- 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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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