1. Stanford – granted the Cardinal are losing some serious offensive power in RB Stepfan Taylor, TE Zach Ertz and WR Drew Terrell, but this team in the last few years proved that you simply cannot bet against them even when you expect them to be down. A stout defense returns seven starters so you can expect this unit to continue and be stingy, especially against the run. Their second half the schedule is extremely challenging but hosting UCLA, Oregon and Notre Dame should ultimately help their cause in capturing a back to back Pac-12 North championship.
2. Oregon – with all of their returning talent and four of their six final games at home, it was hard picking the Ducks second in their division. Yet, I personally feel that the loss of RB Kenyon Barner and the head coaching change with Mark Helfrich at the helm, will prove to take a bigger toll than some may expect, despite the return of QB Marcus Mariota and all-around athlete De'Anthony Thomas. Road games at Washington and Stanford could ultimately be the deciding factor in the team's second-place finish.
3. Washington – arguably the most underachieving team in the Pac-12 in the last five years is poised to finally have a breakthrough season and having 20 returning starters will go a long way in making that happen. RB Bishop Sankey doesn't get the same publicity as his fellow conference ball carriers, but his 1,439 yards and 16 touchdowns last year manifest his ability to be a bona fide star in this league. The renovated Husky Stadium could be that shot in the arm the program needs to get over the hump, and that venue as always been one of the tougher ones in the conference. Therefore, playing three of the last five contests there could be the difference.
4. Oregon State – Which team will show up this year? The one that had back to back losing seasons in 2010-11 or the squad that came out of nowhere and posted a 9-4 record last season? I feel that the Beavers take a step back this year although don't regress dramatically. RB Strom Woods returning negates the loss of WR Markus Wheaton, yet I don't know if either quarterback Sean Mannion or Cody Vaz can achieve the same success they did last year. Their defense is one of the better ones in the league but will probably be on the field much longer than they were last year. Four of their first seven games are on the road and by and large this is a team that doesn't play all that well away from Corvallis.
5. California – a first year head coach (Sonny Dykes) along with losing your top QB (Zach Maynard), WR (Keenan Allen) and both of your top RB's (Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson) isn't usually a recipe for improvement. So I expect the Golden Bears to once again occupy the next to last spot in their division. Opening with three home games (albeit one of them against Ohio State) and having four of their last five contests in Berkeley does give this team somewhat a chance to surprise but eventually their lack of proven talent will catch up to them.
6. Washington State – If anyone thought that Mike Leach would turn around this program on a dime in his first year in Pullman was met with the brutal reality of a 3-9 season and a lone Pac-12 win which was an overtime victory in the last contest over the year (31-28 over Washington). This program is very much work in progress and I don't see this squad doing much better in 2013 despite having 17 returning starters.
1. Arizona State – this is the year the Sun Devils will get over the hump. Quarterback Taylor Kelly is one of the most efficient returning quarterbacks in this league. The running back duo of Marion Grice and D.J. Foster with the resurgence Deantre Lewis present a highly potent rushing attack. On defense, consensus All-American Will Sutton and Devil backer Carl Bradford are a proven front line tandem that is poised to wreak just as much havoc as they did in 2012 with their 24.5 sacks and 44 tackles for a loss. Returning starters Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor are much needed experience in the secondary. Question marks do exist with relying on several newcomers at wide receiver as well as special teams, but this is a squad still very capable of winning an elusive division crown.
2. UCLA – quarterback Brett Hundley with his 4,095 yards of total offense is plenty talented but with the losses of running back Jonathan Franklin (1,734 yards and 13 touchdowns) and tight end Joseph Fauria (637 yards and 12 touchdowns) you would expect his Hundley's production to take a hit. On defense, the Bruins return five very talented starters led by linebacker Anthony Barr, but having four new starters in the secondary will naturally present some challenges. Therefore, while I don't expect the Bruins to take a nose dive from last year's 9-5 record, I do believe they have enough challenges to deny them a third consecutive Pac-12 South championship.
3. USC – even the staunchest USC supporter cannot deny the implosion the Trojans went through last season. This year they are faced with the reality of breaking in a new starter at quarterback in Max Wittek and not having any proven aerial targets aside from unanimous All-American and reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee. Silas Redd is a solid returner at running back but will that be enough to balance a suspect passing attack? A defense that allowed 394 yards a game isn't expected to be as bad this season, but with a new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast it might be asking too much of this group to mount a significant turnaround.
4. Arizona – the return of Ka'Deem Carey who rushed for over 1,900 yards and scored 23 touchdowns will try and counteract a yet to be named new signal caller who will have a depleted wide receiver group as Austin Hill, who tore his ACL in the spring, is expected to miss the majority of the season. While they return all 11 starters on defense, by and large this isn't a deeply talented group. The Pac-12 schedule isn't kind with four of the first five contests on the road. All in all, hard to see the Wildcats taking a step forward in 2013 thus repeating their 4th place finish seems likely.
5. Utah – At least according to their fans, this was a program that was going to contend for the Pac-12 South crown every year, and frankly in 2011 they did exactly so. But a 5-7 mark last season has brought expectations down to earth, and the talent gap between the Utes and the upper echelon of the division should continue and manifest itself this season. Returning only 12 starters, while losing top rusher John White IV and All-American defensive lineman Star Lotulele naturally doesn't bode well for this team to take a step forward this season.
6. Colorado – even with 19 starters returning there isn't much hope for the Buffaloes to improve that much on their 1-11 record from last year. It was already a program in major rebuilding mode when it joined the Pac-12 two seasons ago, and now under first-year head coach Mike Macintyre that process just got extended a good few years. Colorado may not be down several seasons from now, but their immediate future in terms of success does look bleak.
Pac-12 Championship – Stanford over Arizona State. The Sun Devils do play in Palo Alto early in the regular season as part of a rigorous four-game stretch and a loss there will give the Cardinal home field advantage in the conference's championship game. As stout as ASU's defense was last year, run stopping was its weakest link and if that continues to be the case in 2013 it will be hard for this team to beat a squad such as Stanford's, let alone twice in one year.