Before toe meets leather at the start of Week 1, before August camp brings clarity to position battles around the country, and even before the media days circuit gives us a first look at the sport’s most prominent characters, there is one final offseason debate to dive into. Every summer, SI sets out to determine the top 100 players of the college football season ahead, taking a stab at the impossible subjective task of comparing players across positions and competition levels. The breakout performances and Heisman campaigns that will dominate the conversation this fall carry implications that go well beyond individual achievement, but for now, there’s no better way to get ready for the return of football than by celebrating this year’s marquee stars.
In constructing our rankings, the most important factor we assess is how significantly each player’s production will impact his team’s success this season—not how good he was last year, where he sat on 2018 statistical leaderboards or what type of NFL draft prospect he is (although those three factors often have a way of lining up). Put another way, this list is forward-looking, but not too forward-looking. If you don’t see your team’s unsung hero or rising star on this list, check out our breakdown of this year’s toughest snubs before you head for our mentions, and keep an eye out all week long as our reveal continues.
Let the countdown begin...
100. Syracuse K Andre Szmyt
As is tradition, we kick off the list with ... a kicker. Szmyt joined the Orange in 2017 as a walk-on and two years later enters his redshirt sophomore season with the Lou Groza Award, All-America honors and a streak of 61 made PATs—in addition to a scholarship he was handed halfway through his first season of action last fall. As a redshirt freshman, he finished second only to Clemson star Travis Etienne on the FBS scoring list with 151 points, and he also cracked the top 10 of the field goal percentage leaderboard, hitting 30 of his 34 tries with a long of 54 yards.
99. Baylor QB Charlie Brewer
Brewer took the reins for the back half of the Bears' doomed 2017 season and showed enough promise as a true freshman to set up a big leap forward as the full-time starter last year, finishing fifth in the Big 12 in passing yards per game and going 165 pass attempts without an interception. Brewer has the tools to develop into one of the nation's best dual-threats, and Baylor's upward trajectory under Matt Rhule depends on another big step forward for the junior trigger man.
98. Auburn OL Prince Tega Wanogho
It was just five years ago that Wanogho began his journey from Nigeria to Alabama. This winter, the 6'7", 305-pounder had the chance to go pro but opted to return for a final season on the Plains. Utilizing the athleticism of a former basketball prospect, Wanogho will man the left tackle spot again for an Auburn team that hopes to pose a stiffer challenge to Alabama and LSU in the SEC West race. If Gus Malzahn gets his offense humming again, Wanogho will find himself up for All-SEC consideration.
97. Maryland RB Anthony McFarland
McFarland came to College Park with plenty of expectations as a top-100 recruit who turned down serious offers from Alabama, Miami, Penn State and Georgia to stay in- state. He broke the Maryland freshman rushing record in style with consecutive 200-yard games in mid-November, including 298 yards and two TDs against Ohio State. Stout rushing defenses await in the Big Ten East and beyond, but another strong campaign could put McFarland into the conversation of college football’s elite rushers.
96. UCF S Richie Grant
Although UCF won't be confused for the nation's best defense, Grant was a key playmaker on a team that ran the table in the regular season for a second consecutive year, making a team-high 109 tackles (including 69 unassisted, which put him among the nation’s leaders in the category) along with six interceptions. Just two players in the FBS had more picks last year. The 2018 first-team All-AAC honoree should get plenty of chances to top himself during the Knights' conference title defense.
95. Boise State Edge Curtis Weaver
After bursting onto the scene as a redshirt freshman, Weaver came up just a half-sack shy of a second consecutive season in double digits, and he's already No. 6 on Boise State’s all-time sack list. He will earn even more attention from opposing protection schemes now that two-time All-Mountain West end Jabril Frazier has graduated.
94. Texas A&M P Braden Mann
Mann, winner of the 2018 Ray Guy Award for the nation’s top punter, returns to College Station looking to set more NCAA records in his senior season. Mann averaged 51.0 yards per punt last fall—nearly a full three yards more than the next closest punter—on his way to first-team All-America honors. Six punters have been drafted over the last two years, and Mann is a safer bet than anyone to be the first to hear his name called next April.
93. Georgia S JR Reed
Reed's decision to return for his senior year helps keep the secondary a strength of the Bulldogs' defense after the departure of top corner Deandre Baker, a first-round pick by the Giants. Reed was the team's leading tackler in the SEC championship game loss to Alabama, during which he also picked off Tua Tagovailoa in the red zone.
92. Michigan State LB Joe Bachie
Bachie has racked up triple-digit tackles in each of the past two seasons, setting the tone in the middle for two top-five run defenses. After putting off the NFL for another year, he needs to keep the Spartans’ standards high on that side of the ball until the offense catches up.
91. Iowa OL Tristan Wirfs
In 2017, Wirfs became the first true freshman to start at either tackle position for longtime coach Kirk Ferentz, and now as a 6'5", 320-pound junior, he has what it takes to advance Iowa's storied O-line tradition. He’s an elite run blocker and has shown steady improvement in pass protection, and he may well be among the first linemen taken in the 2020 NFL draft.
90. Michigan QB Shea Patterson
The arrival of Patterson in Ann Arbor after the NCAA approved the Ole Miss transfer's waiver for immediate eligibility helped the Wolverines improve their scoring average by 10 points per game last fall. Patterson threw for 2,600 yards, with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions, putting Michigan in position for a Big Ten East title that was ultimately foiled by some late-season defensive collapses. Those in maize and blue are hoping that new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis's "Speed in space" offense can take Patterson to new heights.
89. Washington DB Myles Bryant
Bryant is coming off a career year, earning All-Pac-12 second team honors after totaling 61 tackles in 2018 as well as all 3.5 of his career sacks. The rest of the Huskies' secondary will look very different, after the losses of Taylor Rapp and Byron Murphy (both first-team all-conference selections) as well as safety Jojo McIntosh to the NFL. That means more responsibility for Bryant. Bryant hopes to be the versatile defensive anchor of the defending Pac-12 champions.
88. Utah RB Zack Moss
Moss has shown his ability to run for power and speed, averaging 6.1 yards per carry in a season cut short at nine games by a November knee injury. In his last full season he rushed for 1,173 yards and 10 touchdowns, adding 29 receptions for 243 yards. After no-showing on offense in the 2018 Pac-12 title game, the Utes know their status as a trendy conference favorite rides on how far Moss and his fellow skill players can take them.
87. Ohio State QB Justin Fields
After transferring from Georgia in January, Fields has big shoes to fill in the follow-up act to Dwayne Haskins's record-setting season. He got off to a rocky start in Athens, but the tools that had Fields going back and forth with Trevor Lawrence atop the 2018 recruiting rankings are still all there. Fields's athletic 6'3", 223-pound frame should provide the dual-threat capabilities the Buckeyes were missing with Haskins a year ago, and new head coach Ryan Day knows how to make use of them.
86. Alabama S Xavier McKinney
The Crimson Tide have had a safety drafted in five of the last six years, and McKinney is the next in line. As a sophomore, he finished fifth in the SEC in passes defended while recording two interceptions, three sacks, six tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles. Another year as a starter will allow Saban to get even more aggressive with his best safety.
85. Oregon LB Troy Dye
Dye has been a tackling machine since he stepped foot on Oregon’s campus, posting 90 or more tackles in each of his first three seasons, including 109 in 2018. He’s one of just two players in FBS to lead his team in tackles the last three seasons. Dye’s ability to play the pass and the run has helped him succeed in a conference loaded with spread offenses. Justin Herbert gets all the attention on Oregon’s offense, but don’t forget about the guy quarterbacking the Ducks' defense.
84. Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond
He’s not the SEC's highest-profile quarterback, but Mond is just as important to his team’s success as any of the league's headliners. His ability to hurt teams on the ground and through the air gives Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher his best quarterback since Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Mond had his best game through the air against Clemson and his best game on the ground against Alabama. Another year with Fisher should allow Mond to put up bigger and more consistent numbers.
83. Georgia Southern CB Kindle Vildor
Kindle Vildor is one of the best corners in the nation that most people haven’t heard of, with seven interceptions over the past two years, including one against Clemson in 2018. Vildor led the Sun Belt with 12 passes defended, and he’s not afraid to stick his face into a hit, finishing last season with 4.5 TFLs. He earned Pro Football Focus's second-highest grade among all returning FBS cornerbacks.
82. Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins
Dobbins’s freshman year put him on track to become the next great Ohio State running back, but his sophomore campaign went less smoothly, as his yards per carry dipped from 7.2 to 4.6 when he took on a larger role in the offense. Dobbins will be expected to do even more this season, and Ryan Day's first season at the controls depends in large part on a return to Dobbins's freshman form.
81. Missouri DB DeMarkus Acy
The rangy corner earned second-team All-SEC honors last season as he picked up the first three interceptions of his career, including two in his best game of the season against Tennessee. A safety out of high school, Acy’s comfort level on the outside has grown, a dangerous thought for anyone who has to line up across from the 6'2" cover man in his senior season.
80. Utah State LB David Woodward
Woodward started every game for Utah State as a sophomore, racking up 134 tackles—including 12.5 for loss and 5.0 sacks—and was rewarded with a PFF Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year accolade. Utah State is coming off a season in which it tied its team record for wins, thanks largely to its conference-leading offense, but the offensive line graduated four of five starters. As that side of the team looks to reload, Woodward will have to maintain his level of play on defense to keep the team afloat.
79. Oklahoma TE Grant Calcaterra
Calcaterra will be tasked with mentoring promising freshman Austin Stogner and helping to facilitate the transition to the school’s third quarterback in three years. In 2018, he registered 26 receptions for 396 yards and six touchdowns, and was the poster child for the conference’s growing trend of using flex tight ends. Graduate transfer QB Jalen Hurts will have Calcaterra and a stable of exciting young wideouts at his disposal as he looks to keep the Sooners atop the Big 12.
78. UCF RB Greg McCrae
After joining the team as a walk-on three years ago, McCrae became the first UCF running back to rush for at least 1,000 yards since 2013, and his 8.89 yards per carry were the third-most in the country by qualified running backs—and he wasn’t even a starter. He also logged a touchdown in each of his final seven games. Coupled with a rising senior starter at his position, Adrian Killins, the junior McCrae has the chance to be part of the most formidable rushing duo in the nation before Killins graduates. After being at 5'10" and just 175 pounds last season, McCrae could prove even more lethal with a couple extra pounds on him.
77. Utah DL Leki Fotu
The 6'5", 330-pound Fotu tallied 33 tackles, including three sacks, in the 2018 season, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Though he could have declared for the draft, he saw unfinished business both in his team potential and in raising his own draft stock. Utah monumentally made its first Pac-12 Championship appearance last season, walking away with a loss, and is a perennial leader in defense against the run but struggles on offense. For the team to have a shot at returning to top of the South Division, Fotu will have to lead the charge from the line while the offense tries to catch up.
76. Ohio State LB Malik Harrison
After playing mostly on special teams his freshman year, seeing minutes in five games, Harrison got his first start in November of his sophomore season, posting six tackles and a sack to play himself into increased minutes going forward. Last season, Harrison beat out former five-star recruit and future Arizona Cardinals free agent signee Dante Booker for the starting linebacker spot and tied for a team-high 81 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, as well as 2.5 sacks and an interception. As the only Ohio State linebacker with a sure-thing starting spot in 2019, Harrison will be a crucial pillar of the Buckeyes’ defense.
75. Clemson CB AJ Terrell
Rising junior Terrell shot onto the national radar last January when he intercepted a pass and ran it back 44 yards for the first defensive touchdown in the history of the national championship in the College Football Playoff era. Last season, Terrell started every Clemson game opposite the NFL-bound Trayvon Mullen, tallying 53 tackles—two for loss—and three interceptions with 95 return yards. With Mullen’s departure, it will be up to Terrell to take the reigns of the Tigers’ defense. He’s certainly got the big-game experience to prove he won’t crack in the face of massive expectations.
74. Michigan State DL Raequan Williams
Though many expected him to declare for the draft and leave his college days behind, Williams will play out his senior season as the Spartans’ most disruptive force up front. He racked up a career-high 53 tackles (17 solo, 36 assists) as a junior as his team allowed just 77.9 rushing yards per game.
73. Vanderbilt TE Jared Pinkney
A redshirt senior, Pinkney is expected to be a big part of the Vanderbilt offense in 2019 after tallying 774 yards and seven touchdowns on 50 receptions in Kyle Shurmur’s final year at quarterback. Pinkney can be a reliable safety valve for whoever emerges under center for the Commodores.
72. Arizona QB Khalil Tate
Despite a relatively up and down season from Tate and the Wildcats, everyone knows what he is capable of after his breakout 2017 campaign took the West Coast by storm. Last fall he threw for 2,530 yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but injuries kept him from making meaningful strides in Kevin Sumlin’s first year at the helm. If Tate can stay healthy all season to help Arizona pick up its suspect defense, the Wildcats will cause some Pac-12 South havoc.
71. Alabama RB Najee Harris
Coming out of high school as the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Harris has really yet to show all that he is capable of. His two-year career was highlighted by his performance in the 2018 national championship game, but it’s hard to have attention-grabbing stats when you rotate three players in the backfield. As a sophomore, Harris had 783 rushing yards and four touchdowns. This year he will most likely be leaned on a little more, and one can certainly assume those stats will increase. Saban already said earlier this year that “[Harris’s] time will come.” When it does, expect Harris to breakout as a huge playmaking threat for the already potent Alabama offense.
70. Washington OL Nick Harris
The short but well-built Southern California product has been an anchor of the Huskies' interior offensive line for two years now, starting 26 of the Huskies' last 27 games and earning All-Pac-12 first-team honors in 2018 after switching to center. The success of quarterback Jacob Eason and running back Salvon Ahmed depend on how well Harris and his linemates hold up.
69. Penn State DL Yetur Gross-Matos
Last year Gross-Matos became the 11th player in Penn State history to record 20 tackles for loss in a single season; only eight players in the FBS had more. He is quick, explosive and strong enough to bear the playmaking expectations for a Penn State defense short on superstars.
68. Houston QB D'Eriq King
King accounted for 50 total touchdowns and racked up 3,656 total yards in only 10 full games last fall. If he had stayed healthy, a full season running coordinator Kendal Briles's offense could have put him ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, in both total yards (5,362) and total touchdowns (54). With Dana Holgorsen looking to light up the scoreboard, expect King to come back healthy, stronger, faster and eager to show the CFB world he is the real deal.
67. Michigan CB Lavert Hill
An All-Big Ten selection and Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist, Hill tallied 14 total tackles, six pass breakups and a pick-six in his second year as a starting corner in Don Brown's defense. He underwent surgery in January to fix an undisclosed injury, but now that he is back to full strength, he and safety Josh Metellus should supply some needed stability in the secondary.
66. Georgia LB Monty Rice
Despite missing five games due to injury, Rice produced 59 tackles for the Bulldogs, good for third-best on the team. Rice led the SEC with a 3.0% missed tackle percentage, making him an incredibly valuable asset on defense. Rice is a likely starter in a linebacker unit that should be one of the league's strongest.
65. Iowa OL Alaric Jackson
Jackson’s surprising athleticism for his size has made him an exciting potential first-round draft pick. After surfacing in talks as a pre-season All-America selection, Jackson started at left tackle in 12 appearances for the Hawkeyes last season. Now he will look to provide stabilizing pass-protection for an Iowa team facing one of the most difficult schedules in college football.
64. Arizona RB JJ Taylor
The redshirt junior will enter the 2019 season tenth in career rushing yards (2,542). Last season Taylor rushed for 1,434 yards, good for seventh in FBS, and contributed seven touchdowns to the Wildcats’ offense. Despite standing at just 5'6", Taylor serves as a big presence on an Arizona team looking to build upon last year’s uneven start under Kevin Sumlin.
63. Texas S Caden Sterns
The Big-12 Freshman of the Year led the Longhorns in interceptions (four) and contributed 62 tackles last fall. Assuming he's healthy by Week 1—he underwent a procedure on his patellar tendon requiring an eight-week recovery this spring—he should take on a leadership role for a defense that lost almost every other key contributor on the back end.
62. Minnesota WR Tyler Johnson
Three years into his career, Johnson is already one of the most productive offensive players in Minnesota history. His 1,987 career yards and 20 receiving touchdowns rank seventh and fourth in school history, respectively. Last season, the Minneapolis native tied the school record for 100-yard receiving games (six) and became the first Gopher to post four consecutive 100-yard games in conference play. As a senior, he's the primary playmaker on whose shoulders the Gophers' darkhorse Big Ten West hopes rest.
61. Alabama Edge Anfernee Jennings
Jennings is a relentless rusher who’s too fast for most offensive tackles to deal with from the “Jack” position. After an injury cut his 2017 season short, Jennings got back to an elite level of play in 2018 with 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Alabama’s front seven should be scary once again this season, and Jennings is a significant part of that.
60. North Texas QB Mason Fine
Fine is a natural thrower who put up eye-popping numbers his last two seasons—4,052 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2017 and 3,793 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2018—in Graham Harrell’s air-raid offense. Harrell is off to run the offense at USC, so there will be some uncertainty when Fine takes the field this season. Still, don’t be surprised if Fine and North Texas’s offense light it up in Conference USA once again.
59. Oregon State RB Jermar Jefferson
Jefferson impressed from the jump in 2018 as a freshman, rushing for 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns. He showed vision beyond his years and had several monster games, including a 31-carry, 254-yard effort against Arizona State. Oregon State probably won’t climb up the Pac-12 North standings this season, but Jefferson is at least a promising piece to build around.
58. Auburn LB Marlon Davidson
Davidson is part of an Auburn defensive line that’s brimming with talent heading into 2019. Having collected 16.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks in his first three seasons, Davidson will be in a prime position to break out this fall as fellow linemen Derrick Brown and Nick Coe draw keen attention from opposing offenses.
57. Notre Dame LB Alohi Gilman
A Navy transfer and a Hawaii native, Gilman impressed in his first season with the Irish as a rangy safety with a nose for the ball. Pro Football Focus had Gilman rated as the top safety in the country in 2018, which speaks to his sound tackling and fluidity in coverage. A repeat of his 2018 performance will be crucial for Notre Dame, which loses a bunch of talent in the middle of the field.
56. TCU WR Jalen Reagor
Few receivers meant as much to their team’s passing game as Reagor did in 2018. His 72 catches accounted for over 30% of TCU’s completions, and his 1,061 receiving yards were more than 600 yards better than the next closest TCU wideout. Reagor is a tremendous route-runner who’s a nightmare to tackle with the ball in his hands. Even with the Horned Frogs’ quarterback situation being a question mark heading into 2019, he should have another big season in 2019.
55. Wisconsin OL Cole Van Lanen
Van Lanen has been waiting in the wings, and now, with a host of departures on Wisconsin’s line, he should slot in as the Badgers’ starting left tackle. Despite starting just one game last season, Van Lanen played in every game and looked comfortable, earning the nation’s highest offensive tackle grade from Pro Football Focus. While the turnover on Wisconsin’s offensive line is more than usual, the product on the field should be more of the same for a Wisconsin team that often overpowers opponents in the trenches.
54. Cal LB Evan Weaver
Graded as the second-best linebacker in the country by Pro Football Focus, Weaver was a tackling machine for the Bears last season; his 159 tackles were also the second most in the country. A converted defensive end, Weaver is a ruthless, throwback linebacker in run support, and he holds his own in the passing game. If Cal makes any semblance of noise this year, it’ll be because of Weaver and the defense.
53. Oklahoma RB Trey Sermon
Sermon probably flew under the radar last season while playing in a juggernaut offense with the likes of Kyler Murray, Hollywood Brown and CeeDee Lamb, but that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he’s a more than capable of powering the Sooners himself. He rushed for 947 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, including a 206-yard, three-touchdown performance in a shootout win over Texas Tech. Oklahoma’s passing attack should be lethal once again with Jalen Hurts at quarterback, and Sermon will bring valuable consistency to the ground game.
52. Michigan State DL Kenny Willekes
Willekes, a former walk-on, is a dominant pass-rusher coming off the edge. He led the country with 23 quarterback hits in 2018, per Pro Football Focus, and he was named Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year after racking up a hefty 20.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. He broke his leg in Michigan State’s Redbox Bowl loss to Oregon, which limited him in the spring, though he should be ready to go full-throttle and pick up where he left off when the season arrives.
51. Utah CB Jaylon Johnson
A first team All-Pac 12 performer last season as a sophomore, Johnson made waves by picking off four passes for a stout Utah defense. Johnson is a long corner who excelled when matched up with future pros JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Dillon Mitchell in games against Stanford and Oregon, and he will lead a Utah defense that should be formidable once again in 2019.
Check back the rest of this week as the top 50 players are revealed.