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Pac-12 Spring Rankings: The Pretenders

We look at the bottom teams in the Pac-12, who are unlikely to challenge for their division's title

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Every conference has some teams that fail to challenge for the conference title during the season. Last season, the Pac-12 featured four teams that failed to make a bowl game: California (who has not made a bowl since 2011), Colorado (who has not made a bowl since 2007, when they were in the Big XII Conference), Oregon State, and Washington State. Those four teams again figure to be towards the bottom in 2015. Oregon State was also the only Pac-12 team to change head coaches in the offseason after former head coach Mike Reilly left for the head coaching job at Nebraska and was replaced by former Wisconsin head coach Gary Anderson. Coaching changes can lead to success, but they can also take time for the new coach's system to get installed. Two of these four teams (Oregon State and Washington State) are replacing record setting quarterbacks. These teams are ranked the lowest because they have the most questions and/or the least returning talent. Things will begin to become more clear after spring practices, but here is an early look at the potential bottom of the conference in 2015.

8. California, last season 9, 17 position starters returning (8 offense, 9 defense)

Cal is a team that looks poised to move up in the Pac-12 North in 2015. They return the second most starters in the Pac-12. Cal lost four games in 2014 by one score or less, which means there is a solid chance for improvement the next season. Cal struggled to stop teams in 2014, possessing the Pac-12's worst total and scoring defense. Offensively, Cal was excellent, finishing second in scoring offense (behind Oregon) and third in total offense.

This projection assumes that Cal's defense will actually stop opponents occasionally in 2015 with nine starters returning. Cal did make progress on defense from 2013 to 2014, so if they can continue to improve, they could move up in the Pac-12 standings. With their Bear Raid offense, Cal will score points and put up yards. Quarterback Jared Goff is back for his junior season and could have a breakout year. He will likely challenge USC's Kessler for best quarterback in the conference. Goff will have plenty of weapons around him as well. He has leading rusher Daniel Lasco (who ran for over 1,000 yards in 2014) and all of his receivers back. Three starters on the offensive line return as well. The major knock on Cal is whether their defense can be good enough to generate enough stops, so their offense does not have to score 45+ points per game to win (they gave up 44.1 points per game in conference in 2014).

9. Washington, last season 8, position starters returning 10 (6 offense, 4 defense)

The first year under head coach Chris Petersen was a disappointment for Husky fans. With the returning talent, easy nonconference schedule (13 game season), and Petersen's reputation from his days at Boise State, most fans expected the Huskies to win 10 games in the regular season and at least challenge Oregon/Stanford for the top of the Pac-12 North. Instead, the Huskies finished 8-6, 4-5 in the Pac-12, their worst mark since 2009. Washington's offense struggled in 2014 (finishing ninth in scoring and tied for tenth in total offense), but their defense was solid (third in scoring and sixth in total defense).

In 2015, the Huskies return the fewest starting position players of any Pac-12 team. They are hit especially hard on defense, losing All-American defensive tackle Danny Shelton, unanimous All-American linebacker/defense end Hau'oli Kikaha (led nation in total sacks), Paul Hornung Award winning All-American linebacker/running back Shaq Thompson, and defensive end Andrew Hudson (who finished fourth in the Pac-12 in total sacks). Thompson was the biggest playmaker on defense. He scored four defensive touchdowns, which was more than 96 FBS teams. It was not just his playmaking ability on defense; he also provided a spark on offense as a running back.

The Huskies will have depth at quarterback with five former four-star recruits. In 2014, three different quarterbacks started at least one game. Cyler Miles saw the most action with twelve starts. Miles has above average athleticism but a weak arm and poor velocity on his throws. Jeff Lindquist started the first game of the season (with Miles serving a suspension) and struggled. Troy Williams started against ASU (Miles was out with a concussion) and struggled (though the weather was horrible and both offenses struggled to move the ball). Many UW fans are hopeful either redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels or true freshman (early enrollee) Jake Browning can win the job from the incumbent Miles. UW also has depth at running back with leading rushers Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman both returning. Losses along the offensive line (only one starter returning) will likely make life difficult for the offense especially early in the season (in 2014 UW returned all five starting offensive linemen and had the most returning starts in the Pac-12).

With the losses of players (especially on defense and the offensive line), the Huskies are likely to regress in terms of record even if the team makes progress in the second season under Petersen.

10. Washington State, last season 10, 14 position starters returning (7 offense, 7 defense)

After making a bowl in 2013, Cougar fans expected progress in 2014, but they were disappointed. WSU finished 3-9 on the year and fifth in the Pac-12 North. Head coach Mike Leach's style of football just does not seem like it will ever allow WSU to move up from the bottom of the Pac-12 North. His teams do not run the football or play defense. This allows other teams to come back on them (see 2013 New Mexico Bowl). He also takes too many risks, going for fourth downs in situations most other coaches would not. WSU does return all five offensive linemen from last season, but they only return one starting wide receiver from 2014 (though they will get Gabe Marks back), and they will have a new starting quarterback. Leach will be able to plug players into his system and get production but not enough to make up for a poor defense.

11. Colorado, last season 12, 16 position starters returning (7 offense, 9 defense)

How can Colorado be ranked anywhere but 12 you may ask after they failed to win a game in the Pac-12 in 2014. Well, teams that lose a lot of close games tend to perform better in 2015. Colorado lost two games in double overtime in 2014 (against Cal and UCLA) and fell to OSU and Utah one score. Colorado may not contend for the Pac-12, but they should show signs of improvement in head coach Mike MacIntyre's third season in Boulder. Quarterback Sefo Liufau showed some promise in 2014. He also gets top target wide receiver Nelson Spruce (who finished third in receiving yards per game and tied for first in receiving touchdowns in 2014) back for his senior season. Colorado is also tied for the third most starters returning in the Pac-12. Though Colorado finished 11th in the Pac-12 in defense (both total and scoring), they return nine starters, including linebacker Addison Gillam, so their defense should improve (they showed growth from 2013 to 2014).

12. Oregon State, last season 11, 11 position starters returning (9 offense, 2 defense)

The Beavers have the second fewest players returning (Washington has the least) and finished last in the Pac-12 North in 2014. The Beavers won three games by one score or less and lost two (including one in double overtime). This does not point to an improvement or regression in 2015. While Oregon State returns 9 offensive starters, they finished dead last in scoring offense and ninth in total offense in 2014. They also lose their best offensive player in quarterback Sean Mannion. Oregon State lost their coaching staff when former head coach Mike Riley bolted for Nebraska. New head coach Gary Anderson comes to OSU from Wisconsin. He stole several coaches from Utah in defensive coordinator Kalani Sitaki and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki. They will have their work cut out for them to rebuild the Oregon State defense. The offense does return all five offensive line starters and running backs Terron Ward and Storm Woods. With Anderson's background of smash mouth football at Wisconsin, he will likely improve on OSU's 11th best rushing offense from 2014. The OSU offense should improve but not more than the defense slips with all of the talent that graduated. The Beavers have the most question marks heading into spring camp and as such are ranked last.

Returning starter numbers are based on this chart from Phil Steele.