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  • Who's the best player in college football this season? SI.com narrowed down an entire nation of talent to 100 names, and the name at the top might be a surprise.
By SI.com Staff
August 09, 2017

As the 2017 college football season begins, we can only guess at the biggest stars of the year. Who could have guessed that Lamar Jackson would set defenses up and down the East Coast ablaze to kick off a captivating Heisman campaign, or that by the end of the year Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough would be an unstoppable force that chewed up some of the best front sevens in the country? While some of the names that dominated last season’s headlines have moved on to their first taste of NFL action, such as Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and LSU’s Leonard Fournette, a mixture of returning stars and new sensations are ready to take their place.

Below, SI breaks down the top 100 players in college football for the 2017 season. Our overarching reasoning behind each player’s ranking: If you were to conduct a fantasy draft to build a college football team from scratch, which players would you grab first? The ordering on this list is not intended to simply reflect past production, nor is it a reflection of the players’ status as potential NFL draft picks. It comes down to how dominant they figure to be this fall.

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How far away will Florida have to be from the end zone this year for coach Jim McElwain to turn off the green light for Pineiro? He hit an 81-yard field goal in pads this spring and went 3 for 3 from 50-plus yards in 2016, finishing 21 for 25 overall and landing second-team all-SEC honors in his first season playing big-time college football. If the Gators struggle to find continuity on offense once again this fall, Pineiro may be their most consistent source of points. — Eric Single

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Florida State is one of the few programs that could lose one of the nation’s best players at a position (Dalvin Cook) and not suffer a huge dropoff in production. It helps when you bring in arguably the nation’s top recruit at that position. (Alabama’s Najee Harris has a strong case, too.) Akers is a 5' 11", 213-pound quarterback-convert who can both run through would-be tacklers and gallop away from them for big gains. The true freshman won’t be carrying the Seminoles’ rushing load by himself, but he should thrive as a change-of-pace option next to junior Jacques Patrick. — Chris Johnson

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It only takes one game to understand the sky-high ceiling Burnett could reach this season. While at times limited in 2016 behind top receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, Burnett used the second day on the calendar of 2017 to show that this year will be different. He dominated the Penn State secondary in USC’s Rose Bowl win, catching 13 passes for 164 yards. Burnett demonstrated particular chemistry with star quarterback Sam Darnold in the red zone, hauling in three scores in the game. With Smith-Schuster and Rogers gone, expect Burnett to post numbers like his Rose Bowl performance on a more consistent basis. The Trojans’ top receiver has surpassed 900 yards in each of the last six seasons. — Colin Becht

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Fitzgerald is a member of a seemingly dying breed: the good SEC quarterback. All jokes aside, he put up head-turning numbers last season (2,423 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, 10 interceptions; 1,375 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns) while mostly eluding the national spotlight as the Bulldogs suffered unsightly losses to South Alabama and Kentucky and settled for a 5–7 regular season record and a meeting with Miami (Ohio) in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Even if Mississippi State doesn’t take a big leap this season (and it very well could), Fitzgerald’s brilliant dual-threat playmaking will give SEC defensive coordinators headaches throughout the fall. — CJ

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Less heralded than fellow Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith, Gustin was arguably the bigger playmaker last season. His 13 tackles for loss were the most on the team and his 5.5 sacks ranked second. Now a junior, the former four-star recruit is ready to become a national star. Gustin has already demonstrated he can thrive against elite competition, blowing up Washington’s pass protection for two sacks last season. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast enters his second season back at USC, and he knows what he has to work with at outside linebacker. Opposing Pac-12 QBs had better learn, too. — CB

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The top pass rusher in the Group of Five, Rolland-Jones was impossible to contain last season. He finished the year with 13.5 sacks, fifth most in the FBS and most in the Group of Five, and 21.5 tackles for loss, good enough to make him the first defensive player to win the Sun Belt’s player of the year honors since 2003. The scariest thing for opposing offenses this season? Rolland-Jones compiled those stats despite beginning the year as a second-stringer. Now with his spot as an every-down player solidified, Rolland-Jones has an opportunity to post even bigger numbers in his senior year and improve his draft stock. — CB

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Often underappreciated because he plays in Ames, Lazard has been among the most consistent wide receivers in college football the past two seasons. The former four-star recruit could have played for more prestigious programs but opted for Iowa State, the team he grew up rooting for and where his dad played. He again had an opportunity to head for greener pastures with the ability to declare early for the NFL draft but chose to return to the Cyclones for his senior season. Now Lazard will aim to build on a 2016 campaign in which he caught 69 passes for 1,018 yards. Unlike many of the other wide receivers on this list, Lazard won’t have a big-name quarterback throwing to him—but that hasn’t stopped him before. — CB

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Webb broke Zac Stacy’s Vanderbilt rushing record with an entire season to spare, the fruits of his durability (he carries a streak of 37 consecutive starts into 2017) and consistent production (he posted seven 100-yard games last year and better than four yards per carry in all three of his seasons so far). He’s carried the mail for an offense that didn’t always support him with complementary playmakers, and unless the Commodores’ passing game takes a giant step forward this summer, Webb is almost assured another 270-touch season. — ES

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You’ve heard plenty this summer about USC’s star quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate, Sam Darnold. Don’t ignore the player whom Darnold will be handing the ball off to at least a dozen times per game. After leading the Trojans with 1,082 rushing yards last season, Jones could bear an even larger share of the rushing workload in 2017 following the departure of veteran Justin Davis. Jones is a burner who can rip off big plays when he gets a sliver of space, and he’ll benefit from opponents dropping extra defenders in coverage to protect against deep throws from Darnold. — CJ

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Francois led all freshman quarterbacks with 3,350 passing yards in 2016, bursting onto the scene in the season opener with 419 yards through the air in the Seminoles’ frantic comeback win over Ole Miss. He will be expected to improve his accuracy in his second year as the starter, but he should continue to make an impact with his legs after scoring five rushing touchdowns in 2016. After stumbling against the best defenses on Florida State’s schedule a year ago, Francois will be asked to go toe-to-toe with dual-threat counterparts Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson in the two toughest games on Florida State’s schedule. — ES

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We’re betting on Davidson’s potential here. The former four-star recruit showed great promise as a true freshman, finishing the season with 38 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. With Carl Lawson gone this fall, Davidson will need to quickly transition from D-line prodigy into an All-SEC caliber force. He clearly has the athleticism to do that, and after his second full spring practice (he enrolled early to participate in last year’s) he’s had time to refine his technique. Expect a big sophomore leap. — CB

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Woodside was one of the best quarterbacks in the country not named Lamar Jackson last season. He completed 69.1% of his throws for 4,129 yards with 45 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 183.34 pass efficiency rating (second only to Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, who broke the record in that statistic). He’ll spend his final college season lighting up overmatched defenses again and entertaining fans on #MACtion Tuesday nights. And with the Rockets positioned to make a run at a conference title and possibly challenge South Florida for Group of Five supremacy, Woodside could even work his way into the fringes of the Heisman Trophy conversation. — CJ

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When first-team All-America Eric Striker’s eligibility expired two seasons ago, he left behind a major pass-rushing void for defensive coordinator Mike Stoops in 2016. Okoronkwo had little trouble filling it, registering nine sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 67 total tackles. In his second year as a starter, Okoronkwo should shine as the headliner of one of the Big 12’s top linebacking corps. His ability to harass opposing quarterbacks could be the difference between Oklahoma earning its second College Football Playoff berth and falling short in favor of another high-scoring outfit from the Big 12, like rival Oklahoma State. — CJ

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Meeks has the type of frame the NFL salivates over—his listed measurables (6’2” and 195 pounds) should ensure he’ll have the league’s attention if he emerges as the Cardinal defense’s primary playmaker this season. He and fellow corner Alijah Holder headline a lanky, instinctive Stanford secondary Richard Sherman can be proud of. After leading the team in interceptions as a true freshman two years ago, Meeks was out of the lineup with an injury both times Stanford yielded more than 40 points last season. His two career pick-sixes have also come at opportune moments: while trailing in an eventual comeback win over Notre Dame last year and in the blowout Rose Bowl win over Iowa two seasons ago. Without No. 3 overall pick Solomon Thomas wreaking havoc up front, Meeks may be asked to hold up in coverage a few beats longer until the Cardinal’s D-line settles in. — ES

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Start at center as a redshirt freshman? No problem, Risner earned freshman All-America honors. Switch to right tackle the next year? Got it, Risner made first-team All-Big 12. Now settled in on the right side, Risner should only get better. He already helped Kansas State’s rushing attack improve by over a yard per carry last season to 5.27 (second in the Big 12). With four returning starters, including Risner, back on the Wildcats’ offensive line, Risner’s unit could guide a K-State team that has the potential to make noise in the Big 12. — CB

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Amid a largely disappointing season in which Notre Dame’s offense failed to offset its defensive frailties, St. Brown distinguished himself by serving as a go-to target and a dangerous deep threat for quarterback DeShone Kizer. This season, St. Brown will have to make do without Kizer, who decided to enter the NFL draft, but there’s reason to believe the 6’5”, 204-pound junior can build on the 961 yards and nine receiving touchdowns he recorded in 2016. Sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush could be a breakout star, and St. Brown should take well to new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo system. — CJ

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The Josh Rosen Hype Train got derailed in 2016, but let’s not dismiss all the things that made Rosen the No. 11 player on this list last season. When healthy, he still has the arm that allows him to make precision throws most college quarterbacks wouldn’t dare attempt. Before a shoulder injury ended his season, Rosen threw for 1,915 yards with 10 touchdowns in six games. He desperately needs a go-to receiver after no replacement emerged for Jordan Payton last season, but perhaps new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, Michigan’s passing game coordinator for the prior two seasons, can right the ship. Rosen still has the tools to make good on the hype he carried with him into his college career. — CB

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Upon arriving in Manhattan as a juco transfer in 2016, Reed showed no signs of hesitancy playing on the boundary in the wide-open Big 12. His 19 passes defended landed him in a tie for fifth in the country last season, and despite his 5’9”, 188-pound frame, he was fearless in the open field, finishing second on the team with 75 total tackles. This year Reed is slated to take on additional responsibility in the return game while he tries to build on his Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year honors. — ES

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Armstrong’s breakneck speed off the edge proved too much for most offensive linemen to contain in 2016, when he finished with 10 sacks, ran off a streak of six straight games with a takedown and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors after his 20 tackles for loss led the conference. At 6’4” and 246 pounds, he will probably like what he hears if he turns in a productive junior season and tests the NFL waters. Armstrong is expected to have plenty on his shoulders this fall as the star of a Kansas defense that finished outside the top 100 in yards and points allowed last season. — ES

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Gesicki proved a snug fit in offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s up-tempo system last season, recording program records for a tight end with 48 catches and 679 receiving yards. Yet that production went mostly unnoticed nationally during the Nittany Lions’ stunning run to a conference title, as Michigan standout Jake Butt hogged the Big Ten tight end spotlight. Now that Penn State’s leading receiver Chris Godwin is gone, quarterback Trace McSorley should look to Gesicki even more often. Defensive coordinators focused on shutting down star running back Saquon Barkley risk getting burned on short and intermediate throws to the 6' 6", 252-pound senior. — CJ

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Smith has anchored the interior of the Tigers’ offensive line the past three seasons. In 2016, he earned second-team All-SEC honors while bulldozing opposing defensive linemen to open up lanes for one of the nation’s top running attacks. This season, he’ll be counted on to stabilize a position unit that loses two starters. Smith will move from right guard to right tackle, but the position switch shouldn’t hold him back. He is an experienced cog in the Tigers’ system, having racked up 27 consecutive starts, and at 6' 6", 303 pounds, he has the size and athleticism to excel on the outside. — CJ

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The Cougars were one of the hottest teams in the country in mid-November, winners of eight straight and in control of their Pac-12 destiny on the strength of video game numbers from Falk. Then Falk failed to complete 50% of his passes in a loss to Colorado and threw three interceptions in a blowout Apple Cup loss a week later. He returns to Pullman for one last season of eye-popping stat lines (he finished fourth in the country in passing yards in 2016, and only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield posted a better completion rate) with hopes of taking Washington State a step or two farther. — ES

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After sensational freshman and sophomore seasons in which he rushed for a combined 3,201 yards and 35 touchdowns, Freeman hit a rough patch in 2016 (he was still pretty effective—945 rushing yards, nine scores). The good news for college football fans—except for those who support other Pac-12 teams—is the down year led Freeman to return to Oregon for his senior season. New Ducks coach Willie Taggart said he’s building his offense in part around what Freeman does best, so don’t be surprised by a huge bounce-back season. — CB

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With Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson off to the NFL, the 6’2”, 319-pound Payne will be asked to wreak the balance of the havoc for the Crimson Tide at nose guard as other former five-star recruits fill in along Alabama’s nightmarish defensive line rotation. In totaling 36 tackles and 1.5 sacks as a full-time starter during his sophomore season, Payne showed the sudden strength to throw interior blockers aside and the quickness to close down running lanes quickly. — ES

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A staggering rise from unranked to a top-five prospect put Phillips on the radar of national powerhouses in every conference, but the Redlands (Calif.) School product chose to stay close to home for college. Phillips could eventually develop into one of the Pac-12’s top pass-rushers, but UCLA may need him to speed up his developmental timeline after losing sacks leader Takkarist Mckinley to the NFL this off-season. Phillips has the physical tools (6’5”, 255 pounds) and athleticism to terrorize opposing quarterbacks right away, and he shouldn’t have any trouble getting up to speed this fall after enrolling early and participating in spring workouts. — CJ

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This may seem like a low ranking for a quarterback on a likely preseason top-three team who’s coming off a season in which he led a national championship game run and won offensive player of the year in a Power 5 conference. It’s not. Hurts was a liability for the Crimson Tide’s passing game when it mattered most; he completed only 20 of his 45 attempts over their two College Football Playoff games. Hurts should improve as a thrower this season, while still gashing opposing defenses with his running ability, but even if we grant that he may make a sophomore leap, that possibility doesn’t entirely outweigh Hurts’s subpar form at the end of last season. — CJ

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No, Stidham hasn’t played a game yet for Auburn (not counting the Tigers’ spring game when Stidham looked sharp while completing 16 of 20 passes for 267 yards). But his track record at Baylor justifies his placement on this list and should give ample confidence that he can shine in Gus Malzahn’s attack. Stidham completed 68.8% of his passes for 1,265 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions in 2015 despite only starting three games in addition to brief appearances in seven others. Yes, SEC defenses will on average be better than the Big 12 units he faced, but given that Stidham was a true freshman then, there’s no reason to doubt that he’ll be better too. — CB

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Joseph played the most snaps of any player on Clemson’s championship-winning defense and finished second only to fellow linebacker Ben Boulware in tackles, with 124. Now he takes over Boulware’s vacated role as the heart and soul of the front seven. The Tigers are expected to send out one of the best defensive lines in the country once again, setting Joseph up for plenty of chances to shoot into the backfield and improve upon his 13.5 tackles for loss from 2016, which tied for the team lead. — ES

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Dawson held down the nickel spot next to two top-flight outside corners in Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson last season, pacing the Gators with seven pass breakups. After three members of the secondary jumped to the NFL, Dawson has been left to handle No. 1 cornerback duties on a defense that gave up the second-fewest passing yards in the nation a year ago. He finishes plays with the physical edge fans have come to expect from the Gators’ boundary defenders. — ES

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Hurst put up solid numbers in 2016, finishing the year with 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He considered entering the NFL draft early but opted to return to Michigan—and finally take on a starting role. Hurst spent last season rotating in behind starters Ryan Glasgow and Matt Godin, but with Glasgow and Godin gone, he’ll finally get a chance to dominate on every down. That’s exactly what the Wolverines need, as they return no starters on the entire defensive line and just one starter on the whole defense. Given the efficiency with which Hurst compiled his numbers in 2016, there’s no telling what he could put up in a starting role. He and defensive end Rashan Gary should form one of the most lethal end-tackle combos in college football this fall. — CB

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Quarterback Jake Browning probably isn’t sweating losing speedster John Ross as his primary receiver from last year’s Pac-12 title team. Why? Because Pettis is more than capable of filling the first-round pick’s shoes. Pettis caught 53 passes for 822 yards last year, giving him a higher yards per catch average than Ross. And the 6' 1", 188-pound Pettis did work in the red zone, hauling in 15 touchdowns. With Browning and running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman back, the Huskies’ offense figures to maintain its explosiveness in 2017. Pettis should be a primary beneficiary. — CB

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Nnadi is the linchpin of a front seven that showed major progress after getting eviscerated in a 43-point loss at Louisville last September. With the 6' 1", 312-pounder occupying blockers at nose guard, the Seminoles yielded the fewest rushing yards per play of any ACC team in both October and November. Nnadi’s back for his senior year to head a defensive line that should dominate up front despite the departure of first-team All-ACC end DeMarcus Walker. That line should be more prepared for its toughest assignment, too; here’s betting Lamar Jackson won’t run wild against Nnadi and the other members of his position unit when the Cardinals visit Tallahassee in October. — CJ

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With all the stars on Alabama’s defense, including fellow safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, it’s easy to overlook how good Harrison was in his first season as a starter. The 6' 3", 216-pounder finished second on the team with 86 tackles and contributed to the Crimson Tide’s ridiculous knack for scoring defensive touchdowns last season, with a pick-six and a scoop-and-score. As Alabama undergoes pretty significant turnover in its front seven this season, Harrison’s ability to step up and stop the run could be even more crucial. — CB

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As Deshaun Watson’s second-favorite deep threat behind first-round pick Mike Williams, Cain led the Tigers with 19.0 yards per catch and finished second only to Williams with nine touchdowns over the course of last year’s national title campaign. That sophomore performance brought him squarely back into the team’s plans after a two-game suspension on the eve of the 2015 College Football Playoff put a damper on his promising freshman year. His jump-ball skills will be a helpful resource for whichever unproven quarterback Clemson rolls with this fall. — ES

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Chubb raised plenty of eyebrows by returning to Athens after an up-and-down junior year in which he only occasionally flashed the explosiveness of the first season and a half of his college career. The Bulldogs’ backfield is crowded, thanks to Sony Michel’s equally surprising decision to turn down the draft, and even with the potential for a more conservative workload, Chubb risks a repeat of the knee injury that cut short his 2015 season—this time with higher stakes for his NFL stock. When healthy, he’s shown he can be the best back in the SEC on a given Saturday. — ES

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Wake Forest’s run to its first bowl game in five years was driven by a defense that allowed 5.33 yards per play and ranked 11th in sacks per game. The Demon Deacons can thank Ejiofor for that. The 6' 4", 270-pound end racked up 10.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss but passed on the draft for another season of blowing up ACC offenses. Wake Forest will need Ejiofor to take on a larger leadership role this fall to sustain the defense’s success now that defensive coordinator Mike Elko has departed for Notre Dame. In a conference loaded with proven defensive ends (Harold Landry, Bradley Chubb, Clelin Ferrell), Ejiofor is worthy of your attention. — CB

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A back-to-back first-team All-Big 12 honoree, Thomas enters this season as one of the most proven defensive backs in college football. After earning a starting role late in his freshman season in 2014, Thomas has only gotten better with each year, ending last season in a tie for the fourth most passes defended in the country. At 6' 0" and 186 pounds with tremendous athleticism and ample experience, Thomas brings everything coaches want in a cornerback. With Jordan Parker filling the other cornerback slot, the clear strength of the Sooners’ defense is on the perimeter. That’s a pretty good place to be loaded with talent in the pass-happy Big 12. — CB

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Over the last two seasons, TCU’s defense has fallen well short of the level head coach Gary Patterson maintained in leading the program’s rise from mid-major power to Big 12 contender. Howard shone even amid that downturn. He led TCU with 105 total tackles as a sophomore in 2015, then upped that number to 130 in ’16 and earned a spot on the All-Big 12 first team. In a conference stocked with heart-racing offenses, Howard is the rare player who can singlehandedly disrupt the flow of games that often devolve into defense-optional, back-and-forth scoring shows. The Horned Frogs will need even more from him as a senior, with stud defensive end Josh Carraway moving on this off-season. — CJ

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Thompson withdrew from classes at Georgia in February after university police reportedly found him wandering in a road at 1 a.m. and appearing “very unsteady on his feet,” with bloodshot eyes, in what the school described as a “significant medical issue which required emergency hospitalization and extended hospital stay.” Thompson rejoined the team this summer, which is great news for Kirby Smart’s second season in Athens. At full strength, the 6' 4", 295-pound junior can function as a wrecking ball that cramps the pocket and storms the backfield. — CJ

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Entering his fourth year as the starting free safety, Watts does it all for the Aggies’ defense as a ball-hawking cover man, ferocious hitter and swaggering quarterback of the secondary. A torn hamstring cut short his 2016 season (and likely solidified his decision to return for one last year in College Station), but Watts is back at full strength—welcome news for a pass defense that plummeted from a top-five unit to a fringe top-100 unit in John Chavis’s second year as defensive coordinator. — ES

 

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Before a torn pectoral muscle suffered in an Oct. 22 win over Iowa sidelined Cichy for the second half of 2016, he was turning in one of the best seasons of any linebacker in the country. The former walk-on turned senior leader is back and ready to roll for Wisconsin’s Sept. 1 opener against Utah State. If he produces at the same level or better than he did before the injury (60 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks), Cichy can prop up a defense that loses standout LBs Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt and is undergoing a leadership change, with Jim Leonhard replacing Justin Wilcox as coordinator. — CJ

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There’s no denying Barrett’s 2016 season ended on a dud. Over the Buckeyes’ final three games, he completed just 50.6% of his passes for 337 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. But let’s not forget all the came before it, when Barrett flirted with the Heisman conversation while completing 64.7% of his passes for 2,218 yards with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions. That still wasn’t as good as his surprising freshman campaign in 2014, but it’s much closer. Now Barrett gets to work with offensive guru Kevin Wilson, who has produced explosive offenses everywhere he’s been. Barrett showed decent chemistry with his mostly new group of receivers this spring, so don’t be surprised if he has a big rebound year. — CB

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Clemson doesn’t really do true freshman starters on the O-line: When Hyatt won the left tackle job in 2015, he became the first to crack the Week 1 lineup since 1980 and the first to start the opener at left tackle since ’44. But after two years of holding down Deshaun Watson’s blind side and collecting an assortment of ACC honors, there’s no question Hyatt has rewarded the Tigers’ early faith in him. Clemson has finished in the top 30 in sacks allowed each of the past two seasons, and Hyatt’s presence should offer some peace of mind as a new starting QB is broken in this fall. — ES

 

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The All-SEC center elected to return to Arkansas for his senior season, a huge boost for a Razorbacks offensive line that returns four starters but loses star left tackle Dan Skipper. Ragnow was Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded center last season, his first at the position after sliding over from guard, and he helped make the Hogs the only team to produce a top-three passer and rusher in the SEC. With 26 starts entering this season, Ragnow’s experience will be essential after star running back Rawleigh Williams III announced his retirement in May. — CB

To the extent that Richards needed to adjust to the higher level of competition in college last season, it did not seem to affect him much, if at all. No freshman recorded more receiving yards than Richards’s 934, a total good for sixth in program history among receivers of any class. This ranking may well be too low for Richards, a special talent with room to grow. Yet with no established successor to quarterback Brad Kaaya, it’s best to take a wait-and-see approach in evaluating Miami’s passing game. Richards can’t make plays if no one is able to consistently deliver him the ball. — CJ

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Butkus Award winner Reuben Foster wasn’t the only Alabama linebacker athletic enough to go sideline-to-sideline and deliver message-sending hits for the Tide’s vaunted defense last fall. If Hamilton is back to full speed after tearing his ACL in the SEC Championship Game, there won’t be much drop-off, if any, as he and fellow senior Rashaan Evans take over full-time patrolling the middle. Even counting the two games he missed with the knee injury, Hamilton finished fifth on the team in both tackles and tackles for loss. — ES

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Williams showed up in Tuscaloosa as a highly touted true freshman and immediately proved he belonged, earning the Tide’s starting right tackle job coming out of camp and going on to collect a slew of postseason accolades, including a few Freshman All-America nods. The dexterity with which he handled SEC pass rushers right out of the gate portends a smooth transition to left tackle in place of Cam Robinson. Alabama should be able to build its next two years’ worth of offensive gameplans around the reassurance that Williams will be a constant on the left side. — ES

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No first-year coach inherits a better quarterback situation than Charlie Strong at USF. It’s rare that a new head man gets to hand the reins to one of the nation’s top players at the most important position on the field. Defenses have to account for the possibility of Flowers gashing them both through the air (2,807 passing yards, 24 passing touchdowns in 2016) and on the ground (1,530 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns). The senior could lead the Bulls to a New Year’s Six Bowl berth (and, with some luck, an undefeated record) while making a run at an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. — CJ

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Haynes is one of the most experienced defensive playmakers in the SEC, with a consistent track record of domination. Now the senior is looking to cap off his college career with his best season yet. After a freshman All-American campaign in 2014, Haynes has followed that up with consecutive All-SEC honors and enters 2017 with 24.5 career sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss. With a light 6' 3", 225-pound frame, Haynes has become a backfield menace due to his quickness, challenging all but the most sure-footed offensive tackles in college football. And if former four-star defensive tackle recruit Benito Jones can continue his development as a sophomore, Haynes should see even more favorable assignments this year. — CB

Igwebuike has gotten better every season at Northwestern since arriving in Evanston as a four-star recruit in the class of 2013. As a junior in 2016, he led all Big Ten defensive backs with 108 total tackles and shined (seven tackles, an interception deep in NU territory) in the Wildcats’ Pinstripe Bowl win over a Pittsburgh squad powered by one of the ACC’s most productive offenses. Igwebuike is a rangy playmaker who buoys Northwestern’s D both in pass coverage and by running down ballcarriers. In his final season in purple, he'll team with senior Kyle Queiro to form one of the best safety tandems in the country. — CJ

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The hype around Nick Bosa is understandable, but the reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year plays on the opposite end of Ohio State’s line. Lewis was a ferocious pass-rusher last season, finishing the year with eight sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. That was his second straight season with double-digit tackles for loss after he racked up 14 in 2015. The Buckeyes are absolutely loaded at defensive end with Lewis, Bosa, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes (not to mention five-star freshman Chase Young, so defensive line coach Larry Johnson may have a tough time figuring out how to get all of that talent on the field. But after leading the team in sacks each of the past two years, Lewis seems like a safe bet. — CB

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Scales led the nation in tackles for loss with 23.5 and was the Big Ten’s leading tackler as the Hoosiers defense shaved nearly 10 points per game off its scoring average in 2016, moving into the top half of the national rankings. The linebacker’s streak of six straight games with double-digit tackles was the longest in the country last season. Defensive coordinator Tom Allen was promoted to the top job in December after the abrupt firing of Kevin Wilson, and Allen would be wise to lean on Scales for defensive leadership as the 6-foot, 230-pound senior makes one final case for the pros. — ES

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Pettway imposes his will as a downhill runner, using all of his 240 pounds to dole out punishment once he gets the slightest bit of momentum. That makes him a dynamic asset to Gus Malzahn’s exotic running game. Pettway’s 124.8 rushing yards per game in an injury-shortened 2016 campign paced the SEC, so if he can stay healthy for an entire season, the Tigers will have one of the conference’s most unique and dangerous weapons on their hands. — ES

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When McGlinchey said midway through last season that he intended to return to Notre Dame as a senior instead of leaving school early for the NFL draft, it seemed too good to be true for the Fighting Irish. But McGlinchey followed through on that declaration, and the result should be a boon both for him and Notre Dame. McGlinchey could settle the debate over college football’s best offensive tackle in his favor, and his bruising work up front will pave the way for an improved running game following a season in which the Irish registered an average of only 4.47 yards per rush, good for 62nd nationally. — CJ

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Sharing a defensive backfield with Thorpe Award winner Adoree’ Jackson, Marshall was just as staunch in coverage albeit with less of a knack for the can’t-miss highlight play. Still there are far worse things than being your more standard shutdown corner. Marshall finished last season with three interceptions and 11 passes defended. With Jackson gone, he steps up to the top spot on the depth chart and will get more frequent matchups against opposing teams’ top receivers. So far, all indications suggest Marshall is ready for that challenge; he could make a play for keeping the Thorpe Award in Los Angeles. — CB

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After finishing sixth in the Heisman voting in 2016, the question remains: What more can Jake Browning do? The quarterback guided Washington to the College Football Playoff last season with 3,430 yards passing on 8.77 yards per attempt with 43 touchdowns (second in the country) and nine interceptions. He loses top receiver John Ross this fall but should have little trouble adjusting with Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher back. The biggest concern with Browning is whether he can excel against the toughest defenses on the Huskies’ schedule. The junior struggled in losses to USC and Alabama as well as in a win over Colorado in 2016. To build on Washington’s success last year, he’ll have to shine when it matters most. — CB

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Whitehead’s decision, as a four-star prospect in the class of 2015, to play for Pittsburgh instead of other more esteemed programs was rightfully hailed as a major recruiting victory for a program that has failed to deliver a breakthrough while jostling with a horde of middling programs in a muddled ACC Coastal Division. The hype was not misplaced: Over two seasons, Whitehead has distinguished himself as a playmaking force in the back end of the Panthers’ defense. An arm injury limited him to only nine games last season, but Whitehead still managed to tally 65 total tackles while also pitching in on offense. Absent an unexpected regression, he should play his way into All-America consideration as a junior. — CJ

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Florida State’s defensive line is so loaded that it’s difficult to project excellence from any one player without worrying about whether someone else will outshine him with a breakout season. That shouldn’t be an issue with Sweat, though. The Seminoles will be counting on him to get after the quarterback to make up for the production void created by first-team All-ACC end DeMarcus Walker’s departure this off-season. Sweat wreaked havoc in opponents’ backfields down the stretch of 2016, notching 18 tackles and 4.5 sacks over Florida State’s final three games. Now he just needs to prove he can do it over an entire campaign. — CJ

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Defenses from Alabama to Hawai’i have been confounded by James once he slips into the secondary and gets enough room to pull out a video-game juke. The 5’9”, 171-pound speedster finished third in the nation in receptions, fourth in receiving yards and 10th in all-purpose yards as a sophomore, and over two seasons he already has more than 3,000 all-purpose yards to his name. Few offenses put up more reliably eye-popping numbers than Middle Tennessee’s quick-strike spread, and as this year’s primary playmaker, James will be asked to keep churning out the highlights. — ES

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For better or worse, there may be no bigger wild card in all of college football than McSorley. He seemed to be putting it all together as the back half of his sophomore season wound down, taking care of the football and making fearless throws as Penn State swiped a Big Ten championship...and then he tossed three backbreaking picks in a dramatic Rose Bowl loss to USC that showcased both the best and worst of his hyper-aggressive playing style. Thanks to Heisman candidate running back Saquon Barkley, the Nittany Lions have the College Football Playoff in their sights this year. McSorley is somehow both their best chance of breaking into the top four and the most likely reason their campaign implodes by November. — ES

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Jefferson struggled to deliver a fitting follow-up to his Freshman All-America campaign of 2015, when he finished second on the team in tackles, but his speed and razor-sharp change of direction should serve him well in a move to outside linebacker this fall, refining a key weapon for a Texas defense whose 3.42 sacks per game were the fifth-most in the nation. This year, with Longhorn fans and NFL scouts alike watching attentively, he will be expected to churn out big plays with regularity. — ES

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Two Washington defensive backs (Budda Baker and Kevin King) became second-round NFL draft picks this spring. Neither of them may have as much potential as Rapp, whose range, coverage instincts and ability to make plays in space keyed the Huskies’ emergence as one of the nation’s top defenses last season. His best work came at a pivotal moment in Washington’s run to the College Football Playoff: Rapp picked off two passes and ran one of them back for a touchdown in a 31-point rout of Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game. The Huskies will lean on him more heavily in 2017 with Baker and King out of the picture. — CJ

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Hand has yet to live up to the hype that surrounded him when he became Alabama’s big prize on National Signing Day in 2014. Here’s betting he delivers in 2017. It’s hardly a slight on Hand that his impact in his first three seasons in Tuscaloosa has been muted. Stuck behind stars like Jonathan Allen, Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson and Dalvin Tomlinson, Hand has had to fight for every snap he’s gotten. Now atop the depth chart, it’s his time to shine. The 6’4”, 280-pounder has an elite combination of speed and strength and has been mentored by the All-America honorees that came before him. — CB

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The Buckeyes had ample success sliding the ultra-talented Pat Elflein from guard to center last season, when Elflein took home the Big Ten’s offensive lineman of the year award. So why not try it again this fall with Price, another extremely talented guard? The second-team All-America lineman has 41 consecutive starts to his name and gave Ohio State a huge boost with his decision to return for his senior season, allowing him to replace Elflein as center and as the clear leader of the Buckeyes’ offensive line. Ohio State ranked first in the nation last season in adjusted line yards and has a chance to match that standard with four of five starters back. — CB

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The 5’9”, 192-pound Gaskin has proved his mettle as the Huskies’ bell-cow back over his first two collegiate seasons, turning in over 1,300 rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns both years while gradually coming into his own as a pass catcher. He can hit the occasional home run, but his true value lies in the punishment he doles out when finishing his short and intermediate runs, helping to tenderize the defense and open up weak spots for the Huskies’ other playmakers to exploit. Gaskin’s quiet nights in Washington’s two 2016 losses speak volumes about his importance to keeping junior quarterback Jake Browning & Co. on schedule. — ES

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Just like his older brother Joey, the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Nick Bosa wasted no time making an impact in Columbus, finishing second on the team with 5.0 sacks as a true freshman and showcasing a motor that portends a frightening improvement curve in the coming years. As he builds command of the strength to overpower tackles alone out on the edge, he should carve out a central role in the Buckeyes’ loaded front seven by the midpoint of his sophomore year. For now, he's a game-swinging play waiting to happen. — ES

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Rudolph could have jumped to the NFL this off-season after throwing for more than 4,000 yards with a 28–4 touchdown-interception ratio in 2016. Instead, he returned to Stillwater to inherit a cast of perimeter weapons with no equal in the Big 12. Senior wide receiver James Washington is a chore to defend on deep routes, but Rudolph will have an assortment of alternatives even if Washington isn’t open, like upperclassmen Jalen McCleskey and Chris Lacy, LSU transfer Tyron Johnson or Marcell Ateman, who returns after missing last season due to foot surgery. Oklahoma State is going to put up a ton of points, and Rudolph will be responsible for a large share of them. — CJ

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Twelve games into his redshirt freshman season, Ferrell’s performance looked promising if not worthy of wide acclaim. But as the Tigers entered the most pivotal games of their season, the defensive end rose to another level. Ferrell recorded six tackles for loss and two sacks over Clemson’s victories in the ACC title game, Fiesta Bowl and national championship despite missing most of the national championship due to injury. He simply dominated Ohio State’s offensive line in the Fiesta Bowl, becoming a nightmare for Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett while recording three tackles for loss, including a sack, and earning the game’s defensive MVP honors. If Ferrell’s late surge is a sign of what’s to come in 2017, ACC offenses should be seriously concerned. — CB

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Amid all the praise lavished on quarterback Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma’s skill-position players the last two years, Brown has plied his trade in relative obscurity. Yet his role has been no less important to the Sooners’ success. Since redshirting as a freshman in 2014, Brown has started all 26 of Oklahoma’s games at left tackle. His mammoth frame (6’8”, 360 pounds) makes him a nigh-immovable presence on the edge of the Sooners’ line, and Brown does a good job creating wide lanes for his running backs by shoving defenders out of position. His work up front will stabilize another potent attack in Norman this season. — CJ

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Northwestern’s agile back has compiled some impressive stats in his three seasons so far: 4,129 rushing yards, 30 touchdowns. But perhaps the most eye-popping numbers of Jackson’s college career are 193 and 855—his weight and his career carries, respectively. Despite his slim frame, Jackson has shown incredible durability, a huge boon for a Wildcats offense that has needed his explosiveness on the field as often as possible. Jackson’s elusiveness led to a career-high 1,524 yards along with 15 touchdowns last season, making him the Big Ten’s leading returning rusher, ahead of Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (1,496 yards). 5’11”, 193-pound running backs aren’t supposed to start four seasons without injury, but Jackson has made it so far; if he can continue to stay on the field, he gives Northwestern a top-tier offensive threat. — CB

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Wilkins is a key cog in the Tigers’ absurdly good defensive line. After building some buzz with a solid true freshman season in 2015, Wilkins developed into a destructive force last season with 13 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He came up clutch with big performances against some of the toughest opponents on Clemson’s schedule in 2016, including 2.5 tackles for loss vs. Auburn, 1.5 vs. Louisville and 1.5 vs. Florida State. Perhaps Wilkins’s biggest asset is his versatility. At 6’4” and 310 pounds, he has the strength to overpower offensive linemen yet retains the quickness to also win with speed on the outside. — CB

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Jewell brings a track record of consistency that is tough to match. As he enters his senior season, the linebacker is coming off of back-to-back seasons with over 120 tackles. He also has 14.5 career tackles for loss and 19 passes defended. Jewell anchors the Hawkeyes defense from his role in the middle, and his leadership will be even more valuable this fall now that star cornerback Desmond King is gone. Told by the NFL draft advisory committee that he should stay in school rather than leave for the pros after last season, Jewell now has extra drive to put together another season of sideline-to-sideline playmaking. — CB

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Sutton has mostly flown under the radar the last two seasons while putting up empty numbers for a pair of 5–7 teams, including 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns on a 16.39-yards-per-catch average in 2016. The Mustangs don’t look poised to make a major leap in the American Athletic Conference this season, which could keep Sutton out of the national conversation. That’s a shame because he is better than almost every receiver in the Power 5 conferences. The good news for Sutton is that even if he’s not a household name among fans, NFL scouts aren’t ignoring him: He’s projected as the No. 14 pick in Sports Illustrated’s latest 2018 mock draft. — CJ

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Nelson is one of two offensive linemen projected as early-round picks in next year’s draft who decided to return to Notre Dame for another season instead of jumping to the NFL. With Chip Long replacing Mike Sanford at offensive coordinator, the details of Nelson’s responsibilities on a down-to-down basis could change somewhat, but his basic charge remains the same, and it’s one Nelson has shown he can do with remarkable effectiveness: knocking back defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage. The Fighting Irish will rely on Nelson’s interior mashing to keep new starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s pocket clean and pave the way for a rushing attack that dipped to 62nd nationally in yards per carry last season from eighth in 2015. — CJ

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It’s been a tough few seasons for the Cavaliers, particularly last year when they went 2–10 in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s debut campaign. But that has not diminished the greatness of Kiser; in fact, it’s only put a spotlight on him. Few players were busier than Kiser in 2016, when he finished third in the country with 134 tackles along with a team-best 6.5 sacks, seven passes broken up and five forced fumbles. The first-team All-ACC honoree truly does it all, and all signs point toward Virginia needing him to do so again in 2017. — CB

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Don’t be surprised if most quarterbacks avoid testing Alexander this fall, coming off a sophomore campaign in which he broke up nine passes, intercepted five more and established a reputation as one of the country’s feistiest one-on-one battles. Alexander forced his way into the national consciousness with standout performances in Louisville’s two biggest measuring-stick games of 2016, taking a punt back for a touchdown in the Cardinals’ thrashing of Florida State and picking off Deshaun Watson twice in a last-second loss to Clemson. — ES

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Elijah Qualls was the most esteemed member of a line that powered Washington’s defensive dominance in the Pac-12 last season. Now it’s Vea’s turn to shine as the Huskies’ most noted tormentor of opposing offensive linemen and its most immovable obstacle in the trenches. Listed at 6’5”, 344 pounds, Vea might be able to disrupt running games simply by standing in place. A bulldozer whose activity on the interior throws offenses off their tracks whether or not he gets to the quarterback or levels the ballcarrier, Vea affects the game in a way few others on his side of the ball can. — CJ

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It was impossible to watch Scarbrough bully the vaunted defenses of Florida, Washington and Clemson for a combined 364 rushing yards and six touchdowns during last year’s postseason and not have some variation of this thought: Why don’t they just give it to him every time? Scarbrough evolved from the punishing backfield complement to Damien Harris and QB Jalen Hurts into the Crimson Tide’s most feared weapon down the stretch last year, but a broken leg sustained in the CFP title game gave rise to new concerns about his durability (he also tore his ACL in spring practice as a freshman). Even if he were deployed only as a fourth-quarter wrecking ball, it’d be enough to break the spirit of most Alabama opponents. — ES

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Michigan supporters justifiably celebrated Gary’s commitment on National Signing Day 2016, but that decision didn’t pay major dividends right away, as Gary took a backseat to seniors Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley last season. To the extent Gary needed to be brought along slowly as a college player, Michigan shouldn’t hesitate to take off the training wheels in 2017. He drew plaudits for his performance and leadership this off-season, and while strong intra-team workouts don’t always augur success in real games, the positive reviews were particularly encouraging for a defense that brings back only one starter. It’s time for the Wolverines to unleash Gary in full. — CJ

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Victor was the leading tackler on the Huskies’ star-studded defense until he suffered a broken leg in mid-November (he still ended up finishing third on the team). With a handful of those stars making the jump to the NFL, Victor enters 2017 as the backbone of the unit. With nose tackle Vita Vea in the trenches in front of Victor and safety Taylor Rapp patrolling the secondary behind him, Washington is loaded up the middle once again. — ES

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With ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard both off to the pros, Ridley is Alabama’s first and last reliable returning receiving option. But the Tide could certainly do worse than that situation. Ridley’s 1,045-yard freshman campaign in 2015 had fans believing Bama had found the ideal successor to Amari Cooper: an agile, sure-handed downfield playmaker who could be deployed in countless ways. Ridley’s numbers dipped as a sophomore, but count on him to be the primary beneficiary of Jalen Hurts taking the next step as a passer this fall. — ES

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It was easy to miss that McFadden played through injury in 2016. After all, his eight interceptions led the nation. That the cornerback did so with a torn labrum is even more impressive. After missing spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, McFadden will return to try to form a loaded defensive back duo with safety Derwin James. McFadden shined in his first season as a starter, finishing with eight picks and 14 passes defended to earn first-team All-ACC honors and become a finalist for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy. As his numbers show, McFadden has a knack for making a play on the ball; the biggest obstacle he may face in repeating his performance this fall is whether opposing QBs will still try to throw on him. — CB

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When a Mike Leach-led Air Raid attack is finding success running ball, you know the offensive line is doing something right. The Cougars improved their yards per carry by nearly a full yard last season to 4.31, and O’Connell was a big reason why. He posted Pro Football Focus’s No. 2 grade of any guard and helped Washington State finish No. 21 in QB sacked percentage and No. 25 in adjusted line yards. Now the Outland Trophy finalist aims to cap his college career with another All-America season while earning his first real All-Pac-12 accolades (he was the victim of an absurd snub last season that relegated him to honorable mention All-Pac-12). — CB

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Even before Leonard Fournette was out the door, Guice had made a convincing case to be called the best back on the LSU roster when he averaged 7.6 yards per carry and piled up 16 total touchdowns on fewer than 200 touches last fall. Now that he’s the unquestioned top dog, opposing defenses can’t afford to expect a break from his relentless running style. Guice’s triple-take-worthy stat line in the regular season finale against Texas A&M (37 carries, 285 yards, four TDs) and that off-season workout video of him squatting 650 pounds bodes well for his durability. — ES

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A knee injury late in a debut season in which Smith was named the Pac-12’s top defensive freshman threatened to derail his college career. Instead, Smith recovered from the injury to lead USC with 83 tackles and earn second-team all-conference honors in 2016. Smith’s individual production should hold, if not increase, this season. What’s up for debate is whether the junior can lift the Trojans’ defense to the level required to support a national championship run despite the losses of key contributors like cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. If Smith can, USC will be well on its way to realizing the potential implied by the mountain of hype it has generated this off-season. — CJ

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Blanding has Virginia’s career tackles record and a first-round NFL draft selection in his sights, but if the Cavaliers have any chance of sniffing bowl eligibility he and top linebacker Micah Kiser will need to bring the rest of the defense up to their level. Fearless in filling holes and stout enough to stop the momentum of the conference’s most dangerous ballcarriers, Blanding led the ACC with 5.8 solo tackles per game last season. — ES

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On talent and depth, NC State’s defensive line falls short of ACC Atlantic competitor Clemson’s. Yet the Tigers may not have any single player in their front capable of matching the impact Chubb will make for the Wolfpack this season. The 6’4”, 260-pound senior, who ranked sixth nationally with 21.5 tackles for loss in 2016, is a force off the edge who can blow up running plays and consistently pressure the quarterback. Chubb’s disruptive presence will be NC State’s best asset in challenging conference games this season at Florida State and against Clemson and Louisville. He could be the difference between the Wolfpack submitting another mediocre season (they went 7–6 in 2016) and a great one. — CJ

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The Aggies’ jack-of-all-trades weapon is back to put on another show. Kirk’s immense value lies in his ability to contribute in a multitude of way, including in the receiving game, punt returns and kick returns. Despite playing alongside fellow receiver Josh Reynolds last year, Kirk finished seventh in the SEC with 842 receiving yards. Now that Reynolds is gone, Kirk should challenge for the conference lead. His 13 punt returns in 2016 left him slightly too short to qualify for the top average or else his 21.7-yards-per-return mark would have easily led the country. Kirk is one of the most dangerous players in college football with the ball in his hands, and he could be bound for an early entry in the NFL draft with a sensational junior season. — CB

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Not even the most highly regarded recruits are supposed to lay waste to college competition the way Lawrence did last season after arriving at Clemson rated No. 3 nationally in the class of 2016 by Scout.com. Statistical production (78 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and 23 quarterback pressures) doesn’t tell the whole story. Lawrence routinely made players two and three years his senior look like scrawny middle schoolers competing against a classmate who’s already hit his growth spurt. It seems unfair to opposing offensive linemen that Lawrence can be this agile while carrying around a 6’5”, 340-pound frame. And they’ll have to deal with him for at least another two years. Good luck. — CJ

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Darnold’s flat-out unconscious Rose Bowl performance (33 of 53 for 453 yards with five touchdowns against one interception) ensured that he would spend all summer in this year’s Heisman conversation, to say nothing of next year’s No. 1 pick conversation. But the Trojans’ true source of optimism for Darnold’s upcoming redshirt sophomore season was the steady performances he turned in over a year-ending nine-game winning streak that landed him among the nation’s top 10 quarterbacks in completion percentage. It should be noted that aside from the Rose Bowl, most of that run took place outside the national spotlight as USC dug itself out of a sloppy September. Will Darnold be able to replicate that excellence with College Football Playoff implications hanging on every throw? — ES

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Why is Washington still in college? Oklahoma State fans certainly won’t complain and neither should other college football fans whose teams don’t have to face the 6’1”, 205-pound sensation. Washington has 2,467 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns in the past two seasons, and now gets to team up with quarterback Mason Rudolph for another prolific season. The senior is a consistent big-play threat and knows how to use his body to win contested passes. With the trust Rudolph has in Washington, the duo is bound to make plenty of highlight-worthy connections this season. — CB

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To borrow from the lexicon of Boston College coach Steve Addazio, Landry is a dude among dudes—that is to say, a budding superstar on the edge of the Eagles’ sturdy defense. He led the nation in both sacks (a BC-record 16.5) and forced fumbles (seven) in 2016 as his unit tied a school record for total sacks and finished top 10 in yards allowed and tackles for loss. Landry closes and connects in the backfield like a well-trained safety—or at least like someone slighter than his listed 6’3”, 250-pound frame. His decision to return for his senior season truly stacks the field of top-flight ACC Defensive Player of the Year candidates. — ES

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It remains to be seen how quickly Tom Herman can turn the Longhorns back into a college football powerhouse, but whatever progress he can get out of Shane Buechele & Co. will be bolstered by the reliable protector on Buechele’s blind side. Williams stepped into the starting left tackle role as a true freshman in 2015 and has been worthy of the job the whole time. He rarely allows Buechele to even feel pressure and allowed just one sack in 423 pass block snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Williams’s run blocking also helped D’Onta Foreman lead the nation in rushing yards last season. In his third year starting, the 6’6”, 288-pounder should become even more consistent and gives Herman a critical piece to build around. — CB

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Key took a leave of absence from the team earlier this year and underwent shoulder surgery he’s still working back from. If he’s 100% by the start of the season, Key will be a destructive force capable of throwing a wrench in offensive coordinators’ best-laid plans. With Key lurking off the edge, not even well-blocked handoffs or quick passing plays are immune to being upended by the turnover-forcing hits Key can deliver on the regular. He took well to defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s scheme last season, registering 14.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. With Aranda back in Baton Rouge for a second year, anything short of another first-team All-SEC campaign would be a letdown.  — CJ

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Go back and watch Fitzpatrick’s SEC-leading six interceptions last season, and you will find him continually in the perfect spot for an assemblage of off-balance throws and desperation heaves brought about by Alabama’s lethal pass rush. Still, there’s no discounting what he can do once he gets his hands on the ball—he already holds the Alabama record for career pick-sixes with four. It’s also worth noting how often for a boundary player he’s the one dictating the action up near the line of scrimmage, as he finished third on the team in solo tackles and fourth in total tackles last season. — ES

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The deep class of established running backs (Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook among them) returning to college football last season obscured how good Barkley was and the amount of damage he was about to inflict on defenses tasked with trying to stop him. Barkley sprinted, plowed, spun and juked his way to 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns while propelling Penn State to its most wins this decade (11) and its first Rose Bowl appearance since 2008. Opponents were mostly helpless trying to hold Barkley in check, and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead should find even more creative ways to use the incandescent junior in his second season running the Nittany Lions’ attack. — CJ

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What Oliver did last year in his first season on campus at Houston redefines what can be expected of true freshmen defensive tackles. Forget demonstrating potential and offering signs of greatness for the future; Oliver was a star right away. His 22.5 tackles for loss ranked third in the country, and he also racked up fives sacks and three forced fumbles. At times, he simply couldn’t be contained, like when he consistently destroyed Louisville’s offensive line to guide the Cougars to an upset. It seems unfair to opposing offensive linemen that they will have to face an NFL-caliber defensive tackle for the next two years, but it will certainly be fun to watch. — CB

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The defending Heisman winner and one-man viral stat line factory stumbled just enough down the stretch to split opinion on his long-term potential squarely down the middle. Jackson accounted for at least four touchdowns in seven of his first nine games, only to look startlingly mortal over Louisville’s three-game losing streak to close out the year—and he still topped 5,000 total yards. Is the book out on his eye-popping athleticism, or did he (and the Louisville O-line) just run out of gas? If Jackson can produce some more heroics against the blue-chip-laden defenses within the ACC Atlantic Division, non-believers will be few and far between in November. — ES

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While Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson have been sensational, one could easily argue that Mayfield has been the best passer in college football each the last two seasons. After he burst onto the national radar in his first eligible season at Oklahoma in 2015, Mayfield got even better last year. His QB rating easily led the country, as did his 70.9% completion rate and his ridiculous 11.1 yards per attempt (the highest figure by any college passer since Michael Vick in 1999). While the loss of fellow Heisman finalist Dede Westbrook as his primary receiver may seem a cause for concern, Mayfield faced similar questions entering last season without 2015 go-to target Sterling Shepard. Mayfield has the special ability all great QBs have—he makes his receivers better. Now it’s he who will have to be better to compensate for the loss of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine in the Sooners’ running game. — CB

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There’s a high degree of risk involved with this pick. If things break the way SI.com expects them to, though, the reward will be enormous. James appeared in only two games last season before undergoing surgery to address a knee injury. If the effects of that injury linger into the fall, James’s play will suffer as a result. Fortunately, there are signs that he has fully recovered. He shone with seven tackles and two sacks in Florida State’s Garnet and Gold game in April, and he was caught on camera throwing down a dunk the same month that would have earned better scores than most of the jams in the NBA's contest in February. James may be the only player in the country capable of lining up virtually everywhere on the defensive side of the ball, and Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher might want to consider dialing up a running play for him or asking him to run a deep route. Billing James as the next Jabrill Peppers is underselling the number of tasks the 6’3”, 211-pound redshirt sophomore can perform on the field at a high level. The NFL team that eventually uses a top-10 pick on James will probably want him to focus on one position. Fisher should give James the opportunity to demonstrate why that approach would be a gross misuse of his talents. James is the best player in college football because he can do more things well than anyone else. — CJ

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