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Top 10 Returning Pac-12 Football Players Heading into 2014

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2014 Pac-12 Football: 10 Best Returning Players

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Soobum Im - USA TODAY Sports

There is an argument to be made for the Pac-12 conference being the second best conference in all of college football last season. In 2014, they’re going to make a strong case for being No. 1 as they try to bring a national championship to the west coast next season. Paving the way will be superstars from every team coming back for another stellar season in the fall.

That isn’t to say that the Pac-12 was immune to the attrition caused by the NFL Draft. Key players on many teams spurned one more year in college to chase a professional career at the next level. Stars like Ka’Deem Carey, Bishop Sankey, De’Anthony Thomas, Brandin Cooks, Paul Richardson, and Marqise Lee (just to name a few) won’t return in 2014 leaving a void for new stars to step up and take their place.

But for every star player who left early, another chose to stay for another year. The conference is chock full of fantastic talent at every position that will be looking to take their games to the next level in 2014. Some of them will take home some individual awards but all of them will be trying to take their teams to the top of the Pac-12 and the College Football Playoff to earn some hardware for the program.

Either way, Pac-12 football is served greatly by their decision to come back for 2014. While not all of them had the choice to leave for the NFL, the returning star players next season did themselves and their programs a huge service by coming back next fall. With that being said, here are the top 10 returning players in the Pac-12 for 2014.

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10. Su'a Cravens, S USC Trojans

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Kirby Lee - USA TODAY Sports

As a true freshman in 2013, Su’a Cravens stepped in and immediately became a difference maker for the USC Trojans. He finished the year with four interceptions to go along with 53 tackles, a pass break up and two forced fumbles. Cravens figures to be a featured part of the Trojan defense in 2014 and is poised to enjoy even greater success as a sophomore.

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9. Addison Gillam, LB Colorado Buffaloes

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Ron Chenoy - USA TODAY Sports

Another true freshman pushed into the starting lineup last season, Addison Gillam proved up to the challenge for the Colorado Buffaloes. From his middle linebacker spot, Gillam recorded 107 tackles (No. 4 in the Pac-12), averaging 8.92 tackles per game (No. 2). While the Buffs didn’t exactly rise to the level of play Gillam put forth last season, you can be sure he’ll be the foundation for any success in 2014.

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8. Marcus Peters, CB Washington Huskies

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Matt Kartozian - USA TODAY Sports

While he didn’t get quite the publicity of some of the other stellar defensive backs in the conference last season, few cover-men were as good in 2013 as Marcus Peters for the Washington Huskies. As a sophomore, Peters snagged five interceptions on the year as he locked up the top receivers from the other team. This season, he figures to enter the conversation as one of the best DBs in the Pac-12 and maybe even one of the best in the entire country.

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7. Sean Mannion, QB Oregon State Beavers

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Kirby Lee - USA TODAY Sports

After shattering the record books in 2013, Sean Mannion opted to come back and lead the Oregon State Beavers one more time. As a junior, Mannion was surgical through the air, leading the conference in passing, accumulating 4,662 yards with 37 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He’ll have to find a new favorite target with Brandin Cooks leaving for the NFL but Mannion has the arm and the savvy to have a huge senior season in 2014.

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6. Steven Nelson, CB Oregon State Beavers

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Christopher Hanewinckel - USA TODAY Sports

After tying for the conference lead with six interceptions in 2013, Steven Nelson returns to lead the Oregon State secondary this fall as the premier ball-hawk of the conference. On top of the picks (one of which he returned for a touchdown), the 5-foot-11 shutdown corner had 62 tackles and eight pass breakups. Nelson seemed to break out as a junior last season and is pegged as an early favorite for the Thorpe Award in 2014 as the nation’s best defensive back.

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5. Byron Marshall, RB Oregon Ducks

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Scott Olmos - USA TODAY Sports

After stepping in as a fill-in after De’Anthony Thomas was injured, Byron Marshall showed that he is the guy to lead the rushing attack for the Oregon Ducks in 2014. He is the leading returning rusher to the Pac-12 and the only 1,000-yard rusher in 2013 to be coming back next fall. He finished his sophomore season with 1,038 yards rushing with 14 touchdowns on the ground. While Marshall will split some carries with Thomas Tyner next season, he’s poised to become the premier running back in the conference next season.

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4. Hau'oli Kikaha, DE Washington Huskies

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Joe Nicholson - USA TODAY Sports

For a long stretch, it was unclear whether Hau’oli Kikaha was going to be an impact player for Washington due to injuries. But he got healthy in 2013 and showed what he was capable of, finishing No. 2 in the Pac-12 with 13 sacks as a junior. Kikaha seemed to only get strong as the season wore on making him a prime candidate for a monster 2014 season. If he can match or exceed his 2013 output, he’ll put his stamp on the Washington record book before he leaves and stake his claim as a premier defensive talent in the Pac-12.

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3. Jaelen Strong, WR Arizona State Sun Devils

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Mark J. Rebilas - USA TODAY Sports

As a junior college transfer to the Arizona State Sun Devils, Jaelen Strong wasted no time making his presence felt in 2013. He finished the year with 75 receptions for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns and returns in 2014 as the Pac-12’s leading returning receiver. With a full year under his belt and an offseason to further build the chemistry between himself and quarterback Taylor Kelly, Strong could be the best wide receiver in the conference next season, which has meant a Biletnikoff Award the last two seasons.

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2. Brett Hundley, QB UCLA Bruins

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Andrew Weber - USA TODAY Sports

Few quarterbacks have the ability to affect the game with their arm and legs like Brett Hundley does for the UCLA Bruins. Last season, Hundley threw for 3,071 yards and rushed for another 748 yards and scored 36 total touchdowns while throwing just nine interceptions. Hundley found ways to get his team over the top during his sophomore season and will be even better in 2014. Will he be good enough to finally get the Bruins to the top of the Pac-12?

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1. Marcus Mariota, QB Oregon Ducks

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Bob Donnan - USA TODAY Sports

Before suffering a knee injury against the Stanford Cardinal, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota looked like a lock to win the Heisman Trophy. Mariota spurned the opportunity to leave school this offseason to come back and finish his degree, ensuring the Ducks will have another high-octane offense in 2014. The redshirt junior will be an early favorite for the Heisman again this season as his dynamic playmaking ability fuels one of the most explosive offenses in all of college football.