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Brett Hundley's UCLA return means Pac-12 should remain as strong as ever

The conference has already upgraded its roster of head coaches and will bring back a whole lot of talent, with only a handful of schools facing heavy losses.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

With Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota returning for 2014 and UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, a fellow potential first-round pick, reportedly doing the same, the Pac-12 looks set to defend its title as the toughest conference in college football.

That's right, SEC fans, defend. The stats show that, top-to-bottom, the Pac-12 was the best conference in the country in 2013 (until bowl season, at least), ranking tops among conferences in terms of opponent-adjusted depth. The conference suffered a couple bowl upsets, but entered the postseason with four top-17 BCS teams.

So what is the Pac-12 losing? The Bruins will likely send a top-five pick to the pros in linebacker Anthony Barr, and USC's losing at least four juniors, probably including receiver Marqise Lee. Arizona, Colorado, Oregon State, Stanford, and Utah also have quite a few contributors to replace.

Beyond that, not too much top talent is leaving the conference, with Oregon corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu the only projected first-rounder besides Barr and Lee in SB Nation's latest mock. And Ekpre-Olomu might come back to school. [Update, Jan. 6: Yep, he's coming back.]

In the South, UCLA will look to contend for the division title it nearly missed out on this season, as a returning Hundley will help a promising receiving corps (and offensive line) and Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year Myles Jack. Arizona State returns six offensive starters from a division-winning team, including star quarterback Taylor Kelly (but not star running back Marion Grice) and three starting offensive linemen.

Oregon will be Oregon, despite some missteps this season and the loss of longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu return, as do running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, but the Ducks will have to replace five graduating defenders.

Oregon State, although they lose Biletnikoff winner Brandin Cooks, will return quarterback Sean Mannion, who finished second nationally in passing yardage, and both of their running backs.

California should make strides in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes after starting six freshmen on offense this season and suffering countless injuries on the defensive side of the ball.

Washington State has shown serious improvement under Mike Leach, and with Connor Halliday returning for his senior season, the Cougars should be a team to watch out for. They'll have to retool the right side of their line, but much of the defense returns -- as do all but one of Halliday's top 11 targets.

And the conference's biggest strength -- its coaching -- got even deeper, as it essentially swapped Lane Kiffin with longtime top coaching target Chris Petersen, formerly of Boise State.

The Steve Sarkisian era starts at USC with a roster among the top of the nation in terms of recruiting stars, but still no depth. Cody Kessler started to come into his own at the quarterback position near the end of the season, but will have to look to some new weapons.

At Sarkisian's old school, Washington, Petersen takes over. The Huskies' three main offensive weapons -- quarterback Keith Price, running back Bishop Sankey and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins -- are all gone, but Washington should remain very dangerous. The team returns all five starters on the offensive line and much of a young, scary defense.

With several major programs in the other four power conferences retooling at quarterback and elsewhere, don't be surprised if the Pac-12 is again as tough as anywhere else.

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