Each top 25 college football team’s most important player
Originally posted on Larry Brown Sports | By Grey Papke | Last updated 8/29/18
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The college football season is upon us, which should have fans pumped across the country. Though it will take a while to get a sense for the best 25 teams in the country, we do have our preseason top 25 entering the first full slate of games. Those teams will be relying on some key players all season. Here is a look at the most important player for each of the preseason’s top 25 teams.
1) Alabama — Tua Tagovailoa, QB
After taking over the second half of the national championship game, Tagovailoa showed what he can do. He is mobile, fearless, and has a big arm. He can give Alabama the kind of big-play ability at quarterback they haven’t seen for a while — possibly ever. He has no shortage of talent around him, much of it NFL-level, and he has already demonstrated skill and poise in the most pressure-filled situation. Expect him to have a solid year at minimum.
2) Clemson — Clelin Ferrell, DE
You could pick any number of guys on the Clemson defensive front, but Ferrell, who probably could’ve gone pro, is a clear standout. He’s poised to improve on a season that saw him collect 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. A redshirt junior, Ferrell figures to terrorize ACC offenses all season long along with his talented teammates. The team’s defensive front will be a major force.
3) Ohio State — Dwayne Haskins, QB
The Buckeyes have more talented players, but their championship aspirations will largely come down to whether Haskins is ready to take the wheel. He certainly showed he was when he stepped in for an injured J.T. Barrett against Michigan last season to lead the squad to comeback win. Even though he’s only a sophomore, he looks like he could ultimately become an elite quarterback before leaving Columbus.
4) Georgia — Jake Fromm, QB
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Fromm led Georgia to the national title game as a freshman last season, but with talented newcomer Justin Fields breathing down his neck, he cannot afford to ease off even a little bit. He is entering the year as the starter. If he keeps the job, 3,000 yards is well within the realm of possibilities. The fact that he’ll have to be sharp in order to hold off Fields should only work in Georgia’s favor.
5) Oklahoma — Rodney Anderson, RB
Kyler Murray will take over as the starting quarterback for the Sooners, and he has a ready-made weapon in Anderson to make his task easier. Once the Sooners fully embraced Anderson as lead back last year, he erupted, going for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns in his last eight games, including a 201-yard performance in the playoff against Georgia. There will be no questions about Anderson’s role this season — he’s the man in the backfield.
6) Washington — Jake Browning, QB
The steady hand behind so much of Washington’s success last season, Browning’s touchdowns took a big hit in 2017. There’s so much talent around him, however, that he should see his numbers climb back up. We know Browning has the potential to be a 3,000 yard, 30-touchdown quarterback. A season like that would do a lot to get the Huskies into the playoff conversation.
7) Wisconsin — Jonathan Taylor, RB
Taylor came in as a freshman and promptly put up 2,072 yards from scrimmage. Amazingly, he still has room to improve. Taylor could be regarded as more of a steady rusher than a big-play guy, though he does have it in him. He’s a huge weapon for Wisconsin, complemented with a good passing game, too. If he builds upon his excellent freshman season, Ron Dayne’s career records may be on notice.
8) Miami — Ahmmon Richards, WR
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Malik Rosier may be the Hurricanes’ starting quarterback entering the season, but he can be somewhat shaky The good news is he’ll have a great weapon to throw to in Richards. Richards was a star freshman in 2016, posting 934 receiving yards and three touchdowns. A knee injury limited his effectiveness in last season’s 10-3 campaign as he only played in seven games. Now healthy, he has a chance to star and give Rosier a great target.
9) Penn State — Trace McSorley, QB
The Nittany Lions are expecting a big year out of McSorley, and they definitely need one with running back Saquon Barkley now in the NFL. Fortunately, he looks up to the task. He has two straight 3,000-yard seasons and has fallen just short of 30 touchdowns in both of them. With the offense firmly on his shoulders now, he might get there this year.
10) Auburn — Kam Martin, RB
Jarrett Stidham and the receivers should produce plenty this season, so the onus will fall on Martin to offer another dimension in the ground game. Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway both departed to open the door to Martin, who averaged 6.1 yards per carry last season in limited duty. He’ll be expected to carry the load this year. If he produces, Auburn will boast one of the most high-powered offenses in the nation.
11) Notre Dame — Brandon Wimbush, QB
For the Fighting Irish to fulfill the playoff ambitions they doubtlessly have, Wimbush must become a better, more consistent passer with some big play ability. He was good for only 1,870 yards last season. And while 16 touchdowns and six interceptions wasn’t bad, there’s a need for more there. If Wimbush improves, the Irish are playoff contenders. Keep in mind, the junior is still a threat on the ground.
12) Michigan State — Brian Lewerke, QB
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The Spartans’ very quick turnaround and return to relevance had a lot to do with Lewerke, who threw for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns. He took care of the ball and made big plays when the offense needed him to. With Michigan State’s run game looking rather toothless, the offense depends on Lewerke to move them, but he has been up to the challenge.
13) Stanford — Bryce Love, RB
It’s not often that you can replace one superstar back with another, but when Christian McCaffrey left Stanford, the Cardinal turned right to Love and picked up where he left off. They promptly got over 2,000 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns, despite battling an ankle injury most of the season. Love passed on the NFL to return for his senior season and will be the most important part of the Cardinal offense again.
14) Michigan — Shea Patterson, QB
Jim Harbaugh has had some good teams at Michigan, but he’s never appeared in a Big Ten title game, much less won one or gotten to the College Football Playoff. A big reason for that is his quarterback play has never been good enough. Patterson, an Ole Miss transfer, could change that. Fresh off a 2,000-yard season, Michigan has weapons for Patterson to use provided he wins the starting job. He could be the guy who gets them over the hump.
15) USC — Porter Gustin, LB
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True freshman JT Daniels has been named the Trojans’ starting quarterback. There’s only so much that can be expected out of a true freshman, so the USC defense will have to be ready to deliver each week to back up the offense. That is where Gustin comes in. The linebacker looked to be on the brink of a breakout season, but a knee injury derailed that. In his first two years, he combined for 11 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss. If healthy, he could break out as a top linebacker in the Pac-12 and allow the offense a chance to find their footing.
16) TCU — Shawn Robinson, QB
Not exceptionally impressive in one outing last year, Robinson is now going to be the man for the Horned Frogs. The sophomore is mobile and skilled, and if the former four-star recruit can live up to that hype, TCU is looking at possible contention in the Big 12. His play is their biggest question mark.
17) Virginia Tech — Josh Jackson, QB
A good dual-threat quarterback with a year of experience under his belt, Jackson has a tough task with an inexperienced Virginia Tech team. His numbers were good in 2017, with 2,991 yards and 20 touchdown passes to his name. He has competition behind him, but there’s room for him to grow and lead the Hokie offense.
18) Mississippi State — Jeffery Simmons, DL
The Bulldogs have a sneaky good defense led by Simmons, a disruptive force on the defensive line once known for an infamous video. He could be poised to become a household name this season if he can improve upon last year’s numbers. As a sophomore, he collected five sacks and twelve tackles for a loss. The junior could do even better on what will be a very good Mississippi State defensive line.
19) Florida State — Deondre Francois, QB
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Francois is going to have to fend off a challenge from last year’s starter James Blackman, but he might have the inside track after a very accomplished freshman season two years ago. Francois threw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns, adding five more on the ground. After a season-ending injury in Florida State’s opener last year, he will come into the season with a lot to prove and a lot of young weapons around him.
20) West Virginia — Will Grier, QB
The former Florida quarterback is entering his second year with West Virginia, and the fact of the matter is he’s going to put up huge numbers. Last year he nearly hit 3,500 yards and threw for 34 touchdowns. This season, he’s being mentioned as a Heisman candidate and one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He can really take the Mountaineers places.
21) Texas — Sam Ehlinger, QB
Ehlinger, who looked better late in the 2017 season, was able to hold off Shane Buechele for the starting quarterback job. Now that the battle is over, the scrutiny can begin for a quarterback that will lead what was an unimpressive offense last season. Ehlinger threw too many interceptions, but came close to 2,000 yards in nine games of action and showed the ability to make big plays. If he can really grab hold of the job, the Texas offense could lift off and win ten games.
22) Boise State — Brett Rypien, QB
The nephew of former Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien, this senior quarterback figures to have a huge season. He’s going to be a four-year starter on a quality team, and it would not be a surprise to see him rebound after a down year statistically and hit 3,000 yards and 20-plus touchdowns once again. The offense actually has room to grow — 32 points per game qualifies as a down year in Boise State — but Rypien is talented enough to elevate them.
23) UCF — McKenzie Milton, QB
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One of the country’s finest dual-threat quarterbacks, new coach Josh Heupel is sure to build around Milton and hope he can help account for some of UCF’s defensive losses. Milton threw for over 4,000 yards and 37 touchdowns last season, plus 613 yards and another eight touchdowns via the ground game. He was the best Group of Five quarterback last year and should maintain that status yet again.
24) LSU — Nick Brossette, RB
LSU’s tradition of running backs heads for a new era again. After a couple years of Leonard Fournette and more recently Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams, the spotlight falls on Brossette, a former four-star recruit who will finally get an opportunity after the logjam in front of him cleared. He only has 46 career carries for 306 yards, and is still in search of his first career touchdown. His ability to break down will dictate a lot about the Tiger offense.
25) Oklahoma State — Justice Hill, RB
With major turnover at quarterback and wide receiver, Hill is the steady returning option for the Oklahoma State offense. With 1,657 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns last season, he has the experience to put up big numbers. Finding a rapport with his new quarterback will be important, but he should be able to run productively no matter what.