The theme of the 2012 off-season has been change. With many star players jumping ship to the professional ranks and a decent amount of turnover in the coaching ranks, there is a lot up in the air in the conference.
Here is how I rank the schools going into fall camp.
This is an obvious choice at this point in time given what the Trojans return. Matt Barkley and Robert Woods provide what very well could be the best quarterback / wide receiver connection in the nation and the Trojans always have a plethora of running backs to balance the offensive attack.
The question with USC is regarding whether or not Lane Kiffin can lead a team to the elite levels of college football. Sure, Southern California was a very successful squad last season, but it did so without the pressure of postseason aspirations. With their season meaning something this year, Kiffin must prove he can guide a team to BCS bowl with the pressure in his face.
The Huskies may hit their stride this year under Steve Sarkisian. They return Keith Price under center, who should only get better. They also return a total of 14 starters – including Price – and have a pretty strong talent-base on the offensive side of the ball. The question is, can their defense improve enough to challenge USC? 3. Oregon
Ducks' fans may get offended that I ranked their squad behind UW, but when you lose the starting quarterback and running back that made the offense go, the following season always has a little question regarding it. Still, Oregon is entirely too deep and talented to not contend for a top spot.
If either Bryan Bennett or Marcus Mariota can grab hold of the starting quarterback job and pick up where Thomas left off, UO's offense should continue to thrive without a hitch.
Utah could take a pretty big jump this year as the Utes bring back 18 of their 22 starters from a season ago and Jordan Wynn returns healthy. Utah had an up-and-down first season in the Pac-12, but it should be a bit more of a consistent team with the majority of the talent returning from a year ago. Can the talent on offense finish better than last in the conference as it did last season? Well, there is only one way to go for the 12th ranked offense in the Pac-12 in 2011.
Losing Andrew Luck is going to be tough on the Cardinal. They also have some questions along the offensive line and in the secondary. It's really hard to gauge how good they can be when Stanford lost the best passing quarterback in the country, but they still have Stepfan Taylor running the ball and return several key players in the defensive front seven. It all depends on how well either Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes do in place of Luck.
The Wildcats are a tricky team. Coming off a poor season and losing players like Nick Foles and Juron Criner make things tough coming into 2012, but luckily they snagged a coach in Rich Rodriguez who has pieces that fit right into the system. Matt Scott, who was the starter in 2009 before Foles took over, can run the ball well. Runners Ka'Deem Carey and Daniel Jenkins both fit the mold of a Rodriguez back.
The question is on defense, where there are plenty of holes to fill. If players like Justin Washington can return to the form they showed in 2010, UA can be successful in their first year under the new staff.
Like UA, the Bruins have a new coach in Jim Mora. There is talent at their disposal but cohesiveness has been a problem for the last few years. The hope is that Mora brings the type of discipline needed, but his lack of college experience could be a slight bump in the road. They have unanswered questions up and down the roster, so UCLA's season could go either way.
The Golden Bears return just half of their starters from a season ago. They desperately need Zach Maynard to elevate his game or the offense – which finished eighth in the conference in 2011 – will continue to wallow in mediocrity.
9. Washington State
This should be an interesting year for Wazzu under new head coach Mike Leach. He brings his spread offense to a program that needs something to get excited about. The Cougars are deficient in the talent department, but expect Leach to whip them into shape quickly.
10. Oregon State
If quarterback Sean Mannion can build off his freshman campaign, Oregon State can surprise some people. Mike Riley is known for elevating the level of talent he is coaching, so expect the Beavers to give a lot of teams a hard time.
Still, OSU has to prove itself as it is returning from a 3-9 season and really didn't do anything to boost the level of talent in the offseason. For Oregon State's sake, the returning players must grow quickly.
11. Arizona State
The Sun Devils looked like an up-and-coming squad a year ago, but finished the season poorly and then they lost Brock Osweiler, Gerrell Robinson and Vontaze Burfict just to name a few. With a new coaching staff, no quarterback and a lot of concerns on both sides of the ball, expect Arizona State to have a rough 2012 campaign.
The Buffaloes were 3-10 a year ago and struggled on both sides of the ball. On offense, they lose their starting quarterback, running back and one of their most productive wide receivers from a year ago.
While many teams have the capability to replace those players, it's going to be very tough to do for a squad that had a rough start in its debut season in the Pac-12.