The annual unpredictability of the Pac-12 football race promises that every year, usually around Halloween, someone will do their best Charlie Day impression screaming, wild card!
The participants in the 2018 Pac-12 Championship Game offer some examples of what constitutes a wild card. Utah rallied after a slew of injuries to win the South for the first time, thanks in part to the play of quarterback Jason Shelley and running back Armand Shyne. Washington, meanwhile, reintegrated a previously injured Hunter Bryant into the lineup at tight end for the stretch run. It paid off big time.
Wild cards can come in the form of players coming off injury, promising reserves, transfers, freshmen — really, what makes them wild is their unpredictability. That, and their significance to a team's success.
Offense: Christopher Brown, RB
Two-time leading rusher Patrick Laird is gone from a Cal offense that suffered from disappearing stretches in 2018. The Golden Bears top two returning ball carriers are quarterbacks Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain, neither of whom gained a foothold as the clear No. 1 a season ago. That leaves a heavy onus on sophomore Brown to produce.
Brown scored a touchdown and averaged four yards per carry in limited touches (37) a season ago. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Brown's a big, physical back who could be relied upon as a workhorse while Cal irons out its quarterback situation.
Defense: Kuony Deng, LB
Key to Cal's surprising stout defense in 2018 was the play of its linebacker corps. Standout Evan Weaver returns to anchor the unit, but the departures of Alex Funches and Jordan Kunaszyk leave big holes. Look for Deng to help fill a gap.
Deng was ranked the No. 1 junior college linebacker prospect of 2019, coming off a 2018 season at Independence College (of "Last Chance U" fame) where he recorded 48 tackles and 5.5 tackles for a loss.
Offense: Juwan Johnson, WR
Oregon returns one of the most veteran lineups in the Pac-12 this coming season, but the early departure of wide receiver Dillon Mitchell for the NFL leaves at least one considerable space to fill. Johnson just might provide the answer.
The Penn State graduate transfer won't be asked to replicate the 75 catches, 10 touchdowns or nearly 1,200 yards for which Mitchell was responsible in 2018. At 6-foot-5, the lengthy Johnson is a much different style of receiver. With 701 yards worth of receptions in 2017, however, he demonstrated his value as a possession target. He'll also be a prominent red-zone target for quarterback Justin Herbert.
Defense: La'Mar Winston, LB
Applying heavy pressure in the backfield is central to Oregon's defense. With Jalen Jelks gone, Winston will have an opportunity to carry that mantle. A rising senior, Winston appeared in 12 games a season ago and racked up 4.5 tackles for a loss. As a presumptive starter, he could be due for a breakout campaign playing in the same unit as Troy Dye and helping alleviate Jordon Scott of blockers.
Offense: Nathan Eldridge, C
Oregon State needs offensive line help in 2019: enter Eldridge. The transfer from Arizona earned second-team All-Pac-12 recognition from the Associated Press in 2017, and honorable mention as voted by the coaches. His experience will be invaluable for an offense that ranked worst in the Pac-12 for sacks allowed a season ago.
Defense: David Morris, S
Injuries sidelined Morris for much of 2018. How he bounces back in 2019 should be vital for an Oregon State defense that needs all hands on deck to improve. Morris emerged as a freshman in 2017, standing out during an otherwise dismal season for the Beavers with 75 tackles and an interception.
Offense: Cameron Scarlett, RB
Despite returning 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love, Stanford finished a staggering No. 11 in the Pac-12 in rushing yardage. Love's on-and-off availability amid an ankle injury prevented Scarlett from ever really taking over as the No. 1 rushing option. As a fifth-year senior in 2019, it should be Scarlett's opportunity to show what he can do.
Scarlett averaged more than four yards per carry each of the last two seasons and scored a total of 16 touchdowns. He's proven to be a dependable goal-line option, but the Cardinal need him to emerge as an every-down back to buoy the offense.
Defense: Thomas Booker, DE
Booker stepped up in the latter half of Stanford's 2018 season. The then-freshman defensive end recorded three of his four tackles for a loss on Oct. 27 or later, against noteworthy opponents Washington State, Washington, and in the Sun Bowl against Pitt.
Booker has the makeup of Stanford's next game-changing pass rusher, in a vein similar to Trent Murphy and Solomon Thomas.
Offense: Jacob Eason, QB
The prodigal son returns — after a redshirt year. The Washington native left Georgia to join Chris Petersen's program a year ago, biding his time behind fourth-year starter Jake Browning. With the redshirt lifted, anticipation for Eason's Washington debut is sky-high. Should the projected NFL draft pick live up to his bill, watch out: The Huskies just might repeat as Pac-12 champions.
Defense: Brandon McKinney, S
Behind the guidance of co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, the Washington secondary was perhaps the best in college football a season ago. Of no surprise, the NFL agreed, and playmakers Taylor Rapp and Myles Bryant left early for the pros. Also gone are graduating seniors Jordan Miller and JoJo McIntosh.
Among those tasked with carrying on the lofty standard is McKinney. The safety made the start in the Rose Bowl Game against Ohio State, setting himself up to take over as one of the unit's leaders in 2019.
Offense: Max Borghi, RB
The importance of the running back in Mike Leach's wide-receiver dependent, high-volume passing offense is often overlooked. However, James Williams was a vital contributor to the Cougars' record-setting 11-win campaign. His production as a ball carrier, receiver and in pass protection rendered him arguably the most important Cougar behind breakout star Gardner Minshew.
While Minshew's departure may be the more high-profile offseason storyline to watch, Borghi taking over for Williams is just as significant. Borghi was a significant contributor a season ago, catching 53 passes (with four touchdowns) and rushing for eight scores. He's not as big as Williams, so if he blocks as effectively will be something to watch. But his ceiling as both a rusher and catcher out of the backfield is high.