The 25 most important players in the College Football Playoff chase

ByBill Connelly ESPN logo
Monday, August 26, 2019

We're preparing for another season of college football on ESPN Player, and as always we enter every season with knowns and unknowns. That's true whether we're talking about teams, coaches or players. Entities change -- 18- to 22-year-olds can change wildly -- and how much they change ends up defining how and what we remember from a given year.

Take, for instance, a list of college football's best players. In August, that's going to feature the proven entities -- last year, it listed known quantities like Houston's Ed Oliver, Clemson linemen Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, and running backs Bryce Love, Jonathan Taylor and Damien Harris. And while those players lived up to expectations, the list looked a lot different in December.

This list, then, is an attempt to look into the future. We know who we think are the best players in the country -- the Trevor Lawrences and Tua Tagovailoas and Jerry Jeudys and Jake Fromms. But below is a list of the 25 players whose opportunity and development could make the biggest difference -- either directly or indirectly -- in how we end up viewing 2019.

Predictably, nearly half the list is made up of quarterbacks. And because of the nature of the national title race and what we end up remembering from a season, the entire list is composed of players from power conferences.

Players with pure transcendent potential

Sometimes when a player jumps from excellent to otherworldly, it changes everything around him. Sometimes he's so good, it completely changes his team's -- and his opponents' -- trajectory. Think of Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh in 2009 (the quintessential example) or, more recently, Kentucky's Josh Allen in 2018.

25. QB Khalil Tate, Arizona

Tate ignited in 2017, rushing for 1,207 yards over a six-game span, then throwing for 302 yards and five scores in a bowl win. But he was banged up and hemmed in for virtually all of 2018. We get one more year to see him at full strength, and his transcendence could completely redefine the Pac-12 title race.

24. WR Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State

As a sophomore, Wallace had 546 receiving yards at the end of September, and while his production had almost nowhere to go but down from there, he excelled in the biggest games, combining for 20 catches, 442 yards and four scores against Texas and Oklahoma. Even with the Cowboys breaking in another new starting QB, Wallace can take the lid off almost any defense.

23. LB Anfernee Jennings, Alabama

Really, you could just say "insert veteran Alabama defender here" and be covered. Last year, despite linemen Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs logging 33 tackles for loss up front, Jennings still found the opportunity to make 13 TFLs and 16.5 run stuffs. Given more of a role in the pass rush, his numbers could ignite.

22. CB Kristian Fulton, LSU

Fulton wasn't deemed eligible until late in fall camp last year, but he allowed only a 41% catch rate, per Pro Football Focus, and possibly outplayed his counterpart, Greedy Williams, a top-50 draft pick. If he develops further, an already great LSU defense gets to basically erase about one-third of the field from its game plan.

21. OT Andrew Thomas, Georgia

Thomas spent a good portion of last season both battling an ankle injury and playing the best ball on one of the youngest and best lines in the country. Now he's the healthy anchor of maybe the best line in college football. His transcendence might make running back D'Andre Swift and/or quarterback Jake Fromm Heisman contenders.

20. DE Jonathan Garvin, Miami

Battery mates Joe Jackson and Gerald Willis III are gone, but that means Garvin (17 TFLs, 5.5 sacks last year) becomes maybe the most likely player in the country to reach 25 TFLs this season. If the Miami defense gets more help from its offense, he also becomes the biggest star on a top-10 team.

19. LB Micah Parsons, Penn State

The blue-chipper from Harrisburg looked the part almost instantly as a freshman, leading a top-15 defense in tackles and recording 12.5 run stuffs. Now he gets full leadership of the most talented defense of the James Franklin era. If he goes full Shane Conlan (the Nittany Lions' superstar linebacker in the 1980s), Penn State has top-five potential (and coach James Franklin will get him back in 2020 too).

18. WR Justyn Ross, Clemson

We've only begun to figure out what Ross is capable of, and he's already a top-10-level player. He spent much of 2018 as a frustrated freshman trying to find a niche in a loaded offense. Then he stole the show in the College Football Playoff, catching 12 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns against Alabama and Notre Dame. Just imagine what he might do in a full season as the No. 1 guy.

(Other candidates in this category: Stanford's Paulson Adebo, Wisconsin's Tyler Biadasz, Auburn's Derrick Brown, Syracuse's Andre Cisco, Iowa's A.J. Epenesa, Clemson's Travis Etienne, Penn State's Yetur Gross-Matos, Virginia's Bryce Hall, Washington's Levi Onwuzurike, Utah's John Penisini, Georgia's J.R. Reed, Clemson's Isaiah Simmons, Auburn's Daniel Thomas, Oregon's Calvin Throckmorton, Vanderbilt's Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Boise State's Curtis Weaver, Cal's Evan Weaver, Michigan State's Kenny Willekes and Florida State's Marvin Wilson.)

Key supporting cast members

The four players in this category need to find occasional transcendence for their respective teams to reach full-on contender status.

17.WR Michael Young, Kevin Austin Jr. or Lawrence Keys III, Notre Dame

Ian Book's high-efficiency passing was a nice substitute for a sketchy run game, but he still needed the vertical threat that Miles Boykin (872 yards, 14.8 per catch) provided. With Boykin now on the Baltimore Ravens, Book desperately needs a new deep threat to complementChase Claypool and Chris Finke. These three appear to be the most likely candidates.

16. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU

The Tigers have hinted at opening up the passing game (we'll get to that), but this is still LSU. Being able to run physically and efficiently is still vital. The Tigers ranked only 92nd in rushing marginal efficiency last year, but Edwards-Helaire was more efficient than last year's starter, Nick Brossette, and he could be key in the expansion of the pass.

15. WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan

New coordinator Josh Gattis must figure out how to create explosive plays against better opponents. The Wolverines averaged 6.7 yards per play against unranked foes (Peoples-Jones: 18.4 yards per catch) and 5.2 against ranked opponents (Peoples-Jones: 8.7 per catch). Unlocking the junior's potential in big moments -- and getting him a bit more help -- would make Michigan a title contender.

14. WR Tyler Simmons or Demetris Robertson, Georgia

Georgia is loaded in every unit but the receiving corps, where it must replace last year's top five targets. Simmons and Robertson combined for only nine receptions last year, and they've got blue-chippers nipping at their heels, but there probably needs to be some sort of veteran presence out wide for UGA to meet expectations, right?

(You could also make the case for two key linemen in this category: Florida's likely new starting left tackle, Stone Forsythe, and Wisconsin's new anchor up front, junior Cole Van Lanen.)

Key defenders with a possible leap in them

An All-American-level breakthrough from any of these three players could provide an answer for the biggest question mark on these contenders.

13. S B.J. Foster, Texas

The Longhorns have to replace their top three tacklers on the line, top two at linebacker and three of five in the secondary. To be sure, Tom Herman has been recruiting like gangbusters of late, but Foster and Caden Sterns -- blue-chip sophomores, both -- have to play like seasoned veterans to account for any breakdowns that happen up front. And they very well might.

12. DT Jordan Williams, Clemson

Clemson has been dominant at defensive tackle for what feels like decades, but the Tigers must replace three of last year's top four in the middle. Nyles Pinckney returns, but either Williams or blue-chip freshman Tyler Davis needs to provide an immediate push to make sure a longtime area of strength doesn't become at least a temporary weak spot.

11. CB Patrick Surtain II, Alabama

Awful fake field goals aside, maybe the lasting image of last year's national title game was of Alabama's secondary getting roasted repeatedly by Clemson's Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. It's easy to assume a breakthrough here as youngsters like corners Surtain and Josh Jobe and safeties Xavier McKinney and Daniel Wright acquire more seasoning. But it's not a luxury -- it's a necessity.

(Other candidates here: Oregon's blue-chip pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and new Washington starting nickel Elijah Molden.)

Veteran quarterbacks who could beat a contender

Now to the quarterbacks. You don't necessarily have to play for a title contender to affect the title race. Just ask South Carolina's Stephen Garcia (famously beat Alabama in 2010), Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly (beat Bama in 2014 and 2015, respectively), Pitt's Nathan Peterman (beat Clemson in 2016) or Syracuse's Eric Dungey (beat Clemson in 2017). Experience plus opportunity equals potential upsets.

10. QB Jake Bentley, South Carolina

Say this much for the Gamecocks' ridiculous 2019 schedule: It provides plenty of opportunity. South Carolina plays the preseason No. 1 (Clemson), No. 2 (Alabama) and No. 3 (Georgia) teams, plus other title hopefuls like Florida and Texas A&M. Bentley quietly helped the Gamecocks improve to 21st in offensive S&P+ last year, and his skill corps has massive experience. He could pick off one of these contenders, at least.

(Two more candidates here: Missouri quarterback -- and Clemson transfer -- Kelly Bryant, who gets shots at Florida and Georgia, and Tennessee's Jarrett Guarantano, who gets shots at Florida, Georgia and Alabama. You could also include Notre Dame's Ian Book in about three of these categories, depending on what you think of the Irish's chances this year.)

Quarterbacks with a potential game-changing leap in them

All three of the players here were new starters for new teams last season. They showed glimpses of potential greatness and definitive signs they might have more to offer moving forward.

9. QB Adrian Martinez, Nebraska

As a freshman, Martinez outplayed veterans like Auburn's Jarrett Stidham and Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald from a Total QBR standpoint and, perhaps more important, drastically outdid what UCF's McKenzie Milton managed as a freshman under Scott Frost's guidance. If he takes a Milton-esque sophomore leap, the Huskers become a potential top-10 team with minimal defensive improvement.

8. QB J.T. Daniels, USC

Daniels was asked to do far too much far too quickly for USC's offense last year. Now a sophomore under coordinator Graham Harrell's guidance, he'll get plenty of opportunity to prove his blue-chip potential, and he's got a potentially spectacular receiving corps at his disposal too. If this offense clicks, USC is instantly a top-15 team again.

7. QB Shea Patterson, Michigan

It feels odd including a veteran with two youngsters here, especially one who ended the year tied with Trevor Lawrence in Total QBR. But there's no question Michigan didn't quite coax all the potential production out of Patterson in his first season up north. Josh Gattis' system needs to better steal free yards and utilize Patterson's mobility. The sky's the limit.

New quarterbacks for potential contenders

Last year, it seemed like nearly every major contender was breaking in a new QB. It's a different story this year, but a few teams still have to wait and see what they've got behind center before they can properly set expectations. (And if any of these teams turn out to have stars at QB, look out.)

6. QB Jacob Eason, Washington

Circumstance defines so much about our perceptions. If Eason hadn't been forced to play (and struggle) as a true freshman at a retooling Georgia, or if he hadn't gotten hurt early in his sophomore season, he might have gone on to become the star that recruiting experts predicted him to be.

Instead, he got stuck behind Jake Fromm in 2017, then sat out last year after transferring. Now we get to finally find out what he's capable of, and if that answer is "a hell of a lot," Washington is probably your Pac-12 favorite again.

5. QB Sean Clifford, Penn State

Penn State could have its best defense in five years. The Nittany Lions boast intriguing running backs and a reasonably experienced O-line. But can they pass? They really couldn't last year, first because of turnover at receiver (and lots of dropped passes), then because of lingering Trace McSorley injuries.

The receiving corps, while still pretty young, is loaded with upside, and key figures like KJ Hamler and tight end Pat Freiermuth are no longer freshmen. If Clifford is ready to live up to his four-star potential, this offense has everything it needs to make PSU a Big Ten contender.

4. QB Justin Fields, Ohio State

Georgia appeared desperate to get Fields involved last year despite Fromm's presence, but they didn't really give him much to do besides run the occasional zone read. This ended up wasting a year of his development. Now, as he prepares for life as, really, Ohio State's only high-end quarterback option -- don't let this talk of a QB battle fool you -- we still don't completely know what he's capable of.

The weapons around Fields are immense, and the defense should improve. But Ohio State is a title contender only if Fields plays like a blue-chipper.

3. QB Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma

Technically, we know what Hurts is capable of. He did, after all, win the SEC's offensive player of the year award as a freshman, lead Alabama to two national title games, then save last year's title hopes with an off-the-bench magic act late in the SEC Championship.

Still, we don't know what he's capable of under the guidance of college football's ultimate quarterback whisperer, OU head coach Lincoln Riley. Can Riley coax more big-play potential out of the efficiency-minded senior? He'll need to -- until we see that the Sooners' defense has improved, assume their title hopes hinge on another top-ranked offense.

(You only have to stretch the definition of "contender" a smidge to make Miami's Jarren Williams or whoever ends up starting for Auburn a candidate for this category too.)

Quarterbacks with both a potential game-changing leap in them and a shot at lots of contenders

The two players in this category have by far the most potential for impacting how we look back at 2019. For one thing, they both flashed massive upside amid up-and-down seasons last year, and they are the pilots for potential top teams in their own right. For another, they will have so many chances to take down other top contenders. They both reside in the SEC West and also take on potential top-10 teams in nonconference.

2. QB Joe Burrow, LSU

The ability to stretch the field vertically is one of just a few factors that separates a talented, high-ceiling team from a team that actually gets close to its ceiling and contends. Last year, Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State -- teams that went 50-2 in the regular season and won four of the five power conference titles -- each produced a QBR of 98.8 or higher on balls thrown at least 20 yards downfield. They completed 51% of these passes at 20.1 yards per attempt, with a nearly 5-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio.

Joe Burrow didn't hit that mark. Over his first nine games as LSU's starter, he went just 14-for-38 on these passes (37%) at 12.6 yards per attempt. But late in the season, the big plays began to flow. Over his last four games, he completed nine of 17 deep attempts (53%) for 303 yards (17.8 per pass), with six scores and no picks. Against UCF in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, he was 4-for-5 for 129 and three scores.

Late in the year, LSU began to show a level of offensive upside it hasn't had since Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landrywere running routes for Zach Mettenberger back in 2013. But while that team's defense let it down a bit (16th in defensive S&P+, its second-lowest ranking of the past 10 years), this year's Tigers could have their best defense since Ed Orgeron became full-time head coach. If they can also gouge opponents for easy points, that's a top-five team.

LSU hosts Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M while visiting Texas, Mississippi State and Alabama. A top-five team wouldn't win all of those games, but Burrow and the Tigers are more than capable of winning a few. Which ones could determine the national title race.

1. QB Kellen Mond, Texas A&M

In his second game under Jimbo Fisher, as a true sophomore, Kellen Mond had to take on the Clemson defense. He threw for 430 yards, three touchdowns and no picks in a 28-26 loss -- the closest game the Tigers played all season.

In his penultimate game of the season, Mond took on a top-10 LSU defense, threw for 287 yards, six touchdowns and no picks, while rushing for 61 non-sack yards. The Aggies upset LSU in seven overtimes, and all four of his OT completions were touchdowns.

Mond looked spectacular in A&M's two most important games of the season. He scrambled for extra time, he trusted his receivers to go up and grab 50-50 balls, and he gave his team a chance to beat really good teams.

In between, he got lit up by Alabama, Mississippi State and Auburn and threw multiple picks in a closer-than-expected win over Arkansas. His deep passing was average at best, and his desire to extend plays and scramble around also got him sacked quite a bit. He was a clear work in progress -- one who was pretty good in Total QBR (28th, between Iowa's Nate Stanley and Fresno State's Marcus McMaryion, but not amazing. But his ability to shine when the spotlight was brightest was, to say the least, intriguing.

So is A&M's schedule. A&M plays at Clemson in Week 2, finishes the regular season with trips to Georgia and LSU, and hosts Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State in between. That is an absolutely nutty slate, and it will likely prevent the Aggies from becoming serious contenders. But with Mond and most of his receiving corps back, the odds are pretty good that they beat at least one team with solid national title odds. Who will it be? Will they close the deal against Clemson this time? Will they pull a sneak attack against the Crimson Tide in College Station? Will they take down a 9-1 Georgia or 10-1 LSU?

There's nothing scarier than a high-ceiling team with a spoiler's mentality. That's A&M in a nutshell in 2019.

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