By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports

The Pac-12 has gotten into the debate of which conference is the best in college football over the past couple of years because of the depth of the conference. A large part of the reason for that has been the quality of QB’s that the conference has begun to produce.  Despite the losses of Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley to the NFL, the league still has plenty of top flight signal callers to boast of as it attempts to send a representative to the CFP for the 2nd straight year and looks for its first national title since USC in 2004.

Pre Season Media Poll

North Division

1) Oregon

2) Stanford

3) California

4) Washington

5) Washington State

6) Oregon State

South Division

1) USC

2) Arizona State

3) UCLA

4) Arizona

5) Utah

6) Colorado

Conference Contenders

Oregon- The Ducks are dealing with the loss of Mariota but also three offensive lineman and CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and DL Arik Armstead from last year’s CFP team.  At the QB spot, they’ll look to either FCS transfer Vernon Adams or junior Jeff Lockie to take the keys to the offense. The Ducks will get WR Bralon Addison back (torn ACL) back to go along with the backfield tandem of Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner. The defensive secondary is largely a question mark after Ekpre-Olomu, Troy Hill, and Erick Dargan all moved on.  Plenty of questions to answer for Mark Helfrich if he wants to get back to the playoffs.

Stanford- The Cardinal return 11 offensive starters including QB Kevin Hogan from a group that struggled to find consistency until the end of the season when they averaged 38 PPG in their final three contests. Hogan will have all of his skill position guys back to work with and along the line the only major change is flipping right tackle Kyle Murphy to the left side to replace Andrus Peat. Defensively, the Cardinal are a bit more uncertain with only 4 starters returning from last year’s stifling group that allowed just 16.4 PPG. That group will be led by ILB Blake Martinez who was the leading tackler last season (102).

USC- The Trojans were picked to finish first in the South (expected to be the stronger of the two divisions) but have come under scrutiny recently for head coach Steve Sarkisian’s actions at the Salute to Troy dinner. Whether that incident hangs over the team all season or not could determine if the Trojans live up to expectations. On the field, the Trojans hopes will start with QB Cody Kessler who had the most efficient season in school history last year and will be protected by a line returning all five starters. The weapons are pretty good for Kessler with JuJu Smith and do-everything Adoree Jackson on the outside. Defensively, the unit lost DE Leonard Williams but still will have plenty of talent including LB/S Su’a Cravens who had 68 tackles, 17 TFL, 5 sacks, 9 pass breakups and three interceptions last year. That’s an impressive stat line.

UCLA- The Bruins are going with a true freshman at QB to start the season for the first time ever. Josh Rosen a 6’4″ 205 youngster from St. John Bosco High School has been seen as a bit of a QB prodigy for a couple of years now.  His intelligence and aptitude for the game combined with a strong arm has many predicting big things for him before he even takes a snap.  Fortunately, he’ll have plenty of help from a talented group of returning players including 4 of 5 offensive linemen, RB Paul Perkins (Pac-12 leading rusher 1,575 yards), and WR’s Jordan Payton and Eldridge Massington.  The defense will be solid with 8 players back including all-around stud LB Myles Jack. The Bruins will get tested early in conference going @ Arizona, home vs. Arizona State, and @ Stanford in four weeks to end September/start October.

Arizona State- Mike Bercovici will finally get the opportunity to be the full-time starter for Todd Graham this season. After sitting behind Brock Osweiler and Taylor Kelly for most of the last three seasons, he got his shot at the tail end of last year and shined with 1,243 yards completing 63% of his passes. He’ll get the added benefit of DJ Foster full-time at WR after moving from RB following last season.  That will help to offset the loss of Jaelen Strong. On the defensive side, 8 starters are back from a group that was right in the middle of the pack in most categories last season.

Arizona- Rich Rodriguez’s crew had a great start winning 10 of 12 last year before a forgettable December with losses to Oregon (Pac-12 Championship) and Boise State (Fiesta Bowl). The good news is sophomore QB Anu Solomon now has a full year under his belt, and returns three of his top four receivers from last year. Add to that sophomore RB Nick Wilson (1,535 yards) out of the backfield and the offense could be potent; if it has time.  The offensive line is the question mark, having to replace three starters. Defensively, the star of the show is LB Scooby Wright the Lombardi award winner as a sophomore last year. The team will get two early tests Sept 26 vs. UCLA and Oct 3rd at Stanford.

Sleeper

As you can tell from the 6 teams I have listed as contenders, the conference is deep and the top half of teams could all trip each other up. There’s no far and away best team. With that in mind, there is still one squad that could make some noise and cause issues if, and it’s a big if, they can improve their defense.

California- Jared Goff is the headliner here after throwing for 3,973 yards and 35 TD’s last year. Most of his weapons are back too with WR’s Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler, TE Stephen Anderson, RB Daniel Lasco, and three returning offensive line starters. The problem? A defensive unit that gave up 39.8 PPG, 511.8 yards per game, and lost defensive end Brennan Scarlett to division rival Stanford. If coordinator Art Kaufman can improve that unit to even league average, this team can be a headache.

The Rest

Washington- Chris Petersen enters his 2nd year at the helm with plenty of holes to fill. First at QB, it’s rumored that freshman Jake Browning has won the job but, the starter won’t be officially named until the opener this weekend. If that is indeed the case, Browning will be behind an offensive line replacing three starters, and with only one top receiver in Jaydon Mickens (60 receptions) returning. The defense is transitioning from 4-3 to 3-4 and is looking to replace five members of the unit from last year.

Utah- The Utes coaching staff was decimated after last season. Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and d-line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki left for Oregon State, and offensive coordinator Dave Christensen left for Texas A&M. However, the good news is both units return eight starters which should help smooth the transition for the new coaches. The main issue will be finding a way to get more offense after being last in the Pac-12 (388.1 yards per game) last season.

Washington State- Mike Leach will look to former Missouri safeties coach Alex Grinch to improve a defense that gave up 38.6 PPG last season and was last in turnover margin in the conference. The Cougars also need to find a replacement at QB in the Air Raid offense that Leach likes to run.

Colorado- The Buffaloes have consistently struggled since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, they are 10-39 overall and 4-32 in conference. The good news is, despite the 2-10 (0-9) record last season, the Buffs did show signs of improvement going to double OT against UCLA and Cal plus losing 4 conference games by a combined 15 points. Most of the team is back and it looks like the rebuild is starting to take shape.

Oregon State- Gary Anderson takes over as head coach after Mike Riley left for Nebraska, which signals a system change for the Beavers from pro-style to the spread. There are no experienced QB’s on the roster, so this will be the start of a rebuild in Corvallis.

Must Watch Games- It’ll be worth it to stay up late and catch looks at these teams.

September 12- #7 Oregon at #5 Michigan State

September 19- #21 Stanford at #8 USC

September 26- #13 UCLA at #22 Arizona

September 26- #8 USC at #15 Arizona State

October 3- #22 Arizona at #21 Stanford

October 3- #15 Arizona State at #13 UCLA

October 15- #13 UCLA at #21 Stanford

October 17- #8 USC at #11 Notre Dame

November 14- #7 Oregon at #21 Stanford

Conference Title Prediction

Oregon vs. USC

The Ducks are my pick for the North despite the question marks because they always consistently find a way to reload and I don’t trust Kevin Hogan to be the difference maker for the Cardinal. In the south, the four team race I think will end up being won by a USC team that is deep and talented on both sides of the ball.  That comes with a caveat, and a large one at that. It depends on how the Sarkisian situation plays out and whether that causes any kind of continuing problem moving forward. Early signs seem to point to the team being able to handle it but we’ll see once the season begins and some trials arise. That said, I’ll take the Trojans over the Ducks in the conference title game because of experienced QB Cody Kessler who I fully expect to be in the Heisman conversation this year.

Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him. Agree/Disagree? Thoughts, comments, complaints? Email or tweet him. 

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