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2015 College football season: The great unknown
1:13 | College Football
2015 College football season: The great unknown
Wednesday September 2nd, 2015

The 2015 college football season begins on Thursday night. The 2016 NFL draft season opened as soon as last year's event wrapped on May 2. Scouting is a never-ending grind as teams search for their next potential superstars.

SI's first big board of the football year pitches 40-plus names who should be on the radar.

This is merely a baseline for the start of the season—evaluations will change early and often once players actually return to action this weekend. As always, a reminder that the big board differs from our mock drafts in that this is a straight ranking of the top prospects; the mock drafts attempt to fuse those rankings with team needs to create a bigger picture.

2016 NFL draft primers: SEC | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12

The top 40, as it stands right now:

2016 NFL draft Big Board 1.0
 
  • 1
    1Joey Bosa, DE
    Junior, Ohio State
    Probably wise to tone down any J.J. Watt comparisons, even if Bosa heads into the 2015 as a near-unanimous choice to be the 2016 draft's top prospect. Watt's name gets mentioned in Bosa discussions because the Buckeyes junior can win with both raw strength and outstanding athleticism, a combo coveted but not always possessed by edge-rushing prospects. His one-week suspension should not hurt him, provided he stays on course once he returns.

  • 2
    2Jalen Ramsey, CB/S
    Junior, Florida State
    The Seminoles' head coach, Jimbo Fisher, told ESPN's Joe Schad in July that Ramsey “can play safety but is an NFL cornerback.” Don't be surprised if NFL scouts view Ramsey the other way around, as a safety first. He has star potential either way, featuring footwork to win outside and enough physical edge to drive down vs. the run.

  • 3
    3Laremy Tunsil, OT
    Junior, Ole Miss
    A tumultuous few months for Tunsil, who fractured his leg in Ole Miss's bowl game and then was arrested over a domestic violence incident with his stepfather. Both situations are in the past, so assuming Tunsil is back to 100%, there might be nothing between him and a top-10 selection. The 6'5" tackle moves well in all directions, especially when asked to drop as a pass blocker.

  • 4
    4DeForest Buckner, DE
    Senior, Oregon
    Won't keep harping on it, but Buckner was more NFL-ready after the 2014 season than his former teammate and current 49ers rookie Arik Armstead. The 6'7", 290-pounder would be a dream for an NFL defensive coordinator wanting to beef up a hybrid front.

  • 5
    5Ezekiel Elliot, RB
    Junior, Ohio State
    This may be as high as a running back climbs all year (and, again, a reminder that the Big Boards are talent rankings). Elliott is the best of the potential 2016 class at that position by a substantial margin. There is not a back in college football more adept at setting up his blockers and finding a crease.

  • 6
    6Ronnie Stanley, OT
    Senior, Notre Dame
    Obviously, things can change over the course of a season, but Stanley has the refined look of a tackle who can start Day One. An interesting twist for him this year: Because Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire is a lefty, Stanley will not be on his blind side despite playing left tackle.

  • 7
    7Myles Jack, LB
    Junior, UCLA
    Jack's size (6'1", 225 pounds) and cameos at running back will remind some folks of 2015 first-rounder Shaq Thompson (6'0", 228). Jack has better instincts compared to where Thompson was at this time a year ago. He's a 100-tackle NFL linebacker waiting to happen.

  • 8
    8Shawn Oakman, DE
    Senior, Baylor
    Can Oakman elevate himself from a physically imposing player who flashes greatness to a consistently dominant prospect? His ranking here hints that I'd argue he can. Not everyone is so convinced.

  • 9
    9Laquon Treadwell, WR
    Junior, Ole Miss
    A brilliant talent with an NFL frame (6'2", 229 pounds), Treadwell's biggest challenge right now is proving he is all the way back from the gruesome leg injury he suffered last season. If he is, Treadwell could be a dark horse Heisman candidate.

  • 10
    10Vernon Hargreaves III, CB
    Junior, Florida
    Slightly smaller than the 6'1" Ramsey, Hargreaves (5'11") also is more locked in as a cornerback. And that's fine, because he is arguably college football's top lock-down cover CB. Hargreaves is quick, sure, but it's his ability to read plays where he really excels.

  • 11
    11Jaylon Smith, LB
    Junior, Notre Dame
    His hype has been just a step shy of the Bosa bandwagon this off-season. There's good reason for it: Smith notched 112 tackles last season. He covers a ton of ground and aggressively takes on blockers, using his hands to fight free. Smith must improve at reading plays, which is a scary thought given how impressive he has been anyway.

  • 12
    12Robert Nkemdiche, DT
    Junior, Ole Miss
    Nkemdiche slides from DT to DE for the Rebels. Inside is where he will continue to be most noticeable for scouts. The 6'4", 297-pound junior requires multiple blockers or he will manhandle opposing linemen.

  • 13
    13Kendall Fuller, CB
    Junior, Virginia Tech
    Fuller absolutely has a chance to rise up and become the first cornerback off the board next April if he turns pro. He broke up 15 passes last season despite playing with a fractured wrist.

  • 14
    14Tyler Boyd, WR
    Junior, Pittsburgh
    A one-game suspension resulting from a DUI will delay Boyd's 2015 debut ... and cause teams to do a little more digging whenever he enters the draft. The junior has the talent to bolt after this season. While he can make big plays downfield, the real draw is in Boyd's all-around game.

  • 15
    15Su'a Cravens, S
    Junior, USC
    The Trojans line up Cravens at a hybrid linebacker/safety spot, so the NFL will have ample tape to watch when figuring out his best fit. Odds are his NFL position will fall awfully close to his current role. Cravens (6'1", 225 pounds) is a physical defender who makes a marked impact in the box.

  • 16
    16Anthony Zettel, DT
    Senior, Penn State
    Now headed into his second season playing DT for the Nittany Lions after opening his career at end, Zettel is only scratching the surface. The glimpses thus far have been impressive. Zettel still maintains the athleticism that had him outside in the first place, plus he's backed with remarkable strength at 280 pounds.

  • 17
    17Connor Cook, QB
    Senior, Michigan State
    The first QB on the list, but the position appears very fluid heading into the season. Aside from Cook's arm and size (6'4"), the real reason he is in this spot is that he has become deadly creating on the run and fitting passes into tight windows.

  • 18
    18A'Shawn Robinson, DT
    Junior, Alabama
    Simply occupying a ton of space is not enough for a DT to warrant a high pick. A big-bodied player who can stand his ground or shoot through a gap, though, creates some buzz (see: Danny Shelton). Robinson (6'4", 315 pounds) stands about 25 pounds lighter than Shelton. He might be just as good at disrupting offenses up front.

  • 19
    19Vadal Alexander, G/T
    Senior, LSU
    Alexander will bounce back to right tackle this season after two seasons at guard. The versatility will work in his favor, although it's hard to imagine him being better on the edge than he was inside. The 6'6", 340-pounder is a road-grader capable of powering his way to the second level.

  • 20
    20Emmanuel Ogbah, DE
    RS Junior, Oklahoma State
    Tackles better not let Ogbah get the first step off the snap, because he'll blow past them if he does. Ogbah (6'4", 275 pounds) battles to hold the edge against the run, too.

  • 21
    21Scooby Wright, LB
    Junior, Arizona
    As the old mantra goes, you can't teach instincts, which puts Wright very much ahead of the game. There are questions about his size (6'1", 246 pounds) and speed, yet Wright almost always finds his way to the ball. Last season alone, he had 163 tackles, including 29 for loss.

  • 22
    22Germain Ifedi, OT
    RS Junior, Texas A&M
    The latest tackle to emerge from A&M's pipeline, Ifedi received a second-round grade from the advisory board prior to the '15 draft. Ifedi will move to left tackle this season after gaining experience at guard and right tackle. He figures to be a line bookend in the NFL, thanks to his size (6'5", 320), long arms and improving footwork.

  • 23
    23Leonard Floyd, OLB
    Junior, Georgia
    The Bulldogs' redshirt junior wreaks havoc coming downhill, flashing a nice array of moves when chasing the passer. It's less certain if he can play in coverage at the next level, but would he need to do so? Georgia gave him reps during preseason practice at inside linebacker, on top of his edge-rushing duties.

  • 24
    24Cardale Jones, QB
    RS Junior, Ohio State
    He just needs more reps, which could be a problem back at Columbus this season if J.T. Barrett takes control as the No. 1 QB. (Barrett could turn out to be a better pro prospect than Jones.) His size (6'5", 250) is tight end-esque. Jones also showed off a huge arm and solid running ability during the Buckeyes' title run. The potential here is enormous, but will Jones have to wait until he reaches the NFL to see increased playing time?

  • 25
    25Jack Conklin, OT
    RS Junior, Michigan State
    The scouting reports on Conklin might sound reminiscent of another prized Big Ten blocker: Brandon Scherff, taken No. 5 by Washington this year. Like Scherff, Conklin does his best work in the run game and could wind up as an NFL guard.

  • 26
    26Taylor Decker, OT
    Senior, Ohio State
    Fits the mold of a long-term answer at left tackle (6'7", 315 with long arms). He's also proven more than athletic enough to excel in Urban Meyer's scheme.

  • 27
    27Kenny Clark, DE
    Junior, UCLA
    Clark and Robinson are close in these rankings and in terms of what they can do—namely, anchor or fire into the backfield from multiple spots on the line.

  • 28
    28Jalen Mills, S/CB
    Senior, LSU
    Wide range of opinions on Mills, who shifted from CB to safety prior to the 2013 season, was arrested on a battery charge prior to the 2014 season and right now is rehabbing a fractured fibula. Mills was up and down as a safety (where he'll play again this year), but he is the type of smooth-moving athlete that can thrive as an NFL cornerback.

  • 29
    29Darron Lee, OLB
    RS Sophomore, Ohio State
    Lee is so efficient at tracking the football sideline to sideline that it's easy to overlook his blitzing prowess (7.5 sacks a year ago). He is of the lighter, faster linebacker breed and might wind up a top-15 pick.

  • 30
    30Shilique Calhoun, DE
    RS Senior, Michigan State
    Think Owa Odighizuwa with less bulk and a more advanced pass-rushing game. Calhoun (6'4", 250) gives up 15 pounds or so to the shredded Odighizuwa, but both thrive in walling the edge against the run. Calhoun also has 15.5 sacks combined the past two seasons. The issue in 2014 was that he didn't really improve from 2013. Is he going to take the next step?

  • 31
    31Rashard Higgins, WR
    Junior, Colorado State
    Love watching this guy play. Granted, that's not enough reason to believe in Higgins's NFL prospects, so fortunately he backs his entertainment value with tangible skills. The worry is that the 188-pound Higgins will be knocked around by physical, NFL cornerbacks. Those defenders better hit him when they can. Higgins catches and runs the way that college stars like Kevin White did, and he is nimble enough to shake defenders in the open field.

  • 32
    32Tony Conner, S
    Junior, Ole Miss
    This the third safety in our top 40 and each has a unique style. Cravens is mostly an in-the-box playmaker, Mills's future could be at cornerback due to his coverage skills and Conner falls somewhere in between. He can drop and play deep, but Mississippi's 4-2-5 scheme also asks him to play in the slot and help vs. the run.

  • 33
    33Jared Goff, QB
    Junior, Cal
    Cards on the table, it took me a while to warm up to Goff. The more I watched him, though, the more it became obvious that he had an outstanding feel for his position—the progressions, the pre-snap analysis, etc. Cal's “Bear Raid” offense will make it tricky to evaluate Goff, much as Oregon's scheme forced a little extra work on Marcus Mariota. But the 6'4" Goff seems to be ahead of the curve.

  • 34
    34Cameron Sutton, CB
    Junior, Tennessee
    Sutton stands 6'1" and uses his frame to get up in receivers' faces. It's rare that he is beaten cleanly on a pass—he closes gaps and plays the ball well. Pretty easy to see him starting for an NFL team in the near future.

  • 35
    35Mike Williams, WR
    Junior, Clemson
    If QB Deshaun Watson is as good this season as most people believe he will be, you'll see a ton of Williams highlights. The 6'5" receiver is a reliable target at all levels, with the speed and size to take the top off a secondary.

  • 36
    36Christian Hackenberg, QB
    Junior, Penn State
    Of all the players on this list, Hackenberg could have the most realistic shot of skyrocketing into the top five. He was far from the only one to blame for his disappointing 2014 season, but those struggles did expose some concerns, specifically with his accuracy (or lack thereof). The so-called “tools” are all there: 6'4", big arm, experience in a pro-style system, intelligence. Hackenberg probably winds up going in Round 1 somewhere. How high can he climb?

  • 37
    37Cody Whitehair, G/T
    RS Senior, Kansas State
    Soon to be a four-year starter for Kansas State, Whitehair is heading into his second season starting at left tackle. The NFL could move the 6'3", 310-pounder back to his previous position, guard. At both spots, he has displayed NFL-caliber technique and paired it with obvious tenacity.

  • 38
    38Vonn Bell, S
    Junior, Ohio State
    Bosa steals the headlines on Ohio State's defense, but Bell is not far behind in terms of importance. Another safety comfortable covering the slot or stepping up against the run—right now, he's probably better at both of those elements that playing straight coverage deep. Bell is noticeable whenever the Buckeyes' defense is on the field.

  • 39
    39James Conner, RB
    Junior, Pittsburgh
    Conner rushed 298 times last season and is en route to 700 attempts for his career, so the NFL will approach with some caution considering how short running backs' shelf lives tend to be. At 250 pounds Conner is built to withstand extra punishment. He dishes it out, too, running downhill with power. New Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi has talked about getting Conner more third-down work (he has just eight career catches). Should he add that to his repertoire, a team might pounce in round 1.

  • 40
    D'Haquille williams
    Senior, Auburn
    The talented Tigers receiver must use this season to rehab his image. Williams was suspended for Auburn's bowl game at the end of last year, then benched during August practice for “a discipline issue.” There's so much pure talent here that it would be a shame if he cannot stay focused. Williams (6'2", 224) has reliable hands and a know-how for using his body to get open—think Anquan Boldin.

Just missed the cut: Adolphus Washington, DT, Ohio State; Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama; Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor; Corey Robinson, WR, Notre Dame; Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida; Cody Kessler, QB, USC; Devontae Booker, RB, Utah.

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