Right after last season, Arizona State became the trendy pick to win the Pac-12 South.
The Sun Devils had a good finish to 2011 (beating UCLA and Arizona), had the highest number of returning starters in the division — including linebacker Vontaze Burfict from the league’s top rushing defense — and just generally seemed to be pointed toward bigger things.
And, oh yeah, there wasn’t anybody else scary in the rest of the South.
Since then, though, Arizona State has lost some of its fear factor, losing several key players. The latest: Starting linebacker Brandon Magee, who suffered a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in Saturday’s scrimmage.
Other key personnel gone:
Quarterback Steven Threet: ASU’s starter had to give up football because of multiple concussions. Brock Osweiler, who authored the victories over UCLA and Arizona is now the starter, and ASU has nobody behind him who has thrown a pass in college.
Defensive tackle Lawrence Guy: He left a year early for the NFL Draft … and was only a seventh-round pick.
Cornerback Omar Bolden: The All-Pac-10 cornernback suffered a torn ACL in the spring and is not expected to return this season.
Wide receiver T.J. Simpson: Starter caught 29 passes for 481 yards last season, but then tore an ACL in spring practice.
Defensive end James Brooks: The starter — he’s the guy who blocked the two PATs against Arizona last season — left the program in the summer. He had four sacks last season.
Magee: He had 73 tackles, including five for loss, last year.
“It’s just huge, man,” senior defensive tackle Bo Moos told the Arizona Republic, talking about the loss of Magee.
“I think at this point we have to really start focusing on what we need to do to stay healthy because that’s a huge loss. He is probably our biggest leader on defense. He’s vocal. He does the right things. That’s just huge, man. I don’t even know what else to say about it.”
On top of that, it’s uncertain whether running back Deantre Lewis, who rushed for 539 yards (5.8 per carry) last season, will play this season. He was injured when hit in the leg in a random shooting in mid-February.
It’s not like other teams in the South don’t have their woes.
Arizona is down two defensive starters (S Adam Hall and LB Jake Fischer) and two backups (DT Willie Mobley and RB Greg Nwoko) because of ACL injuries. USC lost its appeal of NCAA sanctions.
But there is little reason for Arizona State to be so trendy any more.
Throw out USC (ineligible for the postseason) and Colorado (whose rebuilding under first-year coach Jon Embree appears to be too great). After that, throw Arizona, ASU, Utah and — shoot, why not? — UCLA in a hat.
Would it really be a surprise if any of those teams won the South and played the North champ in the initial Pac-12 title game, one game away from the Rose Bowl?
A 6-3 record might be enough to win the division.
The Wildcats, with inexperience on both lines, might not have their best team among those in the past few years, but the window of opportunity has perhaps never been open wider.