Updated Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 10:01 PM
Take a bow, Pac-12 Conference. Conventional wisdom always held that if USC wasn't a big player, the league couldn't really be taken seriously.
But you just proved that wrong. The Trojans finished 7-5 (just like Syracuse and Western Kentucky), yet that didn't keep the conference from having a big-time football season. Seven different programs appeared in the rankings (six at one time), and two of them should be in BCS bowl games, something that rarely happened while USC was riding herd under Pete Carroll.
No, it wasn't the SEC, but it was better than any other league.
Now, a preposterously early look at 2013 (forecast subject to change upon whim and wind direction):
Starters back — 17 (eight offensive, nine defensive). Cardinal had 10 first- or second-team All-Pac-12 players, and depending on a couple of early-out possibilities, should have about five back. That doesn't include those stud offensive linemen signed in February. Quarterback Kevin Hogan will just keep getting better.
Starters back — 15 (eight offensive, seven defensive). Much of this is based on the notion that coach Chip Kelly leaves. If that happens, a lot of what materializes at Oregon depends on how much he uproots the Pac-12's most tenured staff. QB Marcus Mariota is the best at Oregon in a while, but guys like Kenjon Barner, Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso leave holes.
Starters back — 18 (10 offensive, eight defensive). Huskies have pointed to 2013 as the year it all happens, and with a new stadium, the return of some injured players and five home conference games, it could. But the road schedule — Arizona State, Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA — looks rugged, and the Huskies will have to be a lot less casual than they looked in the Apple Cup.
4. Oregon State
Starters back — 15 (eight offensive, seven defensive). Lots returning, but also some key losses that will be hard to plug, including Markus Wheaton, Jordan Poyer and the defensive tackles. But it's obvious Mike Riley has the thing up and purring again.
5. Washington State
Starters back — 18 (nine each way). If you believe Mike Leach, some of those starters may be on an FCS roster next season. The guess here is that the second year of the system will have fewer potholes than the first, and most of a developing defensive front is back. Will the offense get moving?
Starters back — 15 (eight offensive, seven defensive). Tough to project the Bears without a coach. Whoever he is, he figures to turn over the quarterback job to local product Zach Kline. It would help if junior receiver Keenan Allen sticks around.
Starters back — 13 (seven offensive, six defensive). Everything's looking up in Westwood — the new staff is perking and there's an all-star quarterback (Brett Hundley) in the oven. However, the schedule includes five road league games, including Stanford and Oregon, and standout linebacker Anthony Barr — a projected mid-first-round NFL pick — figures to be gone.
Starters back — 17 (nine offensive, eight defensive). Robert Woods and Silas Redd will no doubt explore the NFL, while Troy gets back defensive end Devon Kennard from a chest-muscle injury. There will be talent, but also lots of questions, including possible defensive staff changes and a new quarterback.
3. Arizona State
Starters back — 14 (six offensive, eight defensive). Sun Devils will miss linebacker Brandon Magee, and it's iffy whether Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton returns. But they're established at quarterback with Taylor Kelly and explosive at running back. They need receiver help.
Starters back — 17 (six offensive, 11 defensive). The Rich Rodriguez regime began positively, and progression depends on the level of quarterbacking — probably from 2012 backup B.J. Denker — following Matt Scott. Ka'Deem Carey led the nation in rushing with 1,757 yards. Finding a pass-rusher is a priority.
Starters back — 13 (five offensive, eight defensive). Utes have had comeuppance since they entered the league, going 7-11 — and they never had to play Oregon or Stanford. Advancement hinges on whether the offense graduates to Pac-12-caliber behind QB Travis Wilson. Nose guard Star Lotulelei, No. 3 on Mel Kiper's NFL draft board, departs.
Starters back — 17 (10 offensive, seven defensive). Questions abound here, not only about Jon Embree's successor, but whether the Buffs are in it to win financially. They'll go in without a proven quarterback, but do welcome back receiver Paul Richardson from a knee injury.