Shake Up Out West: The Top Pac-12 Contenders in 2012

Josh SteinContributor IIIJanuary 24, 2012

With the departure of two of the biggest Pac 12 stars, Oregon's LaMichael James (left) and Stanford's Andrew Luck (right), the landscape of the Pac 12 will shift. Courtesy of
With the departure of two of the biggest Pac 12 stars, Oregon's LaMichael James (left) and Stanford's Andrew Luck (right), the landscape of the Pac 12 will shift. Courtesy of

The college football season came to a close several weeks ago with a SEC bout, ending with Alabama hoisting the Crystal football.

As the offseason begins, no conference has more openings at the top for new champions than the Pac-12.

With new teams surging to the top—like USC returning to prominence, Arizona State and Utah slowly progressing, and the slow decay of the Elites with Luck leaving Stanford and less than great recruiting by Oregon—this division looks to bring excitement in 2012.

In 2012, USC looks to be not only a favorite for the Pac-12 crown, but also as a leader to follow Alabama as champions of college football.

The Trojans welcome back 19 starters from a Top Five team, including quarterback Matt Barkley, who announced he would spend one more year with the Trojans. They bring in multi-position Jabari Ruffin to fill in some spots, and Max Tuerk—who will have a tough time replacing Matt Kalil, a number two overall projected pick in this year's NFL draft.

Overall, this USC team seems the best bet to take the Pac-12 Rose Bowl spot and may even have a chance at stealing a spot at Sun Life Stadium for next year's championship game.

Oregon seems poised to keep their spot at the top of the Pac-12 leaderboard, even with the departure of Darron Thomas and LaMichael James and with the return of Kenjon Barner—who will be a front runner for Pac-12 player of the year.

"We're the first team in history to win the Pac-12, it's great for the team, the school, and the community," Kenjon Barner recently stated.

The Ducks have a range of talent coming back from a team that won the Rose Bowl over Wisconsin, and were the first ever Pac-12 championship game winners, but it's not just about 16 returning starters.

It's easy to favor the Ducks over the Trojans, mainly because of their depth. Oregon doesn't bring in a great recruiting class, but the incoming freshman won't have to fill many voids.

Although there will be an obvious spot to fill at QB, Stanford will still be a force to be reckoned with after coming off a narrow overtime loss to Justin Blackmon and the talented Oklahoma State. 

Many will count out the Cardinal, losing their superstar. I will not do that.

The over-under with this team is eight wins—which could be very accurate after tough games with Notre Dame, USC and Oregon. Two gigantic holes on the offensive line and at both safeties are major issues, as is quarterback.

Their bright spot is their recruiting class led by the highly praised LB Noor Davis and the legendary Barry Sanders' son, who, like his father, is a powerful and explosive running back which will compliment Stepfan Taylor.

My final team that I can see contending is the Utes from Utah University. The Utes welcome back 18 starters, though replacing both offensive tackles will be a huge task this spring. The defense has a chance to be amazing to negate the explosive offenses that plague the conference.

Their key will be their QB who caught the injury bug this year, but did lead them to a 10-win season just a few years ago. Look out for John White IV at RB who promises to excite.

These four teams look to impress this year in a conference that boasted the best overall record other than the all-powerful SEC.

If you are looking for a team to end the reign of SEC champions, this is the division to rest your eyes on. And the road to the Pac-12 championship will be exciting as well, especially considering that this division is the home of several of the highest scoring teams in the nation.