With recruiting behind us and spring well underway, the Pac-12 blog thought it would be fun to examine each team's chances of winning its respective division.
This is not whether the team of the day can win the Pac-12. And we're not predicting any winners. Rather, this is our take on the team's chances of winning the North or South.
Buy or sell UCLA winning the South?
Buy: While we both bought Arizona as a potential South champ -- and we'll weigh in on USC tomorrow -- I think we both agree that Arizona State and UCLA have a slight lead over the other two as front runners. At least for now. Whatever separation lies between ASU and UCLA is minimal.
There are some holes that jump out immediately -- like replacing running back Johnathan Franklin, tight end Joseph Fauria, defensive end Datone Jones and the very underrated linebacker Damien Holmes. All are significant.
But four of the five starting offensive linemen are back -- which is always comforting for a second-year quarterback. Speaking of Brett Hundley, I'm looking for him to take a major leap forward in terms of his understanding of the offense and maturity as a player.
But there's no disputing what Jim Mora and his staff did in Year 1.
Consider these national rankings:
UCLA went from 81st to 34th nationally in passing offense.
72nd to 24th in total offense.
88th to 31st in scoring offense.
112th to 8th in sacks.
87th to 22nd in tackles for a loss.
The systems work. The schemes work. The coaching works. Oh yeah -- and they have one of the best defensive players in the nation in Anthony Barr coming back.
The schedule ramps up with trips to Nebraska, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona. But the division crown is likely to be decided in the final two weeks, when the Bruins host Arizona State and then are at USC to close out the year. The Bruins made huge strides in their first year under Mora & Co. And if Hundley matures like we expect and the by-committee approach at running back can come together, the Bruins could be well on their way toward repeating.
Buy: UCLA has among the fewest returning starters in the Pac-12 -- 12 -- and it has some obvious areas of uncertainty, most notably running back and the secondary. Further, the schedule is rugged -- at Nebraska, Stanford and Oregon before the calendar hits November.
Yet there's a nice combination of returning "Wow Factor" and up-and-coming guys to make it pretty easy to imagine this team not only winning the South Division but also playing in the Rose Bowl.
Start with the "Wow Factor."
Barr might be the first Pac-12 player picked in the 2014 NFL draft. Offensive guard Xavier Su'a-Filo is an All-American candidate. Hundley would appear on just about any list of the "Nation's Most Talented Quarterbacks." And ILB Eric Kendricks should move from underrated to first-team All-Pac-12 this fall.
Up and comers? Ellis McCarthy on the D-line, receiver Devin Lucien and three sophomores who started on the offensive line as freshmen (and some even younger guys who might push them). While the secondary is worrisome -- all four 2012 starters are gone -- the recruiting has been strong in the back half. Young and talented is better than experienced and mediocre.
But Kevin hits on the key point: Coaching.
UCLA has had intriguing talent before and fallen flat. Yet Mora and his staff grabbed this locker room by its collective lapels last spring and have yet to let go. They have the Bruins' attention, which is good.
Further, that horrible Holiday Bowl loss to Baylor should remind everyone where complacency leads. There should be a good mix of confidence -- "Hey, look, the victory bell!" -- and chip on the ole shoulder to keep guys focused and edgy.
It will be interesting to see if the Bruins might be able to steal a road game from conference frontrunners, Oregon and Stanford, before the divisional schedule heats up. Whatever happens, the final four games will determine the season: at Arizona, Washington, Arizona State and at USC.
Why a buy rating on the Bruins? We think they could sweep those four games.