by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We continue our TGS previews for the 2019 College Football season with a look at the South half of the Pac-12. As usual, teams are listed in their predicted order of finish, with 2018 straight-up, spread, and over/under records included.

It took a while, but Utah (2018 SUR 9-5; PSR 7-7; O/U 8-6) finally became the big boy in the Pac-12 South last fall, winning the division for the first time since joining the loop in 2011. The Utes had come close before under HC Kyle Whittingham, who during days in Mountain West once fashioned a 13-0 mark in 2008 and a win over Nick Saban’s Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Though in the end last season, the Utes were a bit frustrated, unable to do much vs. Washington (for the second time) in a slow-paced 10-3 loss in the Pac-12 title game, then blowing a halftime lead and the game to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl after being in complete control into the third quarter. The latter really stung as Whittingham had won 10 of 11 previous bowl visits with the Utes, though Pac-12 sources report the result also acted as kick-start for Utah in the offseason and should carry into the fall.

The pieces look in place for a Utah repeat in the South...and maybe much more. Especially on the offensive side, where almost all of the key cogs return. Including slashing RB Zack Moss (1096 YR and 6.1 ypc a year ago), who bypassed a chance to enter the NFL Draft a year early to come back for another go in Salt Lake City. Indeed, all of last year’s stat leaders are back in the fold, including QB Tyler Huntley, on his way to a superb 2018 before breaking a collarbone and missing the last five games. A dual-threat who also ran for 304 yards, Huntley provides an escape dimension that confounds enemy defenses. All of his top receiving targets return as well, including glue-fingered wideout Britain Covey (60 catches in 2018). The Utes are looking for a couple of new starters along an offensive line that annually competes with Stanford’s as the most-physical in the league. Most in the region also think the Utes struck gold when luring o.c. Andy Ludwig from Vanderbilt to replace Troy Taylor, who became Sac State head coach. Ludwig was in the same role for Whittingham in the big 2008 year before leaving for Power 5 opportunities (in the days Utah wasn’t considered at the “Power 5" level). Whittingham will also need to find a new PK after the graduation of reliable Matt Guy, who nailed 26 of 31 FG tries last fall.

It’s on the defense, however, where the Utes might really shine in the fall, especially with thick tackles Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae deciding to stick around for another year rather than test the NFL Draft waters. The NFL, though, looks in their future, as well as for DT John Penisini, who will help constitute what might be one of the nation’s most-rugged defensive fronts, and one that ranked fifth in rush defense a year ago. Whittingham and d.c Morgan Scalley have some juggling to do at the LB spots after graduation hit the position hard, though Penn State grad transfer Manny Bowen is likely to step right into the breach. Another NFL prospect, CB Jaylon Johnson, roams in the secondary. If Scalley can wish one improvement for his platoon, it’s forcing turnovers after the Utes caused just 321 a year ago, contributing to a -5 TO margin. But the lineup looks like it might feature all upperclassmen and should at least fare as well as a year ago when ranking a solid 14th nationally, and solid defense has always been a staple of Whitttngham, beginning his 15th season in charge this fall (where did the years go?).

The schedule also tees up a potential big year in Salt Lake City, with down-I-15 BYU looking the toughest of a forgiving non-league slate that also includes a reloading Northern Illinois and Big Sky Idaho State. Assuming they cruise thru the non-league slate, we’ll know if we should start talking about the Utes as a possible Final Four darkhorse if they can win their first two conference games at USC and home vs. Washington State (especially as Whittingham is 0-4 against Mike Leach). This looks like another possible big season for Utah like its best years in the Mountain West in 2004 & ‘08, when the Utes would win major bowl dates in the Fiesta (vs. Pitt, in Urban Meyer’s last game before moving to Florida) and Sugar (as noted vs. Nick Saban’s Alabama).

Spread-wise, Whittingham Utah teams have often provided good value, and over the years have excelled in a variety of roles. Lately, the Utes have been reliable at home, covering 11 of their last 16 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, and were 12-4 as a dog between 2014-17. Whittingham is also 10-2 SU and 8-4 vs. the spread in bowl games.

Well, that was a bit bumpy of a ride last fall at UCLA (2018 SUR 3-9; PSR 5-6-1; O/U 7-5), where the Bruins endured their worst campaign since Pepper Rodgers’ first team finished 2-7-1 in 1971. For much of last season, we thought comparisons to some of those past UCLA stragglers was a bit too flattering to Chip Kelly’s first edition, which looked like it might post the big donut when it started 0-5. The ‘71 team, in retrospect, was pretty gnarly, given that it really didn’t have a quarterback. No one has called UCLA "gnarly: for several years,  The other Bruin team compared to last year, in 1963, finished a poor 2-8 for Bill Barnes, but was good enough to blank AAWU champion Washington and almost beat the other Rose Bowl rep that season, the Illinois of Dick Butkus. But by the end of last season, Kelly’s team began to show some life. And even though the Bruins only won one of their last five, the noted Kelly offense began work, and if UCLA picked one game to win down the stretch, it picked the right one, as the 34-27 success vs. crosstown USC at least gave the support base something good to feel about.

Still, it has dawned upon some Bruin backers that Kelly is not working under the same set of conditions that helped him win big at Oregon between 2009-12. There was a bit of a power vacuum in the league during that span as USC began to decline from the best Pete Carroll years. Early in the decade, Oregon, thanks to alum Phil Knight’s contributions and the Nike connection, was also winning the college sports facilities race by a good margin. And Kelly’s progressive offense was unique 8-9 years ago. The field has leveled in the Pac-12 since, however, and Chip’s advantages, especially in the latter two examples, are not as great as they were during his days at Eugene.

Having said that, Kelly’s offense finally began to fire on all cylinders down the stretch last fall, even though he was not using as much of the hurry-up spread as he did during his days with the Ducks. But the infantry, always a Kelly staple, tore through USC, especially RB Joshua Kelley, the former UC Davis transfer who ripped the Trojans for 299 YR. UCLA then almost beat Stanford for the first time in a decade in a wild 49-42 loss. All of this with the ill-fitting Michigan transfer Wilton Speight running the offense. Now, soph Dorian Thompson-Robinson, recruited as the perfect dual-threat fit for a Kelly attack, gets handed the keys after an injury-plagued frosh year. That Thompson-Robinson’s skills seem well-suited to the Kelly spread and uptempo should better manifest this fall. Besides RB Kelley (a surprising 1243 YR in 2018), top wideout Theo Howard (51 catches last year) remains in the fold, though Chip will be looking to replace the contributions of departed TE Caleb Wilson (60 catches last year). The interior of the OL returns intact and could be a strength, though there remain depth concerns along the forward wall.

After being strafed at the end of the preceding Jim Mora regime (when word around town was that UCLA was located in “Westwoo...because the Bruins had no D”), the stop unit shaved 90 ypg from its rushing defense a year ago in a better overall performance than the sieve-like 2017 platoon. The Bruins still conceded 30 or more points in nine of twelve games, but didn’t always appear roadkill as the preceding year, as there was improvement for new d.c Jerry Azzinaro. Expect more upgrades in the fall, especially an experienced secondary that might become one of the best in the Pac, with returning starting corners Darnay Holmes and Elijah Gates more than holding their own last fall. Senior OLB Keisean Lucier-South, a former five-star recruit, began to finally live up to the hype at times last fall as well. UCLA remains big but maybe a bit slow along the DL, with whale-like 380-lb. DT Atonio Nafi hard to move but not able to do much chasing. In fact, none of the Bruins did much of the latter, as only Oregon State had fewer than UCLA’s measly 15 sacks in the Pac-12. Improvement in that category will go a long way to UCLA returning to the bowl mix.

Schedule-wise, along with crosstown USC, plus Notre Dame, UCLA is the only school in the FBS ranks over the last 60 years to never face an FCS or lower-level foe (the last non-major the Bruins faced would have been UOP back in 1957). The Bruins might want to give themselves a break one of these days and gear down their non-league slate that featured all double-digit winners a year ago and looks just as tough this season, with San Diego State replacing Fresno State from the Mountain West, with return matches vs. Cincinnati and Oklahoma. Kelly, however, does catch a bit of a break this fall, as he misses the consensus top two picks in the north half of the Pac, Washington and Oregon. If that rally at the end of 2018 was no mirage, the Bruins could be the surprise team in the league, and should get back to bowl action after a one-year absence.

Spread-wise, Kelly has also lost some of that magic he had in his Oregon years, as his NFL adventure ended badly with the Eagles and 49ers (Kelly teams just 7-16 their last 23 vs. the spread in the NFL), and the Burins were 5-7 a year ago vs. the line. It has also been a long time since UCLA was a reliable spread performer at home in the Rose Bowl, whether it be Kelly (2-5 vs. line as host in 2018) or Jim Mora (8-16 his last four years vs. the number in Pasadena). Mora’s last three teams were also 3-10 as an underdog, a mark Chip improved upon a bit last year (up to 5-5).

Next thing you know, Arizona State (2018 SUR 7-6; PSR 7-6; O/U 6-7) boosters might be touting HC Herm Edwards to run for John McCain’s old US Senate seat next year. (We might have made Herm the favorite over Kyrsten Sinema last November, but we digress.) At least within the “Sun Angel” boosters, Herm was probably more popular than any politician in the state even before his Sun Devils roared from behind to beat rival Arizona 41-40 in a wild Territorial Cup last November 24. ASU backers were already enjoying being able to yuck it up with the personable Herm at booster events after being subject to the sour-milk personality of predecessor Todd Graham. It turned out that Herm hadn’t forgotten how to coach after nearly nine years as an analyst at ESPN, doing lots of little things well, making proper adjustments, and generally getting his team to punch above its weight. No longer was the fan base wondering if Herm’s longtime friendship with AD Ray Anderson (once Herm’s agent) been the main reason for his hire after ASU became bowl eligible.

Herm’s encore this fall has several Pac-12 insiders filled with intrigue. Though a couple of key cogs need to be replaced from a capable offense that scored 30 ppg, returning as a peripheral Heisman threat is jr. RB Eno Benjamin, who raced for a school record 1642 YR last fall when he became AUS’s all-time single-season leading rusher. What Benjamin will likely invite, at least until further notice, is foes loading up the box and daring one of Herm’s QB to beat them through the air. Wise strategy, perhaps, as the not much experience is vying for the first crack in the pilot’s chair. Indeed, three true frosh who enrolled early and participated in spring work are all still in the mix as fall camp beckons, though it appeared as if California product Jayden Daniels might have slightly separated from the other frosh by the end of spring, and will battle the lone QB with any experience, jr. Dillon Sterling-Cole (only 17 career pass attempts), for the starting role in the opener vs. Kent State on August 29. ASU’s season likely hangs in the balance, as predecessor Manny Wilkins proved to be a capable playmaker. ASU must also replace big target wideout N’Keal Harry (73 catches last year), the patriots’ first-round draft pick, but all of the other top targets return, led WR Kyle Williams 944 catches LY). Herm and o.c. Rob Likens likely feature a veteran OL that could start five seniors and likely to benefit from C Cohl Cabral deciding to stay around for one more year in Tempe after considering an early jump to the NFL.

One of Herm’s best moves upon his hire was stealing d.c. Danny Gonzales from the Rocky Long staff at Herm’S alma mater, San Diego State. Gonzales does things the Rocky way, meaning Long’s pet 3-3-5 looks. There are some concerns up front where new starters must be found along the line, though soph DE Jermayne Lole was one of many frosh who impressed when getting a chance last season. Rice grad transfer DE Roe Wilkins is one of the newcomers who could help right away. There are established playmakers at the second and third levels on the platoon, including the top two tacklers from a year ago, LBs Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler, while soph Tyler Johnson flashed considerable upside. Meanwhile, Herm and Gonzales got good news in the offseason when S Tyler Whiley was granted a sixth year of eligibility after suffering a season-ending ankle injury in preseason camp. After so many frosh contributed when called upon a year ago, look for improved numbers after allowing a respectable 25 ppg last fall.

The schedule provides Herm a bit of a break at the outset when he will be looking to sort out the QB situation; aforementioned MAC doormat Kent State and Big Sky Sac State will be heavy underdogs when they visit Sun Devil Stadium. If things go according to plan, ASU should have a better feel for things (especially at QB) by the time it treks to revenge-minded Michigan State on September 14. Given that the Devils performed better than expected a year ago, there is no reason to believe Herm can’t at least get back to another bowl. After beating Utah, USC, and Oregon last season, no Pac-12 game appears out of reach, either.

Spread-wise, Herm was rarely a big winner during his days in the NFL, so last year’s 7-6 vs. the line (the same as the straight-up mark) looked good by comparison. Herm also was mostly able to continue the solid home numbers posted by predecessor Graham, covering 4 of 6 in Tempe, where the Sun Devils are now 13-6 vs. the points the last three seasons. Most encouraging, and proving that Herm could get ASU punching above its weight, the Devils won outright four times as an underdog last season.

The good news for beleaguered Southern Cal (2018 SUR 7-5; PSR 4-8; O/U 6-6) HC Clay Helton? He wasn’t fingered in the recent Lori Laughlin scandal at the school. The bad news? No mulligan from the demanding Trojan fan and alumni base that was beating the war drums loudly last fall as the Trojans sunk to 5-7 and their first losing season since Paul Hackett recorded the same mark in 2000. That got Hackett fired 19 years ago and most of the SC backers were expected the same fate to befall Helton, whose 2018 team lost games much the way Hackett did in 2000. Many boosters also began to believe that Helton’s previous success the previous two years was effectively down to wondrous QB Sam Darnold, who ended up a starter for the New York Jets as a rookie last fall and might have saved as many as 5 or 5 games for SC in 2017 alone. Yet AD Lynn Swann, apparently valuing his familiar Pittsburgh Steelers model of sticking with the head coach, refused to pull the plug on Helton, though many SC backers believe Swann is more concerned with pressing the flesh of corporate donors as the school puts the finishing touches on a significant refurbishment of the venerable L.A. Coliseum, where many longtime season-ticket holders are now being forced to pay seat licenses to get the same location in the new-look saucer. Off of a losing season might not be the best time to squeeze the ticket base, and, for what it’s worth, early reports are of sagging sales (also perhaps a function fo the front-running L.A. market).

Helton also has been thrown a couple of Clayton Kershaw-like curveballs with his staff. First, after hiring Kliff Kingsbury (thought by some Pac-12 insiders to be heir apparent to the HC job) as o.c. in December, the ex-Texas Tech HC got yanked away by the Arizona Cardinals, who surprisingly named him their head coach, even off of a losing season in Lubbock. Helton then simply went out and hired “Kingsbury lite” Graham Harrell, like Kingsbury a former Texas Tech QB and running the same sort of Air Raid for Seth Littrell at North Texas last fall. Helton’s fascination with the Air Raid supposedly started in the season finale vs. Notre Dame when QB J. T. Daniels had some success throwing short and quick passes; Helton thus decided he wanted to turn the SC offense into Texas Tech’s, which historically would be an awkward fit. But in 2019? We’ll see, though we’re not quite sure if its will be soph J.T. Daniels, who appeared severely overhyped as a frosh after experiencing little adversity in HS at Orange County prep power Mater Dei, or fellow soph Jack Sears, who looked good in brief stints last year and seemed to pull even with Daniels in spring, in the Lawrence Welk-role as conductor of the offense. There are plenty of established receiving targets led by the HS teammate of Daniels, soph Amon-Ra St. Brown (60 catches LY as a true frosh), along with soph Tyler Vaughns (58 catches LY) and big-play Michael Pittman, Jr. (18.5 per catch in 2018). The OL, however, was not up to past Trojan standards last year, and the expected progress of touted jr. RB Stephen Carr into a game-breaker has yet to materialize.

Helton had more staff issues in the offseason on the stop end when vet d.c. Clancy Pendergast was fingered in possible violations, with status to be determined. Though a respected strategist, Pendergast is not fond of the recruiting process, leaving that to others, and this year has a rather inexperienced platoon that is undergoing a complete makeover in the secondary. Mind you, the SC defense was middling at best last season, and losing key playmakers such as LBs Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin, and CB Iman Marshall might negatively impact the D this fall. Pendergast is expected to simplify the schemes and turn loose his linemen, which figure as the strength of the platoon, led by a Polynesian contingent of DTs Jay Tufele, Marlon Tuipolutu and Brandon Pili. True frosh DE Drake Jackson might also work into the rotations. The Trojans saw their sack total drop from 46 to 29 a year ago, and similar shortcomings could prove very problematic this fall as the defensive backfield appears to be a work in progress. Half of the scholarship DBs are incoming frosh, and some might get an immediate look, including touted CB Max Williams. But any resemblance to many of the past great Trojan stop units will probably not go much past the cardinal-and-gold uniforms.

Recent history at SC suggests that Helton should be on alert from the outset; Swann predecessor Pat Haden fired both Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian during the middle of seasons, and the pressure will grow exponentially on Helton if he gets off to a slow start. The Trojans might catch a break as they land a reloading Fresno State side in the opener, but there are no breathers in the first half of the season that includes several preseason ranked foes, including Utah, Washington, and Notre Dame, plus teams that hope to be ranked like BYU and Stanford. What we’re saying is don’t be surprised if Swann, though proving unpredictable, pulls the plug on Helton if the Trojans stumble into midseason as Haden did with Kiffin and Sarkisian. Rest assured that Helton knows the situation, too, as does his agent Jimmy Sexton, who has made sure there will be a nice buyout awaiting his client just in case.

It’s also no wonder Helton has so many Trojan cigars livid, considering that SC has been one of the top money-burners in the country the past few years; the Trojans are 8-19 their last 27 vs. the number, They’ve also covered just 4 of their last 13 at the Coliseum, which can’t sit well with those season-ticket holders now being asked to fork over hefty PSLs. SC is also just 3-10 vs. the spread its last 13 outside of the Pac-12.

We’ve never been too keen on coaches getting immediately hired after being fired elsewhere. Oh, yes, it can work at times, in basketball in particular; Bruce Weber has done swell at Kansas State, where he landed almost immediately after getting fired at Illinois. Ditto Rick Barnes, cut adrift by Texas but immediately landing on his feet and reviving Tennessee’s program. College football seems to have fewer such examples, more often resulting in failure. Coming to mind are Ty Willingham’s disastrous spell at Washington, which came on the heels of his dismissal at Notre Dame, while Ron Zook, hired by Illinois right after he was jettisoned at Florida, eventually walked the plank in Champaign-Urbana, too. Which brings us to Arizona (2018 SUR 5-7; PSR 7-5; O/U 5-7), which last year inked Kevin Sumlin, fresh off of his dismissal at Texas A&M after the Wildcats eagerly moved out Rich Rodriguez as soon as they could find a proper excuse to make a change. Well, it might turn out to be a case of buyer beware, as Sumlin undershot in his Tucson debut, just as he has done in almost every season since taking the SEC by storm in A&M’s debut season in the loop back in 2012, when Sumlin’s spread offense with Johnny Manziel at the controls caught everyone by surprise. Soon most SEC entries were running variations of the same offense and the Aggie novelty had worn off, telegraphing Sumlin’s eventual dismissal.

Sumlin’s debut at Arizona reminded us of those handful of radio talk hosts in Denver in the late 1980s who were championing John Elway transforming into more of a “traditional” QB and anchoring himself in the pocket, rather than being quick to use his legs to escape trouble. In other words, turn Elway into Craig Morton. Sumlin didn’t exactly turn the exciting QB he inherited, Khalil Tate, into Morton, but he did scrap the Rich-Rod spread option that had made Tate one of the most-feared QBs in the country in 2017 after rushing for 1441 yards, almost unstoppable when breaking clear from the pocket when named Pac-12 Player of the Week four straight times. Last year, mostly anchored in the pocket, Tate looked ordinary as his rush yards dropped to 224. Yes, he dd throw 26 TDS, but his completion percentage dropped from 62 o 56, and he never seemed to effectively grasp the new offense. The thought persists that Sumlin and o.c. Noel Mazzone tinkered unnecessarily with the Tucson formula. “He’s learning to be a quarterback,” said Mazzone this past spring.

Sorry, we’re not on board and need convincing that Sumlin and Mazzone are on the right track here as they have caused Tate to become reluctant to trust his instincts which proved so hard to defend in 2017. A shame, because there is weaponry in Tucson besides Tate; RB J.J. Taylor emerged as an explosive threat last season when rolling for 1434 YR. Sumlin and Mazzone like their collection of young wideouts (watch touted true frosh Boobie Cooper), though the top three receivers departed form last season. Four starters are back on an OL that showed promise a year ago despite bouts of erraticism. But are Sumlin and Mazzone stubborn enough to fly into a side of a mountain with their idea of Tate “learning to be a quarterback” in Tucson, when he was doing perfectly fine before they arrived?

Arizona certainly wasn’t winning games with its defense a year ago when conceding nearly 33 ppg and ranking 121st vs. the pass. By the end of the season, the platoon had gone AWOL, napalmed in a 69-28 loss at Washington State and blowing a late lea din the Territorial Cup vs. rival ASU, losing 41-40. Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, held over from the Rich-Rod staff after previously working with Sumlin at A&M, still doesn’t seem to have figured things out with a platoon that lacks the sort of identity they once had in Tucson when Dick Tomey’s “Desert Swarm” was the rage in the ‘90s. There are some playmakers on the platoon, especially at the LB spots, were jrs. Colin Schooler and Tony Fields might be honors candidates. The return of fifth-year senior CB Jace Whittaker, who missed all of last season with an elbow injury, adds extra leadership in a veteran secondary that underachieved in his absence last season. Like a year ago, there will probably be weeks when the Cat defenders look downright ornery, as in the 44-15 rout of Oregon last October 27. But too many disappearing acts like last season vs. Houston, Utah, plus aforementioned Wazzu and ASU probably keep the ceiling lower than it should be in Tucson.

Sumlin would seem to have a chance to get off to a quick start, already posted an early double-digit favorite in “Week Zero” at Hawaii, then hosting the Big Sky invader from Flagstaff, NAU. Anything less than a 2-0 break from the gate would look ominous as the slate ramps up thereafter. Already, however, Sumlin is feeling a bit of pressure after the Cats undershot a year ago. Alarm bells really start to ring in Tucson if UA misses another bowl this fall...and it might. The thought is beginning to dawn on Cat backers that Sumlin might be a downgrade from Rich-Rod, another example of the grass not always being greener on the other side.

Spread-wise, Sumlin fared better than he did straight-up a season ago, closing fast to end 7-5 vs. the line. But note that Sumlin’s A&M teams were 24-37-1 vs. the line from 2013 thru his ouster prior to the 2017 Belk Bowl. Dating to the last couple of years of the Rich-Rod regime, the Cats are just 1-7 vs. the line their last eight vs. FBS-level non-Pac 12 foes.

It all came unstuck last fall for Colorado (2018 SUR 5-7; PSR 5-7; O/U 4-8), which for a short while was even generating some Final Four buzz. That’s what happens when a team starts 5-0 these days and seems to have a bit of magic about it, as the Buffs did in their fast break. But the wheels not only came off afterward, the Buffs jumped the guard-rails on I-70 near the Eisenhower Tunnel, going winless their last seven, and costing HC Mike MacIntyre his job before the season finale vs. Utah. A simple explanation was that CU’s fortunes sagged when do-everything WR Laviska Shenault, Jr., who was generating some Heisman buzz during that fast start, would be slowed by an ankle injury and not able to distort the field as he did when healthy. But we’re not even sure Jerry Rice could have that much impact from a 5-0 start to an 0-7 finish. MacIntyre also was determined to go uptempo last fall, and like everything else it worked for a while, then it didn’t. So ended what for a time seemed a promising program turnaround by Coach Mac, who would win a South title back in 2016 and qualify for the Alamo Bowl, but miss the postseason the subsequent two campaigns.

A lot of regional observers were surprised that CU AD Rick George opted for Georgia d.c. Mel Tucker to replace MacIntyre, simply because Tucker has never coached further west than Baton Rouge and a one-year stint at LSU way back in 2000. Tucker’s 10 years of experience in the NFL, including a brief stint as interim coach at Jacksonville in 2011 after Jack Del Rio’s ouster, were thought to be appealing to recruits, at least according to George, but Mel is a definite newcomer to the region and will be hoping his staff has the sorts of contact in the West where the Buffs still do most of their recruiting. The jury is out on almost every new head coaching hire, but we think especially so with this one.

There was some talent left over in the Boulder cupboard by MacIntyre, especially offensive linchpins Shenault and sr. QB Steven Montez, who has blown hot and cold in his career, as he did again a year ago, and reflected in his 12-15 career record as a starer. The offense, which was going hyper-speed for much of 2018, will gear down under new o.c. Jay Johnson, who installed a pro-style look in spring and will emphasize the run game, perhaps with some shift-motion or Pistol added to the mix. But is this a formula that can work in the modern Pac-12? Montez does have plenty of versatility and might be asked to run more in the new offense. He has lots of experienced targets, led not only by the aforementioned jack-of-all-trades Shenault (also a threat on direct snaps or jet sweeps out of the backfield, and who caught 86 passes last fall), but fellow jr. WR K.D. Nixon (52 catches LY) and sr. Tony Brown (32 receptions in 2018). The Johnson offense will also look to make better use of tight ends, with Auburn grad transfer Jalen Harris perhaps filling that role. The concern for an offense that wants to run the ball is that CU’s scholarship runners have all of 11 combined career rush attempts between them after last year’s VPI transfer, Travon McMillian, gained 1009 YR and is spending summer in the Steelers camp. Three starters return on an OL that ended up a weakness a year ago and hopes that Oklahoma State grad transfer LT Arlington Hambright will be able to fortify the forward wall.

Tucker did coordinate some of the nation’s better defense the past couple of years at Georgia, and his expertise on the stop end is unquestioned. But does he have the sort of talent on handthat he had in Athens, where among others he coached Jim Thorpe Award-winning CB, Deandre Baker, last season? And might he prove like another respected defensive tactician, Romeo Crennel, who has always been fine as a d.c. but struggled in the HC role? Whatever, the Buff D also tailed off as last season progressed and has hit the juco ranks for reinforcements; watch JC additions LB Joshua Allen and DT Janaz Jordan. Though Auburn transfer DT Jaunta’vius Johnson, who enrolled for the spring semester, decided he didn’t like Boulder after all and re-entered the transfer portal in May. At the end of spring, 9 of the 11 scholarship D-linemen had never played a down for CU, and six have never played in a college game at all. And d.c. Tyson Summers is the same Tyson Summers who almost derailed the Georgia Southern program before being fired as its HC midway in 2017.

Schedule-wise, Tucker will want to replicate recent success by predecessor MacIntyre in the Denver opener vs. nearby CSU after the Buffs won the last four in this spirited Front Range rivalry. Old Big 8 hostilities are then renewed vs. a potentially-revived Nebraska (which will be revenge-minded after losing a thriller at home to the Buffs a year ago), then the first matchup vs. nearby Air Force since 1974. It’s a colorful slate, but tricky as heck with the varying types of offenses Tucker will be facing in non-Pac play. If the Buffs don’t hit conference play with a winning mark, however, it might not bode well; Pac-12 schedule makers did CU no favors, as the two teams the Buffs miss from the North are Cal and Oregon State, the consensus bottom two picks in that division. Potential difference-makers like Montez and Shenault intrigue, but with the staff and style changes, the Buffs seem no better than an X-factor in the league entering the fall. We suspect Tucker will be doing very well to get CU back to bowl eligibility.

Spread-wise, like straight-up, it was a tale of two seasons a year ago for the Buffs, who only covered 1 of their last 7 games after their quick break from the gate (5-0 SU, 4-1 vs. line into early October). A few years ago, CU was also consistently covering numbers (on an 18-9-1 spread uptick at one point), but CU closed the MacIntyre era on an 8-18-1 skid vs. the points. So, at least against the line, it’s a low bar that Tucker has to clear.

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