The Pac-12 can no longer be considered the Pac-2, where USC and Oregon are the only teams people care about. Last season showed that other programs actually want to step up and be competitive. It was a terrific season for the conference that produced eight teams with a winning record.
This year looks to be similar, with eight teams returning at least 15 starters, including eight teams having their starting quarterback return. The expectations are higher for this conference than they have been in quite some time, and you can expect a lot of great football.
We are still a couple of months from the season kicking off, but now is the time to throw out bowl predictions for this improved group of teams.
Here goes nothing.
Arizona is tied with Washington and Colorado for the most returning starters (17) in the Pac-12. The offense scores points in truckloads and will continue with college football's leading rusher, Ka'Deem Carey. returning for another season.
The problem with the Wildcats is that the defense couldn't stop a parked car from rolling down the street. It finished dead last in the Pac-12, allowing nearly 500 yards a game. Every team it played last season would score at will.
Sure, many of the teams in this conference aren't great defensively, but this squad took things to another level.
Arizona will remain fun to watch and will reach a second straight bowl, but the defense must drastically improve if it hopes to appear in a more prestigious postseason game.
Arizona State will be the surprise team in the Pac-12. It only returns 14 starters, but the guys who do return are the most important to the team's success.
The offense will be in good hands, with majority of the offensive line returning, as well as quarterback Taylor Kelly. But it is the defense that stands out with this squad. The Sun Devils have two of the best pass-rushers in Will Sutton and Carl Bradford. Both finished last year with double-digit sacks. This team has balance and elite players to help improve on last year's eight victories.
The only concern is the schedule, with Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in the beginning. If the Sun Devils can hold their own and make it out alive, a road trip to San Antonio is in the cards.
Pack your bags.
Cal only won three games last season, and that was with a talented roster on both sides of the ball. Now, much of that talent is gone and there is a new coaching staff in place. There is no doubt that head coach Sonny Dykes will have success with the Golden Bears, but it is going to take some time.
Cal returns the fewest starters in the Pac-12 with nine, which doesn't include a quarterback, running back or the majority of the defensive line.
Dykes should be able to get things clicking once he discovers a few playmakers on offense, but that takes much more than a couple of months working with guys during the offseason.
The Golden Bears also have a difficult schedule full of road games at Oregon, UCLA, Washington and Stanford. They are sure to come up short of a bowl game for the second straight season.
Colorado was ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in total offense and finished 11th in total defense. It hasn't participated in a bowl since 2007, and that will be the case at least for another season.
The reason is quite simple: You don't make that much progress in one year—unless an NFL team switches jerseys and plays for the Buffaloes this season.
New head coach Mike MacIntyre must focus on limiting the big plays defensively and finding some type of consistency offensively. This won't make much of a difference in victories, but it will at least build confidence and prevent games from being so lopsided.
Colorado can only hope to at least double last year's win total, which would equal two victories.
Oregon is still considered championship quality, even without Chip Kelly roaming the sidelines. The Ducks are the cream of the crop offensively, and lucky for them, this is the ultimate offensive conference. The offense shouldn't change much, and with guys such as Marcus Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas still on the squad, good luck stopping this unit.
Defensively, there are concerns with a few starters leaving, but top cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and underrated defensive lineman Taylor Hart return. Despite the questions, getting stops when it counts shouldn't be an issue.
Oregon has a favorable schedule, and the talent to reach a BCS bowl for the fifth straight season. The wheels will continue turning just fine.
Oregon State will look to build on last year's surprising nine victories, but it still has to prove it can hang in there with the big boys. The Beavers have lost the last three straight to Stanford and haven't been able to beat Oregon since 2007. Of course, both remain on the schedule, which includes traveling to Autzen Stadium for the annual rivalry.
The Beavers will remain that feisty team with 15 starters returning. That includes seven familiar faces from a defense that managed to force 31 turnovers. The offense also has majority of its offensive line, depth at quarterback and a playmaker in Storm Woods who is poised to have a breakout season.
Oregon State has the potential to move up the list, but it must show that it can win the big games before moving up the ladder.
Stanford will continue to be the best defensive team outside of the SEC with seven hard hitters returning. The offense should also begin to catch up with Kevin Hogan taking over at quarterback. Last season, he completed nearly 72 percent of his passes and showed playmaking ability with his legs in limited playing time.
The Cardinal has the pieces in place to continue bullying the Pac-12 and reach a fourth straight BCS game. The schedule was also kind, with Arizona State, Washington, UCLA, Oregon and Notre Dame all being forced to travel to Stanford. However, that is still a tough slate of games, regardless of where they are held.
Stanford will hold its own and finish the season with only one or two losses. The BCS Fiesta Bowl has the last at-large selection this season and will decide to keep Stanford closer to home. This isn't a flashy team, but is a squad you can count on to produce (see 2012 Fiesta Bowl vs. Oklahoma State).
UCLA shouldn't have a problem making a bowl as long as quarterback Brett Hundley can continue to mature in his second season. His ability to make plays with his arm and legs give the Bruins a fighting shot in every game.
The concern with this team is defense, particularly in the secondary, where all of the starters need to be replaced. UCLA wasn't great in pass defense a year ago, but things aren't expected to improve much with a ton of youth back there. The schedule is also a lot more difficult than it was last season, with road games against Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon, Arizona and USC.
The Bruins appear to be on the road for a minor setback this season. However, they will still be good enough to reach a third straight bowl.
Unless USC can decide on a reliable quarterback, fix the questionable secondary and fix the horrendous playcalling, it will just miss out on a BCS bowl. Yes, even with all of those questions, there is still enough talent to keep things interesting. After all, four of the six losses last season were decided by 10 points or less.
However, Oregon and Stanford are the most complete teams in this conference heading into the season. USC will be forced to settle for the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, which goes out to the third-best Pac-12 team not participating in a BCS bowl. The game makes sense because of geography, with it being played in San Diego at Qualcomm Stadium.
This may be looked at as another disappointing bowl matchup for the Trojans, but it sure beats the six losses a year ago.
Utah is completely out of place in the conference, as it has a hard time scoring. The team's passing-yards-per-game average was good for 100th in college football, and Colorado was the only team in the conference that had fewer total yards per game.
That won't bode well with a schedule of Oregon State, BYU, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona, USC, Arizona State and Oregon.
The defense, which returns seven starters, is what helps make the Utes competitive. However, as last season showed, there is only so much a defense can do when it isn't getting help. Utah fell short of a bowl with five victories last season, ending a streak that began in 2003 when Urban Meyer was the head coach.
Utah will be on the short end of the stick once again.
The Hyundai Sun Bowl isn't what Huskies fans are hoping for, but it does mean that the program continues to hang around and is close to finally turning the corner. Patience is all it is going to take for this fanbase.
Washington is going to shock people this season with the team that is returning. Keith Price is one of the most underrated quarterbacks there is, while tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins could end up being a first-round draft pick in next year's NFL draft.
The defense also isn't too shabby, with leading tackler John Timu returning, as well as potential stars in Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson.
The schedule is a rocky one that includes road trips to Stanford, Arizona State and UCLA. Still, you can expect this team to hang in there and earn a trip to a fourth straight bowl.
Mike Leach will continue to keep things exciting with his pass-happy offense, but that is just about the only reason to watch Washington State play. All of those passing yards produced only 20 points per game, and the defense wasn't much better, finishing 101st in the country in points allowed.
The Cougars do return a solid 15 starters, but that isn't saying much after what happened a year ago. They also have a brutal schedule, playing against most of the heavy hitters in the conference, not including a season opener road trip at Auburn.
Washington State should win more than the three games it won in Leach's first season, but expecting a bowl is a stretch. The drought that dates back to 2003 will continue for the folks in Pullman.