Who are the top 10 players in college football?
3:05 | College Football
Who are the top 10 players in college football? Staff
Tuesday July 12th, 2016

Ranking college football players is an inherently dangerous task. With the number of different manners a player can contribute—quantitative ways like sacks, yards and interceptions or qualitative ways like sound blocking and tight coverage—it’s difficult to gage who makes the most impact. On top of that, with players limited to four-year careers, there’s a significant amount of guesswork to assess how players will develop from one season to the next.

So, with those acknowledged limitations,’s college football staff presents its top 100 players for the 2016 season.These rankings are not just an assessment of what the players have done so far but how they’ll perform this fall. And rather than simply rank players by their expected production, we attempt to discern who is the most valuable. Essentially, if you were starting a team from scratch, whom would you want the most?

Linebackers made up the largest portion of any position group in our rankings, with 15 earning selection, trailed closely by 14 running backs. Wide receivers were next with 12 honorees, followed by quarterbacks with 11 and defensive ends and cornerbacks with 10 each.

Amongst teams, Alabama drew the most selections, a whopping nine players, followed by Clemson with seven, and Florida State, LSU and USC with five apiece.

Scott burst onto the scene with a first-team All-SEC season as a true freshman in 2014, leading the nation in punting with 48.0 yards per punt. That average dropped to 44.2 yards in 2015, but he remains one of the most lethal punters in the country heading into his junior season. — Zac Ellis

Jones helped anchor the back end of a Washington defense that finished second in the Pac-12 in opposing passing efficiency and ranked ninth nationally in Football Outsiders S&P + Ratings last season. Jones won’t generate as much hype this preseason as fellow Huskies defensive back and first-team All-Pac 12 member Budda Baker, but don’t sleep on the rising junior who led the Pac-12 in passes defended and recorded 10 pass breakups and four interceptions in 2015. — Chris Johnson

Scott earned Freshman All-America status in 2014 after leading Clemson in catches (76) and touchdown receptions (eight). He built on that performance in 2015 by grabbing 93 catches, second-most in Clemson history, and his 169 career receptions are the most by a Tigers player in his first two seasons. Scott will again be one of Deshaun Watson’s favorite targets in 2016. — ­­ZE

The sky’s the limit for Sperbeck, who broke out with a huge 2015 campaign in which he caught 88 passes for 1,412 yards. But those numbers mask Sperbeck’s slow start to the season—he caught just five passes for 41 yards in the Broncos’ first two games—as Boise State’s passing game struggled under Ryan Finley. Once freshman Brett Rypien took over, Sperbeck’s numbers took off. As Rypien settles in for a full season with more experience, Sperbeck’s production should only increase. — Colin Becht

Likely projects as one of the top cornerbacks in the Big Ten after recording 11 pass breakups, 44 tackles and four tackles for loss last season, but his inclusion on this list owes just as much to his impact on special teams. Likely is one of the nation’s most dangerous return men, and he even contributed on offense last season. His decision to return for his senior season with the Terrapins gives new coach D.J. Durkin an elite talent to counter the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten East. — ­CJ

The best Oklahoma State quarterback since Brandon Weeden, Rudolph enters his junior season with a wealth of experience (16 starts) and as the school record holder for single-game passing efficiency and career passing yards per attempt. In coach Mike Gundy’s traditionally high-octane attack, Rudolph could be the best quarterback in the Big 12 this season (even with Baker Mayfield leading the state rival Sooners). — Gabriel Baumgaertner

One half of Washington’s dynamic true freshman duo, Gaskin is a key reason many are eyeing the Huskies as a rising threat in the Pac-12 North. He expertly used his slight 5’9”, 192-pound frame to evade tacklers last season for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns. Now Washington’s young offensive line isn’t so young, so Gaskin should have plenty of room to run in his sophomore season. — CB

A player who called himself “the best defensive lineman in the country” during spring practice, Brantley is one of the anchors of Florida’s usually rugged defense. Named a second-team All-America by Pro Football Focus last season, Brantley is a staunch interior defender who can get to the quarterback on occasion. After finishing with 29 tackles and three sacks last season, Brantley could finish as a first-team All-SEC player in his redshirt junior season. — GB

Anyone unfamiliar with Leggett before the College Football Playoff title game last season certainly took note of the 6’5”, 255-pounder, who hauled in five passes for 78 yards and a touchdown against the Crimson Tide. Yet Leggett was one of the Tigers’ top passing targets all season, posting a team-high eight touchdown receptions. He elected to return as a senior even though he could have been a mid-round pick in the NFL draft. This season Leggett will serve as one of several potent receiving threats for Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Deshaun Watson. — CJ

Declared cancer-free in May following a diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma last year, Conner has a shot at returning as an elite offensive threat in the ACC. He broke out as an All-America in 2014, rushing for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns to break Tony Dorsett’s Pitt single-season record for rushing scores. — ZE

Godchaux has started 21 games in two seasons in Baton Rouge, becoming one of the fiercest defensive linemen in the SEC. He notched four sacks and seven tackles for loss in 2015 and could evolve into a bigger force under first-year coordinator Dave Aranda. — ­Zac Ellis

A coveted recruit even by USC’s lofty standards, Marshall enters his true sophomore season having already started 12 games and established himself as one of the premier cornerbacks in the nation. After he led the Trojans with nine pass deflections and three interceptions last season, it’s hard to believe that too many teams will be targeting Marshall. By the end of the season, he may be considered one of the standout defensive players in the nation. — Gabriel Baumgaertner

Smoot flew under the radar in 2015 due in large part to the team he played for, but there’s a reason NFL scouts have a keen eye on the Fighting Illini defensive end. The 6’3”, 265-pounder built on a solid sophomore season with 15 tackles for loss, eight sacks and three forced fumbles last season. Now he has his sights set on double-digit sacks in his first season under head coach Lovie Smith. — Colin Becht

Pumphrey has been lighting up Mountain West defenses for three seasons, and he recorded 1,653 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns en route to winning the conference’s offensive player of the year award in 2015. Now within striking distance of NFL Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk’s program rushing record, Pumphrey will lead a talented Aztecs squad that should begin the season as the favorite in the Mountain West’s West division.  — Chris Johnson

Ford became the first Virginia Tech player to top 1,000 yards receiving with his 75-catch, 1,164-yard campaign last season, in which he also set school records in receptions and touchdown receptions. The junior shined down the stretch with 507 yards in the Hokies’ final three games, including 227 yards in their Independence Bowl victory over Tulsa. New coach Justin Fuente has yet to name a starting quarterback, but whoever it is will surely benefit from having Ford to work with. — CB

With Trevone Boykin and Baker Mayfield leading College Football Playoff charges at TCU and Oklahoma, respectively, last season, Mahomes didn’t receive nearly as much attention as he deserved. That should change in 2016. The junior is a skilled playmaker who fits perfectly in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s high-powered spread offense, and he’s poised to build on the 5,109 total yards and 46 total touchdowns he tallied in 2015. However, Mahomes will have to make do without leading receiver Jakeem Grant, who was selected in the sixth round of this year’s draft. — CJ

An offensive lineman who barely played before last season, McDermott went from an unknown with one career start (as a blocking tight end) to a second-team all-conference selection during his redshirt junior season. A strong run-blocker and one of the keys to a unit that surrendered just 14 sacks last season, McDermott will be the main player protecting arguably the nation’s most prized quarterback in Josh Rosen. — GB

Walker flirted with skipping his senior year for the NFL after an elite season in 2015, when he notched 58 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks (most by a Seminoles player since 2012). Instead, he returns to Tallahassee as a linchpin of a loaded Florida State defense. — ZE

Fellow Gators linebacker Antonio Morrison may have gotten more attention last year, but Davis arguably had the more productive season. The 6’2”, 230-pounder made 98 tackles with 11 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, seven QB hurries, an interception and a forced fumble. After passing on the draft, Davis will anchor Florida’s linebacker corps this season and continue to be a nightmare for opposing offenses. — CB

In a year destined to be uncertain for Baylor, Linwood will be one of the cogs needed to keep the Bears from collapsing. An All-America candidate and two-time All Big-12 running back, Linwood is on pace to set Baylor school records for all-time rushing yardage and touchdowns. The question is whether he’ll be able to similarly thrive now that Art Briles is not in charge. — GB

A five-star prospect in the class of 2014, Blanding has more than lived up to his recruiting hype through two seasons in Charlottesville, recording 238 total tackles and four interceptions. He’ll further his case as one of the ACC’s top defensive backs and tacklers this season, but he’ll have to adjust to defensive coordinator/secondary coach Nick Howell, part of new coach Bronco Mendenhall’s staff. Blanding will get a chance to showcase his talent against an explosive offense early in the season, as the Cavaliers travel to Oregon on Sept. 10. — Chris Johnson

Like the star linebacker at rival Arizona last season (Scooby Wright), Fiso is one of the conference’s best players on an otherwise bad defense. Fiso finished eighth in the nation 1.5 tackles for loss per game last year and enters 2016 as the Sun Devils’ most experienced defensive player. If Arizona State manages to improve on a defense that allowed 11 plays of 60 or more yards, Fiso will be the anchor behind that effort. — Gabriel Baumgaertner

This pick reflects our confidence that Voltz will regain his form after suffering a knee injury that forced him to miss the final five games of last season. Reports suggest Voltz could move to guard this season to make room at center for redshirt sophomore Michael Deiter. Whichever position he ultimately lines up at, Voltz will play an important role in paving the way for a talented group of running backs led by seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale. — CJ

Entering his senior season, the 6’3” Engram is already Ole Miss’s all-time leader in receptions (97) and receiving yards (1,394) by a tight end. He earned second-team All-SEC honors in 2015 after finishing second on the Rebels with 38 catches, along with 464 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions. — Zac Ellis

Jewell is coming off a breakout 2015 season in which the former two-star recruit developed into an All-Big Ten honoree. He was a consistent playmaker for a Hawkeyes defense that ranked 19th in scoring defense, contributing 126 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions and a forced fumble. As one of eight starters back on defense, Jewell should help anchor a unit aiming to return to the Big Ten title game. — Colin Becht

Vanderdoes returns to UCLA’s starting lineup after missing almost the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL. A run-stuffing interior lineman, Vanderdoes is a brute force inside who thrives at getting into the backfield (he had eight tackles and two tackles for loss in last year’s opening game before injuring his knee). — GB

Corey Coleman was so productive last season that, despite the improbability of a player at his position winning the Heisman Trophy (no wide receiver has won since Desmond Howard in 1991), he drew serious consideration for the award into November. With the Biletnikoff Award winner moving on to the NFL, Cannon is poised to become Baylor’s top receiving target, and he’ll benefit from having quarterback Seth Russell—who suffered a season-ending neck injury last October—healthy to start the season as well as a strong running game led by Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson. — CJ

Had things gone according to plan last season, Kizer would likely still be the relatively unknown backup at Notre Dame rather than regarded as one of the top returning quarterbacks in the country. But when Malik Zaire fractured his ankle in Week 2 at Virginia, the Cavaliers—and the rest of the country—quickly saw the previously untapped potential in Kizer. The sophomore went on to pass for 2,884 yards with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and lead the Fighting Irish to the Fiesta Bowl. He’ll need to hold off Zaire to keep his job this off-season, but if last season’s performance was any indication, Kizer is more than up to the task. — CB

Conner surprised many by returning to school for his senior year, but may be looking to improve his draft stock after a meniscus tear cost him six games of his junior season. The former five-star recruit enters his fourth year starting in the Ole Miss secondary and is regarded as one of the better tackling safeties in the nation, effective both in coverage and as a blitzer. — GB

Reeves-Maybin is a key cog in Tennessee’s linebacker corps who led the Volunteers with 14.0 TFLs and finished second sacks with 5.0 last season. The senior will be a leader in first-year coordinator Bob Shoop’s defense, which returns eight other starters. — ZE

The latest in the Bullough family to develop into a star for the Spartans, Riley earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season with a team-high 106 tackles, along with 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. With quarterback Connor Cook and wide receiver Aaron Burbridge gone on offense, Michigan State will likely lean more heavily on its defense as it seeks to defend its Big Ten title. Having a playmaking linebacker like Bullough is a critical boost. — Colin Becht

A starter in 23 games over the past two seasons, Pyke has cemented himself as a constant figure at offensive guard. He’ll kick off his fifth season as one of the most reliable offensive linemen in the SEC under first-year coach Kirby Smart. — Zac Ellis

A First-Team All-SEC honoree as a redshirt sophomore in 2015, Cunningham established himself as Vanderbilt’s top defender, leading the team in tackles (103), tackles for loss (16.5) and sacks (4.5). His 16.5 tackles for loss were the most by a Commodore defender since 1999. — ZE

Jackson made a smooth transition from cornerback to safety last season and should be even more effective at the position in 2016. He was named first-team All-SEC after tying for first in the conference with six interceptions and also recorded 46 tackles, three tackles for loss, eight passes defended and a forced fumble. Instead of declaring for the draft after his junior season, Jackson elected to return to strengthen a secondary that also brings back studs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey. — Chris Johnson

It’s nearly impossible to condense Barkley’s 2015 season down to a highlight reel simply because he did something spectacular on just about every carry. Barkley forced 60 missed tackles last season, according to Pro Football Focus, a number made even more ridiculous when considering he only carried the ball 182 times. The 5’11”, 219-pounder made the most of those 182 attempts, gaining 1,076 yards with seven scores. Oh, and did I mention that was just his freshman year? — CB

Kelly enters 2016 as the top returning quarterback in the SEC after leading the league in passing touchdowns (31) and finishing second in yards-per-attempt (8.8) last season. A Second-Team All-SEC pick in 2015, he became the first Ole Miss player to win Sugar Bowl MVP since the legendary Archie Manning in 1970. — ZE

Never underestimate the power of a good kicker. With the departure of Florida State’s Roberto Aguayo, Phillips becomes the most established kicker in the nation. A two-time All-Pac-12 selection, Phillips holds a career kicking percentage of 84% (63 of 75) and 76% from 40 yards or more. To boot, he’s successfully converted all three of his career onside kick attempts. — Gabriel Baumgaertner

Butt has evolved from Twitter jokester to disabled list member to arguably the best tight end in the country. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has shown he can deploy players at Butt’s position effectively as pass catchers and blockers (just go back and look at the tight ends he coached at Stanford), and Butt shined under Harbaugh in his first season in charge of the Wolverines. The 6’6”, 250-pound senior will have a chance to finish his career as one of the leading receivers on one of the nation’s best teams while serving an important role as a blocker in Michigan's pro-style sets. — CJ

The younger brother of Utah legend and current Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, Lowell (he is one of eight siblings) enters 2016 as an All-America candidate after a breakout 2015 that saw him finish with 26 tackles, five tackles for loss and one sack. The brawny interior lineman has started 18 games since his freshman year and provides an anchor to Utah’s stingy collective. — GB

You can be excused for not having paid close attention to Indiana football in recent years, but you’ve missed some potent running games. Jordan Howard and Devine Redding both topped 1,000 yards last season while Tevin Coleman rushed for 2,036 yards in 2014. Last year, the Hoosiers allowed a Big Ten-low 13 sacks. Feeney is a huge (he’s 6’4” and 310 pounds) reason behind that success. He earned All-America honors last season but passed on the NFL draft to return for a fourth season starting for the Hoosiers. According to Indiana, in Feeney’s 2,719 career snaps he has allowed just one sack. — CB

The latest in a string of elite defensive linemen produced in Columbia, Mo., Harris recorded 18.5 tackles for loss, 56 total tackles, seven sacks and 10 quarterback hurries in 2015 while earning second-team All-SEC honors. Longtime defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski left after last season to take a job under new Miami coach Mark Richt, but that shouldn’t hinder Harris’s development into one of the top defensive ends in the country. He might be the SEC’s best pass rusher not named Myles Garrett. — Chris Johnson

Smith quickly emerged in his freshman year as the Trojans’ leader in tackles and interceptions before a torn ACL ended his season in November. In 10 games, the linebacker made 78 tackles and picked off three passes. All three interceptions came in USC’s upset of Utah, which Smith directly contributed to with 54-yard return for a score just before halftime. USC is expecting big things from Smith this fall as he is the Trojans’ only returning starter in their front seven. — Colin Becht

A leader in LSU’s secondary, Adams was a Freshman All-America in 2014 before earning second-team All-SEC honors last season. Adams snagged four interceptions in 2015—third-most among SEC defenders—and could be in for bigger things under first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. — Zac Ellis

Marks put up impressive numbers (104 catches, 1,192 yards, 15 touchdowns and a team-leading 69.8% catch rate on a team-leading 149 targets, according to Football Study Hall) as the featured target on a surprisingly formidable Washington State team last season. Everything is in place for him to replicate, if not exceed, those statistics this season: head coach Mike Leach and his high-octane, pass-heavy scheme; talented quarterback Luke Falk; and eight returning starters on offense. And if this catch is any indication, opponents will have a hard time keeping Marks out of the end zone. — CJ

The best player on the Arkansas defense, Wise finished 2015 with eight sacks and is expected to up that total in his senior season. Even more encouraging, Wise logged 19 of his 31 tackles over the final five games of the season and forced two of his three fumbles in the final two games. He became one of the most unblockable players in the second half of last season and is now being considered a potential first-round pick. — Gabriel Baumgaertner

While quarterback Joshua Dobbs may draw more of the attention, as much more his brains as his play on the field, Hurd is the quieter engineer of the Volunteers offense. The big back—he’s 6’4” and weighs 240 pounds—still shows plenty of ability to make defenders miss while also being tough to bring down. The result? 2,187 yards and 17 scores in his first two seasons. With the bulk of Tennessee’s offensive line back after a strong 2015, Hurd has a chance to produce his best season yet this fall. — CB

Florida State has a long legacy of star receivers (Peter Warrick, Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene, Anquan Boldin, Fred Blitenikoff), and Rudolph appears prepared to join that group. The prospective junior finished the 2015 season with team highs of 59 catches, 916 yards and seven touchdowns despite inconsistent quarterback play that hampered the Seminoles all season. A lanky presence who thrives on the deep ball, Rudolph will be in contention for an All-America mention come the end of 2016. — GB

Hall is a brick wall at 6’6” and 260 pounds and serves as a bookend alongside Myles Garrett on Texas A&M’s defensive line. Hall finished second on the team in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (7.0) last season and enters the fall as one of the more menacing ends in the SEC. — ZE

Former Texas A&M quarterback Kyle Allen (who has since transferred to Houston) probably hopes he never has to face Fitzpatrick again after the then-true freshman returned two of Allen’s interceptions for touchdowns in the Aggies’ blowout loss to the Crimson Tide last season. Yet while Fitzpatrick's performance in that win put him on the map, he was superb throughout 2015, notching 45 total tackles, three tackles for loss and 11 pass breakups. He should have even more responsibility in an Alabama secondary this season that brings back standouts Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson. — CJ

Maye surprised many with his decision to return for his redshirt junior season. By joining other budding stars (Jalen Tabor, Caleb Brantley), Maye will be a key component on one of the nation’s finest defenses. An All-America honoree last season, Maye finished with 82 tackles and five forced fumbles, good for second in the nation. A punishing safety, Maye enters 2016 as one of the top defensive backs in the nation. — GB

Haynes will kick off his junior season as an essential figure on Ole Miss’s defensive line, which loses first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche at tackle. Last season Haynes tied an Ole Miss record with 10 sacks—seven against SEC foes—and led the Rebels in tackles for loss (16.5) and forced fumbles (three). — Zac Ellis

Watkins is the latest force in Clemson’s staggering succession of outstanding defensive linemen (Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd just to name a handful). Watkins earned first-team All-ACC honors last season after finishing with 69 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks over 15 games. — Gabriel Baumgaertner

Jefferson’s commitment to Texas in December 2014 was viewed as a seminal recruiting victory in the Lone Star State for coach Charlie Strong. But the linebacker could prove even more beneficial on the field during the rest of his tenure in Austin. Jefferson shined as a true freshman last season, racking up 61 tackles and seven tackles for loss, and he enters his sophomore campaign ready to make a leap as the headliner of a Texas defense that brings back seven starters. He’ll get a chance to showcase his ability on a big stage in Week 1, when the Longhorns host Notre Dame. — Chris Johnson

It’s no slight against Leonard Fournette to note that he plays in front of an exceptional offensive line. Pocic is a key component  to that line, earning second-team All-SEC honors in his first season as the full-time center (he had played guard for most of his freshman and sophomore seasons). Now with last year’s tackles, Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins, off to the NFL, LSU needs Pocic’s leadership on the line more than ever. He may need to switch to tackle, as well. — Colin Becht

The Baylor offense may look different after Art Briles’s ouster, but Russell’s command of the attack should keep the Bears rolling. The senior is returning from a neck injury that cost him six games in the 2015 season, but he still managed to complete 29 touchdown passes and set a school record with 10.06 yards per play before his injury. — GB

Kaaya has the makings of an NFL quarterback, and he’s a solid college passer, as well. After posting solid numbers as a true freshman in 2014, he built on those with 3,238 yards, a 61.2% completion rate, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions last season. With another year of development plus the addition of Mark Richt’s QB expertise, Kaaya should take another step forward as a junior. That’s exactly what the Hurricanes will need as Kaaya’s crop of receivers leaves plenty to be desired. — CB

A former standout at TCU before being dismissed from the school in August 2014, Fields spent the ’14 season in junior college before finding his footing on Louisville’s defense last fall. The linebacker led the nation in tackles for loss (22.5)—second-most in a single season at Louisville—and added 11 sacks. Now Fields will be one of eight returning starters on the Cardinals’ defense in 2016. — ZE

Howard’s most recent game was the best of his college career to date—a five-catch, 208-yard, two-touchdown effort against Clemson to help the Crimson Tide win the national title. Rather than jumping to the NFL with his draft stock surging, though, Howard chose to return to Tuscaloosa, where he’ll serve as a dangerous complementary target to star wide receiver Calvin Ridley. We know now what Howard is capable of against a stingy passing defense in a huge matchup; the question is whether offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will make him a larger factor in Alabama’s aerial attack over the course of this season. — CJ

The most notable missing piece from Clemson’s best season in school history last fall, Williams returns from a fractured neck this season. Receivers coach Jeff Scott has compared him favorably to former Tigers wideouts Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, and Williams set the school record for a sophomore with 1,030 receiving yards in 2014. Clemson’s offense is loaded with talent like Heisman favorite Deshaun Watson and ace running back Wayne Gallman. But even with those pieces, Williams is a gamechanging element. — GB

Though overshadowed by Deshaun Watson, Gallman was a critical contributor to the Tigers’ run to last year’s national title game, setting a program single-season record with 1,527 rushing yards and chipping in 13 touchdowns. The senior passed on a shot at the NFL to reprise his role as part of Clemson’s dynamic backfield duo. — ZE

White joins a crop of highly regarded draft-eligible LSU players—including linebacker Kendell Beckwith and center Ethan Pocic—who elected to return to school this season rather than turn pro. He’ll have a chance to further his development into an elite cornerback while anchoring the back end of a talented Tigers defense and also contribute as a punt returner (last season he averaged 11.4 yards on 20 returns with one 69-yard score). When White leaves Baton Rouge, he’ll have bolstered LSU’s reputation as a “Defensive Back U.” — Chris Johnson

Walker shined on a resurgent Wildcats squad, which rebounded from two bowl-less seasons to win 10 games in 2015. The All-America linebacker played a key role in that improvement, leading Northwestern’s fifth-ranked defense in defensive S&P+ with 20.5 tackles for loss along with 122 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. — Colin Becht

After earning first-team All-Big Ten honors as a guard the last two seasons, Elflein is moving inside to center to provide stability on a line that loses seniors Taylor Decker, Chase Farris and Jacoby Boren. Elflein spent 2014 and 2015 opening up holes for stud running back Ezekiel Elliott; this season he’ll need to clear room for less proven commodities like Bri’onte Dunn and Mike Weber. Still, Elflein will be operating in front of a quarterback with lots of starting experience (J.T. Barrett), and he’ll have plenty of talent around him despite the exodus of Buckeyes stars to the draft this spring. Expect a smooth position switch. — CJ

He got overshadowed by the otherworldly seasons of fellow Big 12 receivers Josh Doctson and Corey Coleman, but Washington was pretty sensational in 2015 in his own right. The Cowboys wideout led all receivers with 50 catches or more in yards per catch with a 20.51 average, hauling in 53 passes for 1,087 yards with 10 scores. With nearly the entire offense back for 2016, including quarterback Mason Rudolph, Washington should get more recognition with another exemplary season. — CB

The winner of last season’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy (awarded to the best blocker in the ACC), Johnson was first-team all-conference and second-team All-America during his sophomore season. One of the most formidable linemen in the nation, Johnson will be key if Dalvin Cook makes a run at this year’s Heisman Trophy. — Gabriel Baumgaertner

Hood produced 1,463 rush yards—second-most in a single season in program history—along with 17 touchdowns last season. He also managed a whopping 6.7 yards per carry and topped out with a career-high 220 yards in a win over NC State last November. — Zac Ellis

A first-team All-SEC pick off Alabama’s dominant 2015 defense, Allen returns as the Crimson Tide’s leader in sacks (12.0) and tackles for loss (14.5). Eleven of Allen’s sacks came against ranked teams, and he notched all 12 against Power 5 programs. The 6’3”, 294-pound lineman recorded two of Alabama’s four quarterback stops in the Cotton Bowl semifinal against Michigan State. — ZE

The Buckeyes return only three starters on defense, but McMillan is a pretty good one around which to build. The versatile linebacker led Ohio State with 119 tackles last season in addition to four tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries and four passes broken up. McMillan went from freshman sensation on the Buckeyes’ national championship squad in 2014 to consistent playmaker in 2015; now they need him to take the next step to stardom this fall. — CB

It took a while, but McDowell’s on-field performance has long since eclipsed his recruiting drama. After starring on a defensive line in 2015 that featured three seniors, including first-team All-Big Ten honoree Shilique Calhoun, McDowell will become the focus of opposing blocking schemes this fall. He’s ready for the challenge; the 6’6”, 280-pounder finished behind only Calhoun with 13 tackles for loss and also notched 4.5 sacks last season. One thing’s for sure: He doesn’t lack for confidence. “I think I’m the best D-lineman in the country,” the junior said in April, according to the Detroit Free Press. — CJ

An electric running back in one of college football’s most feared offenses, Freeman is a dark-horse Heisman candidate in 2016. After finishing the 2015 season with 1,836 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns, Freeman should be the focal point of the Ducks’ offense as FCS transfer quarterback Dakota Prukop adjusts to his new team. — GB

Sutton spurned a shot at the NFL for one final season at Tennessee, where he has started every game of his college career in the secondary. He recorded an interception, two forced fumbles and six pass break-ups in 2015, all while leading the country in punt-return average (18.7). — Zac Ellis

Ward’s star turn last season was the product of a perfect marriage of a gifted playmaker (Ward) and a shrewd strategist roaming the sidelines (first-year coach Tom Herman). The former wide receiver finished his junior campaign by carving up an athletic Florida State defense in a 14-point win in the Peach Bowl, accounting for 305 total yards and three total touchdowns. That performance suggests Ward’s season-long production was less attributable to weaker AAC competition than to his talent and utility in the Cougars’ high-powered offense. His next possible victim? Playoff contender Oklahoma in Week 1. — Chris Johnson

Few linebackers can cover more ground or deliver more punishing hits than the Crimson Tide’s Foster. He’s adept both in pass coverage and run defense, recording 73 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks and nine pass breakups in his first season as a starter. With Reggie Ragland gone, Foster will become Alabama’s leader in the middle this season. — Colin Becht

After his sensational freshman campaign (1,713 yards, 21 touchdowns), Perine got off to a slow start last year under new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, averaging just 70 yards per game for the Sooners’ first six games. Then Riley figured out how to utilize the 5’10”, 234-pound back, and he took off, averaging 133 yards per game the rest of the season and finishing with 16 touchdowns. Expect more of the latter production this season as Oklahoma’s abundance of weapons will keep defenses from keying in on Perine. — CB

You didn’t hear about Jackson at USC’s spring practices because he was trying to qualify for the Rio Olympics as a long jumper (he won his second straight Pac-12 title in the event). Jackson is the sort of next-level athlete who’s a threat to break a big play (or hop over a defender or three) whenever he touches the ball. Yet while he contributes on offense and special teams, he’s likely to garner preseason All-America consideration as a defensive back. However new USC coach Clay Helton plans to use him in 2016, expect Jackson to make a huge impact. — CJ

Considered one of the most complete wide receivers in college football, Davis is set to become the most prolific receiver in the history of the MAC and, barring injury or suspension, should break the conference records for both touchdowns and receiving yards. After a monstrous junior season that saw him finish with 1,436 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, Davis is one of the nation’s premiere receiving talents even if he’s stashed away in the MAC. — Gabriel Baumgaertner

After arriving in Tuscaloosa as one of the top wideouts in the recruiting class of 2015, Ridley emerged as Alabama’s best receiving threat as a true freshman. He shined during the regular season and elevated his performance when it mattered most, amassing 138 yards and two touchdowns in the Crimson Tide’s College Football Playoff semifinal win over Michigan State. Opposing defensive backs will have their hands full with Ridley alone, but the attention they’ll need to devote to tight end O.J. Howard, Bowling Green graduate transfer Gehrig Dieter, junior ArDarius Stewart and senior Robert Foster should give Ridley more room to operate. Expect plenty of mid-play sideline celebrations from offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, his hands pointed skyward as he leaps up and down and watches Ridley streak toward the end zone.  — CJ

As a junior Boulware emerged as a key cog in Clemson’s suffocating defense, compiling 138 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks at linebacker. Boulware, a native of nearby Anderson, S.C., also paced the Tigers with 29 quarterback hurries. He’ll be the unit’s emotional leader this fall after the loss of starters Travis Blanks and B.J. Goodson. — ZE

The latest USC offensive lineman to be considered a surefire NFL first-rounder, Banner enters his third season as the starting left tackle. A towering behemoth at 6’9” and 360 pounds, Banner was a first-team all-conference selection last year and will anchor an experienced Trojans line that should effectively protect whomever the starting quarterback is against Alabama in Week 1. — GB

Why is Florida relatively unconcerned with losing shutdown corner Vernon Hargreaves III? Because the Gators know they have an equally talented player returning in Tabor. The junior racked up 18 passes defended, four interceptions, 40 tackles and four tackles for loss last season and actually finished ahead of Hargreaves in Pro Football Focus’s grades. — CB

Last summer Barrett was competing in one of the most interesting quarterback competitions in recent memory. This summer he’s the clear starter on a possible top-10 team who should garner All-America consideration. Barrett has proved himself a dynamic operator of coach Urban Meyer’s offense over two seasons, but he’ll need to assume more responsibility in 2016. Ohio State brings back only three starters on offense and loses talented playmakers such as running back Ezekiel Elliott, tight end Nick Vannett and wide receivers Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller. Barrett will have to step up to offset the impact of those departures. — Chris Johnson

Baker, a first-team all-Pac-12 selection as a sophomore, is one of the nation’s most versatile defensive players: a big, speedy safety capable of lining up as a linebacker or dropping into coverage. His standout performances against USC (eight tackles), Oregon (eight tackles, one for loss) and Stanford (ten tackles and an interception) put him on the national radar last year. While slightly undersized at 5’ 10” and 180 pounds, Baker is one of the conference’s most fearsome players. — Gabriel Baumgaertner

One of the most disruptive defensive ends in college football, Barnett has amassed 20 sacks and 33 tackles for loss in just two seasons at Tennessee. The 6’3”, 265-pound Nashville native led the Volunteers in sacks (10) and earned a second-team All-SEC selection in 2015. Barnett should reprise his role as a menace in new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s front seven. — Zac Ellis

Arguably the top home-run threat in the nation, the Texas A&M dynamo is coming off a magnificent freshman season that saw him finish with over 1,000 yards receiving, seven receiving touchdowns and two punt return scores. The Aggies offense may be in flux with Trevor Knight arriving to start at quarterback, but it’s a near guarantee that Kirk will have the ball in his hands whenever coach Kevin Sumlin can get it there. — GB

Chubb kicked off his college career by earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2014, reeling off 1,547 rushing yards—fourth most in a single season in Georgia history—in eight starts. His sophomore season in 2015 was cut short by a knee injury, but he still averaged 124.5 rushing yards in six games. If healthy this fall, the Bulldogs’ bell-cow back will be one of the nation’s best. — ZE

Mayfield and Lincoln Riley’s first season working together in Norman went better than anyone could have expected. The Texas Tech transfer averaged 9.4 yards per attempt with 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions while leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff. Now with another off-season to get comfortable (Mayfield wasn’t even named the starter until late August last season), he should be even better. Expect Mayfield to be a leading contender for the Heisman. — Colin Becht

A steady force in one of the nation’s top defenses last season, Lewis was credited with 20 pass breakups, two interceptions, 52 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble while helping the Wolverines rank 11th in Football Outsiders’ passing defense S&P+. Pro Football Focus graded Lewis the top cornerback in the country in 2015. He’s also a threat on special teams after recording an average of 25.2 yards on 15 kick returns last season. This season expect Lewis to validate his status as a top-flight defensive back as he looks to push Michigan in position to earn a College Football Playoff berth. — CJ

Despite a junior season in 2015 that was limited by injury, Lawson spurned a shot at NFL stardom to return for his final campaign at Auburn. The stud defensive end was a Freshman All-America in 2013 (four sacks. 7.5 tackles for loss) before missing all of 2014 with a knee injury. When healthy, the ultra-aggressive Lawson looks like a first-round pick and is a big piece of the Tigers’ pass-rush. — ZE

The pass-rushing linebacker became a lethal element in Alabama’s loaded front seven as he racked up 10.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss last season. 2016 should be an even bigger year for the senior as he saved his best work for the end of last year, when he recorded six sacks in the Crimson Tide’s final five games. With Williams along with defensive ends Jonathan Allen and Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama's pass rush should be as fierce as ever this fall. — CB

His freshman year had its ups and downs, but UCLA’s golden child enters the 2016 season as a serious Heisman contender and has the potential to overtake even Deshaun Watson as the nation’s best quarterback. Sound like hyperbole? Consider that Rosen broke UCLA’s record for passes without an interception (245) along with a school record for completions in a game (34) as a freshman. And, getting away from the stats, find another college quarterback who can make this throw.  — GB

Few true freshmen put up more impressive rookie seasons than Florida State’s Derwin James did in 2015. James earned Freshman All-America honors after finishing second on the Seminoles in tackles (91) while also chipping in 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. Following the departure of fifth-overall draft pick Jalen Ramsey, James looks to be the leader of Florida State’s defense. — Zac Ellis

What sets Smith-Schuster apart from other wide receivers is the consistency of his brilliance. The Trojans target topped 80 yards in 10 games last season and broke 100 yards six times. His success is no secret, yet defenses still find themselves unable to contain him. No other Power 5 receiver came within 90 yards of Smith-Schuster’s 1,454 yards last season. Whoever emerges from USC’s quarterback battle will be lucky to have the top receiver in the country to throw to. — Colin Becht

Robinson finished his sophomore season as a first-team All-SEC honoree on Alabama’s national title-winning offensive line. He ranked third on the Crimson Tide with 46 knockdown blocks and notched a career-high six against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl semifinal. A near-lock as a first-round pick in 2017, Robinson enters this fall as the leader of ‘Bama’s line following the departure of center Ryan Kelly. — ZE

Of all draft-eligible players to return to school, King may have been the biggest surprise. The reigning Thorpe Award winner set a school record with eight interceptions last season and was named a consensus first-team All-America pick. As a player who has started all but one game in his college career, King is one of the best players to ever take the field for Iowa. Fortunately for Hawkeyes faithful, they get one more season to watch him. — Gabriel Baumgaertner

In 2015 Watson delivered on every ounce of hype he generated during a true freshman season in which he helped lead Clemson to a 10–3 record and vanquished in-state rival South Carolina with a torn ACL. Last season Watson took the Tigers to the national championship game and was named a Heisman finalist, both accomplishments that are well within reach again this season. The difference? Watson isn’t coming off major knee surgery, and arguably his best receiver, Mike Williams, will be healthy, along with talented returnees like fellow wideout Artavis Scott, tight end Jordan Leggett and running back Wayne Gallman. Watson is the best quarterback in college football, and he has an abundance of skill around him. Expect him to build on his terrific 2015 campaign—yes, that’s a high bar to clear—and make another run at the Heisman. — Chris Johnson

How many teams can claim the fastest player on their team is a linebacker? The better question is, how many shutdown defensive backs can step in at linebacker and immediately fill a gapping void? The answer to both questions is one. Peppers emerged as one of the best slot corners in the country as a redshirt freshman last year, making 45 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss while breaking up 10 passes. But with the Wolverines losing their entire starting linebacking corps this off-season, the do-it-all player (he also rushed for 4.0 yards per carry and caught eight passes) will be even more valuable in his new position. — CB

The Seminoles’ fade from the College Football Playoff race and Cook’s absence from all or most of two games last season kept him out of the Heisman race, but the Florida State back had a strong claim to most outstanding season in 2015. Cook rushed for 7.38 yards per carry, nearly two yards per carry more than Heisman winner Derrick Henry, nearly 1.5 yards per carry more than Christian McCaffrey and nearly one yard per carry more than Leonard Fournette. And he did that while playing at far less than 100% for the majority of the year. With a clean bill of health to start the 2016 season—assuming he recovers as expected from off-season shoulder surgery—Cook should take his place in the thick of the Heisman race. — CB

McCaffrey was the engine powering a Stanford team that was one two-point loss to Oregon away from making the College Football Playoff last season. A home run threat as a running back, receiver and return man, McCaffrey can hurt opponents in so many ways that it’s difficult for them to draw up effective plans to contain him. According to an ESPN story published in May, McCaffrey has lowered his body fat percentage “about four percent,” and Stanford sports performance director Shannon Turley told the outlet that McCaffrey is “leaner, faster, stronger and more explosive” than he was at the same point a year ago. That’s definitely bad news for Pac-12 defenses. The Cardinal are breaking in a new quarterback following the departure of Kevin Hogan, so McCaffrey could be an even more integral part of their offense this fall. He’ll rightfully begin the season atop Heisman watch lists. — CJ

Numbers never tell the entire story, but they reveal plenty about Myles Garrett’s dominance over his first two collegiate seasons. The rising junior has already tallied an astounding 24 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss and is the most universally feared defensive lineman since South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney. He’s not just the most fearsome defensive player in college football (a high compliment in a universe where Derwin James exists), he’s one of the most ferocious players to ever play at this level. — GB

In terms of pure dominance, no player matches the brute force of Leonard Fournette. As a sophomore in 2015 Fournette led the FBS in rushing yards per game (162.8) and finished third in total rushing yards with 1,953. That total, as well as Fournette’s 22 rushing touchdowns, both set LSU single-season records. Oh, and the 6’1”, 230-pound brick wall bounced off defenders for a startling 6.5 yards per carry. In two years Fournette is already fourth on the Tigers’ career rushing chart (2,987 yards), and he’ll enter 2016 as a preseason first-team All-America certainty. If starting a college football team from scratch, one would be remiss to not pick Fournette with the first-overall selection. — ZE

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