Most important player: Oregon

All players are equal, but some players are more equal than others. That's the basis of our Most Important Players series.

First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Marcus Mariota is Oregon's most important player.

And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too. USC's Leonard Williams might be the best defensive lineman in the nation, but is he the Trojans' most important player considering the talent and depth on their D-line?

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: CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

2013 production: 84 tackles, 5 tackles for a loss, 3 interceptions, forced fumble

Why Ekpre-Olomu is so important: Marcus Mariota is the unquestioned star of the Ducks offense. Ekpre-Olomu is the same for the Ducks defense.

The almost certain preseason All-American -- he received second- and third-team nods last season -- and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer might be the best cornerback in the nation. Mel Kiper Jr. thinks so.

But it's not just that Ekpre-Olomu is good. And it's not just that, much like Mariota, he shocked many by opting to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft.

It's that the Ducks secondary, typically a strength, is rebuilding. Ekpre-Olomu is the only returning starter because his fellow standout corner, Terrance Mitchell, made a poor decision to enter the NFL draft a year early. Mitchell wasn't drafted until the seventh round.

While the Ducks traditionally play a lot of folks on defense, and the projected starters in 2014 are fairly game-tested, there's no question that Ekpre-Olomu is the veteran bell cow and leader. He needs to lead not only by example but also lead by making sure everybody is lining up correctly and handling the adversity that inevitably hits a defensive back.

Finally, with 10 starting QBs back in the Pac-12 and a bevy of A-list receivers inhabiting more than a few teams, an A-list, lockdown corner is about as important a player any conference team could have. Ekpre-Olomu's return means Oregon has the best one.

Other Most Important Players: