Pac-12's three-headed monsters

What the heck is a three-headed monster in the Pac-12? It's about returning production: Elite combinations of quarterback, running back and receiver in the conference.

The only "pure" three-headed monsters in the Pac-12 this fall are Arizona State and Washington, in that the Sun Devils and Huskies welcome back their quarterback, leading rusher and leading receiver.

Yet, even they aren't without issues. The Sun Devils probably wish they had an elite receiver leading their passing offense instead of tight end Chris Coyle. The Huskies are hoping the Keith Price in 2013 is not the Price of 2012, but of 2011.

Further, some teams are close: Oregon State has two quarterbacks coming back with extensive starting experience, leading rusher Storm Woods and an 1,000-yard receiver in Brandin Cooks.

Two teams, California and Washington State, don't welcome back their leader at any of the three positions

Ranking these isn't easy. The challenge is priority and value. What if a team is, say, outstanding at running back and receiver, but inexperienced at quarterback? How does that measure up with a team that is merely good, but also experienced at all three positions?

Further, four teams are difficult to rate because of uncertainty at at least one position: Arizona, California and USC at quarterback, and UCLA at running back.

So here's how we see things stacking up -- and, yes, we did some projecting at some positions. And, yes, you should feel free to be outraged by our lunkheaded bias against your team, which obviously should be ranked much higher.

1. Oregon

QB Marcus Mariota, RB De'Anthony Thomas, WR Josh Huff

The skinny: If you give extra weight to quarterback, the Ducks prevail. Moreover, Thomas and Huff are explosive playmakers who seem poised to step into the limelight and put up big numbers this fall. And there's also tight end Colt Lyerla.

2. Arizona State

QB Taylor Kelly, RB Marion Grice, TE/H-back Chris Coyle

The skinny: Kelly is a good start and there's depth at running back behind Grice with the capable D.J. Foster. Both Grice and Foster are good receivers, so they can be lumped in with Coyle. This offense will be outstanding if an incoming receiver can step in and stretch the field.

3. Oregon State

QB Sean Mannion/Cody Vaz, RB Storm Woods, WR Brandin Cooks

The skinny: We can make an exception for the Beavers indecision at quarterback, because we know both guys well. Woods and Cooks are a strong running back-receiver combo who will give whoever wins the quarterback job plenty to work with.


QB Brett Hundley, RB Jordon James, WR Shaq Evans

The skinny: Hundley carries the Bruins here. There is uncertainty at running back, and Evans averaged just 62.9 yards receiving last season with just three TDs. But Hundley is an All-American candidate.

5. Washington

QB Keith Price, RB Bishop Sankey, WR Kasen Williams

The skinny: If Price returns to form, this troika would move up a couple of notches. Williams gets seconded by tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

6. Stanford

QB Kevin Hogan, RB Tyler Gaffney, WR Ty Montgomery

The skinny: Hogan was the guy in the cockpit during the Cardinal's late-season charge. Gaffney is a proven guy, despite taking a year off. And Montgomery has shown flashes of being a first-option wide-out.

7. USC

QB Max Wittek/Cody Kessler, RB Silas Redd, WR Marqise Lee

The Skinny: Whoever wins the starting quarterback job should be at least solid. Redd should hit the 1,000-yard mark. And Lee is the best guy at his position in the country. But will his numbers go down this fall without Matt Barkley?

8. Utah

QB Travis Wilson, RB Kelvin York, WR Dres Anderson

The skinny: Plenty of experience here, and the depth is solid behind York and Anderson. And don't forget underrated tight end Jake Murphy. The key element is Wilson taking a strong step forward after being thrown to the wolves as a true freshman starter.

9. Arizona

QB Jesse Scroggins, RB Ka'Deem Carey, WR David Richards

The skinny: Carey carries this one because the Wildcats are uncertain at quarterback -- it as easily could be B.J. Denker or true freshman Anu Solomon up there. Even with that fluidness at quarterback, this ranking would be much higher if leading receiver Austin Hill didn't blow out his knee this spring.

10. California

QB Zach Kline, RB Brendan Bigelow, WR Chris Harper

The skinny: Yes, we are projecting Kline wins the quarterback competition. There is great potential here, and Harper isn't the only talented young receiver who could lead the Bears. But Bigelow, as explosive as he is, needs to prove he can stay healthy and become an every-down back.

11. Washington State

QB Connor Halliday, RB Teondray Caldwell, WR Gabe Marks

The skinny: Halliday has yet to completely win over coach Mike Leach, as much of Leach's post-spring commentary was on how well redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Apodaca played. Caldwell is a quick scat back, but the Cougs had essentially zero running game last season. Marks might be poised for a breakout, and the Cougs are solid at receiver overall.

12. Colorado

QB Connor Wood, RB Christian Powell, WR Paul Richardson

The skinny: This is a better-than-you-think troika, because Richardson is among the most talented receivers in the conference. But he's coming back from a knee injury that killed his 2012 season. Powell, a 235 pounder, rushed for a respectable 691 yards last season. The linchpin is Wood: Is he ready to lead this offense? The bottom line is the Buffs can't rank higher because they were last in the Pac-12 in total and scoring offense last season.