Most important player: California

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, for example, that Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' most important player.

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: RB Brendan Bigelow

2012 production: Bigelow rushed for 431 yards and three ouchdowns in 2012. He scored three touchdowns. He also caught seven passes for 92 yards and a score.

Why Bigelow is so important: If you watched Cal last season, you surely laughed at the above statistics. Talk about misleading.

Rushed for 431 yards? Er, Bigelow averaged 9.8 yards per carry. Scored three touchdowns? Who watched the Cal-Ohio State game? Anyone? How about four carries for 140 yards, including his 81-yard scoring scamper, one of the season's top plays by anyone. That touchdown jaunt was the longest run ever by an opposing back in 90-year-old Ohio Stadium. So, yeah, it was sumpthin.

His first two seasons in Berkeley, Bigelow battled injuries and inconsistency. Oh, and there was a sometimes baffling lack of touches, even when he was (reportedly) healthy. Was the Pac-12 blog alone last year when he rasped out loud, "Would someone give the ball to Brendan Bigelow? Just for kicks. Purty please?" The Pac-12 blog thinks not.

Know this: New coach Sonny Dykes really wants Bigelow to get the ball and do his explosive thing, preferably in space.

So, why is Bigelow Cal's most important player? Because if he averages 20 touches a game over a 12-game schedule, Cal will be a bowl team.

Bigelow's spotty history staying healthy -- he missed spring after surgery on the same knee he twice had ACL surgeries on while in high school -- makes the mere opportunity to give him touches a question. He's not a given for 12 games, but being able to hypothetically project him as one transforms this team.

For one, Cal will be breaking in a young quarterback this fall. His life will be infinitely easier if the guy standing in the backfield with him scares the pooh out of the opposing defense. Second, the Cal offensive line is, well, questionable. Bigelow is the sort who can do things on his own. Give him a sliver of light, and he'll give you 81 yards.

Bigelow's likely backup, Daniel Lasco, is solid. And incoming freshman Khalfani Muhammad is a speedy guy who figures to be in the running back mix immediately. But a healthy Bigelow is a difference-maker, a guy who could energize a team with a brutal schedule and questionable prospects in the Pac-12's North Division.