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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
The start of the 2017 college football season is rapidly approaching, and it’s time to find out whether you’ve done your offseason homework.
Long gone are Deshaun Watson, Leonard Fournette and Myles Garrett, but those stars have already been replaced by other names you must know to look smart on your first full Saturday of hot wings and cold drinks at your local hangout.
The following 50 names are ranked in order of how often they’re likely to come up on a weekly basis. Draft projections, Heisman hopes and team expectations were all taken into account to reach that end.
Though a few coaches appear here, only those who changed schools this offseason were eligible for inclusion. Even if you’ve barely paid attention to college football over the past half-decade, you don’t need us to tell you Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are names to know. Matt Rhule and Tom Herman, on the other hand, are worth noting after transitioning from the AAC to the Big 12.
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Todd J. Van Emst/Associated Press
50. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn QB
Malik Zaire (Florida) and Will Grier (West Virginia) are valiant challengers, but Stidham will enter the season as the nation’s most noteworthy transfer. Baylor’s former 5-star recruit should be the leader of the SEC’s biggest threat to Alabama.
49. Justin Jackson, Northwestern RB
Already one of the most accomplished players to ever don a Northwestern jersey, Jackson is one more solid season away from finishing his career as a top-10 rusher in FBS history. He has rushed for at least 1,187 yards in each of the past three seasons and needs just 1,259 more to bypass LaDainian Tomlinson for 10th place.
48. Da’Ron Payne, Alabama DT
Alabama lost sack leaders Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and Reuben Foster, opening the door for Payne to potentially become the star of this defensive front seven. His five tackles and half-sack in the national championship game could be a sign of what’s to come.
47. Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic Head Coach
The Owls haven’t had a winning season since 2008 and have posted a 3-9 record in four of the last five years. Kiffin’s arrival ensures this program will receive some national attention for a change.
46. Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State DE
Nick Bosa might be the more popular piece of Ohio State’s defense, because older brother Joey was such a stud from 2013-15. However, Lewis has recorded 8.0 sacks in each of the past two seasons, and his decision to return for a senior year is one of the reasons the Buckeyes are among the top candidates to win it all.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
45. Ronald Jones II, USC RB
After a slow start to his sophomore season, Jones averaged 132.8 yards per game and 6.9 yards per carry over his final six contests. Sam Darnold may be USC’s top candidate for the Heisman, but Jones will be a crucial cog in the Trojan offense.
44. Vita Vea, Washington DT
At 6’5″ and 340 pounds, Vea is a can’t-miss presence on the field. He only had 39 tackles and 5.0 sacks in 2016, but the redshirt junior has the untapped potential to become the most unstoppable defensive lineman in the nation.
43. Matt Canada, LSU Offensive Coordinator
Canada is the only person featured here who is a non-HC member of a coaching staff, but his name will come up time and again in 2017. Canada has been an offensive coordinator at Indiana, Northern Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh over the past decade, and he’ll now be tasked with revolutionizing a LSU offense that stalled out too often last year.
42. Jalen Hurts, Alabama QB
Hurts’ name may not come up as often as it should because he won’t be eligible for the NFL draft until 2019. But he had a fantastic true freshman season and is the starting quarterback for the preseason favorites to win the national championship. If you don’t already know his name, no need to fear. You’re going to hear it on a weekly basis for the next four months.
41. Josh Allen, Wyoming QB
The polar opposite of Hurts, Allen plays quarterback for a team that may not qualify for a bowl game, but he will be mentioned repeatedly as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft. Expect to read countless scouting reports on him this year.
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Denis Poroy/Associated Press
40. Luke Falk, Washington State QB
The Cougars are a fringe Top 25 team, and this offense could do something special in Falk’s senior year. Over the last two seasons, the leader of Mike Leach’s aerial assault has averaged 361.2 passing yards and 3.0 touchdowns per game while completing 69.7 percent of his pass attempts.
39. Azeem Victor, Washington LB
The NFL draft depleted Washington’s sensational secondary, but Victor is the leader of what should be one of the best linebacker groups in the nation. The Huskies were undefeated while Victor was on the field, though a broken leg cut short his season after just nine games.
38. Jaire Alexander, Louisville DB
Alexander had a monster sophomore season with the Cardinals, intercepting five passes and breaking up nine others. For good measure, he also returned a punt for a touchdown and should remain a weapon on special teams. His statistical output may decrease this year, but only because opposing quarterbacks will be trying to avoid him at all costs.
37. Deondre Francois, Florida State QB
He took a ton of hits as a redshirt freshman, but it was clear from the beginning that Francois had a bright future as the leader of the Seminoles. More weight will fall on his shoulders with Dalvin Cook out of the picture, and he should be up to the challenge.
36. Frank Ragnow, Arkansas C
After he went two straight seasons without allowing a single sack, Pro Football Focus named Ragnow the nation’s best offensive lineman. It’s the run blocking for which he is most renowned, though. Even though primary running back Rawleigh Williams III unexpectedly retired this offseason, Arkansas should have another solid year of rushing behind Ragnow.
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Tony Ding/Associated Press
35. Maurice Hurst, Michigan DT
Just about every piece of Michigan’s 2016 starting defense is gone, but the Wolverines caught a bit of a break with Hurst returning for one more year. He had 5.0 sacks last season and should be a foundation for this unit to build around.
34. Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame OT
Along with Quenton Nelson, McGlinchey gives Notre Dame the best LT-LG combination in the country. Both guys ought to be first-round picks in April, and McGlinchey could be a near-unanimous preseason All-American at tackle. We don’t often hear much about individual offensive linemen, but this one is bound to come up from time to time as an anchor of the Fighting Irish offense.
33. Rashan Gary, Michigan DE
Gary’s freshman-year numbers (23 tackles, 0.5 sacks) weren’t anything special, but Michigan fans should expect big things from the guy who several recruiting sites ranked as the best overall player in the 2016 class.
32. Willie Taggart, Oregon Head Coach
After Taggart put Western Kentucky on the map and turned South Florida back into an annual bowl participant, Oregon hired him to right its ship. The Ducks suffered as many losses in 2016 (eight) as they did from 2010-14 combined, and that fanbase is already yearning for a return to normalcy. Whether he gets the job done in his first year or not, much will be said and written about Taggart’s inaugural campaign in the Pacific Northwest.
31. Quinton Flowers, South Florida QB
Speaking of South Florida, the Bulls have one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the country, and they have a weak enough schedule to make a serious run at an undefeated season. Flowers didn’t get nearly enough attention for his dual-threat heroics in 2016, but there will be many more eyes on him from the outset of this season.
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Brandon Wade/Associated Press
30. Courtland Sutton, SMU WR
Sutton has been solid for the last two seasons, compiling more than 2,100 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns. But in the span of two games this past November, he had a combined 25 receptions for 418 yards and four touchdowns. Those dominant performances put Sutton on the radar as someone who could lead the nation in receiving this year.
29. Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State DB
Everyone is obsessing over the return of Derwin James to Florida State’s defensive backfield. In fact, people are so obsessed with James that they seem to have forgotten a different Seminole tied for the national lead with eight interceptions last season. McFadden might be the best lockdown corner in the nation, and he could put up even bigger numbers this year now that he’s not the only player in this secondary opposing QBs are desperately trying to avoid.
28. Matt Rhule, Baylor Head Coach
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s going to take more than a coaching change for Baylor to recover from one of the worst scandals in the history of the sport. But can Rhule at least start the Bears down the right track in his first season? He was able to turn around Temple in just a few short years, but this will be a much bigger challenge.
27. Royce Freeman, Oregon RB
Injuries limited Freeman to 945 rushing yards as a junior, but we’ve had several years’ worth of evidence of what this man can do when he’s healthy. Freeman averaged 168.0 yards from scrimmage per game two years ago, and he should be the star of this Ducks offense in 2017.
26. Nick Chubb, Georgia RB
As was the case with Freeman in Oregon, few could have predicted 12 months ago that Chubb would be back for his senior year. But Georgia fans certainly aren’t complaining. Along with his partner in crime, Sony Michel, Chubb ought to pace the Bulldogs to one of the best rushing offenses in the nation.
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Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
25. Christian Kirk, Texas A&M WR
Kirk recorded at least 80 receptions in each of his first two seasons with the Aggies, but even 100 catches might be a conservative estimate for his junior season. With Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil and Jeremy Tabuyo all out of the picture, A&M’s aerial approach will often be “Kirk or Bust.”
24. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama RB
If there weren’t so many options in Alabama’s rushing attack, Scarbrough would easily be a top-10 name, if only because of how dominant he was over the final three games of last season. However, he’ll still be sharing carries with Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs, B.J. Emmons, Jalen Hurts and Najee Harris, so his impact on the national leaderboards isn’t likely to match his physical potential. Draft conversations will ensure Scarbrough becomes an oft-mentioned player, though.
23. Tom Herman, Texas Head Coach
After just two (wildly successful) seasons at Houston, Herman jumped at the opportunity to become one of the nation’s most high-profile coaches. No one is expecting Herman to immediately bring the Longhorns back to the apex of their Mack Brown years, but the hope is that the team will at least win 50 percent of its games for the first time since 2013.
22. Calvin Ridley, Alabama WR
Like Kirk’s situation at Texas A&M, Ridley was already Alabama’s top target before losing most of his noteworthy teammates. Sans Ardarius Stewart and O.J. Howard, Ridley is an obvious candidate for a 100-reception, 1,000-yard season. The Crimson Tide may not feel the need to throw the ball that much given their aforementioned plethora of talented rushing options, though.
21. Orlando Brown, Oklahoma OT
All five of Oklahoma’s starting offensive linemen return for another season, but Brown is the undisputed and unmistakable star of the bunch. At 6’8″ and 345 pounds, Brown is a mountain of a man protecting Baker Mayfield’s blind side.
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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
2016 Stats: (six games) 59.3 completion percentage, 1,915 passing yards, 10 TD, five INT
A shoulder injury sidelined Josh Rosen for the second half of last season while the Bruins sputtered to a 4-8 record. However, no one seems too concerned about that sophomore slump, as the 5-star stud who threw for 3,669 yards as a true freshman will enter this year at or near the top of just about every 2018 NFL draft board.
“He has the purest throwing motion I’ve seen in a long time,” NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah wrote in a scouting report on Rosen. “He is a graceful passer when he has some protection and a place to throw the football. He has the size, arm strength and intelligence to be a franchise quarterback in the NFL.”
The things that happen away from the field cement Rosen as a name to know this college football season. There was the dorm room hot tub incident midway through his freshman year, followed that offseason by some strong commentary about Donald Trump and the NCAA’s amateurism policy. This summer, Rosen made national waves by telling Bleacher Report’s Matt Hayes that “football and school don’t go together.”
Rosen always seems to be in the news, but we’ll spend the bulk of the next four months watching him audition to become a top-10 draft pick. If UCLA can turn things around and compete for a Pac-12 championship, Rosen’s name might come up more than that of any other player this season.
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Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 56 tackles, 21.0 tackles for loss, 10.0 sacks, three forced fumbles
The ACC is loaded with top-notch defensive linemen. Boston College and Clemson players will appear here later on, while others from Miami and Florida State were under strong consideration for a spot in the top 50. As a result, Bradley Chubb might go a bit overlooked at the national level in his senior season with the Wolfpack.
Talk to any opposing offensive coordinator or offensive tackle, though, and they’ll have nothing but praise for (and fear of) Chubb.
The 6’4″ edge-rusher had three games last season with multiple sacks, including a three-sack performance on a hurricane-soaked afternoon against Notre Dame. While some pass-rushers are only valuable in pursuit of the quarterback, Chubb is also a critical component in NC State’s run defense. Thanks in part to his ability to contain and tackle in open space, the Wolfpack ranked eighth in the nation in run defense, allowing just 108.6 rushing yards per game.
Chubb is one of nine returning starters for a NC State defense that could be one of the best in the nation. Established weapons like Airius Moore, Kentavius Street and Darian Roseboro will make it impossible for opponents to focus exclusively on slowing down Chubb. And any time he can go one-on-one with an offensive lineman, there’s a good chance he’s going to win that battle.
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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 61.5 completion percentage, 2,555 passing yards, 24 TD, seven INT; 845 rushing yards, nine TD
Over the past three seasons, J.T. Barrett has amassed a combined 100 passing (69) and rushing (31) touchdowns for Ohio State. Barring injury, he is going to finish his college career with at least 7,500 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, which would make him the first player from a power-conference program to hit both of those marks since Missouri’s Brad Smith in 2005.
In other words, if Lamar Jackson and Quinton Flowers are alone atop your list of dual-threat quarterbacks to watch this season, you’ve clearly forgotten about what Barrett can do with his arm and his legs.
Given the way he finished his junior season, though, that’s a forgivable mistake. Over his final three games, Barrett barely completed 50 percent of his passes and averaged 112.3 passing yards per game with just one touchdown through the air and three interceptions. Those late struggles may have fueled his decision to return for one more season of chasing a spot in the College Football Playoff.
As has been the case for the past two seasons, defense is going to be Ohio State’s calling card this year. But if Barrett can rediscover the level of play that made him a finalist for the 2014 Heisman as a true freshman, the Buckeyes will be the team to beat in 2017.
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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 57.9 completion percentage, 3,614 passing yards, 29 TD, eight INT; 365 rushing yards, seven TD
While J.T. Barrett struggled late in the year for Ohio State, Trace McSorley saved his best for last for the Nittany Lions. After a hit-or-miss first 11 weeks, McSorley completed nearly 69 percent of his pass attempts in his final three games, averaging 338.0 yards and 4.0 touchdowns per game.
Even before he started putting up big individual numbers, though, he was leading an offense that could not be stopped, as the Nittany Lions averaged 45.6 points over their final seven games. As a result, Penn State won the Big Ten and nearly won the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1994. McSorley will enter this year as a viable candidate to win the Heisman.
But will he even be the most noteworthy name on his team?
PSU running back Saquon Barkley ranks in the top five here and is more likely to be considered the most valuable player in the nation. However, if McSorley remains as efficient as he was down the stretch while Penn State battles for the title of highest-scoring offense in the nation, he’ll get plenty of national recognition.
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John Bazemore/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 62.1 completion percentage, 3,430 passing yards, 43 TD, nine INT
Speaking of efficient quarterbacks, how about the clinic Jake Browning put on for the first two months of his sophomore season? During Washington’s 9-0 start, Browning completed 67.7 percent of his passes, averaged 10.3 yards per attempt and had 34 touchdowns—38 if you count the four rushing scores—against just three interceptions.
Granted, the difficulty of the schedule left more than a little to be desired, but he was pacing the Huskies to more than 48 points per game and, ultimately, a spot in the College Football Playoff. Even though his final five games weren’t nearly as impressive as the first nine, Browning still became one of just nine quarterbacks this decade to throw for at least 40 touchdowns with a passer rating of 165 or better.
John Ross (1,150 receiving yards, 17 touchdowns) stole a lot of the spotlight with his blazing speed and propensity for making impossible catches look routine, but it’s now Browning’s time to shine against a schedule that’s even weaker than last year’s. Washington should spend the entire season in the top 10 in the polls, leading up to a big showdown with USC in the Pac-12 championship. That’s at least three months for Browning to be the face of a title contender.
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LM Otero/Associated Press
2016 Stats: N/A
Offensive linemen rarely get mentioned in college football’s national conversation, but Connor Williams will be an exception to that rule.
In the passing game, Williams is a brick wall. Per Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, he has only allowed one sack in the last two seasons, and that one mishap came on a broken play. In addition to flawlessly protecting Shane Buechele’s blind side, Williams is a 6’6″ steamroller of a rush-blocker who helped pave the way for D’Onta Foreman to lead the nation in rushing yards per game last year.
There isn’t a better total package on the offensive line, and he’s only going to be a junior. Provided he declares for the 2018 NFL draft, Williams should be a top-10 pick, and he could go No. 1 overall depending on the most pressing needs of the team landing in that spot.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 50 tackles, 22.0 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, seven fumbles forced
Harold Landry is a relentless pass-rushing machine. He had at least one sack in 10 of 12 games last season, recording at least four tackles for loss on three separate occasions. He led the nation in sacks and ended up with 10 more than any teammate, making him primarily responsible for Boston College ranking second in sacks per game and sixth in tackles for loss per game.
Some pass-rushers simply bowl over would-be blockers, but for Landry, it’s all about speed and agility. At just 250 pounds, he would need to step on the scale with a backpack full of rocks to measure up with the other defensive linemen in our top 20. But he uses that size to his advantage to blow by offensive linemen and chase down quarterbacks.
In addition to ranking first in sacks, Landry led the nation in forced fumbles, as he’s always looking to punctuate his sacks with a strip. He faced double-teams on a regular basis last year, but it didn’t matter.
Boston College will go up against Notre Dame and Clemson in back-to-back weeks in mid-September, each of which has one of the better left tackles in the country. If Landry can impress in both of those challenges, it would put him in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in April.
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Brody Schmidt/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 63.4 completion percentage, 4,091 passing yards, 28 TD, four INT; six rushing TD
For a player trying to make a name for himself as a great college quarterback, Mason Rudolph is in the unfortunate predicament of playing in the same state as Baker Mayfield. How can Rudolph be regarded as one of the nation’s best signal-callers when it’s nearly impossible to argue he’s the best in Oklahoma?
But if we forget about Mayfield for a moment and simply focus on what Rudolph has accomplished over the last two seasons, it’s easier to be impressed by his play.
Rudolph has led Oklahoma State to back-to-back 10-win seasons in a conference where the likes of Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU and West Virginia have been grappling for Big 12 supremacy. Two years ago, he carried the Cowboys to a 10-0 start before a cracked bone in his foot contributed to an 0-3 finish. He put up even better numbers last season, averaging seven touchdowns per interception.
With the vast majority of last year’s offensive starters returning for another season, Rudolph’s senior year should be his best yet. And if he can get a head-to-head win over Mayfield in the Bedlam Series, perhaps he’ll finally be the quarterback from Oklahoma showing up in the Heisman conversation.
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Brody Schmidt/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 71 receptions, 1,380 yards, 10 TD
Without a doubt, the biggest reason we’re drinking the Oklahoma State and Mason Rudolph Kool-Aid is the return of leading receiver James Washington.
Arguably the best deep-threat receiver in the nation, Washington has averaged 19.9 yards per catch over the last two seasons, scoring one touchdown for every 6.2 receptions. He went over the century mark six times last year, including a 296-yard game against Pittsburgh. Only Louisiana Tech’s Carlos Henderson (326 yards and five touchdowns) had a more preposterous single-game receiving performance in 2016.
Nearly two-thirds (64.8 percent) of Washington’s receptions garnered at least 10 yards for Oklahoma State. He had 10 catches go for 40 or more yards, and he led the nation with three receptions of at least 80 yards. His ability to make things happen after the catch is second to none.
If there weren’t so many other quality options in this offense, we would expect Washington to put up the incredible receiving numbers that Justin Blackmon did for this program back in 2010-11. As is, he’s the No. 1 wide receiver you need to know heading into the season.
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 48 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, nine passes defended
To make room for both Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence in the starting lineup, Christian Wilkins moved from defensive tackle to defensive end last season, shining like a shooting star in the process.
Of particular note on his 2016 stat line is the final tidbit, as it’s rare for a defensive lineman to defend that many passes in a season. In the past four years, the only other lineman with at least three sacks and nine passes defended in a single year was Utah’s Kylie Fitts in 2015.
Those nine passes defended are a sign of great instincts and field vision, and they’re a big reason why Wilkins could be the first defensive lineman selected in the 2018 NFL draft. The 13 tackles for loss are a bigger reason, though. He led the Tigers in that category, despite recording just one such tackle in the team’s final four games. He had five of his passes defended in those final four games, though, so he was still breaking up plays before they had a chance to develop.
If Clemson reaches the national championship for a third straight year, Wilkins will be a huge reason why. Along with his teammate below, Wilkins will anchor a defensive line that might be the best positional unit in the country.
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Elise Amendola/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 62 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks
Clemson had one of the nation’s most dominant defenses last season, and true freshman Dexter Lawrence helped propel the Tigers to greatness. The young defensive tackle ranked seventh on the team in tackles for loss, fourth in total tackles and second in sacks.
Reiterating a point made in our recent piece on Teen Terrors, when it comes to Lawrence, the statistics of the players around him most demonstrate his overall impact.
Six of his teammates had at least 10 tackles for loss, largely because he made it next to impossible for teams to run up the gut. One of the reasons Wilkins was able to knock down nine passes is because Lawrence was frequently providing pressure to force ill-advised pass attempts. And guys like Ben Boulware and Van Smith had the freedom to roam all over the field making plays without fear of anyone breaking free up the middle.
Losing Carlos Watkins as a sidekick may mitigate Lawrence’s overall impact, but it will likely mean a boost to his own output as he tries to become the most unblockable defensive tackle in college football since Ndamukong Suh.
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Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 55 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks, three passes defended, two fumbles forced
We’ll spare you the puns about how key he is to LSU’s success, but let’s just say it’s kind of a big deal that Arden Key is returning to the bayou after temporarily stepping away from the game for personal reasons this spring.
Early on in the 2016 season, Key was on a record-setting pace. After tallying 6.5 sacks in his first four games, he was on a 21-sack trajectory. Had he gotten there, it would have been the most since Terrell Suggs racked up 24 sacks in 2002.
Though he was unable to maintain that pace, he remained a terror for opposing offensive linemen and will enter the 2017 season regarded as the best pass-rusher in the nation. He might be the most explosive player in the game today, and according to his tweet from April, he got even stronger this offseason, bulking up to 255 pounds compared to a listed playing weight of 238 last year.
Any left tackle who can keep Key away from his quarterback for a full 60 minutes should immediately receive an NFL contract and some sort of achievement medal.
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Butch Dill/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 1,387 rushing yards, 15 TD; 106 receiving yards, one TD
Leonard Fournette was one of the top preseason candidates to win the 2016 Heisman, but LSU didn’t crash and burn when injuries limited the future No. 4 overall draft pick to just seven games. Rather, Derrius Guice seized the opportunity provided to him and became a rushing sensation.
This time around, he’s the one among the favorites for college football’s most prestigious individual honor.
Though he led the SEC in rushing yards as a sophomore, Guice’s numbers were somewhat hit-or-miss depending on Fournette’s availability. In the five games Fournette did not play—all wins for the Tigers—Guice averaged 180.6 yards per game and 7.9 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns.
Extrapolate those numbers for 13 games and you’re looking at roughly 2,350 yards and 28 touchdowns—which would be one of the five best seasons in FBS history.
A schedule including the likes of Alabama, Auburn and Florida will almost certainly keep Guice from coming anywhere close to those numbers, but 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns is plenty feasible if he can get through his junior year with fewer injuries than Fournette endured.
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Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 66 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks; six interceptions, seven passes defended, two TD
It should come as no surprise that Alabama is loaded with players you’ll want to know. The Crimson Tide make up 11 percent of the players featured here, and that doesn’t include guys like Shaun Dion Hamilton, Rashaan Evans, Anthony Averett, Damien Harris or Najee Harris, each of whom could have a monster year.
But as was the case last year with Jonathan Allen, the main Alabama player you need to know is a defensive juggernaut.
The Crimson Tide specialize in defensive touchdowns, and Minkah Fitzpatrick has scored four of them over the last two seasons. Because of his ability to turn defense into instant offense, he is one of 21 players in the past 15 years to return at least four interceptions for touchdowns. Not one of those players got to five, though, so Fitzpatrick is one away from becoming the modern-day king of the pick-six.
Fitzpatrick has excellent instincts and ball-hawking skills, which should help as he transitions to a full-time role as a safety. But he’s also ridiculously fast. Per NFL.com’s Chase Goodbread, Fitzpatrick ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds in the spring. That speed gives him the ability to cover just about the entire field from sideline to sideline, depending on how deep he is in coverage. Ten interceptions is a realistic expectation for this junior.
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Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 65 tackles, 22.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, six passes defended, two fumbles forced
Of the top 29 names featured here, 28 either play for or coach at a power-conference program. Houston’s Ed Oliver is the lone Group of Five product in the bunch, in large part because of the impact he made against power-conference opponents.
Facing Oklahoma in the first game of his career, Oliver had seven tackles and two sacks to help lead the Cougars to an upset of the Sooners. Later in the season against Louisville—in a Thursday night game on four days’ rest—he had six tackles, two more sacks, a pair of defended passes and a forced fumble in yet another upset victory.
Not bad for a true freshman.
It wasn’t just those two games, though. For whatever reason, Oliver always managed to play his best against Houston’s toughest opponents. In six games against teams that did not qualify for bowls, he had just 19 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 1.0 sack. In the other six games against bowl teams, however, he had 46 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks.
It’d be nice to see Oliver get motivated to destroy every opponent in his path rather than just getting amped up for the marquee ones, but it’s a testament to his potential that the best teams had no answer for him.
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Gregory Bull/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 1,496 rushing yards, 18 TD; 402 receiving yards, four TD
Penn State has had more than its fair share of incredible running backs over the years. Lenny Moore, Lydell Mitchell, John Cappelletti, Curt Warner, Ki-Jana Carter, Curtis Enis and Larry Johnson all shouldered the load for this program once upon a time.
But Saquon Barkley might go down as the greatest running back in Nittany Lions history.
At the very least, Barkley will enter his junior year as the best back in the nation. Not only did he run for more than 2,500 yards in his first two seasons, but Barkley went into the offseason with a bang with 306 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl against USC. It was one of three times that he rushed for at least 190 yards, which is more than any other returning player can boast.
If he merely repeats what he did last season, he would still become Penn State’s all-time leading rusher in a matter of just three years. However, he should be headed for an even better year than last.
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Butch Dill/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 70.9 completion percentage, 3,965 passing yards, 40 TD, eight INT; 177 rushing yards, six TD
Neither past nor present will you find a more efficient quarterback in college football than Baker Mayfield. He was great in his first season with Oklahoma, but he was otherworldly in 2016. Mayfield averaged 11.1 passing yards per attempt—only 1999 Michael Vick has ever done better—and he posted the highest passing efficiency rating in FBS history.
Here’s a glimpse into how much better he was last season than every other QB in the country: Mayfield’s second-worst (or 12th-best) efficiency rating of the season was a 174.9 game against Houston. Had he averaged that score for the entire season, he still would have finished fourth in the nation in the category.
Mayfield lost two of his top three receivers (Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal) after the 2015 season and somehow got even better. If he can do that again this year after losing four of his top five receivers from 2016, his legacy as an all-time college football great would be etched in cement.
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Chuck Burton/Associated Press
2015 Stats: 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, four passes defended, two forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered
Derwin James’ true freshman season was even better than the most optimistic Seminoles fan could have imagined. He was more versatile on defense in his first season with FSU than Jabrill Peppers was in his third and final year with Michigan. Depending on the down, distance and spot on the field, James could line up at either safety spot, cornerback, linebacker or edge-rusher, thriving in each and every one of those roles.
As a result, Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus wrote in May 2016 that James might be the best defender in the entire country as a sophomore. But he suffered a knee injury in the second week of the season, which prevented us from learning whether that was his destiny. He did have a team-high eight tackles and an interception in the Week 1 comeback win against Ole Miss, but it’s a crying shame we never got the entree to that appetizer.
In the 11 months since the injury, though, the anticipation has been mounting for his triumphant return. PFF doubled down on its belief in James in January when Steve Palazzolo had the Swiss army knife at No. 8 on his list of early 2017 Heisman candidates. If he hits the ground running with a strong Week 1 showing against Alabama, that bandwagon will be officially open for business.
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Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 56.2 completion percentage, 3,543 passing yards, 30 TD, nine INT; 1,571 rushing yards, 21 TD
Whether you’re wondering if Lamar Jackson can become the first two-time Heisman winner since Archie Griffin in 1974-75 or just wondering if he can fare better in his quest to repeat than Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston have in recent years, all eyes will be on the quarterback from Louisville who wowed us in 2016 with his incredible moves and his video game numbers.
The combination of fatigue and exposed tendencies on game film resulted in a lackluster final few weeks of the season for Jackson, but for the first nine weeks, he was one of the most entertaining players ever. He had at least 325 combined passing and rushing yards in each of those nine games and averaged 5.0 touchdowns during that stretch.
What will he do for an encore?
We can hardly bear to wait a few more weeks to find out.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
2016 Stats: 67.2 completion percentage, 3,086 passing yards, 31 TD, nine INT; 250 rushing yards, two TD
Sam Darnold is:
- The starting quarterback for a USC team expected to qualify for the College Football Playoff
- The preseason front-runner for the 2017 Heisman
- The still-way-too-early favorite to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
Until something happens to nullify all three of those things, he will be the most talked-about player in the nation.
The last time we saw him, Darnold was reaching new heights on college football’s most iconic stage in Pasadena. He set a career high with 453 passing yards and matched a career high with five touchdowns against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. If that was just a preview of what lies ahead in his redshirt sophomore season, this is going to be one heck of a fun ride.
One thing about Darnold that doesn’t get enough recognition is his mobility. He doesn’t run a ton (62 carries), but he chooses his spots wisely and rarely gets taken down behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, USC only surrendered six sacks in the final 10 games that Darnold started.
That ability to scramble when necessary is one of the several things that makes it feel like we might be watching Andrew Luck 2.0.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.