- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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All players are equal, but some players are more equal than others. That's the basis of our Most Important Player series.
First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying that Arizona's Matt Scott, USC's Matt Barkley and Washington's Keith Price are their teams' most important players. Their losses would be catastrophic.
And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too.
Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on their living up to expectations. Or their absence.
Oregon: RB Kenjon Barner
2011 production: Barner rushed for 939 yards with 11 touchdowns -- 6.2 yards per carry -- and caught 17 passes for 184 yards with three TDs.
Why Barner is so important: The good news for the Ducks is their depth makes few players irreplaceable (alternatives here might have been DE Dion Jordan or safety John Boyett). But Barner is the clear choice for his own value and for what losing him would force the Ducks to do in order to adjust. Start with who Barner is: He's gained 1,836 yards rushing -- 6.1 yards per carry -- and scored 20 rushing TDs over the previous three seasons as LaMichael James' backup. He's also caught 34 passes for 335 yards with five scores and returned kicks and punts. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior has long been one of the best and most versatile running backs in the Pac-12, only he played behind one of the best RBs in conference history. This season is his chance to shine, so you'd expect him to be highly motivated to showcase his own skills. Further, Barner is a cool customer. His veteran presence in the huddle, which will feature a new starting QB, will be critical. He's been there, done that. He won't care if the entire college football world is watching on Nov. 3 when the Ducks visit USC in a game with almost certain national title implications. But if the Ducks were to lose him, things would get, well, interesting. For one, the transfer of promising Tra Carson, who would have played the "big" back role, was a blow. Second, De'Anthony Thomas is obviously fully capable of being spectacular wherever he plays, and if Barner were gone, he'd likely line up in the backfield more often than at receiver. Of course, it's fair to question Thomas' durability as a full-time running back, and obviously Thomas lining up without Barner significantly reduces stress on an opposing defense. My guess is that coach Chip Kelly would be thrilled if touted incoming freshman Byron Marshall proves he can be Barner's backup, with Thomas being the situational guy who lines up all over the place. It's odd to say this because just a few years ago Oregon's roster was chock full of talented RBs, but the lack of depth in the backfield is a legitimate concern heading into 2012.