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Can USC raise the South to top of Pac-12 football?

Cornerback Jack Jones is expected to start for USCs in 2017, taking the spot vacated by Adoree’ Jackson.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Someone will win the Pac-12 Conference’s South Division. The question is whether that football team can prevail in the game that really matters in early December at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

Since the first Pac-12 championship game was staged in 2011, the North has gone 6-0. If the South intends to rise, now would be a good time.

There are some intriguing candidates for a breakthrough. USC features perhaps its best quarterback since Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy. UCLA is coming off a losing season but doesn’t usually stay down long, last failing to make a bowl game in two consecutive years in 1989-90. Colorado could put up 40 points per game, which might be meaningful if its defense doesn’t give up 45.

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

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USC

Jack Jones did not fulfill his own expectations last season, failing to win the Heisman Trophy as a reserve freshman cornerback. He’s expected to start in 2017, taking the spot vacated by Adoree’ Jackson, but those Heisman hopes don’t seem any more realistic this year, considering that Sam Darnold also graces USC’s roster.

Darnold might be the most striking figure at USC since Tommy Trojan. The quarterback guided his team to nine wins in 10 games last season after taking over as the starter, including a Rose Bowl comeback against Penn State that defied all probability.

The Trojans have greater aspirations in the coming months, which will necessitate avoiding a repeat of last season’s 1-3 start.

Darnold, running back Ronald Jones II and receiver Deontay Burnett are big-time playmakers, but an equally important trio will be the offensive linemen who replace Chad Wheeler, Zach Banner and Damien Mama, who started a combined 110 games in their USC careers.

There’s also the matter of whether anyone can be as versatile and electric as Jackson, who scored on passes, kickoff returns and punt returns while also playing lockdown defense before departing for the NFL.

Jones appears set to take Jackson’s spot returning kickoffs, giving him another opportunity to enhance his, ahem, Heisman bid.

UCLA

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Josh Rosen has kept a conspicuously low profile in recent months, given his history of brash behavior. The UCLA quarterback has declined interview requests, tweeted only four times since February and failed to say or do anything that necessitated crisis management.

Maybe that’s what happens when you’re anointed “The Chosen One” only to go just 11-8 as a starter in your first two college seasons.

Rosen looked fully recovered during spring practice from the shoulder injury that limited him to six games as a sophomore. But questions abound about nearly every other part of UCLA’s offense.

Can the receivers hold on to the ball after drops were a season-long issue in 2016? Will the arrival of graduate transfer Sunny Odogwu from Miami save the offensive line from another abysmal season? Are any of the five running backs capable of a breakthrough after the Bruins collectively averaged only 84.3 yards rushing last season, ranking No. 127 among 128 major college teams?

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It will be up to coach Jim Mora and a cadre of new offensive assistants to shepherd the Bruins through a demanding early season schedule that includes September games against Texas A&M, Stanford and Colorado. New offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch appears to favor a more dynamic attack than predecessor Kennedy Polamalu, giving fans hope that less predictability will equal more productivity.

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen looked fully recovered in spring practice from the shoulder injury that limited him to six games as a sophomore.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Colorado

The Buffaloes’ surprise move from worst (in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015) to first (in 2016) in the Pac-12 South may represent a one-year wonder given what’s left of their defense.

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The team returns only three starters from the defense that gave up 342.5 yards per game last season, ranking No. 19 among major college teams. Making matters worse, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt bolted for the same position at Oregon. Among the personnel Colorado must replace are its top tackler, Kenneth Olugbode, as well as its best defensive back, Tedric Thompson.

Things are not nearly as bleak on offense, where quarterback Steven Montez should capably succeed record-setting Sefo Liufau. Montez got ample on-the-job training last season while Liufau missed three games with an ankle injury. Tailback Phillip Lindsay is also back after rushing for 1,189 yards.

If the Buffaloes can’t outscore opponents, it could very well seem like old times — the kind no one in Boulder wants to repeat.

Utah

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Consistency and reliability have been hallmarks of the Kyle Whittingham era. So has coming up short in the Pac-12 South.

The Utes are the only team in the division never to have appeared in the conference championship game. Coach Whittingham has changed his team’s style — if not its fortunes — with the hiring of Troy Taylor from Eastern Washington as offensive coordinator.

Utah intends to develop a more explosive passing game out of a reconfigured spread offense. The quarterback spot appears to be up for grabs between returning starter Troy Williams, backup Tyler Huntley and Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman. Whoever wins the job will have to help nurture a relatively inexperienced corps of running backs and receivers led by Zach Moss (382 yards rushing in 2016) and Raelon Singleton (27 catches).

The team must replace four offensive linemen who were taken in the NFL draft and there’s no chance tailback Joe Williams can rejoin the Utes; he’s now a San Francisco 49er. If all goes well, maybe the turnover will lead to a Ute reboot that finally lands the team in Levi’s Stadium in early December.

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Arizona State

The Sun Devils are unveiling a new football facility but are facing questions about the offensive line and will be directed by their third offensive coordinator in as many years.

Arizona State and UCLA apparently have more in common than going 2-7 last season in the Pac-12 South. Failure spurs change, and the Sun Devils are in the midst of more upheaval than the Greek economy. Fortunately for them, new offensive coordinator Billy Napier brings impressive credentials as a former receivers coach at Alabama and offensive coordinator at Clemson.

Arizona State fans might be tempted to troll Tide considering the Sun Devils also have former Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett, a sophomore transfer who once starred at Corona Santiago High. Barnett played in the Tide’s season opener against USC last season but was granted immediate eligibility to play for his new team thanks to a successful NCAA appeal.

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Sun Devils coach Todd Graham has said that the starting quarterback job belongs to returner Manny Wilkins until someone else proves more worthy, though Barnett’s talent and pedigree make a takeover seem imminent.

Keeping whoever wins the job upright is a concern. Seven offensive linemen who started last season return from the unit that yielded 3.4 sacks per game, which could be considered good or bad, depending on one’s perspective.

Arizona

The Wildcats last won a division title in 2014 … or was it 1914? Success feels like an eon ago considering the dropoff the program has experienced in the last two years.

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Arizona was dreadful on defense last season, giving up 38.3 points and 469.3 yards per game. Its struggles were so pronounced that the Wildcats finished last in the Pac-12 South standings despite featuring the top rushing offense in the conference, which churned out 235 yards per game.

The running game should remain among the nation’s best because of the return of quarterback Brandon Dawkins, a two-way threat who rushed for 944 yards last season, as well as tailback Nick Wilson.

Another positive: that porous defensive unit, which returns seven starters, won’t have to face conference heavyweights Stanford and Washington because they’re not on the schedule.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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Twitter: @latbbolch


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