Most important player: Washington State

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 them living up to expectations. Or their absence.

Washington State: DE Xavier Cooper

2013 production: 50 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, 4 QB hurries, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries

Why Cooper is important: Washington State should have a potent passing game this fall that helps the Cougars score enough points to win more games in Year 3 under Mike Leach than the program has since it won 10 in 2003. Whether that number is just seven or something more notable like eight or nine depends on what kind of defense the Cougs play.

And what kind of defense the Cougs play significantly hinges on whether Cooper takes another step forward in his development and becomes an All-Conference sort of performer.

Start with the pass rush for the 6-foot-4, 298-pound junior. Cooper led the Cougars with five sacks last year, but the defense's overall production getting to the QB was anemic. Washington State ranked 10th in the conference with just 21 sacks, and that was a big reason a solid, experienced secondary only put up middling numbers.

While the line takes a hit with the loss of NT Ioane Gauta, the Cougs feel pretty good about their front-seven. The secondary? Big question. It replaces four starters, including first-round NFL draft pick Deone Bucannon.

Cooper is capable of recording eight or nine sacks. Perhaps more. Moreover, he can make sure his secondary isn't stuck on an island for five seconds by harassing the opposing QB and making offensive coordinators respect him.

Put it this way: If Cooper ends up at least second-team All-Pac-12, it's not difficult to imagine Washington State breaking through in 2014.

Other Most Important Players: