Cal football’s game on Friday, or Saturday in Australia time, officially kicked off the college football season and, well, the Pac-12 has never looked more muddled this close to the start of the season. With no clear favorite and a group of likely award contenders — think the likes of Christian McCaffrey, Luke Falk and Josh Rosen, just to name a few — the conference’s standings will likely be decided by some more under-the-radar players. Here are five of the players to watch this season.
Max Browne: Quarterback from USC
“Under the radar” and “USC’s quarterback” are two phrases that do not traditionally go together. But with the conference so full of big names and pro prospects, Browne — a redshirt junior who has never started a game — has managed to go largely unnoticed, especially after only being named the starter Saturday.
After Cody Kessler led the charge (and underperformed against top teams) for three years, Browne beat out redshirt freshman Sam Darnold for the job. Browne brings an aspect to the offense that the more conservative Kessler did not. He can sling the damn ball.
As the former number one quarterback prospect in the nation, Browne’s arm talent is unquestionable. His motion is natural and his touch is that of a more experienced quarterback.
Browne, like so many USC signal callers before him, will be armed with a talented group of skill position players. With JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ronald Jones II, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell Jr.to choose from, Browne will never be wanting for options.
Though his season could get off to a rocky start as the Trojans debut against defending national champion Alabama, Browne should put up big numbers and make the USC offense into the explosive one it could be.
Melquise Stovall: Wide receiver from Cal
Stovall is the only true freshman on this list and for good reason.
The 5-foot-9-inch sparkplug joined the Bears in the spring and has already been impossible to miss — unless you’re a tackler. Shifty doesn’t begin to describe Stovall, who immediately adds a new dimension to Cal’s offense.
He makes defenders look silly like it’s his day job, but the kind of job people enjoy. Stovall’s quick cuts and jukes make him a candidate to be a star at kick and punt returns, and help him confuse defensive backs when he’s running routes.
In fall camp, Cal’s quarterbacks were seen practicing to throw screens, and, watching Stovall, it’s not hard to see why. The philosophy on offense may be simple: Get Stovall the ball.
While the freshman will likely have an adjustment period once the season starts, it will be an upset if Stovall — who has already won a starting receiving job — doesn’t have an impressive highlight reel by the end of the year.
Gabe Marks: Wide receiver from Washington State
In head coach Mike Leach’s high-powered passing attack, attention is largely focused on quarterback Falk. Last season, Falk’s numbers were eye-popping: 4,561 passing yards with 38 touchdowns in the air while completing 69.4 percent of his passes.
But no explosive offense can be complete without a stellar number one receiver, and that’s what the Cougars have in Marks, a redshirt senior. He led the Pac-12 with 104 receptions last season and turned those catches into 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns. Marks is already Washington State’s all-time receptions leader, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he padded his lead by 120.
Though largely overshadowed by USC’s Smith-Schuster — Marks is not one to make a series of flashy plays and is not the most physically imposing — he has the potential to put together a Biletnikoff-worthy season. Just watching the Cougars’ standout run routes and get open is enough to fill up a TV special. And with Washington State set to improve and Falk still in tow, it wouldn’t be surprising if viewers started to see a lot of Marks all over the TV this fall.
Chidobe Awuzie: Cornerback from Colorado
With a Colorado team that has been the worst in the Pac-12 almost every season since joining the conference — 5-40 in conference play — it’s important to look for silver linings. And having one of the best defensive backs in the country is one hell of a silver lining.
“There are no more moral victories,” Awuzie said. “No, we’re right there. And we believe we’re right there. A win this season would be just to win.”
Awuzie, who is on the preseason watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award and was an All Pac-12 Second Team selection last season, will lead that charge. He had 78 solo tackles, including 13 tackles for loss and four sacks last season.
The Colorado star brings a lot to the table in the defensive backfield, flashing an ability to guard the slot while also carrying a six-foot-tall body and an impressive nose for the backfield. Awuzie could very well find himself taken in next season’s NFL Draft.
But for now, Awuzie will focus on heading a relatively talented defense that could lead Colorado to the promised land — a .500 record in conference play.
Michael Rector: Wide receiver from Stanford
Sharing the field with a superstar like McCaffrey is an easy way to slip through the cracks in opponents’ scouting reports and end up under the radar.
Rector, a fifth-year senior for the Cardinal, is a perfect example. While all eyes were on McCaffrey, Rector put up solid numbers last season with 34 catches for 559 yards and seven touchdowns. His performance earned him a spot on various preseason All Pac-12 teams.
His ability to stretch the field in the passing game and help clear the box somewhat for McCaffrey are crucial for Stanford, as it stops defenses from focusing all their attention on the Cardinal’s explosive run game.
With longtime starter Kevin Hogan gone, Stanford will turn to one of two signal callers who came out of high school as highly rated recruits in Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns. Both will look to give the Cardinal offense a more vertical dimension than it had with Hogan. Rector stands to be the main beneficiary — as he has made his name as a downfield threat — and the one most responsible for making his new quarterback feel comfortable.
In a season where the Cardinal were picked to finish first in the Pac-12 preseason polls for the first time, the extent to which Rector succeeds at these roles could be the difference between Stanford making the College Football Playoff or just barely missing out yet again.
Honorable Mentions: Royce Freeman (Running back, Oregon), Ronald Jones II (Running back, USC), Anu Solomon (Quarterback, Arizona), Soso Jamabo (Running back, UCLA), Demetris Robertson (Wide Receiver, Cal), Sidney Jones (Cornerback, Washington), Evan Goodman (Offensive tackle, Arizona State)