Pac-12: most important 2012

Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

We're going in alphabetical order.

Washington State

Most important game: Aug. 30 at BYU

Why it's important: We close out this series with a question: Just how much of an impact is Mike Leach going to have in his first year?

The early returns are extremely favorable. Having spoken with several players and coaches from Washington State in the last few months, there is definitely a renewed sense of excitement surrounding the Cougars. The belief is that of the four new coaches in the conference, Leach is going to have the biggest, most immediate impact. And given some of the players he has at his disposal, it's tough to argue.

A national TV audience will find out that Thursday night. It seems like quarterback Jeff Tuel has picked up the offense very quickly and that chemistry is flowing with his receivers. That's what this offense is all about. And like many, I'm excited to see it in action.

So why this game over the Apple Cup (which was my original pick until I talked to some folks at WSU who insisted this is the game to choose)? First, there is the national TV aspect. Any national exposure is good for recruiting. Second, Leach has said so much of his football philosophy was nurtured during his time as a student at BYU watching the LaVell Edwards teams. This game is obviously very personal to him. Third, a quality road victory to open the season does wonders for a team's confidence.

A victory over BYU would set the Cougars up nicely for the next few weeks -- home to Eastern Washington, at UNLV and then home to Colorado -- before meeting Oregon in Seattle on Sept. 29. A 4-0 start is more likely than not for this team which should be oozing confidence by the time it faces the North Division favorites.

Most important game: Utah

May, 30, 2012
5/30/12
7:00
PM ET
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.

We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.

We're going in alphabetical order.

Utah

Most important game: vs. USC, Oct. 4.

Why it's important: All together now, DUH. Of all the games we've previewed for this series (and the two more we have left to do) this is by far the biggest no-brainer of the bunch.

I know a lot of die-hards are going to say no matter what, the BYU game on Sept. 15th is the most important. I get that. I understand the rivalry having covered it in the Mountain West and know it stretches back years and years before that. It's steeped in tradition. Who's a guy from Southern California to say otherwise?

It's so important that the schools are considering discontinuing it. Utah owns the series 55-34-4. It's time to set your sites on bigger fish, Ute fan. And it just so happens there's a 200-pound Trojan trout that's going to flop right into your boat on Oct. 4. Can you catch it?

This game could be Utah's coming out party to the Pac-12 to announce they have arrived. It's been said before about this game, and will continue to be said until the game is played. It's time for Utah to step up and get their seat at the big-boy table. There's little reason to think Utah won't be 4-0 heading into this nationally televised, Thursday night game at home (by the way, which would make them 56-34-4 against BYU for those keeping track). Utah should be in the Top 25 and USC will likely be in the Top 3. This game will garner national attention and a victory puts the Utes in the driver's seat for the Pac-12 South and a spot in the conference title game.

If they lose, it won't exactly be a step backward for the program and given Utah's schedule, a 10- or 11-win season is certainly attainable (worth noting that Washington looms Nov. 10 and the Utes are 0-7 all-time against the Huskies). But the way the schedule plays out, this could be a very special season for the Utes with the defense they boast, the running back they'll ride and their heady quarterback running the show (if he stays healthy).

This isn't just the most important game of the season. This might be the most important regular season game in Utah football history.
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 living up to expectations. Or based on their absence.

Washington State: WR Marquess Wilson

2011 production: No other wide receiver in the Pac-12 averaged more yards per game last season than Wilson. That's saying a lot considering the company he's in. He caught 82 balls for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 115.7 yards per game.

Why Wilson is so important: For starters, he's really, really good. When you plug him into Mike Leach's system, he can be really, really great. No other non-quarterback on the Washington State roster will likely benefit more from the scheme change than Wilson, who has outstanding hands attached to his 6-foot-4 frame. Don't be surprised to see him up for some preseason All-America considerations. And if he's not, he should be. Consider what he did during WSU's spring game over the weekend -- four catches for 149 yards and a touchdown. Spread that out over 12 -- dare we say 13 -- games and you're looking at one of the top five wide receivers in the country. Plus, he was the only Cougar to earn offensive all-conference recognition last season (second-team).

There were other options for most important player. Consideration was given to Travis Long, a veteran defender who quietly is one of the best defensive players in the conference. He had 12 tackles for a loss last year and four sacks. A case could be made for either one. But when teams start scheming for Washington State, the first thing opposing coaches are going to ask is "How do we take No. 86 out of the equation?" Chances are they won't be able to. As Brian Floyd of CougCenter points out, the only real question mark with Wilson is that sometimes he relies too much on his raw talent and isn't always 100 percent focused mentally. This is another way Wilson will benefit by being paired with Leach. With a new staff, new playbook and renewed confidence on the Palouse, the Cougars need Wilson to be at his best. If he is, Wilson is the clear choice for most important player.

Most important player: Washington

April, 23, 2012
4/23/12
1:00
PM ET
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.

Washington: DT Danny Shelton

2011 production: Shelton played in all 13 games as a true freshman, starting the final two. He finished with 11 tackles and a fumble recovery.

Why Shelton is important: Price is the Huskies' most important player, but I thought I had this one figured out for the non-Price division. Then Bob Condotta, with what I'd guess was one of those gleeful cackles he is known for, did this to make things difficult on me -- polling Huskies fans on whom they thought was the team's most important player after Price. Before seeing this poll, my plan had been to go with veteran center Drew Schaefer. Huskies fans, however, favored Shelton. I frumped over this. I didn't want to be swayed by a Tyranny of the Masses or Conventional Wisdom. So while sitting in a coffee shop in order to feel all Seattle-y, I engaged in a meditative debate inside my head with Washington fans. It was going well, but then a bunch of Oregon fans showed up. Amid the ensuing trash talk, everyone ignored my entreaties to remain focused on the earnest debate at hand, even when I barked that it was rude of them blowing me off inside my own head. (None of you know the psychic pressures involved in this job.)

Schaefer would have been a good choice, but alas, I'm going with Shelton -- just like Huskies fans -- based on what the 6-foot-1, 323-pound sophomore could become this year. If Shelton plays to the ability he strongly hinted at toward the end of last season, he will become an all-conference sort of defensive tackle. Further, if he does that, he could become an ideal, space-eating noseguard in the 3-4 scheme new coordinator Justin Wilcox wants to adopt. If Shelton becomes that guy, just about everything changes for a defense that was awful in 2011. As that guy, Shelton would, more often than not, command two blockers. That would not only make life easier for the linebackers against the run but also could free up promising pass-rusher Josh Shirley on the edge. Basically, it would make the Huskies' defense feel as if it has 12 guys, not unlike how Utah often feels with DT Star Lotulelei. The Huskies do have other big interior D-linemen, but 339-pound Semisi Tokolahi and 325-pound Lawrence Lagafuaina have struggled with consistency and injury issues. Shelton needs to be that guy. My only pause on this is that the Huskies' defense was lousy last year even with 333-pound Alameda Ta'amu, a likely early-round NFL draft pick this week, and Shelton on hand. Still, Shelton playing to his potential makes me see concentric circles of improvement radiating from his wide frame throughout the Huskies defense. Or maybe that's echoing sound waves from all that Huskies-Ducks griping?

Most important player: Utah

April, 20, 2012
4/20/12
9:00
AM ET
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.

Utah: DT Star Lotulelei

2011 production: Lotulelei had 44 total tackles, with nine coming for a loss. He had 1.5 sacks, a pass break-up, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Why Lotulelei is so important: I don't know... is having an unmovable, athletic, 325-pound mass of humanity who could be a first-round NFL draft pick in 2013 in the middle of your defensive line a good thing? Correct answer: "Yes!" Utah fans probably leaped into the air and clicked their heels twice while screaming that answer. I know Utes coach Kyle Whittingham did when Lotulelei opted to return for his senior year instead of entering the draft (leaped in his mind, not so much an actual jump inside the football office). What Lotulelei means is that the Utes know what two offensive linemen -- or at least two offensive players -- are doing on most plays against them: trying to block the Utah star. Lotulelei, the 2011 Morris Trophy winner as the Pac-12's best defensive lineman (as voted on by conference offensive linemen), is simply the best interior defensive lineman in the conference, probably by a wide margin. Further, if he is removed from the Utes' defense, the depth at defensive tackle isn't great. His backup -- at least this spring -- is 295-pound redshirt freshman Seni Fauonuku. The other backup defensive tackle is Joape Pela, a converted offensive lineman. The Utes signed 16 linemen in their latest recruiting class, but most were projected for offense or defensive end. With Lotulelei, the Utes defensive interior is fearsome. Without him, it would be much less so.

Most important player: USC

April, 19, 2012
4/19/12
11:00
AM ET
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.

USC: DT George Uko

2011 production: The Trojans No. 3 DT in 2011, Uko started two games and played in all 12. He had 18 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Why Uko is so important: Look I get it: QB Matt Barkley is the Trojans most important player beyond a shadow of a doubt. The leading Heisman Trophy candidate, he might be the most valuable player in the nation. If Barkley got hurt, his likely replacement would have no game experience. So, yes, Uko is not the Trojans' most important player. But can't we have some latitude to escape obvious land?

So why is Uko is so critical to the Trojans fortunes? First, he has tons of potential to be a breakout player, perhaps even All-Pac-12. The 6-foot-3, 285-pound sophomore saw significant action last year and was productive when he did. But it's not just about Uko. It's about the lack of depth at defensive tackle for the Trojans. No. 1 nose tackle J.R. Tavai, just 6-foot-2, 270 pounds, is the next most experienced interior defensive lineman. He had four tackles last year. Running back Curtis McNeal -- another candidate for Most Important After Barkley -- had three. The next three guys -- Christian Heyward, Antwaun Woods and converted center Cody Temple -- are redshirt freshman. Zero game experience. You might wonder if the Trojans could bring an end inside -- perhaps 275-pound redshirt freshman Greg Townsend -- but all the choices would be undersized. The depth at end isn't exactly great either. Small DTs who don't command double-teams are particularly an issue when you are small at linebacker, as the Trojans are. If the Trojans lost Barkley, their season script would need an immediate rewrite. If the Trojans lost Uko? Let's just say not many teams win conference and national titles with gaping holes in the center of their D-lines.

Most important player: UCLA

April, 18, 2012
4/18/12
9:00
AM ET
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.

UCLA: Tight end Joseph Fauria

2011 production: Fauria was second on the team with 39 catches for 481 yards and a team-high six receiving touchdowns.

Why Fauria is so important: You might notice a theme throughout this series, specifically with the teams that are going through coaching changes or major overhauls: consistently reliable. Fauria is that. He's a commanding presence at 6-foot-8, 255 pounds but is athletic enough to play a hybrid tight end/wide receiver in coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense. As the Bruins look to revamp their passing attack with a new quarterback (maybe?) and without Nelson Rosario, who graduated, whoever is commanding the offense is going to need a consistently reliable target in the red zone and on third down. The Pac-12 is loaded with outstanding tight ends this year. Fauria might be the most complete of them all. His size makes him a mismatch for every defensive back, and his power makes him a strong blocker and nearly impossible for a linebacker to cover over the middle. For all of the question marks surrounding the Bruins offense, Fauria is a good, solid answer.

Most important player: Stanford

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
12:00
PM ET
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.

Stanford: FB Ryan Hewitt

2011 production: Hewitt carried the ball 10 times for 35 yards and caught 34 balls for 282 yards and five touchdowns. He was perfect in short-yardage situations and was a primary reason Stepfan Taylor had his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season.

Why Hewitt is so important: Spider 2 Y Banana has taken on a life of its own since Andrew Luck appeared on Jon Gruden's quarterback camp. Did you notice who the guy was catching all of those balls in Spider 2 Y Banana? It was Hewitt. Who was the guy that moved over to be a third tight end when Zach Ertz missed time last season? It was Hewitt. Who was a perfect 8-for-8 on conversions when three yards or fewer were needed. Yeah, it was Hewitt. He does so much for Stanford that few people realize his impact. Sure, it would have been easier to pick Taylor, Chase Thomas on defense or budding wide receiver Ty Montgomery, but when Hewitt is on the field, Stanford can run any number of formations with the same personnel because Hewitt is so versatile.

Here's how much Stanford loves to use fullbacks: The Cardinal have four on scholarship. I haven't checked, but there can't be many teams that carry four scholarship fullbacks. And Hewitt is at the top of that depth chart. He won't run for 1,000 yards, but Taylor probably will again -- and Hewitt will be a big reason why. You take him out of the offense, and the Cardinal lose one of their most underappreciated, yet most important, weapons.
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 State: CB Jordan Poyer

2011 production: Was named second team All-Pac-12 defense after breaking up 12 passes and logging four interceptions -- including a 51-yard return for a touchdown against BYU and a two-interception game against Arizona State. Had 57 total tackles, returned 30 kicks for an average of 22.7 yards per returned 10 punts for an average of 14.1 yards.

Why Poyer is so important: For starters, he's one of the best players at his position in the country. Mel Kiper ranks him as the No. 2 senior defensive back in the nation Insider and in a conference where offense rules, elite cornerbacks are tough to come by. And Poyer is elite. He's the most versatile athlete on the Beavers roster -- so much so that head coach Mike Riley has talked about installing a wildcat package just to get Poyer on the field as much as he can. He can take away half of the field on defense. And when he is challenged, more often than not the result is in his favor. Oregon State is a very young team with a lot of players who saw field time last season, but need a centralized voice on the field that isn't a coach. Poyer is that guy for the defense. He tied for the conference lead last season in interceptions and passes defended and said he's improved the cerebral portion of his game. That's a scary prospect for opposing quarterbacks.

Most important player: Oregon

April, 13, 2012
4/13/12
9:00
AM ET
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.

Most important player: Colorado

April, 12, 2012
4/12/12
9:00
AM ET
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.

Colorado: OL David Bakhtiari

2011 production: As always, tough to quantify what an offensive lineman means to a team. Colorado was ninth in the Pac-12 last season in rushing offense, averaging almost 109 yards per game. Departed running back Rodney Stewart rushed for 854 yards and four touchdowns.

Why Bakhtiari is so important: Two days ago I would have said wide receiver Paul Richardson -- and it would have been tough to find a dissenting opinion. But injuries happen. It's a major bummer. But you move on. Bakhtiari is the kind of guy that can help the Buffaloes move on. In times of crisis, you look to a rock -- and at 6-foot-4, 295 pounds, he's that literally and figuratively. He's the only Colorado player with All-Pac-12 credentials, earning second-team offense last season, and coach Jon Embree called him the leader of the offensive line last year, which included Ryan Miller -- a projected middle round draft pick. Bakhtiari is currently slated at left tackle. He'll be protecting the blindside of whoever wins the starting quarterback job. But he's versatile enough to play either tackle or guard spot and will probably see some spot duty somewhere else at some point during the season. He has good bloodlines -- his older brother Eric has been off and on in the NFL -- and he's the kind of guy players will look to for stability as they transition to a new quarterback without a No. 1 target to throw to.

Most important player: California

April, 11, 2012
4/11/12
11:00
AM ET
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.

California: WR Keenan Allen

2011 production: Allen caught 98 passes for 1,343 yards with six touchdowns. He averaged 13. 7 yards per reception.

Why Allen is so important: There are two things here. First, Allen is not only Cal's best receiver -- and one of the best receivers in the nation -- he is, second, Cal's only receiver at present. Seriously. A first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2011 and No. 15 player on our postseason list of the conference's top-25 players, he is the only -- and unquestionably -- irreplaceable player on the Bears roster. Are we overstating this? No. The Bears lose their Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receivers from 2011. Their No. 5 receiver, tight end Spencer Hagan, is back. He caught 12 passes. So who is their second-leading returning pass-catcher who actually played receiver? That would be Jackson Bouza, a walk-on who caught three passes. Coach Jeff Tedford has candidly admitted that he needs three of his five incoming freshmen receivers to be ready to contribute next fall. While redshirt freshman Maurice Harris, who has great hands but has been inconsistent this spring, and converted defensive back Joel Willis, have a chance to be in the mix, you shouldn't be surprised if Bryce Treggs and Darius Powe end up as Nos. 2 and 3 receivers in 2012. Bottom line: If QB Zach Maynard doesn't have Allen, who is sitting out this spring as he recovers from an ankle injury, the Bears passing game would be crippled.
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 loss 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.

Arizona State: Linebacker Brandon Magee

2011 production: Unfortunately for Magee and the Sun Devils, he tore his Achilles tendon last August and missed the entire season. Had he been there, things might have gone much differently for ASU, which ended the season on a five-game losing streak and dropped six of its final seven. In 2010, he was second on the team in tackles with 73 (48 solo), and had five tackles for a loss.

Why Magee is so important: He's a leader. That simple. He talks, the team listens. He says do something, the team does it. A locker room guy like Magee is critical to a team in transition. And right now, the Sun Devils are all about transition. Head coach Todd Graham -- a self-described old-school guy -- is trying to instill discipline and accountability in a program that appeared to be lacking it. Much of that falls on the departed Vontaze Burfict, who created concussion-level headaches for teammates and coaches with his freestyle attitude. Graham needs guys like Magee, who are productive on and off the field. Example: Magee recently started volunteering at a grammar school in a low-income part of town. He goes every Wednesday. Teammates have started tagging along. Magee has the charismatic personality that makes guys around him want to be better in everything they do. His return not only gives the defense a significant boost and a reliable replacement for Burfict, but he brings the on and off-field leadership that was sorely missing.

You can check out the rest of the "Most Important Player" series here.

Most important player: Arizona

April, 9, 2012
4/09/12
1:00
PM ET
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 exclude 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 loss 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.

We start at the beginning of the alphabet.

Arizona: RB Ka'Deem Carey

2011 production: Carey was second on the Wildcats with 449 yards rushing. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry, and led the team with six rushing touchdowns. He also caught 15 passes for 203 yards -- 13.5 yards per reception -- with two scores. And he was the team's No. 1 kickoff returner.

Why Carey is so important: New coach Rich Rodriguez runs a spread-option. He likes to run the ball. A lot. He's had his best success when he has an athletic quarterback and an A-list running back, most notably quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton at West Virginia. Wildcats quarterback Matt Scott can run the ball well. The problem is quarterback depth. There is none. So every time Scott keeps the ball, everyone on Arizona's sideline will be holding his breath. What Rodriguez needs is for Carey to become a workhorse -- a 20-25 carries a game guy who also catches three or four passes a game. The 5-foot-10, 203-pound true sophomore is talented enough to become an All-Conference sort. Further, as a Tucson native, his success would juice the local fan base. The Wildcats aren't lacking depth at tailback. Daniel Jenkins is quick and solid. Kylan Butler has raised an eyebrow or two this spring. Greg Nwoko and Taimi Tutogi are bigger, fullback sorts. But none of them are guys who can take over a game. Carey has that sort of talent. RichRod needs Carey to become The Man for the Wildcats' offense, which likely will need to score a lot of points to offset a questionable defense.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

PAC-12 SCOREBOARD