Pacing the Pac-12

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1. USC:
After three years of national irrelevance, the Trojans find themselves in some familiar territory as the AP preseason No. 1. Most of that hype stems from the return of senior quarterback Matt Barkley, who’s already racked up 9,054 passing yards in his career, coming back to play with junior standout Robert Woods. But the Trojans will need to find a replacement for 2012 top-5 draft pick Matt Kalil at left tackle, and lack experience on defense. USC will be tested early in trips to Stanford and Washington. Still, a Heisman Trophy for Barkley to go along with a national title is more than possible.— Connor Byrne

2. Oregon:
So what if the Ducks lost star running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas to early departures? Their replacements might be even better.
Kenjon Barner rushed for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns as James’ backup, while De’Anthony Thomas hauled in a ridiculous 2,235 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns in his Pac-12 co-offensive Freshman of the Year campaign. Redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota beat out Bryan Bennett to run Oregon’s fast-paced spread offense.
Because the Ducks don’t have a challenging nonconference game as in previous years, all signs point to the squad being undefeated when it faces top-ranked USC on Nov. 3 in Los Angeles. The teams will likely face off again in the Pac-12 Championship game a month later.
With possibly two matchups with the Trojans, a national title seems unlikely for Oregon. Still, it’s Rose Bowl or bust in Eugene.

— Jonathan Kuperberg

3. Stanford:
No Andrew Luck, no problem? Not exactly. Don’t expect a third consecutive BCS bowl appearance or top-five ranking, but the Cardinal should solidly lead the Pac-12 second tier, a rung below national title hopefuls USC and Oregon.
Josh Nunes, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior, is the new quarterback, but like last season the offense will be predicated on power. Stepfan Taylor, who has gained more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, will carry even more of a load in his senior season with the graduation of two backup tailbacks. And despite the loss of Coby Fleener to the NFL, Stanford is still stocked at the tight end position with 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo and 6-foot-6 Zach Ertz. The Cardinal are ranked No. 21 in the AP poll, an apt placement for a solid, but not extraordinary, team.

— Jonathan Kuperberg

4. Utah:
If Utah’s going to do some damage this year, it’s going to be because of their defense. Defensemen Star Lotulelei is a consensus Preseason All-American and will wreak some havoc on Pac-12 offensive lines.
Their offense should be much improved. Starting quarterback Jordan Wynn returns from a shoulder injury and will likely be among the top half of quarterbacks in the conference.
If everything breaks right for the Utes, an upset over USC and a Pac-12 South title could be in the cards.

— Michael Rosen

5. California:
The Bears have plenty of offensive weapons for 2012, as a receiving corp including Keenan Allen to go along with a proven backfield of seniors Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson will give quarterback Zach Maynard a plethora of options. But the key to the Bears’ seasons lies upfront along the offensive line. If seniors Brian Schwenke and Matt Summers-Gavin can overcome the complete inexperience of the three other starters, a nine-win season isn’t out of the question. But if the Bears struggle up front as they did for most of 2011 —giving up 28 sacks — Cal fans could be in for a long year.

— Connor Byrne

6. Washington:
Washington’s offense has the potential to be on the level of USC or Stanford if quarterback and darkhorse Heisman candidate Keith Price plays to expectations. Tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins has NFL potential, and Kasen Williams is a legit #1 wideout. An unproven offensive line makes it difficult to say anything for certain, however. The Huskies’ defense failed to impress last year, and despite adding Shaq Thompson, it shouldn’t be improved enough to make a serious run at a title.

— Michael Rosen

7. Washington State:
The Cougars’ could prove to be a serious offensive juggernaut. The combination of passing guru Mike Leach with senior quarterback Jeff Tuel and preseason All-American receiver Marquess Wilson — who had 1,388 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore — could boast enough fire power to lock opposing secondaries in a shed. But as devastating as the Cougars should be on offense, their defense will be equally porous — turning each game into a “who can score last” contest. Still, Washington State might be on its way to having some sort of football relevancy.

— Connor Byrne

8. UCLA:
Will the third time be the charm for the Bruins? Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel combined for a 56-56 record as head coach over the last nine seasons, but there’s a new sheriff in town. Former NFL coach Jim Mora is tasked with turning around a talented but perennially-underachieving UCLA football program.
Senior running back Johnathan Franklin (976 yards rushing, five touchdowns) is back, as is senior tight end Joseph Fauria (481 yards receiving, six touchdowns). The season may come down to the play of redshirt freshman Brett Hundley, who beat out three-year starter Kevin Prince for the start at quarterback in Thursday’s opener at Rice.

— Jonathan Kuperberg

9. Oregon State:

The Beavers are coming off their worst season in the Mike Riley error — one that only saw three wins. Riley is liking feeling the heat, taking back play calling responsibilities. He’ll be banking on the continued development of quarterback Sean Mannion, who orchestrated the 19th ranked passing attack in the nation last year as a freshman, throwing for 3,328 yards and 16 scores. Mannion will need to do enough to overcome a non-existent ground game and a defense that gave up over 30 points a game in 2011.

— Connor Byrne

10. Arizona State:
Cameron Marshall rushed for over 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, proving himself to be a bonafide star in the Pac-12. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, that’s about the only thing their offense has going for them. The quarterbacks lack experience, three of their four top receivers graduated, and the offensive line returns two starters from one of the worst units in the conference. No one really stands out on defense either. It should be a long year in Tempe for the Arizona State faithful.

— Michael Rosen

11. Arizona:
There’s no way around it – the Wildcats just aren’t very good. The offense shows hints of promise, with dual-threat quarterback Matt Scott winning the starting job after redshirting last year. Rich Rodriguez should improve the offensive schemes and the overall team quality. The defensive is atrocious, however, and the rest of the Pac-12 should easily dismantle the inexperienced and untalented squad. If the Wildcats can’t get past Colorado, they could be looking at a winless conference record heading into the showdown with rival Arizona State.

— Michael Rosen

12. Colorado:
The good news for the Buffaloes is that they should be better than last season. The bad news — they’ll still probably finish in 12th place.
The squad has a new quarterback Jordan Webb, a junior transfer from Kansas, where he threw for 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2011.
With a weak preseason schedule, Colorado could have a respectable record through six games. But, with consecutive road trips to USC and Oregon, followed by a visit from Stanford, don’t expect the Buffs to make a bowl game in Jon Embree’s second year as head coach.

— Jonathan Kuperberg