College football's 2022 season is still months away, but with spring practice in progress and the roster picture becoming clearer for all 131 teams, it's never too early to think about next fall and what teams return the most talent.
Utah is the reigning Pac-12 champion, and with 13 starters back, coach Kyle Whittingham's squad should be near the top of the list of favorites once again. However, USC is on the rise under coach Lincoln Riley, and new Oregon coach Dan Lanning returns 14 starters from a team that won the North Division last year. UCLA lost a chunk of talent, but coach Chip Kelly's squad returns quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet. Washington, Washington State, Stanford, California and Oregon State return plenty of interesting pieces in the North, while Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado will be fighting for bowl eligibility in the South.
Roster management in the era of the transfer portal has changed how teams can reload, improve or build going into a new coaching tenure. Returning starter data isn't necessarily the best way to judge teams going into a year, but it does provide interesting insight into strengths and weaknesses. Each year, Athlon Sports compiles returning starter data for its college football preview magazine. Players starting the last six or seven overall games are considered a returning starter. Also, some discretion is used, including returning from injury, split starters at a specific position, or other applicable reasoning for considering a player a starter.
Which teams return the most talent in the Pac-12 for 2022? And what does the returning starter data tell us for next fall? Here's a look at what's ahead for this conference:
Pac-12 Football: Analyzing Returning Starter Data for 2022
* Five Pac-12 teams return fewer than 10 starters for 2022.
* California returns the fewest starters on offense in the Pac-12 (three). Not only do the Golden Bears have to replace quarterback Chase Garbers, but this unit also lost its leading rusher (Christopher Brooks) and four of their top five statistical wide receivers or tight ends.
* Oregon's offensive line brings back five players with enough starts in '21 to be considered a returning starter. This unit should be one of the best in college football next season.
* New Ducks coach Dan Lanning inherits the second-most returning starters on defense (seven) of any team in the Pac-12 North. However, edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and three full-time starters in the secondary have departed.
* Oregon State brings back the most defensive starters (eight) of any team in the North Division.
* The Beavers return six starters on offense with three of those coming back from a strong line and quarterback Chance Nolan.
* Stanford brings back the most starters (10) of any offense in the Pac-12. That number includes quarterback Tanner McKee, tight end Benjamin Yurosek and five starters along the line of scrimmage.
* Although the Cardinal offense is poised to take a big step forward this year, the defense returns only four starters and major question marks remain about a unit shifting to a 4-3 alignment after running a 3-4.
* Washington's returning starter total could climb to six on offense if left tackle Jaxson Kirkland is awarded eligibility for 2022.
* Can the Huskies remain near the top of the Pac-12 in defense with just four starters back? The secondary lost three key cogs in cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon, along with nickel Brendan Radley-Hiles.
* Washington State's offense is an intriguing group behind transfer quarterback Cameron Ward, but this unit lost three starters up front and a couple of key weapons in receivers Calvin Jackson Jr. and Travell Harris and running back Max Borghi.
* The linebacker and defensive back units should be the focal point of spring ball for Cougars' coach Jake Dickert. Three full-time starters are gone on the back end, while Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers depart at linebacker.
* Arizona lost center Josh McCauley, but second-year coach Jedd Fisch should have optimism about his offense with five other linemen with at least seven starts back, along with the arrival of transfers Jayden de Laura (QB) and Jacob Cowing (receiver).
* The Wildcats (eight) bring back the most returning starters of any defense in the Pac-12 South.
* Arizona State's four offensive returning starters are the fewest in the Pac-12 South. This unit has a new coordinator (Glenn Thomas) and must replace quarterback Jayden Daniels, running back Rachaad White, and three starters on the line.
* The Sun Devils lost all four starters from the starting secondary last year. However, the return of Jermayne Lole from injury is a boost to the defensive line.
* Colorado's six returning starters include quarterback Brendon Lewis, but he will have to battle JT Shrout for the starting nod this offseason. This group has to replace starting running back Jarek Broussard and receiver Brenden Rice, while big question marks remain in the trenches.
* Not only will the Buffaloes need to replace standout linebackers Carson Wells and Nate Landman, but this unit also lost three starters in the secondary to the transfer portal.
* UCLA's offense returns quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet, but coach Chip Kelly's offense lost three key starters on the line, along with three key pass catchers (Kyle Philips, Greg Dulcich and Chase Cota) who accounted for 119 receptions last year.
* The Bruins are down to just two returning starters on defense after linebacker Caleb Johnson entered the transfer portal in early April. Rebuilding the defensive front is a priority for new coordinator Bill McGovern.
* USC ranks near the bottom of the Pac-12 with nine returning starters, but coach Lincoln Riley's additions through the portal - including quarterback Caleb Williams - alleviates concerns about roster turnover.
* Just three starters return on a Trojans defense that struggled mightily in '21, so more additions to the portal after spring practice would not be a surprise.
* Utah's offense returns in great shape with quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas leading eight returning starters. Replacing left tackle Bam Olaseni and center Nick Ford top the list of offseason priorities for coach Kyle Whittingham.
* Despite the loss of six full-time starters, it's hard to worry too much about Utah's defense considering the program's track record under coach Kyle Whittingham. However, All-American linebacker Devin Lloyd won't be easy to replace.
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