Spring practice around the conference is over, so the Pac-12 power rankings return for the first time since the installment that closed the 2014 season.
1. Oregon (previous: 1)
Yes, the favorite to replace Marcus Mariota isn’t even on campus yet, but a dominant conference championship run earns the Ducks the early 2015 top spot. Like every other Pac-12 team, Oregon has critical questions to answer, but the Ducks' half-decade of blistering success has earned them the benefit of the doubt. Vernon Adams’ arrival this summer will provide the next intriguing storyline.
2. USC (6)
The Trojans return quarterback Cody Kessler and a boatload of early national hype -- No. 5 in Mark Schlabach’s Way-Too-Early rankings -- so excitement emanating from Los Angeles comes as no surprise. As talented as this roster is, though, don’t forget that it must replace its share of critical pieces: Leonard Williams, Nelson Agholor and Buck Allen are among those off to the NFL.
3. Arizona State (4)
Despite losing stud receiver Jaelen Strong, the Sun Devils feel great about their returning arsenal on both sides of the ball. Kalen Ballage and De’Chavon Hayes have emerged alongside Demario Richard in an explosive backfield, while Mike Bercovici gives ASU returning stability at quarterback. The defense is expected to be more consistent too, as nine of 11 starters come back.
4. Arizona (3)
The Wildcats can make a legitimate case that they should be ranked ahead of USC and ASU on this list. They did, after all, win last season’s Pac-12 South title behind freshmen Anu Solomon and Nick Wilson. Both players are a year wiser, as is one-man wrecking crew Scooby Wright, who led the nation in several defensive statistics last year. Debate the ranking of these teams all you want. The only thing that is evident at this point is that the Pac-12 South will be a minefield again.
5. UCLA (2)
The Bruins must replace quarterback Brett Hundley, and early enrollee Josh Rosen has impressed so far in his bid to start. Still, some growing pains under center are almost inevitable next season. UCLA has stockpiled enough talent elsewhere to remain competitive in a brutally tough division. The entire offensive line returns, as does defending Pac-12 rushing champion Paul Perkins.
6. Stanford (7)
The Cardinal’s three-game hot streak to close 2014 has generated optimism regarding the offense in 2015. For the first time since the Andrew Luck era, the defense is actually a bigger concern on The Farm. Stanford will have to replace up to eight starters on that side of the ball. A late spring game surge from Lance Anderson’s unit has assuaged much concern, but questions aplenty remain.
7. Utah (5)
Don’t count Utah out as a Pac-12 South contender too quickly. The Utes made plenty of noise in their breakout nine-win 2014 campaign, and they return bell cow Devontae Booker. Kyle Whittingham’s program has made significant physical strides since joining the conference, and the Utes figure to be dangerous again. More consistent quarterback play from either Travis Wilson or Kendal Thompson will be key.
8. Cal (9)
The Bears must make their move this year. Quarterback Jared Goff is now a junior, and he has had a chance to mature with a solid receiving corps and talented back Daniel Lasco. Defense has been the missing Cal ingredient. We’ll have to see improvement from the secondary before we believe it -- the Bears gave up more passing yards than any other team in the nation last year.
9. Washington (8)
This is shaping up to be a major test for second-year coach Chris Petersen. The Huskies have lost a boatload of talent defensively: Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson and Hau’oli Kikaha all went high in the NFL draft. Washington also must break in a new quarterback, and its offense wasn’t explosive to begin with in 2014.
10. Washington State (11)
Receiver Dom Williams lit up spring practice, but the Cougars’ offense isn’t the problem in Pullman, Washington. For Washington State to make tangible progress, its defense must pull its own weight in 2014. That’s where new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch comes in: He’s been preaching aggressiveness after the Cougars intercepted only three passes throughout all of last year.
11. Oregon State (10)
New coach Gary Andersen inherits a rebuilding project in Corvallis, Oregon. Step 1 involves implementing a new, faster-paced offense. Running back Storm Woods figures to be the centerpiece of that unit, while Seth Collins seems to have the spring lead in the quarterback competition. A defensive overhaul also is necessary for more success here.
12. Colorado (12)
Despite their winless conference season, the Buffs made progress last year: Their average margin of defeat was about two touchdowns smaller than it was in 2013. Quarterback Sefo Liufau and receiver Nelson Spruce are both back, but we can’t justify moving Colorado out of the cellar until its league-worst run defense shows some improvement. The Buffaloes allowed a full yard more per carry than the next-worst team last season.