Picking the Pac-12 before media day

COUGARS

Pac-12 media day begins Friday in Los Angeles, and we'll have our usual coverage once the festivites begin at Sony Studios.

Until then, here's the Pac-12 preseason ballot I filed last week …


NORTH

1. Oregon — Seems pretty hard to argue with this pick. The Ducks return some solid defensive experience, and quarterback Marcus Mariota looks to build off one of the most impressive freshman seasons in recent memory. Paired with De'Anthony Thomas, Mariota leads an offense that will lead the transition from Chip Kelly to new coach Mark Helfrich. Here's one guess that the coaching change won't make much difference.

2. Stanford — The Cardinal lose Stepfan Taylor and Zach Ertz, but return linebacker Shayne Skov and a quarterback, Kevin Hogan, who showed quite a bit of potential last season. Many thought Stanford might take a step back last season with the loss of Andrew Luck, but it didn't. And I think David Shaw will have his squad ready to defend its Pac-12 title this season.

3. Washington — The middle portion of this division was a tough one for me to pick, but I think the Huskies return enough offensive firepower — Bishop Sankey, Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and fifth-year senior quarterback Keith Price — to justify some optimism. And the defense returns pretty much everyone (except cornerback Desmond Trufant) from what was a solid unit last year.

4. Oregon State — Mike Riley again has a decision to make at quarterback, with Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz both legitimately in the fold. There's reason to think the Beavers could again be a contender here, as they surprisingly were last year. But replacing Jordan Poyer in the defensive backfield will be difficult, and don't overlook the loss of receiver Markus Wheaton.

5. California — Lots of unanswered questions for the Bears, not the least of which is who will start at quarterback. I was tempted to slot Washington State here. But it seems to me that Cal may have more pieces on hand who can immediately assimilate into coach Sonny Dykes' offense, even if the Bears might struggle again this season.

6. Washington State — There's a part of me that feels I'll regret this pick, since WSU is pretty well-stocked at receiver and returns nearly all of its defensive contributors from last season. But questions remain about the offensive line and at quarterback, which means the Cougars currently remain in the believe-it-when-I-see-it category. Those first two trips to Auburn and USC will tell quite a bit.

SOUTH

1. UCLA — If you believe Brett Hundley is a star — and I do — it's hard to pick against the defending division champs this season. Plus, the Bruins also have linebacker Anthony Barr, who is perhaps the best defensive player in the conference. Replacing running back Johnathan Franklin will be a task, but the Bruins never lack for talent.

2. Arizona State — Taylor Kelly returns at quarterback to lead what was already one of the most fast-paced offenses in the country last season. The Sun Devils were impressive in Todd Graham's first season as coach, and a superior encore seems to be the expectation in Tempe. To ASU's advantage: no game against Oregon this year. But they must make trips to Stanford and UCLA.

3. USC — Plenty of pressure in Los Angeles to start the season, with Lane Kiffin likely on the hot seat. The Trojans need to decide on a quarterback — true freshman Max Browne has a shot at the job — and implement a new defense under coordinator Clancy Pendergast. The Trojans have plenty of high-caliber talent on hand. But that didn't mean much during last season's disappointing finish.

4. Arizona — Never count out a team coached by Rich Rodriguez, who has at his disposal Ka'Deem Carey, the nation's leading rusher in 2012. Jake Fischer headlines a defense that must improve greatly from its miserable showing last season. Oh, and the Wildcats need to settle on a quarterback, too.

5. Utah — The Utes at least have a handle on their quarterback situation, with Travis Wilson back as a true sophomore. But running back John White is gone, as is stud defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and a chunk of last season's starting offensive line. Maybe new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson has a trick or two up his sleeve.

6. Colorado — Probably going to be a long while before the Buffaloes can hope to compile a winning season. First year under new coach Mike MacIntyre will be more about setting a foundation than anything else.

Christian Caple can be reached at christianc@spokesman.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple

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