Most important player: Stanford Cardinal

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.

Stanford: LB Shayne Skov

2012 production: Led the Cardinal with 81 total tackles while recording nine tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

Why Skov is so important: You could easily make an argument that whoever wins the running back competition could occupy this spot. After all, Stanford's offensive philosophy is ground-and-pound and that's not going to change with the departure of Stephan Taylor. But the fact that Stanford will take much more of a by-committee approach in 2013 than it did in 2012 leaves that point open for debate.

There is no debate, however, about what Skov means to this team. Before his season-ending knee injury at Arizona in 2011, he was slotted as a potential first-round draft pick. He returned in 2012 and was very good. But not quite back to where he was pre-injury.

He is now. And that bodes very well for one of the top defensive units in the country.

"Talking to him at the end of spring, he estimated that he was between 90-95 percent and you could see when he got back for our second session in April, he was passing guys again like he used to," said Stanford coach David Shaw. "He was passing up other defenders on his way to the ball.

"He was excited to feel that explosion back. To feel that speed back that he never really felt all year. He was healthy all year. He had the strength all year. He wore the knee brace. But the knee could protect itself and he was not at risk of injury. It was just that explosion is always the last thing to come back. And everybody is different when that does come back. I think it's finally back and he's going to start training camp at 100 percent and hopefully better than ever."

And offensive coordinators around the league just felt a chill down their spines.

Skov is obviously impactful for what he does on the field -- especially if he truly is 100 percent. Because an 80-percent Shayne Skov in 2012 was still pretty darn good. But what he can do off the field is just as inspiring.

Watch some of his locker room speech before the USC game and you'll get an idea of what Skov does for this team.

He is the kind of player who can motivate the entire team with his play on the field and inspire them with his fire off it. Flanked by a front seven that was No. 5 nationally against the run, No. 2 in tackles for loss and the best in the country at tallying sacks, Skov will be looked upon again to be the leader of a defense filled with leaders.

Skov's decision to come back -- made in congress with outside linebacker Trent Murphy and defensive end Ben Gardner -- gives the Cardinal three of the top players nationally at their positions in the front seven. The defense is expected to be even better than it was in 2012. And there's little doubt that a 100-percent Skov will be its leader on the field and in the locker room.