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 1.
USC coach Clay Helton holds up the winner's trophy after the Trojans beat Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 1. (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

USC

Helton’s Trojans have won a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title the last two years. It doesn’t feel like enough for some hard-boiled fans who questioned the team’s pitiful showing in losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State, as well as its absence from the College Football Playoffs.

Fortunately for Helton, he has the backing of school officials who extended his contract through the end of the 2023 season. He also might have his next great quarterback in freshman JT Daniels, widely presumed to become Sam Darnold’s replacement after leaving high school a year early.

It may be a head start to disappointment unless the Trojans can find a running back to replace the departed Ronald Jones II. Stephen Carr is the leading candidate if he can show he’s fully recovered from back surgery, with Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malepeai also in the mix.

Helton’s team possesses enough talent to notch double-digit victories and get back to Levi’s Stadium for the Pac-12 championship game. Silencing the coach’s detractors might hinge on USC’s ending its season at the same venue on Jan. 7, 2019, in the national championship game.

Utah

Who says it’s hard to recruit to Salt Lake City?

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Utah edged USC and Penn State in the battle to sign receiver Solomon Enis, widely considered the top prospect in his class out of Arizona. The Utes also beat out Alabama, Louisiana State and Wisconsin for the services of highly touted quarterback Jack Tuttle … who might start his freshman season holding a clipboard.

That’s probably the best indication of how stacked Utah is on offense. The team returns dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley as well as tailback Zach Moss, who rushed for more than 1,100 yards last season. Running back Armand Shyne is back from the knee and arm injuries that derailed his last two seasons and receiver Britain Covey, a freshman All-American in 2015, is back from a two-year Mormon Church mission.

Things are a bit bleaker on defense, where the Utes return only one starting lineman, but it’s no stretch to imagine this team contending for what would be its first trip to the Pac-12 title game.

Arizona

Sumlin spoke with Tucson reporters only twice during spring practices, which was twice as often as players were made available in what amounted to a virtual media blackout (with the exception of assistant coaches).

Maybe they figured everything about quarterback Khalil Tate had already been said.

The former Gardena Serra High standout had already established himself as a candidate for the 2018 Heisman Trophy after blitzing Pac-12 defenses once he became the starter in October. He compiled nearly as many yards rushing (1,411) as passing (1,591), leaving one to wonder what kinds of numbers he could accumulate in a full season.

New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone won’t have to do much tinkering with perhaps the most dynamic athlete in the Pac-12, considering that Tate averaged 9.2 yards per carry last season and threw a school-record five touchdown passes against Purdue in the Foster Farms Bowl.

Mazzone said Tate reminded him of Brett Hundley, the former UCLA quarterback who now plays for the Green Bay Packers. Hundley should be flattered.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly faces a season's worth of high-stake juggling in his return to college football.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly faces a season's worth of high-stake juggling in his return to college football. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA

Kelly never won fewer than 10 games in any of his four seasons at Oregon. Expecting him to reach that threshold in his first season with the Bruins might be like asking Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel with a 64-pack of Crayolas.

UCLA has big holes to fill at quarterback as well as along the offensive and defensive lines. Graduate transfer Wilton Speight and freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson will jostle with redshirt sophomore Devon Modster to replace departed quarterback Josh Rosen, whose singular brilliance never resulted in more than an eight-win season.

On the plus side, the Bruins can only get better in the running game (which generated 113.4 yards per game last season, finishing No. 115 nationally) and on defense (which yielded 483.7 yards per game, No. 122 nationally).

Kelly’s first recruiting class should have an immediate impact. Speedy tailback Kazmeir Allen could nudge the run game out of its inertia and graduate transfer Justin Murphy, returning from a medical retirement in 2016 while at Texas Tech, could fill needs at guard or tackle.

It will be part of a season’s worth of high-stakes juggling for Kelly in his return to college football.

Colorado

The Buffaloes’ breakthrough South Division title in 2016 was followed by something more familiar.

Their last-place finish in 2017 marked the sixth time in seven years they’ve resided in that spot since joining the Pac-12.

Colorado intends to play faster in quarterback Steven Montez’s second year as the full-time starter, but it could be a quick series of three-and-outs, considering all the new pieces around him on offense. The Buffaloes lost tailback Phillip Lindsay, center Jonathan Huckins and wide receivers Bryce Bobo, Devin Ross and Shay Fields.

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Colorado’s defense, meanwhile, is coming off a season in which it gave up 450.6 yards per game, ranking No. 109 in the nation.

Odds are, things won’t end well once again: ESPN’s Football Power Index gave the Buffaloes a 0% chance of winning the Pac-12.

Arizona State coach Herm Edwards, right, at a news conference with athletic director Ray Anderson on Dec. 4.
Arizona State coach Herm Edwards, right, at a news conference with athletic director Ray Anderson on Dec. 4. (Matt York / Associated Press)

Arizona State

Edwards’ unintended comedy routine went beyond the indecipherable press release announcing the team’s pro-style approach.

One of the first questions he fielded at his introductory news conference was from a reporter with Devils Digest.

Said Edwards: “Devils Digest, huh? Where are you located, my man?”

Said the reporter, struggling to stifle his laughter: “Right here in Tempe.”

Said Edwards: “I’m Catholic, now, I’m a Christian. Watch out [for] them Devils.”

It might have passed as just a lighthearted exchange except for the fact that Edwards really did not appear to know his own school’s mascot.

Watch out for those Devils, indeed. They may be bottoming out even with talented quarterback Manny Wilkins returning.

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