Pac-12 Football: Every Team's Best Returning Player
The Pac-12 conference has been on a roll lately, placing two teams in a BCS bowl game three years in a row.
Next season, the talent level will be greater than ever before, and it doesn't all belong to the same team, either, as was the case with several USC teams this past decade. Future NFL stars exist on nearly every campus in the Pac-12.
A clear pecking order has been established with both Oregon and Stanford ruling the league as of late.
But this is still big-time football from the top of the league to the bottom, so we're combing each roster to determine every team's best returning player.
Look ahead to find out which 12 made the cut.
Arizona: RB Ka'Deem Carey
If you followed the conference for more than 10 seconds this past season, this choice shouldn't surprise you one bit.
Arizona Wildcats' running back Ka'Deem Carey led the nation in rushing, totaling 23 TDs and over 1,900 yards on the ground. He had over 300 yards receiving, too.
For comparison, that's 200 yards and two touchdowns MORE than Oregon running back LaMichael James had in 2010, when he finished second in Heisman voting.
That's not to say he's better than James (considering entire careers), but the statistics are extremely impressive for a player who was under-the-radar heading into the season.
The Wildcats have some impressive players aside from Carey, particularly at receiver with Austin Hill, but the soon-to-be junior running back was the clear choice for best returning player on Arizona.
The question now is, what will he do for an encore?
Arizona State: DT Will Sutton
All of the preseason talk about defensive linemen boiled down to one name: Star Lotulelei. Yet, it was Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton who had one of the best 2012 campaigns of any defensive player in the nation.
Sutton announced his arrival as a stalwart on the defensive front by recording 8.5 sacks in the Sun Devils' first six games. He finished with 13 on the season, tied for third most in the country.
He also played a major role in shutting down Navy's offense early in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl by getting 2.5 sacks.
The junior announced that he'll return for his senior season, and it's safe to assume most defensive coordinators around the conference experienced immediate headaches at the prospect of game-planning for Sutton once again.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly was the only other player with stats that merit consideration for "best returning player," but he was ultimately left off in favor of one of college football's most dominant forces.
California: RB Brendan Bigelow
It's difficult to pick the best returning player on a team that captured just three wins, so we're going with potential here more than anything else.
We arrive at running back Brendan Bigelow, who burst on to the scene in Columbus against the Ohio State Buckeyes with 160 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries.
For whatever reason, Bigelow received just 44 carries on the year despite averaging nearly 10 yards per rush. With the graduation of both Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson, Bigelow will carry the offense next season.
Also considered were freshman wideout Chris Harper as well as defensive lineman Deandre Coleman. Harper may become one of the best receivers in the conference, and Coleman should find himself in the NFL in 2014.
But ultimately, Bigelow gets the nod due to his highlight-reel runs against Ohio State and the fact that he'll likely get the majority of carries at running back next season.
Colorado: P Darragh O'Neill
Colorado scored just one victory in the 2012 season.
They didn't have a quarterback pass for more than 1,500 yards. They didn't have a receiver gain more than 500 yards, and no running backs were able to reach 700 yards rushing. Oh, and the defense gave up 46 points a game.
In all of that, how do you choose the team's best returning player? Look at the kicking game, of course!
Punter Darragh O'Neill had an excellent season, finishing fifth in gross yardage. He averaged 43.5 yards per kick with a long of 61 yards.
The Buffaloes couldn't run, pass or play defense. But they consistently turned the field position around, and that was due entirely to the efforts of sophomore punter Darragh O'Neill.
Note: WR Paul Richardson missed the 2012 season due to injury and wasn't considered for that reason. However, I fully expect him to be the best player on the Buffaloes next year.
Oregon: QB Marcus Mariota
In determining the best returning player on the Oregon Ducks, you're basically looking at quarterback Marcus Mariota and RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas.
The answer is the guy with the football in his hands every single play.
Mariota threw for 2,677 yards with 32 touchdowns and posted 752 yards on the ground as well.
He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and took home MVP honors in the Fiesta Bowl.
There's no doubt about Thomas' abilities in the open field, but Mariota is the guy who makes everything happen, and his decision-making ultimately determines the success of a play.
Marcus Mariota is the best returning player on the Oregon Ducks and might be second only to a certain USC receiver (who may appear later in the slideshow) as the best returning player in the entire conference.
Oregon State: WR Brandin Cooks
The Oregon State Beavers featured arguably the best receiving duo in the conference this past season with both starters gaining more than 1,100 yards.
One of those players is Brandin Cooks, the sophomore who posted five 100-yard games, including two games with more than 170 yards receiving.
Against BYU, Cooks caught eight passes for 173 yards in then-backup Cody Vaz's first start. This was on the road against a stingy Cougars defense, too.
Defensive lineman Scott Crichton was considered briefly but ultimately shelved in favor of the more outstanding, impactful season by Cooks.
While the situation at quarterback may be hazy for the Beavs, Brandin Cooks returns as one of the conference's best receivers in a league chock-full of them.
Stanford: LB Shayne Skov
The Stanford defense set the tone for the entire season, so it should come as no surprise that the best returning player comes from that side of the ball.
Shayne Skov returned from injury in 2012 and dominated nearly every game. He ended up with 80 tackles on the year, including 10 in the Cardinal's upset victory over Oregon.
The 6'3", 242-pound linebacker also had eight tackles for loss, and he returns to a defense that should rank among the nation's elite in 2013.
UCLA: LB Anthony Barr
The UCLA Bruins transformed their offense in 2012, so you're excused if you thought Brett Hundley would be selected as the team's best returning player.
Ah, but Anthony Barr returns not only as the best player on the team but as one of the more talented athletes in college football.
Barr totaled 82 tackles on the season, including 21 for loss. He also posted a whopping 13.5 sacks, second only to Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones.
You can bet that Barr will make some NFL team very happy when he's selected in the draft following next season, but for now, the smile belongs on the face of Jim Mora Jr., who gets to coach this unique talent for another season.
Hundley gets all the attention, and deservedly so, as he's poised to become an exceptional quarterback.
But Barr is one of the best players in the game, and those unfamiliar with his work won't be for much longer.
USC: WR Marqise Lee
Was there any doubt about this one?
Not only is Marqise Lee the best returning player in the Pac-12, but he's a leading Heisman trophy candidate heading into next season.
Lee had an astounding 1,721 receiving yards in 2012 to go along with 14 touchdowns. But even those numbers don't do him justice.
The season included eight 100-yard games, with six of those efforts totaling over 150 yards. Against Arizona, he caught 16 passes for a mind-blowing 345 yards.
Lee is a dynamic receiver and a weapon in the return game as well. If there's one bright spot for the Trojans heading into next season after the 2012 disappointment, it's the magnificent Marqise Lee.
Utah: DE Nate Fakahafua
The Utah Utes didn't get much production out of their offense this past season, so we head to the defensive side of the ball to find their best returning player.
That would be defensive end Nate Fakahafua, who played a large role on one of the best defensive line's in the conference.
Fakahafua totaled 48 tackles on the season including 9.5 for loss. He also had three sacks.
While those numbers don't exactly pop, look for Fakahafua to become well-known next season as a dominant lineman.
WR Dres Anderson was also considered due to his explosiveness, but with only 365 yards on the season, he just didn't have the numbers to be called the team's "best returning player."
Washington: TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
This was a tough call as Washington running back Bishop Sankey had a sensational sophomore year and appears poised for more, but you can't ignore the play of Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
The sophomore tight end is one of the more physically imposing players at 6'6", 266 pounds. In the Huskies' blowout defeat at LSU, Seferian-Jenkins was one of the few players who looked like he belonged on the same field as the Tigers.
He caught 69 passes for 852 yards with seven touchdowns on the season.
ASJ was overlooked throughout the year due mainly to the struggles of quarterback Keith Price, but with both players returning next season as well as Sankey and receiver Kasen Williams, expect this Huskies offense to improve.
How much better they are, well, is tough to predict. But you can be sure that whatever they do, Seferian-Jenkins will be a large part of it.
Washington State: S Deone Bucannon
It's hard to imagine anybody standing out on a defense that allows over 33 points per game, but that's exactly what Washington State Cougars' safety Deone Bucannon did in 2012.
The junior made 106 tackles this past season and also had four interceptions, including two from Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who threw just six the entire season.
Bucannon had 17 tackles in a loss to Arizona State and 11 in the season finale, a win over rival Washington.
The defense has very little to be proud of following the 2012 campaign, but moving forward, fans can hang their hopes on Bucannon, who should continue to impact each game in a major way.
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