As spring games commence and fans everywhere pour over scouting reports, the inevitable guessing game commences once more...
Who will be on top of the Pac-12 in 2012?
In an offseason full of injuries, coaching changes, and season-altering decisions, attempting to decipher where and how the Pac-12 teams will fall in the coming season can be a somewhat daunting task.
Thankfully, your friends at Bleacher Report did our best to rank the Best Coast's best conference from top-to-bottom, highlighting the key factors to your favorite team's chances at taking home the Pac-12 crown this year.
CU alum Jon Embree will look to reverse the Buffaloes' recent downturn in his second year as head coach. Unfortunately, 2012 looks to be another tough year for Colorado faithful.
It certainly isn't off to a great start so far. During spring drills, the Buffaloes lost their top returning WR Paul Richardson in a non-contact special teams drill. Not great news for a team that already has to replace its top two producers on offense in QB Tyler Hansen and RB Rodney Stewart.
Returning only 12 of 22 starters from a team that finished 2-7 in conference play, Buffalo fans shouldn't count on 2012 to be any major reform.
Being forced to replace top players at nearly every offensive skill position is a tall order, and the general lack of experience around the roster should make next season full of growing pains.
However, growth WILL happen, and expect Colorado to make significant steps this year towards returning to the postseason in 2013.
First-year coach Todd Graham "bolted" rather quickly for the enticing Arizona sun this past December, and he'll have plenty of time to ponder his decision during what looks to be a tough 2012 for the Sun Devils.
Dealt an early blow with the departure of starting QB Brock Osweiler to the NFL, Graham will have to work with a rather depleted Arizona State roster, who will return only 10 starters from 2011. Now a 3-way race to sit behind center, whoever assumes the mantle of starting QB will be almost completely untested in game situations.
The Sun Devils do return talented Sr. RB Cameron Marshall, who will be called upon to carry much of the workload for the offense behind a line returning only 2 starters from 2011.
In contention for the Pac-12 south title until a late-season collapse left them sub-.500 to finish the year, the Sun Devils could surprise the conference if Graham is able to galvanize his inexperienced squad.
A finish near the bottom of the "pac" is the more likely outcome.
Coming off his worst season (3-9) since 1997 (during his first stint with the Beavers), Mike Riley will attempt to turn around Oregon State's recent two-year slump in 2013. It will not be an easy task.
Returning 14 starters from a rather-dismal 2011, how the Beavers fare in 2012 will depend largely on the growth shown from the last season's young squad. QB Sean Mannion posted impressive numbers (3,328 yards) as a freshman, and will have a decent pool of talent surrounding him on offense, particularly at running back.
The defense is the larger question mark, as Riley will have to vastly improve a defense which finished dead last in the conference in rushing defense and 84th in the NCAA in total defense.
Early tests against Wisconsin and at BYU will reveal a lot about the state of Beaver football in 2012. If Mannion continues to improve and Riley is successfully able to shore up an inconsistent offensive line, Oregon State could be on the road to recovery.
However, the Beavers' tough schedule and general lack of top-caliber talent will likely spell another year in the shadow of their wealthier cousins to the south.
As the Neuheisel-era finally comes to close in Westwood, the Bruins sit on the cusp of relevancy in the Pac-12, and 2012 will be an important year for new coach Jim Mora and UCLA.
Returning 16 starters from a team that backpedaled into last year's conference championship (due to USC's exclusion), UCLA will have to make significant improvements over last year if it hopes to return to its former status.
If the Bruins hope to make any strides at all, its first step will be finding a reliable option at QB. A problem for the Bruins for the past several seasons, Mora will have to decide between 5th year Sr. Kevin Prince, an experienced but inconsistent passer, and talented redshirt freshman Brett Hundley.
Whoever he decides will have to improve a lackluster offense that finished 88th in scoring in 2011. The Bruins do return a talented running back in Johnathan Franklin, who will be called upon to carry much of the offensive workload in 2012. The defense also returns seven starters from a porous, 92nd ranked scoring defense.
If the Bruins are looking to rebuild some of their former glory, 2012 will be instrumental towards that goal. Unfortunately, the question marks at QB make it hard to believe that UCLA will move beyond a slight improvement from last year's 6-8 record in Mora's first year.
Used to the cellar of the Pac-12, Cougar fans may have reason to be optimistic for the first time in quite a while.
New coach Mike Leach inherits an already experienced Wazzu depth chart, returning 18 starters from last year's 4-8 squad. Leach will implement his well-known "Air Raid"-style offense in Pullman, and during spring will have to decide which of his two QBs (Jeff Tuel, Connor Halliday) will take the reigns.
Both Tuel and Halliday have experience as starters from last year, and will be helped by talented wideout Marquess Wilson, who caught for almost 1400 yards last season.
The Cougs' defense is more of a cause for concern. Wazzu returns 7 of 11 starters from last year, but they return from a defense that finished 95th in the NCAA in points allowed (31.8 ppg).
They also must replace the entire linebacking corp from 2011. If the Cougars hope to make a push towards the postseason this year, improving their defensive units will be imperative.
While expectations are reasonable, the enthusiasm for this season is palpable in Pullman, and if Mike Leach can deliver on Cougar Nation's newfound optimism, 2012 could be an exciting year for long-suffering fans.
Yet another new face in the Pac-12 coaching circle, Rich Rodriguez's move to the desert makes Arizona one of the more compelling teams to watch in this year's conference.
Coming off their worst season in 5 years, Arizona made waves during the offseason by picking up Rodriguez, who helped pioneer the spread-option offense at West Virginia before faltering at Michigan.
Developing a rushing attack similar to the what he had at WVU will be difficult however, as the 'Cats finished 114th in the NCAA in total rushing offense in 2011. Luckily, Rodriguez has the good fortune of inheriting an experienced and talented QB in Matt Scott, as well as an offensive line that returns every starter from last season.
Reforming the defense will also be an important challenge, as the Wildcats return only 5 starters from a defense that finished 107th in points allowed last year. However, Rich-Rod's hiring of WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel (who he failed to lure with him to Michigan) may give Arizona fans hope.
Casteel was an integral part of Rodriguez's success at WVU, and the 3-3-5 defensive scheme he brings with him to 'Zona should matchup well with the personnel returning from 2011.
If Rodriguez is able to successful operate the spread option attack he made famous at WVU and Casteel is able to improve upon last season's anemic defense, Arizona could be looking at a huge improvement from 2011 this season.
The recipient of a freshly-renovated Memorial Stadium, the pressure is on Jeff Tedford and his Golden Bears' to prove they deserve their new, modern digs.
Bouncing back from their first losing season under Tedford in 2010 to make the Holiday Bowl last year, the Bears' will look to continue their upward momentum into 2012. To do so, he will have to successfully replace all but 11 starters from last year's 7-5 squad, including Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Mychal Kendricks.
Kendricks' departure will subtract from last year's #1 ranked defense in the Pac-12, but the Bears' substantial depth on that side of the ball should account for another strong year for the defensive unit.
How the offense will fare will rely heavily on the success and consistency of QB Zach Maynard. Maynard played well in 2011, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and completing more than 65 percent of this throws last season, but, by his own admission, made too many mistakes.
If the Bears' are to be successful in 2012, game management and consistently smart play by Maynard will be key.
With Tedford near the hot-seat, 2012 will be a crucial year for Cal. The Golden Bears lack the talent to challenge the top of the conference this year, but if Maynard and the defense excel, they could surprise the Pac-12.
Steve Sarkisian's slow-but-steady rebuilding of the Washington program is finally starting to show the fruits of his labor, making 2012 a critical year for both Husky faithful and Sarkisian.
Coming off his first winning season since taking over as head coach, Sarkisian didn't rest on his laurels during the offseason. He fired defensive coordinator Nick Holt after the Huskies' abysmal 777-yard defensive performance in the Alamo Bowl, and hired away talented coordinator Justin Wilcox from Tennessee.
By far the weaker side of the ball for the Huskies (106th in total defense in 2011), Wilcox will have his work cut out for him in repairing Washington's defense, but will also get help from new position coaches Peter Sirmon (linebackers) and Tosh Lupoi (line).
Luckily, the Huskies' offense should have plenty of firepower due to QB Keith Price. Price excelled in his first full season as a starter in 2011, throwing for over 3000 yards and 30 touchdowns.
With Price fully healed from a leg injury, 2012 should be a breakout year for the talented youngster. Replacing RB Chris Polk's stellar production will be the biggest concern for the Huskies going into 2012, but even with a dip in the rushing attack, the Huskies should be geared for a big offensive year next season.
If Price is able to continue maturing from last year, and develop the Huskies into a potent offense, defense will be the only question mark standing between the Huskies and the top of the Pac-12.
After winning 8 games in their first year with the Pac-12 despite the loss of starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, 2012 will be the Utes' shot to prove they can hang with the best of the conference.
Returning 18 starters from last year's 8-5 Sun Bowl Champion team, the Utes have one of, if not the most experienced team in the Pac-12. With QB Jordan Wynn's return, Utah's offense looks to be a tough unit next season.
RB John White will be the cornerstone of the attack, a hard-nosed runner who ran for over 1500 yards and 15 TDs last year. If Wynn can perform well and keep defenses from keying in on White, the Utes' offense should be quite a force next year.
The defense also appears ready for a big 2012. They return most of their core talent from a unit that led the Pac-12 in scoring defense (20.2 ppg), including first-team all-conference nose-tackle Star Lotulelei.
If the defense can perform similarly to last year, the Utes should once again be a tough matchup for opposing offenses.
With so much returning talent and experience, and talented coach Kyle Whittingham at the reigns, Utah should be able to make a push towards the top of the conference in the coming year.
With both Harbaugh and Luck now gone to greener pastures, 2012 will be a an opportunity for David Shaw and the Cardinal to show the nation they are here to stay.
To do so, Shaw must first undertake the unenviable task of replacing Luck. The top two candidates at this time are Josh Nune and Brett Nottingham, neither of whom have appeared to impress Shaw, particularly during their spring game. Whoever does replace Luck will have to play behind an offensive line that has also been depleted by the departures of future pros Johnathan Martin and David DeCastro.
The QB picked to helm the Cardinal offense will benefit from the presence of talented RB Stepfan Taylor, who has run for over 1000 yards in the past two seasons. Taylor will likely be the "focal point" of Stanford's offense this year, and will look to have a breakout year freed from Luck's shadow.
The Cardinal appear to have a rather stellar defense formed for the 2012 season. Their linebacking corps should be one of the strongest in the nation, anchored by the incredibly talented Shayne Skov. Despite losses on the line and in the secondary from last year, the Cardinal should be quite tough on the defensive side of the ball
With talent on both sides of the roster, the only hurdle stopping Stanford from challenging Oregon for the Pac-12 North title is the lack of a true playmaker at QB. If Nottingham or Nune can develop into that playmaker, Stanford could continue it's recent run of excellence.
The Ducks are coming off their third straight conference title, and their first Rose Bowl win in over 90 years, so why aren't they ranked No. 1?
One reason, mainly.
With Darron Thomas' unexpected departure to the pros, and coach Chip Kelly closing off practices to the public, the most important position battle in the Pac-12 has gone largely silent.
So, Brian Bennett is the likely choice to replace Thomas behind center, but Kelly could also opt for freshman Marcus Moriata, who's been highly touted in his short time at Oregon.
Because of the lack of info regarding who will take the starting role, it is simply too early to rank the Ducks No. 1 in the conference, without knowing who will be No. 1 on the chart come fall.
Beyond the questions at QB, the Ducks should once again be the team to beat in their division. The defense returns a good core of talent from 2011, and the Ducks' great depth on both sides of the ball should ensure that they stay on top of the Pac-12 north this season.
The only real concern besides the QB position will be at RB, where it still remains to be decided who, out of a somewhat thin pool, will backup Kenjon Barner in 2012.
Ultimately, expect more of the same from the Ducks in 2012. Regardless of who is taking the snaps, Oregon should have enough talent, depth and good coaching to find themselves in the Pac 12 Championship once more.
Fresh off of a two-year ban from the postseason, Lane Kiffin and the Trojans will look to remind everyone that they are the true dynasty of the Pac-12.
Returning 19 starters from an already-elite team in 2011, USC seems to have everything in place to make a Pac-12 title run next season.Matt Barkley's decision to return all but guarantees USC one of the most potent passing attacks in the country.
Blessed with two of the top wideouts in the country in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, Barkley can be counted on to light it up on the offensive side of the ball. The offensive line returns 4 starters from a talented 2011 unit, and senior RB Curtis McNeal should have another strong year (over 1000 yards in 2011) running behind them.
The defense will be the most important factor in how well USC fares this season. Monte Kiffin's squad improved leaps and bounds from 2010 to 2011, and if they can continue to improve, they will make for a rather stingy opponent in 2012.
The line must replace end Nick Perry, who left for the NFL after last season, but every other position group returns the majority of its starters.
With the Oregon QB situation still an unknown and the incredible talent surrounding Matt Barkley, the Trojans would seem to be the favorite to win the Pac-12 at this point.
Pac-12 fans should also consider the urgency factor at play. USC finds itself sitting between NCAA sanctions, done with its two year ban from the postseason, and not yet affected by scholarship sanctions that will take place in 2013 and 2014.
If the Trojans are to make a run, 2012 may be their last chance before NCAA sanctions cripple their future opportunities.