The Pac-12's South Division went 2-0 over the weekend in bowl games, and there was much rejoicing. Well, there was a little rejoicing -- a couple of fist bumps? -- with more than a few sighs of relief.
The Utes actually should feel pretty darn good. Beating the rival Cougars for a fifth consecutive time feels good no matter what, and the relief of winning as a strong favorite provides its own sort of appreciation. Utah also finished the season at a stout 10-3, its best effort as a Pac-12 team. That should be good enough for a final top-20 ranking, despite some late-season struggles.
As for the Wildcats, they said goodbye to an injury-riddled season that was decidedly underwhelming. They also said goodbye to linebacker Scooby Wright, who flashed some of his old swashbuckling playmaking against the Lobos before announcing he'd enter the NFL draft, though there wasn't much pride to be taken by anyone in a weak defensive effort.
While Oregon State defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake leaving to become the head coach at BYU was the biggest story of the weekend in a national sense, it's difficult to not look at these two middling wins and USC elevating Tee Martin to offensive coordinator and not take stock of the South Division.
It's going to feel different next year, at least in terms of how it is viewed in the preseason compared with this past August. Recall that 2015 was supposed to be the Year of the South -- the season in which the South would rise again! -- yet that didn't materialize. The North outslugged the South 15-10 and didn't relinquish its stranglehold on the conference title.
As for the bowl season, the South matchups, starting this past weekend, are lackluster. USC's game with Wisconsin is a nice Pac-12-Big Ten showdown in the National Funding Holiday Bowl, but it falls to a distant third behind the Stanford-Iowa Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual and the Oregon-TCU Valero Alamo Bowl, North meetings with highly rated teams from other Power 5 conferences that will do most of the tough legwork for the Pac-12's final national perception heading into the offseason.
UCLA and true freshman QB Josh Rosen figure to be the 2016 preseason South favorites, but their second-tier bowl game certainly won't be must-see TV. It sounds OK to be playing Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl, but that is diminished by the fact that the Cornhuskers sport a 5-7 record and are playing a bowl game only because their team is academically sound, something you wouldn't have concluded based on how poorly they executed in the fourth quarter over the first half of the season.
The overriding theme we see for the South as the 2015 season unspools into the New Year? Uncertainty.
The Bruins are uncertain because we still await their special season under Jim Mora. While his four-year tenure has been unquestionably successful, that cliche of "taking the next step" will join "Rosen Take 2" as the top South preseason story next summer.
USC is uncertain, obviously, because it's made a coaching change, with new head coach Clay Helton also installing new coordinators. Helton elevated Martin on offense, and he continues to look for a replacement for the fired Justin Wilcox on defense. Like Helton, Martin is highly thought of, but, like Helton, he is unproven. He's never coordinated an offense before or called plays.
All that USC uncertainty might run into some unforgiving concrete reality when it opens 2016 against Alabama in Cowboys Stadium. Or, it might make a bold statement that reverberates throughout the season and -- not to be grandiose or anything -- perhaps through the next decade as Helton weaves his way into the Trojans' storied football tapestry alongside McKay and Carroll.
Utah? It says goodbye to a large handful of multi-year starters on both sides of the ball, starting with QB Travis Wilson but growing more worrisome when you see linebackers Gionni Paul and Jared Norris off to the NFL. The wide consensus will predict the Utes taking a step back in 2016.
As for Arizona, the overriding question has become a redundancy: Can the Wildcats pair their high-powered offense under Rich Rodriguez with a defense that is, at least, better than mediocre? When you look at what's coming back next fall, it's difficult to envision much improvement, and its overall talent, not the 3-3-5 scheme, is the issue. Make no mistake, Wright's departure, though expected, was a crushing hit.
Arizona State, like its friend from Tucson, is riding out a season that feels like L.A. to Sydney, Australia, in a middle seat in coach. The Sun Devils have an upcoming QB competition under a new coordinator, and that is only the biggest of several depth-chart holes.
Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre might face a win-or-else season in Boulder. The Buffaloes have improved significantly over the past three years, but that improvement now probably requires a bowl game to inspire smiles in Boulder a year from now.
In other words, after a preseason in which five South teams were legitimate preseason top-25 candidates, and five were ranked at some point in September, the South probably will feature just two teams ranked in the 2016 preseason: UCLA and USC.
You might call that the "usual suspects," and think we're underrating the other four teams. But that will reflect a national skepticism based on the seeming overrating of the division this past fall.