As usual, expectations are high for the Pac-12.

The conference views itself as one of the best in the country and hopes to get its champion into the national title race.

It says a lot about the state of the conference, though, that the team favored to win it — Stanford — is in transition at several key spots.

"I think we have a chance to be a good team, but we're a team in flux with a lot of guys who have graduated, a lot of different positions," head coach David Shaw said.

Stanford recently named junior Ryan Burns as its new starter at quarterback, taking over for four-year starter Kevin Hogan. Despite inexperience at quarterback, the Cardinal were picked because they have Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey at running back, and they have a reputation for annually producing a top-notch offensive line and defense.

Stanford is certainly not an overwhelming favorite, though.

"It's a crapshoot," Shaw said. "You look at this conference, and we all understand it, and somebody, of course, has to be picked (to win). It's a sign of respect (to be picked), and I think it has a lot to do with (McCaffrey)."

As good as the Cardinal appear to be, they are one of seven teams in the conference breaking in a new starter at quarterback.

Last year's South division champion, USC, is loaded with talent, but new quarterback Max Browne has very little experience. Perennial power Oregon could once again turn to a graduate transfer from an FCS school, Dakota Prukop. Arizona State doesn't have a single quarterback on the roster that has thrown a pass in a Division I game.


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The transition at quarterback could open the door for teams like Washington, UCLA or even Washington State.

Sophomore Jake Browning had a good season for Washington last year. If he takes a step forward, the Huskies could be difficult to beat because they've one of the Pac-12's best defenses and a 1,30-yard rushing in Myles Gaskin.

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen is already one of the best in the country, despite being a true sophomore. He showed his youth at times last year, but was brilliant at other times. He gives the Bruins a chance for a great season.

Few expect Washington State to win the conference, but talented passer Luke Falk gives the Cougars a chance to match or exceed last year's win total of nine.

If Prukop comes in and plays well, Oregon will battle for the title, as well.

A year ago, the Pac-12 missed out on the four-team national championship playoff. Whether the conference gets back there this year remains to be seen, but even with the questions at quarterback throughout the league, coaches have no doubt it'll be one of the toughest in the country once again.

"There seems to be a lot of balance in the league, a lot of outstanding players individually, and it's competitive," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "With the nine-game conference schedule, we'll be beating each other up every week for the entire season, but we'll see what happens."

Team-by-team analysis

Teams listed in predicted order of division finish from the Pac-12 preseason media poll.

SOUTH DIVISION

UCLA

Coach: Jim Mora, 5th season (37-16)

2015: 8-5, 5-4 Pac-12; lost to Nebraska, 37-29, in Foster Farms Bowl

3 Key players: QB Josh Rosen, So.; DT Eddie Vanderdoes, Jr.; DB Jaleel Wadood, Jr.

Outlook: The Bruins had higher expectations last year. This year, the expectations are there again, and they might be more equipped to meet them. Rosen now has a year under his belt and could be one of the best quarterbacks in the country. They need to establish a new set of playmakers on offense, but the talent is there. Defensively, almost everybody is back and the Bruins should be better. UCLA doesn't face North contenders Oregon and Washington and should be in contention for the Pac-12 title.

USC

Coach: Clay Helton, 2nd season (6-4)

2015: 8-6, 6-3 Pac-12; lost to Wisconsin, 23-21, in Holiday Bowl

3 Key players: DB/KR Adoree' Jackson, Jr.; LB Cameron Smith, So.; WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jr..

Outlook: Somehow, the Trojans reached the Pac-12 title game last year despite a mid-season coaching change. Helton is in his first full season as the head coach, and his first task of getting new quarterback Max Browne up to speed as a starter. It helps that Browne has perhaps the best offensive line in the country, an All-American receiver in Smith-Schuster, and two 900-yard running backs. There's plenty of talent on defense, too. If Browne can play well the Trojans could challenge for the Pac-12 title.

Utah

Coach: Kyle Whittingham, 12th season (95-46)

2015: 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12; beat BYU, 35-28, in Las Vegas Bowl

3 Key players: OT J.J. Dielman, Sr.; DT Kylie Fitts, Sr.; DT Lowell Lotulelei, Jr.

Outlook: For the fourth time under Whittingham, the Utes posted a 10-win season in 2015. Repeating that might be difficult, though, as they lost all their playmakers on offense. The offensive line is one of the best in the Pac-12, however, and the defense is elite. It'll be tough to score on this team; the question is whether the Utes can score enough points to beat good opponents.

Arizona

Coach: Rich Rodriguez, 5th season (33-20; 153-104-2 career)

2015: 7-6, 3-6 Pac-12; beat New Mexico, 45-37, in New Mexico Bowl

3 Key players: LB Paul Magloire Jr., Sr.; QB Anu Solomon, Jr.; RB Nick Wilson, Jr.

Outlook: There are 14 starters back, but the Wildcats need a major improvement on defense if they are to contend for the division title. There's enough talent on offense, though, to post a winning record and secure a bowl trip for the fifth year in a row.

Arizona State

Coach: Todd Graham, 5th season (34-19; 83-48 career)

2015: 6-7, 4-5 Pac-12; lost to West Virginia, 43-42, in Cactus Bowl

3 Key players: LB Salamo Fiso, Sr.; RB Demario Richard, Jr.; WR Tim White, Sr.

Outlook: After back-to-back 10-win seasons, the Sun Devils had a disappointing season. This year, they have just 10 starters back and don't have a single quarterback on the roster that's thrown a pass in college. They might find a way to get to bowl eligibility, but it's going to be a challenge all year for this team.

Colorado

Coach: Mike MacIntyre, 4th season (10-27; 30-48 career)

2015: 4-9, 1-8 Pac-12

3 Key players: CB Chidobe Awuzie, Sr.; QB Sefo Liufau, Sr.; S Tedric Thompson, Sr.

Outlook: Colorado's nine-year bowl drought is the longest of any Power 5 conference team, but there's a firm belief in Boulder that the end of that drought is near. The Buffs boast more upperclassmen (56) since 2001 and bring a lot of experience back. They still need to prove they can turn close losses into wins, but the talent to do it is there.

NORTH DIVISION

Stanford

Coach: David Shaw, 6th season (54-13)

2015: 12-2; 8-1 Pac-12; beat Iowa, 45-16, in Rose Bowl

3 Key players: RB/KR Christian McCaffrey, Jr.; WR Michael Rector, Sr.; DL Solomon Thomas, Jr.

Outlook: Picked by the media to win the Pac-12 title, the Cardinal have plenty of talent to do that. McCaffrey was the Heisman Trophy runner-up last year and should be in the conversation again. The Cardinal tabbed junior Ryan Burns to take over at quarterback for the graduated Kevin Hogan. He'll need to play well to keep the offense moving. Defensively, this will once again to be a tough team to beat. Stanford could win the Pac-12 and contend for national playoff spot.

Washington

Coach: Chris Petersen, 3rd season (15-12; 107-24 career)

2015: 7-6, 4-5 Pac-12; beat Southern Miss, 44-31, in Heart of Dallas Bowl

3 Key players: S Budda Baker, Jr.; QB Jake Browning, So.; CB Sidney Jones, Jr.

Outlook: The Huskies have been a good team for several years, but they appear ready to go to another level. There are 15 starters back, including Browning, running back Myles Gaskin (1,302 yards last year), and several of the Pac-12's best defenders. It'll be difficult to score on this team, especially through the air. If Browning takes another step forward in his sophomore season, this is a complete team with the ability to win the Pac-12.

Oregon

Coach: Mark Helfrich, 4th season (33-8)

2015: 9-4, 7-2 Pac-12; lost to TCU, 47-41 (3 OT), in Alamo Bowl

3 Key players: RB Royce Freeman, Jr.; WR/KR Charles Nelson, Jr.; DB Tyree Robinson, Jr.

Outlook: The Ducks had seven consecutive 10-win seasons before last year. Trying to figure out if they'll get back to that level is difficult. For the second year in a row, they'll have a new quarterback, and still don't know who that'll be. They also lost seven starters on a defense that struggled last year. New defensive coordinator Brady Hoke could make a difference, though. Despite the questions, there's enough talent at Oregon to contend for the Pac-12 title again.

Washington State

Coach: Mike Leach, 5th season (21-29; 105-72 career)

2015: 9-4, 6-3 Pac-12; beat Miami, 20-14, in Sun Bowl

3 Key players: QB Luke Falk, Jr.; WR Gabe Marks, Sr.; LB Peyton Pelluer, Jr.

Outlook: Last season, the Cougars took a big leap forward, going from three wins in 2014 to nine. Falk gives them a chance to put together another great season, and Leach has the tools in place to keep winning in Pullman. To get better, though, the Cougars have to figure out a way to play better on defense. This may not be a Pac-12 title team, but it's certainly a team that can win eight or nine games and go to a bowl once again.

California

Coach: Sonny Dykes, 4th season (14-23; 36-38 career)

2015: 8-5, 4-5 Pac-12; beat Air Force, 55-36, in Armed Forces Bowl

3 Key players: G Chris Borrayo, Sr.; RB Khalfani Muhammad, Sr.; QB Davis Webb, Sr.

Outlook: The Bears broke a four-year bowl drought last season, but then lost QB Jared Goff to the NFL, lost their top six receivers and had their best defensive player (Hardy Nickerson) transfer to Illinois. Webb, who transferred from Texas Tech, will help to keep the Bears competitive, but there are a lot of holes to fill. Reaching a second consecutive bowl game might be difficult.

Oregon State

Coach: Gary Andersen, 2nd season (2-10; 51-48 career)

2015: 2-10, 0-9 Pac-12

3 Key players: WR Victor Bolden, Sr.; QB Darell Garretson, Jr.; DE Baker Pritchard, Jr.

Outlook: The Beavers are still in transition mode as they enter Andersen's second season. After a season of turmoil at quarterback, they should be settled there with Garretson, a transfer from Utah State. Bolden and Jordan Villamin are top-notch targets at receiver. Overall, though, this is a team that has a ways to go.

Brian Howell: howellb@dailycamera.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.