The opening act of the Pac-12 South dramedy will play out Friday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium when USC travels to Utah.
It will not be balletic. It will not be pretty. And it will not be graceful.
This matchup features some of the best offensive and defensive linemen in the country. It will be gritty, arduous, and probably a little nasty.
This game, it seems, is also a mirror to how the Pac-12 South race is going to play out -- gritty, arduous, and probably a little bit nasty.
Over the past four years, the Pac-12 South has seen four different division champs: UCLA (2012), Arizona State (2013), Arizona (2014) and USC (2015). Is it conceivable that we could see a fifth team in as many years win the division?
Absolutely. And why not Utah? That’s not to say the Utes are going to plow through the division. Far from it. However if there is going to be a fifth team, the Utes are a strong early candidate.
For starters, they are one of the few Pac-12 teams that got together and decided that playing defense might be a good idea. The offense, though sporadic (and a little undisciplined -- seven false starts already), has shown the potential to be explosive. They can run the football. They can stop the run. And they can get to the quarterback. When your team checks those boxes, it has a fighting chance.
But as quickly as you can make an argument for the Utes, you could postulate that four -- maybe even five -- other teams in the division have a shot. The thing is ... and this has been true about the South since the conference expanded ... once you make a case for a team in the South, you can just as quickly poke holes in it.
The Arizona schools can score, but their defenses have shown to be less than stout through the first three weeks. UCLA's defense has shown up on occasion -- as has the offense. But inconsistency appears to be the Bruins' early curse. And USC -- well -- no one will argue that USC doesn’t have the best collection of athletes in the league. But when they aren’t kicking their own rear ends, someone else is doing it for them.
Truth be told, Colorado has probably been the most consistent team in the South through the first three weeks. But their depth is shaky, and it’s unknown if they can sustain that level of play through an entire conference season.
So you see, the South has never been more ripe for the plucking for a team like Utah -- or UCLA -- or USC -- or Arizona -- or Arizona State -- or, yes, even Colorado.
Our best measuring stick for comparing the South so far is actually BYU. But those comparisons come with little clarity. The Cougars beat Arizona by two, lost to Utah by one and lost to UCLA by three. One touchdown -- sans the PAT -- is all that separates those games.
The Pac-12 South won’t be won Friday night in Salt Lake City. The point is, it probably won’t be lost, either. Sure, a win will help. But one win or loss in September won’t completely lift the fog. USC -- last year’s South champ -- had a 6-3 conference record (which it split with Utah). The year before that, Arizona was 7-2. UCLA was 6-3 in 2012. ASU posted eight conference wins in 2013, but still ended up losing the conference title.
The balance of power squarely rests in the North -- still. The South has yet to present a champion worthy of a conference title. In fact, you might recall that each South team, after losing in the Pac-12 championship game, has also gone on to lose its bowl game.
This might be the murkiest the South has ever been heading into conference play. The winner of Utah-USC will have an early leg up in the standings. But each of the past two seasons, the South’s winner wasn’t crowned until the final weekend. Recent history tells us we’ll probably be carving turkeys before we know which South team will play for the conference title.