With the 2012 college football season officially kicking off on Thursday, it's time to release the first power rankings for each conference.
Every Tuesday during the season (this week, it is Tuesday for the Pac-12 and Big 12) I will release league power rankings, which you can find under the College tab at the top of this page. The six BCS conferences will all have their own power rankings, while I will also rank the best of the non-BCS squads.
With that in mind, let's take a look at how the Pac-12 shapes up:
1. Oregon: Now that the Ducks were able to deliver head coach Chip Kelly his signature win in the Rose Bowl, the question is whether Marcus Mariota can pick up where Darron Thomas left off at quarterback. And judging by his spring game performance and high praise from former Duck LaMichael James on Twitter, Oregon could have its best quarterback in a long time. While the productivity in the passing game should increase, Mariota will get help from running back Kenjon Barner and versatile De’Anthony Thomas, who should be phenomenal in the slot and on punt returns filling in for James. Meanwhile, last year’s untested defense became stronger as the season went on under coordinator Nick Aliotti. Can it take yet another step forward? All eyes will be on the Los Angeles Coliseum on November 3 when the Ducks travel to the Land of Troy.
US PRESSWIREQB Matt Barkley and the Trojans possess a dominant offense.
2. USC: Starter for starter, USC can line up with perhaps any team in the nation. The question will be whether its depth will be tested, specifically along the defensive line as it deals with having a smaller roster of scholarship players. This is a team that was playing better football than any other with the exception of LSU and Alabama when the 2011 regular season came to an end, so it has its sights set on a national title. Quarterback Matt Barkley is poised for a Heisman Trophy run, and the Trojans have the best receiver and possibly running back duo in the country. But can Monte Kiffin’s defense make another jump in its third year?
3. Stanford: The Cardinal begin the post-Andrew Luck era, but head coach David Shaw will continue to rely on a strong rushing attack and a sound defense to win games. And there are high hopes for redshirt junior quarterback Josh Nunes, who will make his first start when Stanford hosts San Jose State on Friday night. Offensive line is an issue with Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro gone, so the best O-Line haul in school history may need to develop quickly this fall.
4. Washington: Steve Sarkisian had a tremendous offseason wooing assistants Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon from Tennessee as well as Cal's Tosh Lupoi, one of the best recruiters in the country. The defense was wretched under Nick Holt, so there are high hopes for Wilcox, who led back-to-back strong Tennessee units the last two seasons. Offensively, quarterback Keith Price is a preseason Heisman Trophy darkhorse contender, but replacing Chris Polk will be awfully difficult. And this team will have to weather a brutal early-season schedule.
5. Utah: The Utes will enter their second season in the Pac-12 trying to build off of the momentum from their Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. They have a good amount of experience returning, and having a healthy Jordan Wynn at quarterback will help an offense that will now be run by youthful former Utes QB Brian Johnson, who replaces Norm Chow. Kyle Whittingham is one of the best head coaches in the nation, so the Utes will always be competitive no matter the conference. And they have a very good defensive line to lean on. This could be the surprise team of the Pac-12 this fall, especially if 'SC falters in the South division.
6. UCLA: I’ve been impressed with the way new head coach Jim L. Mora has come into Westwood and organized a committed staff that communicates well with one another. Mora and Co. were able to bring in a strong Class of 2012 when their backs were against the wall following a delayed hire, and now the question is whether that off-the-field success can carry over to Saturday afternoons. Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley will take over at quarterback after beating out veterans Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, and he has the skill set to thrive under offensive coordinator and quarterback guru Noel Mazzone. Meanwhile, end Datone Jones must help lead a defensive revival.
7. Cal: The Golden Bears seemingly underachieve each season, and some wonder if Jeff Tedford will need a big season in Berkeley to keep his job. The longtime Bears head coach is on the hot seat, so it’s a big year for Cal, which will play in a remodeled stadium. Quarterback Zach Maynard is coming off of a strong offseason, and he’ll have weapons around him led by stud receiver Keenan Allen and a deep running back corps. The defense is always sound at Cal, but can the offense be consistent enough from week to week?
8. Washington State: Former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach, who never missed the postseason while guiding the Red Raiders, could have the biggest first-year impact out of all the new head-coaching hires. Pullman is a similar town to Lubbock, and he has fit in quite well thus far. Meanwhile, quarterback Jeff Tuel has a lot of weapons at receiver, and former head coach Paul Wulff didn’t leave the cupboard bare. Can the defense make more strides and help Wazzu steal a win or two this fall?
9. Arizona: The Wildcats will continue to adjust to new head coach Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense, but quarterback Matt Scott has the talent to run this system. Plus, he ran this scheme in high school. The concern is whether he can stay healthy because this team will be in trouble if he goes down with injury. The biggest offseason coup for Rich Rod was getting defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel from West Virginia, something he was unable to do when he arrived at Michigan. Like Charlie Weis at Kansas, Rodriguez will only succeed if his team play defense. A healthy Jonathan McKnight in the secondary could do wonders for a defense that has question marks at linebacker and end.
10. Oregon State: Mike Riley’s Beavers have disappointed the last few seasons, and the injury bug has been just one of the reasons for the decline. But they return a ton of starters from last season, so the experience will be there in Corvallis this fall. Quarterback Sean Mannion should take another step in his development, Markus Wheaton should have a big year at receiver and depth at running back should make the offense solid — if the team could get better play from the O-Line.
11. Arizona State: Todd Graham departed Pitt after just one season and has taken over for Dennis Erickson in Tempe, and he’ll have a deep backfield running behind a good offensive line. But can the combination of Taylor Kelly and Mike Eubank work at quarterback? The team suffered key losses on defense, so the return of linebacker Brandon Magee will help. However, despite the fact that ASU underachieved last year, this team lost a lot of good talent.
12. Colorado: The Buffaloes ranked last in scoring offense and scoring defense in Jon Embree’s first season, but the second-year head coach continues to install his program in Boulder. Losing top receiver Paul Richardson to a blown knee this spring was crushing for this squad, but his recovery has been remarkable and should see the field at some point early this fall. Tony Jones will have to have a big year at running back. But besides end Chidera Uzo-Diribe, the defense is suspect at best.
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