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Ranking the 2014 Pac-12 defenses: UCLA edges out Stanford for the Pac-12's best defense

The Cardinal don't have the conference's best defense going into the season for the first time in a long time.

Harry How

1. UCLA (Stars: LB Myles Jack, LB Eric Kendricks, DT Ellis McCarthy)

The time has finally come where a team other than Stanford comes into the season boasting the most talent on defense. The Bruins are young in some spots, but its talented youth that has quickly gained some experience. The unit is led by a ridiculous front seven that features sophomore sensation Jack and senior leader Kendricks at linebacker and the best defensive line in the conference.

2. Stanford (Stars: DE Henry Anderson, S Jordan Richards, LB A.J. Tarpley)

Don't sleep on Stanford though. This very well could end up being the conference's best defense again by the end of the season. Replacing mainstays like Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent and experience to go around in Palo Alto. Also, don't forget how well the Cardinal have recruited at linebacker in recent classes as they are loaded with young talent that could step in right away and excel.

3. USC (Stars: DE Leonard Williams, LB Hayes Pullard, LB J.R. Tavai)

The Trojans are razor thin in the secondary, but no team can match their top-level talent, notably future top overall draft pick (in my opinion), Williams. Williams is so good on his own that he can hold down the run defense almost all by himself and get after the passer and Pullard is my pick for the conference's top linebacker. And they may be thin in the secondary, but they have a budding star at safety in Su'a Cravens and a strong senior at cornerback in Josh Shaw, who could be a first round pick.

4. Washington (Stars: DE Hau'oli Kikaha, DT Danny Shelton, CB Marcus Peters)

The deepest, most-experienced and talented Husky defense since the mid-90s, Chris Petersen has a great defense to work with in his first season. The front seven is the strength here as the Huskies might have the two best defensive linemen in the conference not named Leonard Williams in the pass-rushing Kikaha and the run-stuffing Shelton teamed with a standout trio of linebackers led by Shaq Thompson. Peters is alone in the defensive backfield as a returning star, but he is an underrated player that might be the conference's best corner after Ekpre-Olomu.

5. Oregon (Stars: CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, DE Tony Washington, LB Derrick Malone)

The Ducks' defense stumbled down the stretch in 2013, but they were still better than most of the conference and have a great recent history of getting the most out of their defensive units. They lose long-time coordination Nick Allioti, but the unit may have been due for a refresh and getting Ekpre-Olomu to come back from his senior year was a huge score. The linebacker unit should be the best group though, led by Malone and Washington who is a bit of a DE/OLB hybrid.

6. Oregon State (Stars: CB Steven Nelson, LB Michael Doctor, LB Jabral Johnson)

The Beavers were bad on defense last season, especially against the run, but I have confidence in Mike Riley to keep improving with the experience returning that he has, especially at linebacker. The Beavers have three tough seniors at linebacker led by Doctor and Johnson along with D.J. Alexander who provides an excellent boost returning from injury. Throw in an underrated secondary that features the conference's leading returner in interceptions and two solid senior safeties and the Beavers should bounce back on defense.

7. Utah (Stars: LB Jason Whittingham, S Brian Blechen, DE Nate Orchard)

The Utes just can't seem to get out of the bottom of the conference and part of that is their defense failing to excel in the Pac-12. There is some hope for the Utes in 2014 though as dynamic hybrid Whittingham and Orchard are excellent on the edge and Blechen returns from injury as a hard-hitting former linebacker with great pass defense skills.

8. Arizona (Stars: LB Scooby Wright, S Jared Tevis, CB Jonathan McKnight)

The Wildcats lack stars on defense, but quietly have a lot of experience and some talent on the back end. They aren't great up front, but have an experienced secondary led by Tevis and McKnight that should bolster their pass defense this season.

9. Arizona State (Stars: DT Jaxon Hood, LB Salamo Fiso, DE Marcus Hardison)

Hard to peg the Sun Devils as they lost all but one full-time starter from last season, but are a good program that has talent waiting in the wings. I wouldn't be surprised if the Sun Devils end up having a top-half of the conference defense, but that is a hard bet to make right now with only one starter returning.

10. Colorado (Stars: LB Addison Gillam, S Jered Bell, CB Greg Henderson)

The Buffs actually had a better statistical defense than I thought in 2013 and they are making steps forward under Mike MacIntyre, but they are still the Buffs for now in my eyes and hard to put them ahead of too many teams.

11. Washington State (Stars: DT Xavier Cooper, LB Darryl Monroe, LB Cyrus Coen)

The Cougars are surprisingly bad against the pass for a team that practices against it so much and that shouldn't get much better with three secondary starters departing. There is reason to optimistic about the front seven though as Cooper and Monroe are developing into All-Pac-12 players and the depth around them is strong.

12. Cal (Stars: LB Jalen Jefferson, DE Brennan Scarlett, S Avery Sebastian)

Hard to get excited about the Bear defense, especially considering that they lost some of their best players early to draft in some of the worst recent early-entry decisions the conference has seen. The good news is that they do have some young talent and have some players returning from injury, like Sebastian, that could really help out.