Defending Pac-12 South champion Colorado has handed the offensive reins over to quarterback Steven Montez
A Pac-12 championship can be won from the most unlikely of contributors. A breakout wild card star can emerge through a simple position change, like when Christian McCaffrey switched from receiver to running back between 2014 and '15. A first-year player can be a championship-leading wild card. Such was the case for Taylor Rapp, whose two interceptions helped power Washington to a 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game win.
Oftentimes, identifying the wild cards means identifying the single most pivotal factor in a team's success.
Offense: Vic Enwere, Running Back
Former Cal head coach Sonny Dykes introduced a pass-heavy scheme in 2013, and new offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin isn't exactly going to be moving the Golden Bears over to a Wishbone. That said, the Cal offense needs a credible threat from the running game — especially while Baldwin narrows the field of potential starting quarterbacks down to one.
Tre Watson topped the depth chart at spring's conclusion, but Enwere could play a key role upon his return from an injury that sidelined him for half the 2016 season. By season's end, his 5.51 yards per carry were tops among Cal players with significant rushing attempts, and he was dynamite in the Golden Bears' win over Texas (110 yards on 18 carries with two touchdowns).
Defense: Derron Brown, Safety
New Cal head coach Justin Wilcox has had a knack for moving players into new positions to maximize their potential. Both Shaq Thompson (Washington) and Su'a Cravens (USC) flourished after moving from the secondary into the linebackers corps. At Cal, Brown could have a similar impact with the role reversed.
Brown is transitioning to safety from linebacker, and per the Daily Californian, competing with Evan Rambo for the starting job. Rambo missed most of 2016 due to injury.
Offense: Jacob Breeland, Tight End
The new Oregon coaching staff inherits an impressive offense, with returning starters throughout the wide receiving corps; at running back; at quarterback; and across the offensive line. The wild card in this offense perhaps taking a step back toward being the kind of high-powered machine expected of Oregon is tight end. Enter Breeland.
As a freshman in 2016, Breeland averaged nearly 21 yards per reception, though he made just six catches. Expect a heavier workload — in part, because Breeland's heavier. He came into Oregon at just 205 pounds, but his listed now at 221. At 6-foot-5, he could be a dangerous red zone threat for quarterback Justin Herbert.
Defense: Billy Gibson, Safety
It's no mystery the new-look Oregon defense, under first-year coordinator Jim Leavitt, needs a few wild cards to emerge in 2017. One candidate is Gibson, a freshman who made his presence known with an interception in the spring game.
The Oregon secondary features a variety of veterans, like Arrion Springs and Tyree Robinson. The addition of some new talent could help bolster that unit dramatically.
Offense: Marcus McMaryion, Quarterback
It's difficult to be much more of a wild card than a quarterback who may not be the starter. Quarterback's been a contentious spot in the Oregon State lineup throughout Gary Andersen's first two years as Beavers head coach, with five different signal-callers getting starts in that time. McMaryion has been the best, however. He finished last season captaining the Beavers to two wins to close things out, and threw five touchdowns in the penultimate contest against Arizona.
McMaryion took first-string reps in the spring, but the job isn't assuredly his entering fall camp. Junior college transfer Jake Luton could challenge for the starting gig.
Defense: Andrzej Hughes-Murray, Linebacker
Hughes-Murray came on in the second half of his freshman campaign, and made an immediate impact for Oregon State's defense. The first-year Beaver rolled off a tackle for a loss in three straight games, accrued eight total tackles at UCLA, and blocked a kick against Washington State.
With Bright Ugwoegbu and Titus Failauga back on the outside linebacker spots, Hughes-Murray's late-season emergence gives Oregon State one of the more game-tested linebacking corps in the Pac-12.
Offense: Keller Chryst, Quarterback
As noted in the breakdown of Pac-12 statistics, Stanford's offensive fortunes improved dramatically after David Shaw named Chryst the full-time starting quarterback. Chryst enters the 2017 season one of the most intriguing wild cards in the Pac-12 for a number of reasons: First, was Stanford's turnaround with him behind center the result of facing lesser competition exclusively? Second, how will he recover from a late-season knee injury that kept him sidelined throughout spring practices?
There's no doubt a healthy Chryst brings certainly qualities Stanford's flourished with in quarterbacks. He's mobile, like predecessors Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan, and his accuracy steadily improved. The question both for his outlook, and the Cardinal's Pac-12 title aspirations, is if he can make the jump in the same fashion as Hogan?
Defense: Dylan Jackson, Defensive End
Stanford claimed its place atop the Pac-12 three of the previous five seasons through an aggressive defense, keyed up front with a tenacious pass rush. Solomon Thomas was one of the nation's very best in that regard in both 2015 and '16. Jackson started on the strong side, opposite the All-American Thomas. He won't be called upon necessarily to fill Thomas' immense shoes, but he will be one of the Cardinal collectively picking up the slack.
Last season was Jackson's first seeing game action, and he played all 13 contests. He complements tackle Harrison Phillips, the top returning pass rusher on the Cardinal line.
Offense: Aaron Fuller, Wide Receiver
Washington boasted arguably the most dangerous one-two wide receiver combination in college football last season with John Ross and Dante Pettis. Ross is headed to the NFL, but Pettis is back. The speedster can make serious noise should another threat emerge to complement him. Fuller could be that threat.
Fuller's coming off a debut campaign in which he caught 16 passes and two touchdowns. The No. 2 role will likely come down to either Fuller or Chico McClatcher. Both are smaller, fast wideouts who can turn middling gains into explosive plays with the slightest of openings.
Defense: Austin Joyner, Defensive Back
No team in college football generated more turnovers than Washington. The Huskies can credit much of that defensive greediness to a secondary heavy on veterans, like Sidney Jones, Kevin King and Budda Baker. With all three gone for the NFL, new opportunities emerge — opportunities for players like Joyner.
Joyner's entering his third year in the program, so he's no newbie. His 2015 was shortened by injury, and last year he played as a reserve. However, a big spring could catapult Joyner into a key role as one of the starters replacing last year's outstanding crew.
Offense: Kyle Sweet, Wide Receiver
Washington State's potent passing attack lost one of the most consistent playmakers in Pac-12 history, Gabe Marks. His void will not be easily filled, though the typically deep Cougars wide receiving corps has options. One is Sweet, a third-year wideout who was one of Washington State's deep threats.
Sweet averaged 13.2 yards per reception, barely trailing veteran River Cracraft for tops on the team. Along with Tavares Martin Jr. — the likely No. 1 target for quarterback Luke Falk — and Robert Lewis, Sweet ensures Washington State has enough firepower to remain one of the most prolific passing attacks in college football.
Defense: Jalen Thompson, Cornerback
The biggest question mark for the Pac-12's most veteran team is its passing defense. The Cougars ranked No. 112 against the pass nationally in 2016. In spite of that, Thompson was a promising revelation as a freshman. He played in all 13 games, racking up 51 tackles and deflecting seven passes.
Thompson will be a cornerstone of the most pivotal unit in Washington State's Pac-12 title outlook.
Offense: J.J. Taylor, Running Back
Taylor appeared in just four games in 2016 before sustaining a season-ending injury — such was the underlining theme of the Wildcats' campaign. He only saw meaningful touches in two — but those two were enough to show flashes of being Arizona's most explosive ball carrier since Ka'Deem Carey put up All-American numbers in 2012 and '13.
Taylor ripped off 261 yards on just 38 carries with a pair of touchdowns against Hawaii and Washington. Before going down against Washington — which finished the season as the Pac-12's No. 1 defense — Taylor averaged 5.1 yards per carry and reached the end zone. Should he regain that form upon his return in 2017, he and dangerous dual-threat quarterback Brandon Dawkins (944 yards in 2016) could restore some of Arizona's offensive punch.
Defense: Justin Belknap, Defensive End
Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez hired defensive coordinator Marcel Yates in the 2016 offseason with the hope of bringing a more aggressive front seven back to Tucson after it flourished with the Desert Swarm of the 1980s. For such an approach to work, Arizona needs pass rushers to emerge. Former walk-on Belknap showed promise, earning a scholarship this offseason after earning in all 12 games with a sack, 2.5 tackles for a loss and two pass deflections in 2016.
The Wildcats struggled mightily defensively in 2016, so any positive contributions are needed to show improvement. Belknap's continued development is the kind of unexpected showing Arizona will need much more of to compete in the Pac-12 South.
Offense: Jalen Harvey, Wide Receiver
Arizona State returns the wide receiver in the Pac-12 with arguably the highest ceilling in N'Keal Harry. To keep defenses honest against the outstanding Harry, and to replace veteran stalwart Tim White, this offense needs a reliable secondary option. Look for Harvey to fulfill that role.
In his third year with the Sun Devils, Harvey emerged as a weapon at nearly 16 yards per reception. He should see more opportunities this season, stepping into the slot. Though Arizona State has undergone coaching staff changes, with Billy Napier now the third offensive coordinator in as many years, the slot position has seen a heavy workload throughout Todd Graham's tenure as Sun Devil head coach.
Defense: Alex Perry, Cornerback
Arizona State's passing defense ranked dead last nationally each of the last two years. Were that not trouble enough, the Sun Devils lost Kareem Orr to transfer and Armand Perry to medical retirement. Perry, Armand's younger brother and a 4-star 2017 recruit, could see a prominent role in the retooled Arizona State secondary from the start.
Perry is the second-highest rated recruit in Arizona State's 2017 signing class. He comes to Tempe from Las Vegas prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman, where he doubled as a dynamic return man.
Offense: Steven Montez, Quarterback
Montez saw high-pressure snaps in Colorado's surprising 2016. That experience should go a long way, as he takes the reins from four-year starter Sefo Liufau permanently. One stat from his freshman campaign that will follow Montez into his sophomore season, however, is that all four of the Buffaloes' losses came with him taking all or the majority of snaps.
Montez proved himself more than capable, throwing for more than 1,000 yards with nine touchdowns, and rolling off 4.4 yards per carry with a score. He was the fourth-leading rusher on the team. For Colorado to repeat in the South, however, Montez needs to improve his accuracy.
Defense: Isaiah Oliver, Cornerback
Colorado owes much of its 2016 success to an absolutely stacked secondary. Tedric Thompson was one of the nation's most prolific defensive backs when it came to interceptions, Chidobe Awuzie was a second-round NFL draft pick, and Ahkello Witherspoon played a central role in the turnaround on defense. All are gone, leaving Oliver as the veteran leader of a new-look unit.
A two-sport star — he also runs for the Buffs track team — Oliver is remarkably quick and athletic. He could emerge as the conference's top cornerback this fall.
Offense: Kolton Miller, Tackle
There's much new UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch needs to retool ahead of the 2017 season. Quarterback Josh Rosen must get back up to speed after missing half of 2016 with a shoulder injury, and the worst rushing offense in the Power Five desperately needs a reset. The success or failure in either regard comes down, in part, to offensive line play.
UCLA's offensive line made considerable strides in recent years, thanks in part to the emergence of Conor McDermott at left tackle. He's gone, leaving veteran Miller with the responsibility of protecting Rosen's blind side.
Defense: Josh Woods, Linebacker
Two defining traits of UCLA's defense for the last decade have been excellent pass rushers, and outstanding linebackers. In Woods, the Bruins just might have a two-for-one package.
Woods played significant snaps in 2016, including making a start against UNLV. He finished the season with 26 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss. He should see more pass-rushing opportunities if he moves to the opposite side.
Offense: Velus Jones, Wide Receiver
USC head coach Clay Helton's decision to start dual threat Sam Darnold at quarterback brought with it a shift in the Trojans' offensive style. With Darnold behind center, USC resembled a spread team more than at any other time. That new look presents some intriguing new possibilities, like the use of an athletic utilityman in the vein of Jones.
Jones is the kind of agile playmaker who can be snapped into a variety of roles in a multifaceted offense. He broke off a long rush on an end-around in USC's spring game, and he's got the speed to be a factor out of the slot. With fellow newcomer Tyler Vaughns as a potential possession receiver, and 2016 breakout star Deontay Burnett poised to replace JuJu Smith-Schuster as USC's No. 1, Jones will be the receiving corps' x-factor.
Defense: Kenny Bigelow Jr., Defensive Tackle
Utah transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu was critical to USC's success in 2016. His departure leaves arguably the biggest void anywhere on the Trojans' roster, in terms of production at his position; veteran leadership; and actual size.
Bigelow addresses the experience part. Because of injuries, he has been in the USC program for five years but played only one. He showed potential in that 2015 campaign, however, racking up three tackles for a loss. He'll have an opportunity to compete for the starting job Tu'ikolovatu vacated, and finally make the big splash expected of him when he signed in 2013.
Offense: Armand Shyne, Running Back
Joe Williams was a surprising, breakout star for Utah in 2016. The surprising part was that Williams actually had retired ealier in the season for health reasons, but a series of injuries to running backs left the Utes in desperate need. Shyne was among those injured, and perhaps the most prominent.
Shyne appeared poised to take over as the No. 1 back early on in 2016, averaging nearly five yards per carry with four touchdowns through five games. Shyne will share carries with Zack Moss and Troy McCormick, and quarterback Troy Williams should he win the starting competition with Cooper Bateman and Tyler Huntley. Of the ball carriers, Shyne might have the most breakthrough potential.
Defense: Bradlee Anae, Defensive End
Utah boasts its usual impressive defensive line, returning Filipo Mokofisi, Kylie Fitts and potential first-round NFL draft pick, Lowell Lotulelei. But, because Utah thrives with a swarming defensive approach, there can never be enough playmakers. In Anae, the Utah front has depth — if not a potential star-in-the-making.
Anae appeared in just six games as a freshman last season, but racked up two sacks. Having bulked up in the weight room, Anae could be difficult for opposing blockers to handle in the coming campaign.