Today, we begin one of our final inventory checks before the 2016 season kicks off. We'll be ranking every team's position units against the rest of the Pac-12, starting with a run through the league's defensive front sevens today.
1. Washington: The Huskies were the Pac-12's best defense last season, and they should be considered favorites to remain at the top of that category this year despite some losses in the front seven. That's because big tackle Elijah Qualls sucks up blockers like nobody's business, while linebackers Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor are two of the league's most explosive talents.
2. UCLA: It may be surprising to find the Bruins near the top of this ranking after they were gashed so badly to finish last season, but it's a new year. And that means UCLA will benefit from a healthy Eddie Vanderdoes, who reportedly packs a monstrous presence that should fortify the entire line. Meanwhile, the Bruins' linebackers are in great shape thanks to the promising trio of Jayon Brown, Kenny Young, and Deon Hollins.
3. Utah: The Utes' defensive line is the deepest in the Pac-12 (two words: Lowell Lotulelei), so the only thing keeping this front seven from the top spot in these rankings is the linebacker corps, which must replace its three starting studs from 2015. Like many teams in this league, Utah plays a lot of nickel, so finding at least two capable bodies is important. Transfer Sunia Tauteoli is the most promising emerging name.
4. Stanford: We worried about the Cardinal earlier this offseason, especially after they lost Pac-12 tackle leader Blake Martinez and their two senior stalwarts along the defensive line (Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett). But with Solomon Thomas returning, Harrison Phillips healed from injury, and new contributors like Dylan Jackson significantly bulked up, Stanford looks revitalized up front. The inside linebacker position is still a question, but fast talents like Sean Barton give reason for optimism there.
5. Arizona State: Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam are both back on the linebacker level, so the Sun Devils return their two leading tacklers. New defensive line coach Joe Seumalo inherits Tashon Smallwood, JoJo Wicker, and Viliami Latu along the front. The pieces are here for ASU to deliver a productive season.
6. Washington State: The Cougars' overall defensive improvement was marked last season, but their performance against the run actually worsened. Coordinator Alex Grinch is confident that he can reverse that trend in Year 2 behind promising linemen Hercules Mata'afa, Daniel Ekuale, and Robert Barber. Leading tackler Peyton Pelluer returns on the second level.
7. Colorado: The Buffs' defense is maturing -- their statistical progress against the run was notable last season -- and there are many indications that their front seven will take the next step in 2016. The most significant news is the return of 325-pound tackle Josh Tupou from a yearlong suspension. The linebackers also feature solid players: Derek McCartney, Kenneth Olugbode, Jimmie Gilbert, and Rick Gamboa all return.
8. USC: The Trojans have much to prove up front, where five players left before Kenny Bigelow's ACL tear added injury to insult. Will any of USC's fresh faces deliver the "man strength" necessary to fortify the defensive line? If they do, the Trojans will breathe a bit easier on the second level, where linebackers Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin highlight a talented crew.
9. Arizona: The Wildcats' defense will certainly look different under new coordinator Marcel Yates. They have some valuable pieces at linebacker, starting with Paul Magloire Jr., who has quietly established himself as one of the most versatile defensive players in the Pac-12. There's experience in front of that unit, highlighted by lineman Sani Fuimaono. If Arizona can stay healthy here this time around, there's a good chance they'll climb this list.
10. California: The Golden Bears were forced to scramble at linebacker this offseason, where they lost four players to either transfer or retirement. The situation up front also seems tenuous since Cal has lost more than 50 percent of its 2015 sacks. Sonny Dykes has talked about his program's improvement when it comes to depth; now is the time for that progress to shine.
11. Oregon: Let's see what new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke can do. The Ducks must replace the entirety of their starting front, and they must also find bodies to take the spots of linebackers Rodney Hardrick, Tyson Coleman, and Joe Walker. Hoke's shift to an aggressive 4-3 scheme underscores an offseason of change for this front seven. Will touted talents like Canton Kaumatule come up big in 2016?
12. Oregon State: The Beavers bled a league-worst 5.1 yards per rush last season. Their defense has lost three key players from the line and two starting linebackers, including leading tackler Rommel Mageo. Perhaps this major personnel turnover will ignite Oregon State, but we'll need to see that before believing it.