Last week, SI.com released its Top 100 Players ranking, counting down the players we project to be the most important, impactful factors in the 2018 season. It’s a famously inexact preseason science, and a quick scan of our mentions will tell you that fans around the country were happy to weigh on in just how inexact they think it is.
Those readers should know that the creators of this year’s list were rarely in lockstep themselves on which players belonged where as the rankings were taking shape. So with the Top 100 now up for all to see, its two lead writers wanted to hash out our lingering arguments and reflections to put a bow on the most interesting debates of this summer’s deliberations. We went back and forth on five questions that gave us one last (public) chance to air our grievances, giving some shine to players who deserved more and toss-ups you might have missed within the larger list.
We struggled with where and how to rank the various members of Clemson’s defensive line, which everyone expects to be an all-time-great position group. What’s your biggest constructive criticism of where Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant ended up?
Chris Johnson: Having four starters in the same position group who could go on to win first-team all-conference honors and become first-round picks in the NFL draft is a good problem for Clemson. It’s a bad one for someone trying to rank the best college football players in the country. I went into this process thinking that, no matter how “good” we believed tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant would be this season that it wouldn’t make sense to slot all of them near the top of the list.
I reasoned that it would be difficult for each of them to make the individual impact necessary to justify a high ranking without detracting from the impact made by their fellow starters along the line. I thought it would be preferable to spread out Wilkins, Lawrence, Ferrell and Bryant in the rankings rather than clump them together. I eventually came around to the idea that these guys shouldn’t be docked merely for belonging to a loaded position group and that, consequently, several of them deserved prime rankings real estate. We ended up placing three of them (Wilkins, at No. 3; Ferrell, at No. 7 and Lawrence, at No. 10) in the top 10, and sliding the other, Bryant, at No. 32. I’m mostly O.K. with this order, although I haven’t completely shaken the sense that, come the end of the season, it’s going to be hard to make the case that three of the Tigers’ defensive linemen belonged in the top 10, even if, as a collective, the Tigers’ defensive line is the best one in the country.
Eric Single: As the half of our voting body that stumped for putting as many Tigers as possible in the top 10, let me first explain that one of the main reasons I think we’ll see all of these guys’ individual impact shine through is how different their skill sets are from each other. Wilkins is a Swiss army knife; Lawrence is a space-eater unnaturally lithe for his frame; Ferrell and Bryant are the sack artists. If there were more redundancies within this position group, it’d be harder to argue that they all carry exceptional importance. (I think we often run into this problem when evaluating the contributions of specific Alabama D-linemen, to take one example.)
As it is, Clemson is going to present a unique set of threats depending on how it shuffles its personnel up front, with no two alignments having exactly the same purpose. If I had to move one higher up, it’d be Ferrell, who should get a lot of credit for the numbers he put up in 2017 surrounded by that crowd.
Most external feedback for any player ranking exercise comes in the form of outrage that a certain player is ranked too low, and even among the creators of the list, compromises had to be reached. Whose ranking were you least satisfied with?
Single: Judging solely by our reader responses, we have seriously disrespected the SEC West. In the first week since this list was published, we’ve received the most blowback on how low we had LSU linebacker Devin White (No. 75), Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (No. 77) and Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham (No. 83). But I’m going even further below them to highlight a guy I stumped for in the top half of this list: TCU sophomore wide receiver Jalen Reagor (No. 90).
Sure, he caught just 28 balls as a freshman for 407 yards and seven touchdowns, but I think his scintillating Alamo Bowl performance against Stanford (five catches for 193 yards and a touchdown) is closer to what will soon become the norm in Fort Worth. It would have been a projection to simply assume he creeps up toward 1,000 yards with a full offseason to get comfortable with offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie and new starting quarterback Shawn Robinson, but I wouldn’t bat an eye if he was a top-five wideout this year or next.
Johnson: Reagor is one of the first players that came to mind when I read this question, although I’m hesitant to buy into the idea of a huge breakout season for a wide receiver when the guy who’s going to be throwing him the ball (Robinson) has such a meager track record as a college passer. I’m going to highlight a sophomore skill-position player from a different conference: USC’s Stephen Carr (No. 53). Early last season, he showed hints of the ceiling that made him one of the top running back recruits in the class of 2017, racking up 119 yards on only 11 carries against Stanford in Week 2. A foot injury sidelined Carr for four games, and he was less productive the rest of the season.
Carr sat out spring practice because of a herniated disc, but if he’s fully healthy by kickoff of the Trojans’ Week 1 game against UNLV, I could see him picking up right where second-round draft pick Ronald Jones II left off and asserting himself as one of the Pac-12’s top running backs. And unless quarterback JT Daniels is way ahead of schedule as a true freshman who effectively skipped his senior year of high school, Carr should get as many touches as he can handle.
Texas, a bottom-tier Big 12 passing offense last fall, lands two receivers in the top 100. Are you higher on Lil’Jordan Humphrey or Collin Johnson in 2018?
Johnson: At the risk of putting too much stock into spring-game hype, I’m really intrigued to watch Humphrey tear up Big 12 defenses this season. At Texas’s Orange-White scrimmage in April, Humphrey caught seven passes for 100 yards and recorded two rushing touchdowns. His numbers from 2017 don’t jump off the page (431 receiving yards on 37 receptions, 41 rushing yards on six attempts), but they undersell his potential as a versatile weapon in head coach Tom Herman’s offense.
Humphrey’s blend of size (6'4", 220 pounds) and speed enables him to burn defenses in a handful of different ways, in different parts of the field. He’s an explosive outlet in the passing game who can rise over defenders to snatch jump balls and pick up yards after the catch, but we shouldn’t look past what he can do in Texas’s running game. Humphrey played running back at Southlake Carroll (Tex.) High, and Herman said in April that he thinks the junior will be involved in “some Wildcat stuff”. Johnson will be the Longhorns’ go-to target this year, and there’s no denying that his huge frame makes him a nightmare one-on-one cover for opposing defensive backs, but I don’t think Johnson will have enough opportunities to live up to his potential as Biletnikoff Award contender. Whether junior Shane Buechele or sophomore Sam Ehlinger prevails in their ongoing quarterback battle, it’s dubious whether Johnson will get the ball thrown in his direction with enough consistency to merit a ranking 17 spots higher than Humphrey’s.
Single: But just imagine what Johnson could become if Texas started force-feeding him the way it did toward the end of last year’s USC game, when he finished with seven catches for 191 yards in a losing effort. Johnson needs Humphrey to take another step so that defenses don’t drape two DBs over him and challenge Ehlinger/Buechele to force the ball into a tight window near the boundary.
We didn’t put two Longhorn receivers in the Top 100 over Oklahoma’s top returnees out wide to make enemies in Norman (which it appears we have done anyway). These picks were about Johnson and Humphrey’s ceilings and their irreplaceable value to Texas’s offensive success. Humphrey’s versatility may make for the larger headache for opposing defensive coordinators in game prep, but Johnson is more likely to take over a given Saturday.
There are 13 quarterbacks in this year’s top 100. Which one will make our rankings look the most foolish by the end of the year?
Single: Jake Browning (No. 92) was one of the first quarterbacks mentioned in our initial brainstorm of the Top 100 pool and ended up sneaking in as the last QB in the actual rankings. The limitations of his arm seem to be common knowledge, but that didn’t stop him from a ridiculous 2016 (43 touchdowns against just nine interceptions), and while he was certainly part of the problem when the Huskies’ offense went AWOL in the second half of ’17, he doesn’t exactly have a ton of game-deciding mistakes on his record.
There’s no John Ross on the roster, but with similarly underrated leading rusher Myles Gaskin back, Browning has pretty much everything he needs to make Washington consistently explosive again. If he finds a way to strafe Auburn in Atlanta to cap off the first full Saturday of the season, the rosier outlooks on his college career will come back into focus.
Johnson: I like Browning as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate. My biggest concern with him is Washington’s receiving corps: Can someone (maybe junior Aaron Fuller) fill in for Dante Pettis as a viable go-to target? My choice is Jake Fromm (No. 65), whose Georgia team conceivably could face Washington in the College Football Playoff this season. After starting last season on the bench behind transfer Jacob Eason, Fromm vastly exceeded expectations as a true freshman, ranking third among returning QBs in ESPN’s Total QBR and behind only Missouri’s Drew Lock among SEC QBs in efficiency and yards-per-attempt. It’s reasonable to project Fromm to make a not-insignificant leap as a passer during his second season under center, assuming he managed to remove the fishing lure that got planted into his leg this spring.
Georgia’s deep running back corps is more than enough for opposing defensive coordinators to worry about, and there’s a lot of talent at wide receiver, with senior Terry Godwin and juniors Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman all back from last season. The risk that five-star true freshman Justin Fields supplants Fromm as the starter is not lost on me; maybe he’s gifted enough to force Kirby Smart’s hand. For this season at least, it seems more likely that Fromm will hold off Fields and go on to lead Georgia to another double-digit win season and a division title.
It’s inevitable that there will be players whom we excluded from this ranking that will go on to have awesome seasons. Stanford’s Bryce Love, Georgia’s Roquan Smith, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Arizona’s Khalil Tate were among the names that didn’t make last year’s Top 100. Who is one player you think you will regret leaving off this year’s list?
Johnson: There are a handful of running backs who arguably belong on this list but just didn’t make the cut. All of the ones we included deserve their spots, but there’s one other RB in particular whom I think we’re going to wish we didn’t leave out: Iowa State’s David Montgomery.
As a sophomore last season, Montgomery ranked third in the Big 12 with 1,146 rushing yards and also caught 36 passes for 296 receiving yards. Those numbers weren’t just empty calories for a middling team, either; Pro Football Focus handed him first-team All-America honors and noted that he set a record in the PFF era, which began in 2014, by forcing 102 missed tackles, 81 of which came as a runner and 23 as a receiver.
Montgomery managed a heavy workload last season (258 carries, second in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, who had 268), but if anything, the Cyclones may be tempted to give him the ball even more often this fall even with starting quarterback Kyle Kempt earning a sixth year of eligibility. First-team All-Big 12 wide receiver Allen Lazard is gone, and while redshirt junior Hakeem Butler could blossom into a dangerous go-to target for Kempt, Iowa State shouldn’t hesitate to give Montgomery as many chances as possible to make would-be tacklers miss.
I’d like to mention one other player whom I think we’re going to wish we ranked: Kyler Murray. Assuming he beats out redshirt sophomore Austin Kendall for Oklahoma’s starting quarterback job, I envision the dual-sport and dual-threat star shining as a passer and runner in head coach Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid scheme.
Single: West Virginia’s David Sills V (No. 38) got a lot of love for his nation-leading 18 touchdown catches in 2017, but there’s a case to be made he’s not the best receiver on his team. Gary Jennings was the one who led the Mountaineers in receptions (94) and receiving yards (1,030) last season, and he’s another member of the rising senior class that Dana Holgorsen expects to lead West Virginia to legit Big 12 title contention this fall. Jennings only found the end zone once last year, which has depressed his hype, but if Will Grier is healthy and his more heralded teammates deliver on their lofty expectations, there should be plenty of scores to go around.
And since Chris threw in one extra quarterback for good measure, I’ll do the same: NC State’s Ryan Finley was interception-free during a 6–1 start last season and has a lot of weapons back—including sophomore receiver Kelvin Harmon, a snub in his own right—that should make the Wolfpack and their veteran QB a tough out even for the ACC Atlantic favorites.