1. Oregon: The loss of LaMichael James and Darron Thomas should do little to derail Chip Kelly's powerhouse offense. Do-it-all threat De'Anthony Thomas (1,200 yards from scrimmage as a freshman) will be frightening in a larger role.
2. Stanford: The Cardinal landed a top-five recruiting class, but how well can Josh Nunes fill Andrew Luck's shoes?
3. Washington: Keith Price earned some attention in a conference full of passers, and the Huskies' sieve of a defense made big hires in Justin Wilcox and Tosh Lupoi.
4. Cal: Zach Maynard was middling in his first season at quarterback, but brother Keenan Allen is a potential first-round pick at receiver. The front seven could be dominant if healthy.
5. Washington State: The Cougars may not win right away, but Mike Leach is an offensive wizard. His arrival could push receiver Marquess Wilson's stat line to video-game absurdity.
6. Oregon State: The Beavers' habit of late-season runs ended last fall, and young roster could mean a third straight losing season.
1.USC: Matt Barkley turned down the NFL to try and take the Trojans to a bowl game preferably in the BCS championship.
2. Utah: Star Lotulelei anchors a big defensive line and the offense returns nine starters. Quarterback Jordan Wynn needs to make a jump after last year's season-ending shoulder injury.
3. Arizona: The Wildcats lost starters at almost all the offensive skill positions, but Rich Rodriguez's spread option has won with freshmen in the past.
4. UCLA: Jim Mora made a big splash with a last-minute recruiting haul. How much experienced talent he has, however, is another question.
5. Arizona State: Gutted by an exodus that included Brock Osweiler's surprising NFL Draft entry, the Sun Devils don't return a quarterback who threw more than four passes last season.
6. Colorado: A team that went 3-10 returns only 11 starters, second-lowest in the Pac-12. Jon Embree has a long rebuilding job ahead.
UTAH (8-5 overall, 4-5 conference)
Returning starters • 18
Key game • Oct. 4, vs. USC
Overview • Quarterback Jordan Wynn suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and needs to prove himself a durable starter. If his bulked-up frame can hold up, the Utes have the pieces for a successful run. The offense has reliable weapons in tailback John White and wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, while defensive lineman Star Lotulelei returns to anchor a stout rush defense. The schedule is friendly as well: Utah again avoids both Stanford and Oregon.
Prediction • 10-3, 6-3
COLORADO (3-10, 2-7)
Returning starters • 11
Key game • Sept. 22, at Washington State
Overview • David Bakhtiari is arguably the Pac-12's best left tackle, which is good considering Colorado's muddled quarterback situation. The Buffs announced junior Jordan Webb as their new starter, but it's not as if the Kansas transfer blew anyone away in camp; he shared first-team reps with two others until halfway through August. Top receiver Paul Richardson tore his ACL during spring workouts and is out for the season leaving Colorado with three returning offensive starters, all linemen.
Prediction • 4-8, 2-7
ARIZONA (4-8, 2-7)
Returning starters • 15
Key game • Oct. 20, vs. Washington
Overview • Replacing Nick Foles won't be easy, but senior quarterback Matt Scott is a good fit for Rich Rodriguez's spread offense and does have a 4-1 record as a starter. The Wildcats lose their primary weapons but return all five starters on the offensive line. Arizona will likely have more patience with Rodriguez than Michigan did, and a Week 2 visit from Oklahoma State could be a decent barometer for the team.
Prediction • 6-7, 4-5
ARIZONA STATE (6-7, 4-5)
Returning starters • 10
Key game • Oct. 27, vs. UCLA
Overview • Tabbed to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South, the Sun Devils somehow still received three first-place votes second only to USC's 117. What those three media members saw in ASU is anyone's guess. First-year coach Todd Graham, who jumped ship from Pittsburgh and told his Panther players via text message, inherits one of the least experienced rosters in the conference. Tailback Cameron Marshall is the most proven offensive threat, but redshirt sophomore Taylor Kelly has the tall task of replacing Brock Osweiler under center.
Prediction • 4-8, 2-7
USC (10-2, 7-2)
Returning starters • 19
Key game • Nov. 3, vs. Oregon
Overview • Matt Barkley is a leading candidate for both the Heisman and the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Robert Woods is the consensus top receiver in the country. Silas Redd filled what may have been USC's weakest area running back depth when he transferred from Penn State. In short, the Trojans emerge from their sanctions as a favorite not only for the Pac-12 championship, but also their first national title since the vacated 2004 season.
Prediction • 13-1, 9-0
UCLA (6-8, 5-4)
Returning starters • 16
Key game • Oct. 6, at Cal
Overview • Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley is UCLA's new quarterback, ending the frustrating, two-season seesaw between Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince. He'll likely struggle in his first season he threw three interceptions in practice after being named starter but does have a huge target in Joseph Fauria, a 6-foot-7 tight end who will take on increased pass-catching duties. The defense returns eight starters but showed little promise last fall.
Prediction • 5-7, 3-6
CAL (7-6, 4-5)
Returning starters • 12
Key game • Oct. 20, vs. Stanford
Overview • The front seven could be one of the best in the conference even after the graduation of linebacker Mychal Kendricks last year's Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Penn State transfer Khairi Fortt could make a splash filling that vacancy but is coming off knee surgery this spring. Quarterback Zach Maynard needs to improve his decision making after an up-and-down 2011, but he doesn't have any proven targets besides half-brother Keenan Allen. Isi Sofele should return as one of the conference's more reliable tailbacks.
Prediction • 5-7, 4-5
STANFORD (11-2, 8-1)
Returning starters • 14
Key game • Sept. 15, vs. USC
Overview • Neither junior Josh Nunes nor sophomore Brett Nottingham will make anyone on the Farm forget about Andrew Luck, but don't expect a huge drop-off. Coach David Shaw acquitted himself well after Jim Harbaugh left for the 49ers, and whoever ends up starting under center will be well versed in the Cardinal's offense. Returning a stable of three backs who combined for 20 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards helps, too. Star linebacker Shayne Skov returns after tearing his MCL and ACL in Week 3 last year.
Prediction • 10-3, 7-2
OREGON (12-2 overall, 8-1 conf.)
Returning starters: 14
Key game • Nov. 3, at USC
Overview • The names on the roster don't seem to matter all that much. Yes, the Ducks lost some major contributors, and the blur of green and neon yellow will have a different look: Marcus Mariota may zip passes instead of Darron Thomas, and Kenjon Barner or De'Anthony Thomas may dance around linebackers instead of LaMichael James. But Chip Kelly's staff is the only one in major college football that has remained unchanged since 2009. Kelly knows how to run his system, and he knows how to fill it with talent.
Prediction • 12-2, 8-1
OREGON STATE (3-9, 3-6)
Returning starters • 17
Key game • Sept. 8, vs. Wisconsin
Overview • It'll be hard for the Beavers to match a season as disastrous as 2011, which saw them open the season with an overtime loss to Sacramento State, a mediocre FCS program. Coach Mike Riley earned plenty of capital with six bowl berths in seven years, but another losing season could cause some grumbling in Corvallis.
Prediction: 5-7, 4-5
WASHINGTON (7-6 overall, 5-4 conf.)
Returning starters: 13
Key game • Sept. 8, at LSU
Overview• This could be a breakout year for the Huskies, who reeled off a 5-1 record last year before winning just two of their final seven games. Offense wasn't a problem with Keith Price under center, and the junior returns after throwing a school-record 33 touchdowns. His main target will likely be sophomore Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a basketball player who doubles as one of the country's best tight ends. New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will try and justify his three-year, $2.35 million contract.
Prediction • 8-5, 5-4
WASHINGTON STATE (4-8, 2-7)
Returning starters • 14
Key game • Nov. 23, vs. Washington
Overview • Under ordinary circumstances, a program like Washington State no winning seasons since 2003 would have never had a shot at Mike Leach. But Leach was driven noisily out of Texas Tech with a firing and an ensuing legal battle. Though he was often mentioned in hiring speculations after the dust settled, the controversy may have turned off any big-name programs. The Cougars, who won only nine games in the past four years, decided to push hard. Now they have a head coach who went to nine straight bowls and never won fewer than seven games.
Prediction • 6-7, 4-5
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Matt Barkley, USC
The golden boy returns, and Troy rejoices. By his own admission, Matt Barkley was close to leaving for the NFL Draft, where he would have likely been a top-five pick. With Andrew Luck gone, USC's poster child has the conference spotlight all to himself.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Star Lotulelei, Utah
Star Lotulelei is the Pac-12's best defensive lineman, and was voted as such by the conference's offensive linemen many of whom spent most of last fall double-teaming the 6-foot-4 nose tackle. He may also be the country's top defensive prospect, one slotted as high as No. 2 overall in some NFL mock drafts.
Jeff Tedford, Cal
Fans have grumbled for the last two seasons or so, but this might finally be the year Tedford exhausts his capital. Hired in 2002, he is now the longest-tenured coach in the conference one that has added nine new faces since 2009. The Bears just spent $321 million renovating Memorial Stadium, adding with that the implicit promise of change and rebirth. If Tedford struggles now, losses will look even worse against that backdrop of glitz.
ON THE RISE
In a conference full of new coaches, Mike Leach is indisputably the must-see addition. Expect fireworks immediately, if not wins. He'll have plenty of toys to play with on offense, including wide receiver Marquess Wilson and quarterback Jeff Tuel. Much of West Texas still hasn't gotten over his dramatic departure, and it won't be surprising if the Palouse falls in love soon.
ON THE DECLINE
The Bears probably won't bottom out, but they don't look like a team that can keep pace with the rest of the Pac-12 North. While Stanford restocked with a top-five recruiting class, Cal lost blue-chip prospects such as Shaq Thompson when defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi defected to Washington. Jeff Tedford's seat never truly heats up, but his best days appear to be behind him. The renovated Memorial Stadium looks great, so there's that.
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