The emergence of a wild-card performer can define the margin between a team winning a conference championship and falling behind the pack. Last season in the Pac-12, perhaps unexpected difference-makers like Uchenna Nwosu and Christian Rector were X-factors in USC claiming its first league crown in almost a decade.
In 2018, a largely wide-open forecast for the conference only heightens the importance for wild-card players to step up. For some of these athletes, their progress in the season to come can be the catalyst for a championship campaign.
Offense: Kanawai Noa, Wide Receiver
Despite a coaching change last season, the arrival of Beau Baldwin as offensive coordinator ensured Cal's attack did not deviate too dramatically from the pass-heavy "Bear Raid" attack. Continued emphasis on the pass -- Cal ranked No. 21 nationally in pass attempts last season -- opened new opportunities for players to emerge. Noa did just that, hauling in 56 receptions for 788 yards.
Noa already established himself as an integral part of the Cal offense, but his X-factor lies in his ability to elevate the Golden Bears to the next level. Both Noa and top returning pass catcher Vic Wharton III prevent defenses from keying in too heavily on the other. Either -- or both -- can have a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown kind of season. Cal will need Noa to make that step, particularly with talented Demetris Robertson transferring.
Defense: Evan Weaver, Inside Linebacker
Weaver came on strong down the stretch for Cal's vastly improved defense, capitalizing on a move from defensive end to linebacker. Weaver moved into the starting rotation after injury sidelined Devante Downs, perhaps the leading candidate for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year at the season's midway point.
Cal's defense suffered a drop-off without Downs in the lineup. Weaver must develop into the same kind of ball-hawking presence.
Offense: Dallas Warmack, Offensive Lineman
Warmack was on Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal's offensive line at Alabama, and is the younger brother of former Crimson Tide All-American-turned-Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl winner, Chance Warmack.
Certainly Warmack brings an impressive pedigree to Eugene. How the graduate transfer might factor into a veteran rotation on the Ducks' offensive line is as intriguing as his backstory. He played on the interior, and Oregon returns both guards Shane Lemieux and Calvin Throckmorton. It's a nice problem for Cristobal to face with so much potential at the skill positions.
Defense: Jordon Scott, Defensive Tackle
Before the 2017 season, former Freshman All-American linebacker Troy Dye cited Scott as a freshman to watch. Good call. Scott finished his debut campaign with 34 tackles (4.5 of which went for a loss) and two sacks. The big man (6-1, 333) is capable of even more in his sophomore season.
Just how good can Scott be? He became the first Oregon defensive tackle named to the Freshman All-America Team since Haloti Ngata in 2002, and that's where the comparisons to Ngata are likely to just be the beginning. Scott's massive frame and nimbleness on the line are reminiscent of the former Ducks star.
Offense: Artavis Pierce, Running Back
There are no shortages on areas in which Oregon State needs to improve. Some good news for the Beavers in coach Jonathan Smith's debut campaign is that the return of Pierce at running back gives the offense some punch in 2018.
After showing potential in 2016, Pierce came along midway through the season with Ryan Nall dealing with injury, producing solid numbers in losses at USC (12 carries for 60 yards with a touchdown) and vs. Colorado (10 carries for 52 yards; two receptions for 43 yards). His ability to catch passes out of the backfield, demonstrated in his 36 grabs the past two seasons, gives Jake Luton some needed support in the aerial game.
Defense:Kee Whetzel, Linebacker
Oregon State's struggles in 2017 were due, at least in part, to the prevalence of youth on the defensive side of the ball. That could be a boon for the Beavers' future prospects, though, as young Beavers like Whetzel were afforded opportunities to cut their teeth.
Whetzel saw an increased role in the linebackers unit over the final month, recording 15 of his 26 tackles, all three of his tackles for loss, and both of his sacks in the month of November.
Offense: K.J. Costello, Quarterback
For the second time in as many seasons since Kevin Hogan's graduation, Stanford faced a quarterback controversy. Keller Chryst began the 2017 campaign as the primary option, but his struggles opened the door for Costello. He capitalized with inspired play down the stretch, including a potential launching pad to stardom in the regular-season finale win over Notre Dame.
Costello missed the entirety of offseason practices after hip surgery, however, and his status ahead of the 2018 opener against an excellent San Diego State defense has considerable consequences for the Cardinal's forecast. Costello's availability and continued progression (or lack thereof after the injury) could well be the difference in Stanford contending for a College Football Playoff berth in 2018, and falling near the middle of the Pac-12 North race.
Defense: Dylan Jackson, Defensive End
Stanford football's been home to one standout defensive lineman after another throughout David Shaw's tenure as head coach. Last season, Harrison Phillips ably took up the mantle for 2016 All-American Solomon Thomas. In the coming campaign, Jackson's a likely candidate to continue the tradition with Phillips gone to the NFL.
Jackson's numbers throughout his career are not eye-popping, but he was a fixture on the Cardinal's line in 2017. Those reps could translate to increased production as one of the team's primary pass-rushers in 2018.
Offense: Chico McClatcher, Wide Receiver
Ahead of the 2017 season, McClatcher appeared primed to take on a bigger role in the Washington passing attack alongside Dante Pettis. McClatcher's explosiveness could adequately replace that of NFL draft pick John Ross, giving the Huskies a similar one-two combination akin to Ross and Pettis.
An injury sustained early in the campaign sidelined McClatcher, and Washington's offense suffered as a result. However, the promise of replicating the dynamic Pettis and Ross had in 2016 returns with McClatcher back in the lineup, and joined by 2017 breakout performer, Aaron Fuller.
Defense: Benning Potoa'e, Linebacker
Washington's defense has ranked among the nation's best under coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski in part because of its imposing size. However, what makes Potoa'e primed for a monster 2018 is that the outside linebacker actually slimmed down in the offseason.
A more physically fit Potoa'e should spend the fall dining on opposing quarterbacks with a faster blitz off the edge.
Offense: Abraham Lucas, Offensive Lineman
The foundation of Washington State's potent offense through its 2015-17 resurgence was its offensive line. Many of the familiar faces from that unit are gone, including All-American guard Cody O'Connell, and all-conference tackle Cole Madison.
Lucas, a redshirt freshman, appears positioned to step in for Madison, who leaves big shoes for a youngster to fill. Lucas has the size at about 6-foot-6 and more than 300 pounds.
Defense: Nick Begg, Defensive End
Defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa was a rare talent that doesn't come most programs often. Replicating the All-American's productivity on the interior of the line is a tall order -- but Washington State seeing more from its ends could help soften the sting of Mata'afa's departure. Begg showed in the spring game that he might be the leading candidate to anchor Washington State's defensive line, building on a promise finish to his 2017 campaign.
Offense: Nathan Tilford, Running Back
Quarterback Khalil Tate's emergence as one of the nation's most explosive ball carriers perhaps overshadowed just how deep the supporting running back corps around him was in 2017. In particular, seniors Nick Wilson and Zack Greene provided a power punch that nicely complemented the speed and shiftiness of Tate and J.J. Taylor.
Wilson and Greene are gone after totaling more than 900 yards with 17 rushing touchdowns. Look for Tilford, a 4-star 2017 signee, to pick up as the power option in Arizona's multifaceted run game. Tilford scored two touchdowns and averaged more than nine yards per carry in spot duty last season. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he's the physical opposite to the lightning bug Taylor.
Defense: Jarrius Wallace, Safety
Wallace factored into Arizona's rotation as a reserve for the first half of 2017, but took on a larger role down the stretch. His impact was apparent pretty early on with increased responsibility; his one interception of the campaign killed a Cal red-zone drive in Arizona's overtime win in Berkeley.
Wallace ended spring camp positioned as one starting safety spot for a secondary that returns standouts Jace Whittaker, Lorenzo Burns and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles.
Offense: Cohl Cabral, Offensive Lineman
Uncertainty defines the forecast for Arizona State football ahead of 2018. The hire of Herm Edwards as head coach was one of, if not the most surprising leadership move of the offseason. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils also replace a variety of key contributors. Perhaps most notable are running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.
Turnover in the backfield might suggest that Eno Benjamin is the primary X-factor for Arizona State's offense in the coming season, but the return of underrated quarterback Manny Wilkins and a deep wide receiver corps -- including arguably the most exciting pass-catcher in the nation, N'Keal Harry -- will help the run game's progression. Of greater importance is how this offensive line performs. Cabral, whose move from left tackle to center indicates the changes ongoing on Arizona State's front five, might set the tone for the entire unit.
Defense: Jay Jay Wilson, Linebacker
High praise in the offseason from new Arizona State position coach and former NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce sets the bar for Wilson. His brand of pass-rushing off the edge and athleticism are reminiscent of former Sun Devils star Carl Bradford.
A new look brought over by former San Diego State defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales should maximize Wilson's play-making potential.
Offense: Travon McMillian, Running Back
Running back Phillip Lindsay left Colorado as both one of the most productive offensive players the program's had in a long time, and as the heart of a resurgence. His departure leaves a considerable void coach Mike MacIntyre may have to fill by committee, but the addition of McMillian could provide an every-down option.
The Virginia Tech transfer surpassed 1,000 yards rushing in his freshman season with the Hokies, and managed as many touchdowns in his sophomore campaign despite seeing fewer carries. In 2017, McMillian contributed on special teams. Colorado will have options with how it distributes his workload.
Defense: Trey Udoffia, Cornerback
After ranking at the bottom nationally for interceptions just a few years ago, outstanding play in the secondary has been a defining trait of Colorado football. Isaiah Oliver's star turn last season in place of NFL draftee Chidobe Awuzie softened the blow of turnover, but Oliver now leaving means it's time for a different Buff to step up. Udoffia is a prime candidate.
Udoffia made 37 tackles, intercepted a pass and broke up another five as a freshman in 2017. If he continues to progress as a sophomore, Udoffia could turn Colorado's recent run of star corners into a veritable trend.
Offense: Soso Jamabo, Running Back
Jamabo came to UCLA with 5-star recruiting accolades, but beyond brief glimpses, has never quite lived up to his billing. The arrival of Chip Kelly and implementation of a new offensive scheme could finally unlock Jamabo's promise.
Kelly's offenses at Oregon in his time as head coach gained acclaim for showcasing smaller backs like LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, but while serving as Mike Bellotti's offensive coordinator, Kelly attacked with LeGarrette Blount. The 6-foot-2 Blount played his college ball at 230 pounds; heavier than Jamabo's 215-pound frame, but the same height. Expect UCLA to unveil looks that capitalize on Jamabo's size and give him the opportunity to build momentum in a more downhill running fashion than at any time previous in his three years as a Bruin.
Defense: Nate Meadors, Safety
An outstanding final stretch of the 2017 season had Meadors sneaking in some NFL mock drafts. His decision to return to UCLA for one more season gives the Bruins a much-needed veteran presence and potential rising star in the secondary.
Meadors recorded 26 of his 55 tackles in the final regular-season month plus the bowl game. That run also included a pivotal pick-six in the Bruins' season-salvaging defeat of Arizona State. Along with impressive freshman Darnay Holmes, Meadors gives new defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro two high-potential play-makers in the secondary.
Offense: Stephen Carr, Running Back
Ronald Jones II left USC having surpassed such noteworthy names as Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, LenDale White and Reggie Bush on the career rushing list. To say Jones' departure leaves a void is an understatement. Carr managed to shine in 2017, even with Jones still donning the cardinal-and-gold. The question heading into 2018 is whether Jones casts a longer shadow after leaving the Trojans.
Carr finished his freshman campaign with 363 rushing yards and three touchdowns, as well as another 188 receiving yards. His output would have been greater if not for a midseason injury, which opened up opportunities for Vavae Malepeai. Malepeai's production translates to another potential one-two combination out of the backfield, even without Jones.
Defense: John Houston Jr., Linebacker
A key contributor down the stretch in USC's 2017 Pac-12 Championship, Houston played with an energy and tenacity reminiscent of another Trojan: 2017 breakout star Uchenna Nwosu. While the comparison isn't direct -- Nwosu has a much larger frame -- Houston's versatility means he could be a difference-maker in the same vein as the since-departed All-Pac-12 performer.
Offense: Tyler Huntley, Quarterback
Throughout Utah's tenure in the Pac-12, the one lingering concern has been consistent quarterback play. A talented dual-threat signal-caller, Huntley showed flashes of solving that issue for the Utes in 2017, but his absence from the lineup for stretches due to injury limited his output.
While veteran backup Troy Williams played capably, particularly in a narrow loss at USC, having Huntley behind center full-time is Utah's best option. And if Huntley can build on a 2017 in which he completed almost 64 percent of his pass attempts and rushed for 537 yards, Utah may well have its most steadying quarterback presence since Brian Johnson led the 2008 Utes to a perfect season.
Defense: Jaylon Johnson, Cornerback
The four-star 2017 signee did not disappoint in his debut campaign, recording 25 tackles with six pass breakups and an interception. With Julian Blackmon back in the mix at the other cornerback spot, measurable improvement from Johnson in his sophomore season could give Utah the most dangerous duo of coverage defenders in the Pac-12.