Stanford enjoyed a resurgence to end the 2014 season, but the Cardinal have their work cut out for them if they intend to carry that success over into 2015. The offense, of course, must show that it can consistently maintain the standard it reached during the final stretch. But it's the Stanford defense that's losing the most talent to graduation.

Position to improve: Defensive line. For the first time in several years, Stanford loses all its starters from the backbone of its defense -- Henry Anderson, David Parry and Blake Lueders are all gone. The Cardinal reloaded admirably following last season's departure of defensive star power, but they didn't have to replace all of their front-line strength. This is a new -- and perhaps more daunting -- challenge.

Why it was a problem: Parry, in particular, carried a massive part of the defensive load in 2014. The 305-pound lineman absorbed frequent double-teams, and that disrupted opposing offenses while opening things up for the rest of the Stanford defense. But Parry missed some time because of injury, and the otherwise dominant Cardinal defense immediately struggled (remember their troubles against Arizona State and Oregon). That's because Stanford's depth behind Parry was severely lacking -- a combination of bad luck (see Ikenna Nwafor's career-ending foot injury) and recruiting misses meant that true freshman Harrison Phillips, still about 40 pounds underweight for the position, was forced into premature action. With Parry and his fellow fifth-year senior starters now gone, Stanford's suspect defensive line depth is naturally shifting into the starting spotlight, so the need for improvement there is urgent.

How it can be fixed: This is a particularly critical offseason for revered sports performance director Shannon Turley and defensive line coach Randy Hart. If Stanford is going to have enough capable bodies to maintain success up front, Turley and Hart must succeed in further developing rising sophomores Phillips and Solomon Thomas, both of whom were touted recruits. They'll also have to maximize the productivity of seniors Aziz Shittu and Luke Kaumatule, two physical specimens who haven't yet blossomed to their full potential.

Early 2015 outlook: The Cardinal are in a precarious situation. They've developed many players remarkably well in the past several years, but they've also missed on some, and there's absolutely no margin for error in the defensive line room this offseason. This unit forms the bedrock of Stanford's 3-4 scheme, and it's losing a trio of fifth-year stalwarts who have provided toughness and blue-collar continuity within the program since the Jim Harbaugh days. The optimist will see this as a true opportunity for a new crop of trench talent to establish itself as the Cardinal's backbone at the line of scrimmage; the pessimist will predict that Stanford's well of beefy talent is running dry. This offseason will determine who's right, as the improvement of the Cardinal's defensive line talent represents a true hinge point.

Pac-12 morning links

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
9:00
AM ET
So, Peter, you've become a pirate.

Leading off:

Super Bowl media day has come and gone. With it there were a few notable appearances and quotes by some former Pac-12 players (there are 18 former conference players and five former conference coaches between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots). Notes/team updates/recruiting nuggets:
Just for fun:

On Tuesday, Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici and safety Jordan Simone attended Super Bowl media day to add to some of azcentral.com's coverage of the event. We'll have a story later on today with Bercovici's thoughts on the day and his advice to other reporters (now that he has such a deep understanding of the profession), but as a preview to some of the in-depth and exclusive content you'll get from the Bercovici-Simone media team, check out this tweet:



We're sure it was enlightening. Someone get this man a Pulitzer.

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
10:00
AM ET
video
It was a busy weekend in the conference, as 14 prospects made commitments between Friday and Monday night and several others backed out of Pac-12 recruiting classes. It looks as though this could be a sign of things to come, as the conference recruiting race is heating up with little more than a week until signing day.

Pac-12 morning links

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
9:00
AM ET
Booked a ticket for tomorrow in Tempe
3 a.m., doing cartwheels down the hallway

Leading off:

Jack Follman over at Pacific Takes broke down the rosters of this weekend's Super Bowl teams to find out where the Seahawks and Patriots are finding their talent. His findings are very College Football Playoff-y. Here's the breakdown, by Power Five conference: 1. Big Ten, 26; 2. Pac-12, 25; 3. SEC, 22; 4. ACC, 13; 5. Big 12, 9. In all, 11 Pac-12 teams were represented, with Washington State being the lone exception. The full list of players, broken down by team, can be found at the link.

Here are a few other Super Bowl-related items as they relate to the Pac-12: News/notes/team reports:
Just for fun:

Two groups of alums from USC's School of Cinematic Arts are finalists in Doritos’ “Crash the Super Bowl” contest, which has been pared down to 10 finalists. The winner, chosen by an Internet vote, will have their 30-second commercial shown during the Super Bowl and earn a $1 million prize. You can vote here.

Here are the commercials from USC's two groups:

Middle Seat

Lemonade Stand

Pac-12 recruiting class breakdowns

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
4:30
PM ET

Here's a look at how programs in the Pac-12 are faring on the recruiting trail heading into national signing day on Feb. 4.

Arizona

Commitments: 28

ESPN 300 commitments: 1

Who they have: The Wildcats hit it big with their top two commitments in ESPN 300 offensive tackle Keenan Walker and ESPN JC 50 defensive tackle Anthony Fotu. Arizona also will add four-star tackle Cody Creason, three-star tackle Harper Sherman and three-star guards Alex Kosinski and Nathan Eldrige to the offensive line. There are a number of skill players on both sides of the ball, including running backs Orlando Bradford and Darick Holmes Jr., cornerbacks Shun Brown, Anthony Mariscal, Samuel Morrison and Dane Cruikshank, wide receiver Cedric Peterson and athletes Antonio Parks and Brion Anduze.

Who they want: There aren't many spots left in this class for the Wildcats, but there are a few important names left on the board. The wide receiver spot could see another addition with Jaylinn Hawkins, though rival Arizona State will put up a fight there. Arizona also will look to continue its run of success in Louisiana, as teammates Arthur McGinnis and Darrell Clark (New Orleans/Warren Easton) are two of the top prospects left for the Wildcats, as well as teammates of Arizona commit Kendal Franklin.



To read the rest of our Pac-12 recruiting class breakdowns, click here Insider.

More breakout players to watch in 2015 

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
11:12
AM ET
On Friday, we rolled out the top 10 breakout players to watch in 2015. But we have 15 more, including two more Big 12 quarterbacks (for a total of four), the next great defender at Michigan State and, like our No. 1 breakout choice, USC’s Adoree Jackson, a return game ace.

Check out the first 10 players, then read about the next 15:

11. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB
Trevor Knight was a buzzy Heisman candidate last spring, yet rival coaches were talking about whether Mayfield, if he were eligible in 2014, would overtake him. It was made moot because the Texas Tech transfer didn’t get his waiver to play, but Knight’s up-and-down season has certainly opened the door for competition.

With an Air Raid-based offensive coordinator in Lincoln Riley coming in, Mayfield is perfectly suited to take over -- and flourish -- as QB1 in Norman.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Pac-12 morning links

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
9:00
AM ET
And in the morning, I'm making' waffles.

Leading off:

The 2015 Senior Bowl has come and gone, and there were plenty of great showings from Pac-12 players. Here's a brief compilation of some of the content you can find regarding the event:
  • CBSSports' Senior Bowl stock report of 10 players who looked good -- one Beaver shows up on this list and it's not the one you're thinking of ...
  • FOX Sports made a list of guys who helped their NFL draft stock the most. On this listing you've got a Husky and a Ute (these are probably the ones you're thinking of).
  • Sports Illustrated had some similar praise to that of FOX Sports. SI's Chris Burke writes that "[Danny] Shelton's showing for the North team solidified his status as a likely first-round pick."
  • The Atlanta Journal Constitution put together a photo gallery of the weekend.
  • Former Wazzu receiver Vince Mayle does a video interview for the Senior Bowl.
  • Former UCLA defensive lineman Owamagbe Odighizuwa also did a video interview at the Senior Bowl.
  • Catching up with Sean Mannion following the Senior Bowl.
  • Henry Anderson wrote six "diary" entries from AL.com during Senior Bowl week. You can check all of them out right here.
  • Nate Orchard picked up some MOP honors at the Senior Bowl.
News/notes/team reports:
Just for fun:

There was some #Pac12Trolling happening Sunday as former Arizona State defensive lineman Will Sutton decided to comment on Taylor Kelly and Jaelen Strong's autograph session. Always nice to see a few (fun) shots taken between teammates when it comes to this kind of stuff.

.

Also, if anyone has a chance, check out Sutton's photo at the top of his Twitter page. It's pretty fantastic. Especially if you're a fan of The Lion King ...
Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

Follow me on Twitter.

To the notes!

Andrew from Phoenix writes: Can this post-season please put to bed this obsession with "ranking" conferences? Here we are, a week after the season is ended, and we're debating whether the Pac-12 or SEC is the best conference in college football. For what it's worth they are 1 and 2, yet, the representatives of those conferences went 1-5 in the big games. So, then what is it really worth? The Big XII took an absolute nosedive as a whole, yet TCU had the second best postseason of all teams, and will be ranked in the Top 5 to start the season. Florida St got ragged all season for being in the "weak" ACC, whose #2 and #3 teams put an absolute shellacking on comparable teams from "stronger" conferences. The Big 10 is allegedly "back" after going 5-5 in the bowl season, but they only have 3 teams in the whole conference (Ohio St, Michigan St, and Wisconsin) with a prayer of finishing above 5th in the Pac South. Didn't seem to hurt Ohio St much against Oregon, did it? So, please try to convince me why it matters that Wisconsin beat Auburn, Stanford smoked Maryland, and Clemson crushed Oklahoma.

Ted Miller: To your first question, the answer is no. No, we can not put to bed this "obsession with 'ranking" conferences."

For one, it's necessary in college football, because we have to make subjective distinctions between teams that don't play each other. Whether it's the traditional national polls, the BCS system, or our new College Football Playoff, we have to rank teams, and how the conferences perform is one of the best ways -- the best way? -- we can do that.

Is it an exact science? No. Is it a way of conducting business that is laden with potential for bias and agenda? Absolutely.

Some, by the way, might argue that very subjectivity, an inescapable historical fact of college football, is one of the reasons the sport is so popular with its fans. Without an objective system -- such as large-scale playoffs used in pro sports -- a cherished U.S. institution therefore flourishes in college football: Endless, blathering debate, fueled by paranoia and manufactured offenses and cherry-picked "facts!"

It's a beautiful thing.

Another cherished institution is part of this: Regionalism. Due to the serendipity of a fan's or, often, a media member's birth location, that region becomes the source of all that is good and accomplished, and every other region is inferior, no matter how informed said fan or media member is on said other region. We all know from our present political reality that actually knowing stuff no longer matters and, in fact, can be a burden when debating with a louder and more pithy interlocutor.

But, hey, I'm not a scientist!

So the SEC fan thinks the Pac-12 is soft, and the Pac-12 fan thinks the Big Ten is slow, and the Big Ten fan things the Big 12 is finesse, and the Big 12 fan thinks the ACC is a basketball league, and the ACC fan thinks the SEC is overrated, etc., etc.

It. Will. Never. End.

And for that I am thankful.


Robert from New York writes: I've seen a lot of hype around USC for next season, and I'm not really sold on why. USC had a losing record against the Pac-12 South in 2014, including a blowout loss to UCLA. They're losing key players on both sides of the ball, and have a coach who has never won more than eight regular season games. Are sportswriters getting excited because they want a brand-name school to be elite, or am I missing something?

Ted Miller: Robert, you sound like some of my Pac-12 blogmates, so you are not alone in voicing some skepticism with the Trojans.

My case leads with this: Among its 16 returning position-player starters, USC welcomes back the most experienced, accomplished quarterback in the conference, Cody Kessler, and he will be playing behind an offensive line that will be the best in the Pac-12 (And USC fans should take heart for that 2016 opener against Alabama, because that should be an epic battle at the line of scrimmage between the Trojans and Crimson Tide). That offensive line welcomes back all five starters, led by senior, first-team-All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk, as well has a good crew of backups.

Sure, there are some big hits, particularly with early departures, such as defensive end Leonard Williams, receiver Nelson Agholor, and runing back Javorius Allen. USC is going to need some young guys to step up. But finding ready-to-play youngsters is rarely a problem for USC, and, oh by the way, Steve Sarkisian is well on his way to signing what could end up a top-five class.

It will also help that Trojans should be well into the 70s in terms of scholarship players next fall. Though they won't get close to the maximum 85 scholarship players permitted by NCAA rules in their first post-sanctions season, they will be far above the 60 or so they played with in 2014. This will be a much deeper team in Sarkisian's second season.

As for doubting Sark, that's not unreasonable. No, he hasn't won a national title or a conference title, or even 10 games in a season. Yes, there were some times during his first season in which the Trojans seemed poorly prepared, poorly motivated, and poorly coached. You, by the way, could also say the same about Oregon. And Ohio State and Alabama, which went 7-6 and lost to UL Monroe in Nick Saban's first year in Tuscaloosa.

But, from today's vantage point, USC looks like the team with the fewest big questions in the Pac-12, though UCLA and Oregon could quickly counter with impressive clarity at quarterback.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Trojans are in the CFP discussion late into the 2015 season.

Does the USC "brand" play a role in that perception? Probably. But brand names have been pretty good bets over the long haul in college football.


Michael from Corvallis, Ore., writes: With Gary Andersen's staff poaching several assistants and recruits from Utah, not to mention two consecutive games going into OT, is there a chance Utah-Oregon State becomes an actual rivalry?

Ted Miller: Maybe, but it won't be because of any ill-will between the coaching staffs. Andersen and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham are extremely close -- both have said that to me within the past calendar year, Whittingham just a few weeks ago.

Whittingham also doesn't begrudge defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake jumping to Oregon State, because he knows it was a wise move professionally in the short and long term, particularly if Sitaki wants to be a head coach, which he does. Sitake needs to spread his wings outside of what had become a comfort zone in Salt Lake.

Further, being in different divisions, the Utes and Beavers will have a two-year hiatus coming up as the schedule rotates in 2017-2018.

Utah's chief rival remains BYU. Hard to believe that will change anytime soon, and it will be good to see the renewal of the Holy War in 2016. The Utes will develop Pac-12 rivalries, particularly in the South Division. But it will take time for ill-will and turf-wars to develop.

But Michael, if Utah/Oregon State is particularly annoying you, have at those dastardly Utes/Beavers (don't want to assume your preference just because you live in Corvallis).


Wayne from Mesa, Ariz., writes: With the 2014-15 Bowl Season all wrapped up, I was wondering what your thoughts were and what feedback you may have heard with regard to the new bowl lineup for the PAC-12. Granted, it was more of a tweak over the previous 4 years, but still featured new venues (Santa Clara and Tempe), new opponents (2 Big Ten teams), a slight change in the pecking order (Sun Bowl moved down, Foster Farms up), and of course, altered timing to allow for the New Year's Six. I attended the Sun Bowl, cheering on the Sun Devils. The local fan turnout and community support for that game in El Paso was very impressive! I am a bit concerned about the on-going PAC-12 fan support and enthusiasm for the Cactus Bowl. One wonders if this looks like just a late season PAC-12 road game. Local Phoenix news featured mostly Oklahoma State stories, and thank goodness the Big 12 team once again brought a big group of fans and much excitement to Tempe.

Ted Miller: The Pac-12 bowl lineup is about as good as it can be. Pretty nice mix of games against the ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12. Certainly the Pac-12 bowls have upgraded under commissioner Larry Scott.

I know some grumble about the bowl lineup. They want a matchup with an SEC team or a bowl game in Florida, but the SEC has a great bowl lineup, and Florida doesn't have much interest in bringing a Pac-12 team across the country. It's a choice of the marketplace, not due to managerial incompetence with the Pac-12 or some conspiracy of forces to keep the Pac-12 down.

Of course, if there's a business person on the West Coast who wants to offer up a $5 million per-team payout to lure a top SEC team across the country for a new bowl game against a Pac-12 team, I'm sure the SEC and Pac-12 would listen.
This past season, Stanford's offensive productivity tumbled to its lowest levels since the pre-Andrew Luck era, but there's a sense of optimism coming from the program that 2015 can be a big one for the Cardinal.

At face value, those two components seem to be incompatible, especially since there's very little room for an infusion of fresh talent, as the Cardinal return almost all pieces of the very same offense that struggled throughout most of 2014.

But this evaluation -- and the outlook for next season -- is more complex than that. A lack of talent isn't the real issue; this particular Stanford situation is more about the team's ability to properly maximize its productivity, something that eventually happened last season after the Cardinal had lost five games.

Quarterback Kevin Hogan salvaged his season with three strong closing performances against California, UCLA, and Maryland. The journey was likely more difficult than anyone on the outside realized: Hogan's father had been suffering from illness throughout the course of the season and passed away in early December.

Stanford's successful final act might not convince the naysayers -- only five teams nationally surrendered more points than Cal, while UCLA and Maryland also didn't feature true defensive juggernauts -- but it represented a massive turnaround from the team's struggles during the first 10 games of the season.

Stanford had struggled to adapt to their lack of a power running back, but the staff finally achieved rushing success with smaller -- yet more explosive -- weapons. In the closing run, true freshman Christian McCaffrey enjoyed at least five field-stretching plays per game (12 against UCLA), and Remound Wright shouldered the load near the goal line to address a red-zone efficiency problem, scoring nine of his 11 touchdowns in the final three games.

With the running game revived, Hogan was able to rediscover success off playaction. His stellar 16-for-19, 234-yard performance against the Bruins sparked a 180-degree reversal of narrative entering the offseason: Stanford's offense could survive without a 220-plus pound power back, after all.

Now, it must be noted that the 31-10 pummeling of UCLA was the only game in which Stanford's offense enjoyed real success against a top-25 team. Their scoring output that afternoon was 21 points above their season average in regulation against ranked opponents. Conventional wisdom warns us to be wary of a potential one-game fluke, but the offense's success was built on a stable foundation that can be replicated in the future.

Proof of that lies in the ground attack: The Cardinal amassed over 200 yards rushing in the last three games after not reaching that threshold a single time throughout the first 10. For a run-first offense, that helps generate balanced, methodical success.

Moving forward, it's about being consistently efficient.

The Cardinal still boast a powerful line capable of dominating at the point of attack to go along with versatile weapons that can create match-up headaches on the outside. It's about properly utilizing that talent, and a confident Hogan gives Stanford a chance to do that.

Here's an early, pre-spring practice, position-by-position look at likely starters and key pieces for the Cardinal offense next season:

Quarterback
Starter: Kevin Hogan
Reserves: Keller Chryst, Ryan Burns, Evan Crower

Outlook: David Shaw has all but indicated that Hogan will be Stanford's starter in his fifth year on campus. The coach has frequently praised Crower, last season's second-stringer, for his command of the playbook, but one would expect Chryst, a highly regarded redshirt freshman, to emerge as the primary backup. One interesting question here: Will Shaw insert Chryst into the lineup in an occasional package role? That's how Hogan got his feet wet in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDevon Cajuste
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsDevon Cajuste will be the focal point of Stanford's passing game after a fast finish to 2014.
Backfield
RB: Remound Wright/Barry Sanders
ATH: Christian McCaffrey, Kelsey Young
FB: Patrick Skov, Daniel Marx

Outlook: Wright might only weigh about 200 pounds, but he did serious damage in short-yardage situations at the end of 2014. There's solid mix-and-match potential here with McCaffrey's explosiveness, Sanders' elusiveness, and Young's pure speed, but Stanford can't get carried away with a by-committee approach. As the end of last season showed, McCaffrey needs to get touches for this offense to thrive -- a lot of them.

Receivers
X WR: Devon Cajuste
Z WR: Michael Rector/Francis Owusu
Y TE: Austin Hooper
F TE: Eric Cotton/Greg Taboada

Outlook: Stanford loses Ty Montgomery, one of the Pac-12's most dangerous weapons. But the Cardinal excelled without him in the final three games, a testament to the match-up nightmare Cajuste (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) presents in conjunction with Rector's speed. The tight end position emerged late, too, and should make its full return for Stanford next season: Don't forget that Dalton Schultz, the nation's top tight end prospect in the 2014 class, will likely break into the mix, too.

Offensive line
LT: Kyle Murphy
LG: Joshua Garnett
C: Graham Shuler
RG: Johnny Caspers
RT: Casey Tucker

Outlook: Andrus Peat is gone, and Stanford will plug another former five-star recruit (Tucker) into his spot. Murphy's versatility might encourage Mike Bloomgren to shift him to Peat's old spot on the left side (protecting Hogan's blindside), and Tucker would grab the right tackle spot in that case -- but that's just a guess heading into spring practice.

Pac-12 morning links

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
9:00
AM ET
You've gotta ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?

Call it, Friendo.

Two quotes today... because Happy Friday.

Leading off

In case you suffer from football withdrawals at any point this weekend, take solace in the fact that plenty of elite college talent will be suiting up for the Reese's Senior Bowl this Saturday. The Pac-12 is sending an entire gaggle of representatives to this game. Most will be representing the North team, but UCLA's Anthony Jefferson and Owamagbe Odighizuwa will play for the South.

There'll be a nasty collection of defensive line talent on the North team: Think Danny Shelton, Henry Anderson, Hau'oli Kikaha, and Nate Orchard -- all on the same unit. Seeing that group play together should create a fun dynamic for avid Pac-12 fans who have watched those players terrorize quarterbacks over the past few seasons.

On the other side of the ball, Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion may have a chance to throw to receivers from Stanford (Ty Montgomery) and Washington State (Vince Mayle).

Other Pac-12 representatives: Hayes Pullard and Josh Shaw (USC), Eric Rowe (Utah), Damarious Randle and Jamil Douglas (ASU)

This one will feature plenty of hustle, as it's the final live game opportunity for these seniors to raise their NFL Draft stock.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun
Did you know Ronnie Lott played basketball at USC? That guy needs to be on the football team. Sign him up!

It’s been a sensational three-year run for the Stanford defense, and 2014 brought yet another imposing push forward. The unit, arguably the program's best ever 2012 and very good again in 2013, actually improved this past season. In the end, the departures of Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner, Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds, and Josh Mauro -- all of which generated significant doubt prior to the season -- didn't slow down defensive coordinator Lance Anderson's freight train as it powered full steam ahead.

Stanford led the Pac-12 by sizable margins in every single noteworthy defensive category. The unit surrendered a measly 4.2 yards per play, a full yard better than the second-best defense in the conference. The 16.4 points per game that the team yielded: over a full touchdown better than the league runner-up.

Simply put, the Cardinal posted certifiably eye-popping numbers on the defensive end in 2014, and a brief look at this production doesn't seem to reconcile with the team's five losses. The defense delivered a championship-caliber campaign, but for most of the season, Stanford's offense and special teams didn't hold up their ends of the bargain.

This reality surprised many. Given the aforementioned loss of star power entering 2014, a popular preseason notion centered around the idea that the Stanford offense would have to up its productivity to pick up the slack for the team's projected looming defensive decay. That theory, of course, ended up falling flat on its face: The defense statistically improved -- so there was no slack to pick up -- and that actually saved Stanford from a truly precipitous fall, because the offense took sizable steps backward.

Moving forward to 2015, the Cardinal defense must replace eight starters. That conjures the money question: Is history repeating itself? When it comes to Stanford's future outlook, that familiar "the offense is going to have carry the weight" theory is resurfacing. There's a prevailing thought that the Cardinal defense will finally slip under the weight of turnover.

But since Anderson's unit so deftly shook off the losses of Murphy, Skov & Co. -- some of the best players in program history -- it might be time to entertain the notion that Stanford has become a defensive factory, a program that's discovered the elusive combination of right-fit recruiting and schematic effectiveness that unlocks consistency on the field even through turnover.

That notion -- we'll call it the "system defense theory" -- will be put to the test in 2015. Here's an early position-by-position look at how the puzzle pieces may come together for Stanford's defense. Remember that this is a very early look at projected starters and that spring practice should help add some clarity to the currently murky situation.

Defensive line
DE: Luke Kaumatule/Solomon Thomas
NT: Aziz Shittu/Harrison Phillips/Alex Yazdi
DE: Nate Lohn/Jordan Watkins

Outlook: For those who contend that Stanford's defense will suffer a drop-off in 2015, this is the position group that provides the most ammunition. The defensive line has been the foundational pillar of the Cardinal's dominant 3-4 defense, and this is the first time in several years that the program has had to replace all three starters up front. Six-foot-6 end Henry Anderson was one of the best players in the Pac-12, and nose tackle David Parry's block-gobbling 305-pound man strength was the centerpiece of the Stanford defense. When Parry and backup Aziz Shittu were both hurt this past season, the Cardinal's weakness showed: 255-pound true freshman Harrison Phillips was forced into action at the nose, and that 50-pound downgrade sent shockwaves throughout the defense.

The ability of sports performance director Shannon Turley to develop Parry's replacement may be Stanford's most critical battle this offseason: The early favorite to start here is the versatile Shittu, but it may be a by-committee effort. The Cardinal need the 6-foot-7, 276-pound Kaumatule to seize his potential in 2015.

Linebackers
OLB Kevin Anderson
ILB Blake Martinez
ILB Kevin Palma/Noor Davis
OLB Peter Kalambayi

Outlook: A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters are gone, but Stanford has recruited and developed the linebacker position extremely well. Vaughters' graduation means more time for Kalambayi, one of the most talented speed rushers in the Pac-12. Anderson has also developed into a force. Plenty of developing talents should have a shot to earn valuable playing time in the linebacker corps -- remember the names of Mike Tyler, Bobby Okereke and Joey Alfieri.

Secondary
CB Wayne Lyons
FS Zach Hoffpauir
SS Kodi Whitfield/Dallas Lloyd
CB Ronnie Harris/Terrence Alexander

Outlook: Given Alex Carter's early departure at the opposite corner position, Lyons' return for a fifth year was a big boost. His versatility allows him to slide over and provide a physical nickelback presence, an essential tool of the Stanford defense. Replacing strong safety Jordan Richards will be a major challenge. The Cardinal signed many talented defensive backs in their 2013 recruiting class. That batch will have had a year of development under their belts by 2015, so keep an eye out for names like Alexander, Brandon Simmons, Denzel Franklin, Alijah Holder, and Alameen Murphy. This is a critical "bridge" year for Duane Akina's unit, which has a very fair share of potential firepower.
Strength of schedule is an important part of the College Football Playoff selection process, and cross-league battles are a fun way to gauge the strength of each conference. Here's a look at the 2015 nonconference slate of the Pac-12 North. A look at the Pac-12 South's agenda is coming later today.

September 5
Eastern Washington at Oregon
Weber State at Oregon State
Washington at Boise State
Portland State at Washington State
Grambling State at California
Stanford at Northwestern

Weekend take: Don't forget the 2014 game in which Eastern Washington rolled up 52 points and 475 passing yards at Husky Stadium. The Eagles start their campaign at Autzen Stadium in 2015, so a reloading Oregon team must be sharp right out of bed -- they won't be kicking off their next season with the traditional cupcake gimme.

Chris Petersen's return to Boise supplies an early marquee nonconference battle. Washington's visit will be the Broncos' first game since their Fiesta Bowl victory over Arizona, so this is an early opportunity for the Pac-12 to exact some revenge for that defeat. It's tough to play on the blue turf, though, and the Huskies are confronted with enormous questions entering next season. Can they replace loads of star power on the defensive end, or can they find the offensive productivity to mask those big losses? The season opener will mark a trial by fire for Petersen's crew in his second year at the helm.

Stanford's trip to Northwestern pits two of the top academically performing programs in college football against each other. The Wildcats lead the nation with a 97 percent graduation rate, while the Cardinal aren't far behind at a stellar 93 percent. On the field, Stanford looks to have the definite edge, but this game is certainly a much bigger challenge than their 2014 opener against UC Davis.

September 12
Oregon at Michigan State
Oregon State at Michigan
Sacramento State at Washington
Washington State at Rutgers
San Diego State at California
Central Florida at Stanford

Weekend take: The action heats up in Week Two, as the Pac-12 North faces only one FCS opponent (Sacramento State). A trip to East Lansing promises to be an early sink-or-swim test for new Oregon quarterback Jeff Lockie. The Ducks must find their footing fast if they aspire to return to the College Football Playoff next season. Coincidentally, both schools from the Beaver State will play in Michigan on the same day. New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh will make his home debut against new Oregon State coach Gary Andersen in Ann Arbor. That promises to be a potential tone-setting game for two programs looking to get up off the mat under new regimes.

Washington State will have its chance for revenge against Rutgers following a heartbreaking loss in Seattle this past year, while Stanford kicks off a rather exotic home-and-home with Central Florida. The Knights are in the midst of a very successful stretch, so that could be a hard-hitting match-up against a Stanford team harboring high hopes entering 2015.

September 19
Georgia State at Oregon
San Jose State at Oregon State
Utah State at Washington
Wyoming at Washington State
California at Texas

Weekend take: As league play approaches, the North's nonconference slate in the season's third week isn't quite as illustrious as the Saturday prior. But there's still some sizzle here: Cal's visit to Texas will certainly remind Bears' fans of their 2004 BCS nightmare, when the Longhorns jumped their team in the final regular season rankings. This shut the Bears out of their best Rose Bowl chance in decades, and one can bet that this game means a little something extra to the program because of that whole episode. This also happens to be a critical game for Sonny Dykes' team, which will be gunning for bowl eligibility under its third-year coach.

In other action, Washington shouldn't sleep on Utah State -- the Aggies have been on a successful run of their own over the past few seasons.

November 28
Notre Dame at Stanford

Weekend take: This one is obviously very far away, but if Stanford proves it can maintain systematic defensive success while carrying over its late-season offensive spark into 2015, it may mean a whole heck of a lot. The Cardinal and the Irish have delivered dramatic finishes in two of the past three seasons, and Stanford will again be looking for revenge here. It should be noted that David Shaw's club has a strong 2015 nonconference schedule -- this clash with Notre Dame caps off a slate that also includes Northwestern and Central Florida.
The debate has already begun swirling in regard to Pac-12 play in 2015. So writers Chantel Jennings and David Lombardi sat down to debate what team is the early frontrunner in both the North and South Divisions of the Pac-12.

They started with the North…

Lombardi: Stanford’s offense didn’t click until the very end of the 2014 season, and that cost them. But when it finally came together against UCLA, the Cardinal looked like a 10-plus win team. With most of the offensive pieces returning, expect the Stanford attack to carry its late success over into next season. Sure, there’ll probably be some drop-off on the defensive end -- eight starters depart -- but since the Cardinal actually improved defensively this season after losing a ton of talent, who says Lance Anderson’s system can’t reload again?

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesWith Kevin Hogan and a bunch of contributors returning, Stanford might have the offensive firepower to cruise to a Pac-12 North title.
Jennings: I'm totally with you David, I think the Cardinal are going to be very strong next season and will look and play better than they did in 2014. It's just so crazy, though, because I feel like the Pac-12 North in 2015 is going to be like the Pac-12 South in 2014. It's such an open race and cases can be made for many different teams. A lot of people think Oregon will be a strong challenger again, but I'm not sold on the Ducks yet. Jeff Lockie hasn't looked like a confident QB to me yet and even with so many weapons around him, if there isn't a confident QB running that offense it's not going to be very efficient. Plus, the defense loses a ton of starters and that defensive performance against Ohio State gives me very little to go on for what that group will look like next season. I think Gary Andersen could get a good thing going at Oregon State. I covered Luke Del Rio when he was a high schooler and he impressed me then, so I think he could do big things with the Beavers. Heck, if California makes as big of a jump from 2014 to 2015 as it did from 2013 to 2014, who's to say the Golden Bears couldn't be a dark horse? And with a new defensive coordinator and with what Luke Falk showed at the end of the 2014 season, could Washington State make a push? Honestly, is there any team in the North that doesn't have a shot?

Lombardi: I see that you’re taking the prudent approach, Chantel, but I’m going to go out on a limb and take the foolish one: I think that Stanford is in a good position to emerge as a clear winner. I know, I should have learned my lesson from the minefield that was the Pac-12 South this past season. Given the post-Marcus Mariota uncertainty at Oregon, there's a chance that the North will follow suit and lose any semblance of order this next season.

But at the end of the day, I still think that the Ducks and the Cardinal are a cut above the rest of the division. Andersen will need time at Oregon State, Cal still needs to prove that it can play competent defense, Washington is losing considerable star power on defense, and Washington State is in a similar boat as the Bears.

Until I see tangible on-field proof from those programs, Stanford and Oregon are the two frontrunners in my book. You mentioned most of the questions facing the Ducks, but I think the loss of Jake Fisher is particularly huge: They gave up an average of six sacks per game when he didn’t play in 2014. The Ducks must reload quickly, because I think the schedule really lines up in Stanford’s favor. Aside from missing Arizona State and Utah, the Cardinal get Oregon at home.

Jennings: That's all fair. But remember when we started this season and Brett Hundley and UCLA were the favorite in the South? After that it was USC... Arizona State... and then Arizona. This is the #Pac12AfterDark. No one even considered Utah as anything other than an afterthought. Yes, maybe Stanford is a cut above the rest, but this is the conference gave us multiple Hail Marys, this is the conference that gave us insanity after everyone on the East Coast thought it was safe to go to bed. Maybe Stanford is going to be the most talented team in the Pac-12 North next season, but I'm not sure if that's enough to really make me buy them as the eventual representative in the Pac-12 championship game. I think we're going to have a crazy, crazy season, which makes me want to go with a dark horse candidate.

Lombardi: I just have to see to believe, Chantel, and I haven’t seen any convincing signs of life from the rest of the Pac-12 North in a long, long time. In fact, Oregon and Stanford have combined to go 39-1 against the other four Pac-12 North teams this decade (I’m including 2010 in that tally). The only blemish on that record is Stanford’s 2012 loss to Washington. That’s staggering, and for me it’s convincing: The Cardinal and Ducks own this division until proven otherwise.

Jennings: And I think there’s a solid shot that in 2015 “otherwise” could occur.
The Pac-12's South Division went 15-10 against the North in 2014, the first season since expansion in 2011 that the South bested the North. Of course, Oregon still won the conference crown -- in dominant fashion over Arizona, in fact -- so the South still has never won the Pac-12 title.

Perhaps the dominant Pac-12 theme heading into 2015 will be how that figures to change next December. After going a feckless 9-17 against the North in 2011, the steadily improving South is now clearly the superior division. With five ranked teams at season's end, the South was much deeper than the North in 2014, though Oregon maintained the Ducks/Stanford domination of the conference as a whole for another season.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Harry How/Getty ImagesCody Kessler and USC should be on the rise in 2015, which in turn should help keep the Pac-12 South on the rise.
Yet Stanford slipped in 2014, and it welcomes back just three starters from its dominant defense next fall. Oregon has a nice collection of players returning in 2015 -- it still figures to be the highest-ranked Pac-12 team in the preseason -- but it's also replacing the greatest player in school history in Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

The South's advantage heading into 2015 can be further quantified by who's coming back. For one, the South welcomes back 93 starting position players compared to 76 for the North. That's an average of 15.5 per South team compared to 12.7 for the North.

That difference is most notable on defense. South teams welcome back an average of 7.83 players on defense, while North teams welcome back only 5.17. While Stanford, Oregon and Washington were the top three teams in scoring defense in 2014, the only South team that didn't rank in the top eight was Colorado. Further, UCLA, USC and Utah each welcome back eight starters from defenses that ranked in the top four in yards per play.

On offense, the differences aren't as definitive. The South will welcome back 46 starters compared to 45 for the North, but the South is far more set at quarterback. Four of six South teams have a high degree of certainty at quarterback heading into 2015, while UCLA is the only team with a "Who the heck knows?" QB competition. Though Utah is uncertain between Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson, both have starting experience.

In the North, only California and Stanford are certain at QB. Oregon and Oregon State will be holding wide-open competitions beginning this spring, while Washington and Washington State have returning QBs with starting experience -- Cyler Miles and Luke Falk -- who are far from certain to win the job.

Experience on the offensive line is often vital, and the South also has an advantage there with 22 O-line starters returning compared to 21 from the North (and that includes Oregon offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone, who sat out this past season with a knee injury).

What about star power? Five of the six returning first-team All-Pac-12 players hail from the South, while seven of the 11 second-team members are from the South. Heck, all four first- and second-team specialists are from the South as well.

Finally, 2015 will be the first season of Pac-12 play in which USC isn't yoked with any sort of NCAA sanctions. You might recall the Trojans won the South in 2011 and beat Oregon in Autzen Stadium in the regular season but didn't get a rematch in the title game because they were ineligible for the postseason. While USC won't be at a full 85 scholarships next fall, it has the potential to be as deep as it has been since expansion. It's difficult to believe the Trojans at full strength won't be a factor in the South, Pac-12 and nationally going forward.

Of course, the six-team South is arguably deeper than the 10-team conference USC dominated from 2002-2008 under Pete Carroll, with UCLA and coach Jim Mora, in fact, providing plenty of competition just a few miles down the road -- see three consecutive Bruins wins in the rivalry, as well as consecutive 10-win seasons.

When the conference first expanded, the initial impression was the South would be stronger. In fact, before going with a North-South split, there was significant discussion about splitting up rival teams in different divisions. Yet, for three seasons, the North proved its naysayers wrong.

Now the South appears to be cycling up. If the present trend continues through the 2015 season, it's possible we'll be asking a year from now how long that shifting balance of power will last. Or if it won't become a long-term advance.

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