The 2015 season is over. The 2016 offseason is here. But as you well know, there is no offseason.
Here are five major plotlines to keep tabs on as we cycle through recruiting, offseason workouts and spring practice.
1. The Helton era: The Clay Helton era at USC didn't get off to a great start, with consecutive defeats in the Pac-12 championship game (against Stanford) and the National Funding Holiday Bowl (against Wisconsin), but Helton will be judged by what happens now that he controls all the levers of the Trojans program. That can't be said when taking over at midseason under unusual circumstances, as he did when Steve Sarkisian was fired in October. This is now his staff and this will be his recruiting class. Whatever schematic tweaks occur this spring will be his calls as program CEO.
USC fans won't be patient. Some already are skeptical about his hiring after what was pretty clearly a minimalistic "national" search. Some are excited about him because they expect immediate success -- as in a Pac-12 South Division title in 2016 as well as wins against rivals Notre Dame and UCLA. Suffice it to say, another eight-win season won't make anyone happy.
2. Getting coordinated: Helton will be -- knock on wood -- the only new head coach in the Pac-12 in 2016, but there are oodles of coaching changes. Seven teams changed at least one coordinator, and only California and Stanford didn't make any staff changes. That means a getting-to-know-you period this offseason and into spring practice and fall camp, as schemes are tweaked and personalities jell into a fine-tuned whole. Or not. Moreover, with so much turnover at the coordinator spots, a lot of teams will be doing extra scouting research this offseason to get to know their newest strategic adversaries.
3. Recruiting intrigue: USC is the longstanding Pac-12 recruiting behemoth, and the Trojans currently rank No. 1 in the conference and 14th in the nation in the ESPN RecruitingNation top 40. But Stanford is just behind at 15th, and more than a few folks believe the Cardinal's class is shaping up to be the best in the conference. If Helton's first class is ranked second in the Pac-12 and out of the national top 10, that wouldn't be a good thing for him. Plus: UCLA, Arizona State, Oregon, Arizona and Washington all rank in the top 40. Who closes strong and who fades? Injuries -- seemingly more than usual -- hit Pac-12 teams hard this fall, revealing a lack of depth across the conference. It's pretty clear that just about everyone will need immediate help from incoming players, so signing day on Feb. 3 is as much about the present as the future.
4. Star power development: Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey will begin the 2016 season as the West Coast's top Heisman Trophy candidate, but there is plenty of offensive star power returning this fall, including UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, Oregon running back Royce Freeman, USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, Washington State quarterback Luke Falk and Washington running back Myles Gaskin, among others. These guys, particularly the quarterbacks, need not only to improve their game -- both in the weight room and with study -- but also become positive leaders, through words and action. If, for example, Rosen aims to outwork everyone in his locker room, the Bruins will be better and tougher for it. The returning defensive talent isn't as scintillating, but guys like Washington safety Budda Baker and Utah defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei need to do the same on their side of the ball. A great 2016 season doesn't start in August. It starts yesterday.
5. Who's next? McCaffrey was mostly an unknown at the beginning of the season. And who thought Falk was going to be first-team All-Pac-12, ahead of future first-round NFL draft pick Jared Goff? Though most spring and fall previews will focus on returning stars, there are plenty of holes to fill, and there will be emerging players to fill those voids with aplomb. Is USC running back Ronald Jones the next big thing? Is new Oregon transfer quarterback Dakota Prukop going to be the second coming of Vernon Adams? Is Arizona running back Nick Wilson going to come back strong in 2016 after a mostly lost 2015 due to a foot injury? Does Washington quarterback Jake Browning become far more than a game manager this fall? Is Washington State defensive end Hercules Mata'afa going to become more than a member of the all-name team as a sophomore? Or is USC linebacker Cameron Smith the next great Pac-12 defender? We'll start to hear rumbles about players ready for their close-ups even before spring practices. Oh, and seven teams in the conference of quarterbacks will have quarterback competitions beginning this spring.