Our question this week: Who has the best position group in the conference?
Lots of teams have a strength at a certain area -- running back, receiver, linebacker, etc. -- but whose team strength is the strongest?
Kevin Gemmell: Anytime you have a four-man position group and half of them could be All-Americans, that's phenomenal. And that's what Stanford is looking at this year and that's why I'm picking its linebackers as the best individual position group in the conference.
It starts on the outside with Chase Thomas (52 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 17.5 tackles for a loss) -- a first-team All-Pac-12 performer and All-American. On the other side, Trent Murphy (40 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for a loss) is underappreciated because of all the attention Thomas gets. But Murphy is a beast at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds.
Then you move to the inside linebackers where Shayne Skov is one of the best in the nation. There is a to-be-determined punishment pending for his DUI arrest and he's still recovering from a season-ending knee injury from last year. But once he's paid his penance and is 100 percent healthy, he'll be on par with the best middle linebackers in the country.
Who lines up next to Skov is a question. And also a good problem for the Cardinal to have. Jarek Lancaster (team-leading 70 tackles) and A.J. Tarpley (57 tackles) were both outstanding in Skov's absence last year. Lancaster in particular came on very strong at the end of the season.
Highly touted sophomore James Vaughters is also slotted for inside linebacker. The coaching staff treated Vaughters with kid gloves last season -- using him mostly as an extra pass-rusher on third downs, where he tallied 11 tackles, four for a loss, and a sack. But he's expected to be unleashed in 2012.
Another aspect that makes this group so scary is the overall depth. Because of guys like Lancaster, Tarpley, Vaughters, Alex Debniak, Kevin Anderson and incoming freshman Noor Davis, the Cardinal are in a position to absorb a significant injury like they did with Skov last season. Of course, no one wants to see that happen for any team. But injuries are part of the game. And if something happens to one of Stanford's starters, there is significant talent that can rotate in.
One thing to keep in mind is the loss of co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Jason Tarver. He was a brilliant operator of the 3-4 defense -- which is why he's now a defensive coordinator in the NFL. He did an amazing job coaching up Lancaster and Tarpley, which helped Stanford boast the No. 1 rush defense in the conference last year. Allowing just 84.4 yards per game on the ground, Stanford was the only Pac-12 team to hold opponents below 100 yards per game on average.
Factor in the talent returning on the defensive line and that makes the linebacking corps that much better. Stanford not only has the deepest and most talented group in the conference, but you can make an argument that as a unit it is one of the best groups in the country.
Ted Miller: I know you guys are going to get on Kevin for picking Stanford, but I agree with him: Stanford's linebacking corps is the best complete unit in the Pac-12 in terms of both skill and depth. But, of course, a "ditto" doesn't make for much of a "Take 2" now, does it?
I like California's running backs, Oregon's LBs, Arizona State's RBs and Utah's defensive line, but I'm going to go with USC's receivers.
The Trojans aren't terribly deep at receiver. In fact, they are decidedly top-heavy. But what a top.
First, you have junior Robert Woods, a 2011 first-team All-American. He ranked eighth in the nation with 107.7 yards receiving per game in 2011. He's the leading candidate heading into 2012 to win the Biletnikoff Award given annually to the nation's best receiver.
Second, you have Marqise Lee, second-team All-Pac-12, who actually outplayed a banged-up Woods over the home stretch of the 2011 season. He ranked 15th in the nation with 95.3 yards receiving per game. He also is a Biletnikoff candidate, and it wouldn't be too shocking if both of these guys earned All-America honors this upcoming season.
Put it this way: If you made a list of the top-five receivers in the nation this fall, most folks would include Woods and Lee.
Now, it's not unreasonable to question the Trojans' depth at the position. Both Brice Butler and Kyle Prater opted to transfer. Both are capable and would have made this unit scary good. While there's plenty of talent behind Woods and Lee, it's unproven.
That said: It's entirely possible speedy sophomore George Farmer has his own star turn this fall. Folks thought that might happen last year for everybody's prep All-American, but injuries and an odd position change to running back slowed that down. No question Farmer has All-American talent. If he stays healthy, the Trojans could end up with a troika that is almost impossible to defend, one that is superior to many NFL teams. For real.
Other guys who have the ability to help: Junior De'Von Flournoy and redshirt freshman Victor Blackwell. In the fall, true freshmen Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers could potentially get into the mix.
So there will be solid options for the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 receivers.
Still, this is about the top. It's not hyperbole to project that Woods and Lee, with QB Matt Barkley returning, are in position to write themselves onto a very short list of the best receiver combinations in college football history this fall.