Now that we know exactly which standout Pac-12 underclassmen are returning and which are declaring, a clearer picture of how the Pac-12 will look heading into 2014 is available even though we are still more than seven months out from the opening kickoff of the next Pac-12 season. Closer towards the season we will reboot our power rankings based on fans' voting, but to get an early, early, early start on things, we're putting up our own Pac-12 power rankings.
The return of Marcus Mariota (along with Hroniss Grasu & Ifo Ekpre-Olomu) makes the Ducks the no-brainer favorite to win the Pac-12 and a serious preseason national title contender yet again. As the usual, the Duck offense should be the best in the conference, led by Mariota and an offensive line that returns all five starters (though left tackle Tyler Johnstone's return is unknown) along with emerging running backs in Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner.
The big question mark for the Ducks will be their defense in their first year without Nick Allioti. The Ducks defense really struggled to stop the run towards the end of the season and they lose their top three defensive tackles along with three of their starters in the secondary.
I know Stanford has recruited really well as of late, but the vast amount of talent that they lost after the 2013 season really makes me wonder if they are going to have a transitional year in 2014 (Though with Stanford that could mean that they just win 10 games). The good news is that they have a proven system and coach and still have a good number of talent experienced and young players coming back that fit that system. The key for them will likely be Kevin Hogan stepping up and the new faces on the offensive line sliding in with ease and a new running back emerging to replace Tyler Gaffney. If they can do all of that it will be business as usual, but that's a lot of keys to have to fulfill.
The Huskies lose their two biggest stars in Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but they are as powerful and experienced in the trenches as they have been since Rick Neuheisel was coaching in Seattle and Chris Peterson has a lot to work with in his first season. The Huskies took a step towards getting back to the top of the conference next season and they can stay on that level, or even take another step forward to seriously competing for the Pac-12 championship if the new starter at quarterback can immediately become a weapon.
4. Washington State
Very tough call between the Cougars and Beavers here, but (I know their bowl performances don't suggest) I feel like the Cougars have a little bit more momentum and an identity heading into 2014. The Cougars have some serious holes to fill on defense (Deone Bucannon, Damonte Horton, Ioane Gauta), but all of their important pieces for Mike Leach's system return and they have should improve in his scheme yet again.
- Oregon State
It's hard to doubt the Beavers under Mike Riley, but there just isn't much of anything to get excited about for them going into 2015. Sean Mannion's return helps, but they lose Brandin Cooks who was their entire offense in 2013 and it doesn't appear that they have any playmakers waiting in the wings and they were unbelievably bad in the trenches last season. I still think that the Beavers have a good shot to be a lower-tier bowl team again, but they have a lot to prove to show that they are anything more than that.
Logic would suggest that the Bears have nowhere to go but up, but when you have as disastrous as a vibe around your program as Cal does and as many inexplicable early departures to the NFL as they just did, that's not a given. The Bears still have some talent left over from the Jeff Tedford days and they flashed some potential with their Bear raid offense last season, but right now they still look like the worst team in the conference.
Getting Brett Hundley back makes the Bruins the clear cut favorite in the South with how much Arizona State and USC lost. Outside of Hundley they are young, but very talented as Mora has recruited phenomenally, especially on defense. They really need some playmakers to emerge at running back and receiver, but they have talent there that could and they have a favorable schedule in 2014.
The Trojans lost a lot of talent to the draft and Steve Sarkisian has yet to prove that his a coach that can lead a team to the top level of the conference, but they are still USC and they have a ton of talent for him to work. The Trojans should be able to run the ball with how many great running backs they have and Cody Kessler looked like he could be the answer at quarterback towards the end of the season. The Trojans defense led by Leonard Williams who could be the best defensive lineman in America and new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox could also be the best in the conference.
- Arizona State
The Sun Devils lose more on defense than I can remember a team losing in a very long time, so it's almost impossible to expect them to repeat a South championship but I wouldn't completely rule it out with Taylor Kelly returning and Todd Graham gaining momentum. They will at least be a bowl team that competes near the top of the division, but their complete rebuilding project on defense worries me.
The Wildcats are doing a lot of nice things under Rich Rodriguez but I get the feeling that they are going to have a very tough time get out of this position unless something drastic happens. They have some nice talent developing at receiver, linebacker and defensive back, but they once again have a big question mark at quarterback and now running back - the two most important positions in their system.
Another program that I just have a hard time seeing getting out of their current spot in the Pac-12 pecking order unless something changes, there just isn't much to get excited about with the Utes. They have decent talent and depth all around, but nothing special and will take a big hit if Travis Wilson's career is over. I could see them sneaking back to bowl eligibility this season with their home field advantage, but I wouldn't bet on it.
The Buffaloes should improve again under Mike MacIntyre with the level of experience they have returning, but I just don't know if it will be enough to jump past Utah or Arizona. There is some reason to be excited in Boulder though and I wouldn't be surprised if they get very close to sneaking into a bowl game if a few things go their way.