At last, college football season is a mere five weeks away, which means it's time for Sports on Earth's second annual preseason top 100 player rankings.
This year, the top 100 is adapted from the seven weeks of position rankings we published in May and June (see below). Hours upon hours of research went into each of those articles, and given that not much has changed over the last couple months, the top 100 generally holds true to the position rankings from those articles. There are a few small exceptions, mostly based on news that has broken recently:
- Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, who was rated the No. 5 running back in May, is not included on this list as he is currently suspended indefinitely after being charged with battery. (Note: Since publication, Cook has been cleared of the charge.
- Quarterback Vernon Adams, who is set to transfer from Eastern Washington to Oregon, was rated the No. 10 quarterback, but he is also not included, as he is still not scheduled to join the team until after practice begins in August. He can't until he completes a summer math class. (Note: Since publication, Adams has enrolled at Oregon and won the starting quarteraback job at Oregon.)
- Braxton Miller's position change put his status up in the air -- we've never seen him as a receiver, after all -- but he had to be included.
Any list such as this is going to be subjective, leaving plenty of room for debate.These rankings are not a Heisman Trophy watch list, and they're not an NFL draft board. They're combination of on-field production, talent and potential at the college level, and they'll surely look different by the end of the season as breakout players emerge and some acclaimed players inevitably don't live up to expectations. (Young teams like Florida State will likely have more candidates by the end of the season.) This is one person's opinion, but the answer to the question "Why isn't [player from my favorite team] on the list?" is probably that he just missed the cut and is included somewhere in the position rankings.
Let the arguing begin.
First 10 who missed the cut: Kendell Beckwith, LB, LSU; Vince Biegel, LB, Wisconsin; Deon Bush, S, Miami; Alex Collins, RB, Arkansas; Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech; O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama; Curt Maggitt, LB, Tennessee; Joshua Perry, LB, Ohio State; Donnell Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State; Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas
100. JuJu Smith, WR, USC. Nelson Agholor may be gone, but the Trojans aren't lacking potential targets. Cornerback Adoree Jackson is sure to see offensive snaps, and Steven Mitchell is poised for a breakout season in the slot. As an all-around wide receiver, though, Smith is the best bet to be Cody Kessler's go-to target. A five-star recruit, he caught 54 passes for 724 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman, with all the necessary traits to develop into a game-changing receiver.
99. Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona. Unless it's at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez running games are always going to be potent, so Wilson chose his college destination wisely. As a freshman, he played a big role in pushing the Wildcats to the Pac-12 South title, running 236 times for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns -- numbers that would have been better had he not been held back by an ankle injury in the middle of the season.
98. Jalen Mills, S, LSU. Capable of playing either cornerback or safety, Mills has started 39 games in his LSU career, and he's now established himself as a premier free safety. The trio of Mills, Jamal Adams and Tre'Davious White gives LSU yet another loaded secondary, one that will make life difficult for the inexperienced quarterbacks of the SEC.
97. Brandon Doughty, QB, Western Kentucky; and Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy. Let's give credit to the prolific Group of Five quarterbacks: One putting up absurd passing numbers, the other putting up absurd rushing numbers. Doughty, a sixth-year senior, completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 4,830 yards with 49 touchdowns and 10 picks last year, ranking third in passer rating nationally for the No. 6 scoring offense. Reynolds has been an option machine for three years now, with 64 career rushing touchdowns -- only 14 away from setting the career FBS record set by Montee Ball.
96. KD Cannon, WR, Baylor. The first catch of Cannon's career went for a 46-yard touchdown, and it was a sign of things to come. As a highly touted true freshman, Cannon averaged 17.8 yards per catch, hauling in 58 passes for 1,030 yards and eight touchdowns -- capped by 197 yards vs. Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. Baylor continues to produce incredible depth and talent at wide receiver, and Cannon is quickly becoming one of the nation's most dangerous deep threats. He could end up as good as any of the star receivers that have passed through Baylor in recent years.
95. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami. Somewhat unexpectedly pressed into the starting job as a true freshman who arrived last summer, Kaaya performed well despite the Canes' 6-7 season. He loses tailback Duke Johnson and his top two receiving targets, but he showed enticing potential, with only three interceptions in the last seven games and uncommon poise under pressure for a young quarterback. Miami's 2015 prospects appear shaky, but Kaaya is an excellent building block who could help change the team's fortunes.
94. Nelson Spruce, WR, Colorado. The Buffaloes ranked last in the Pac-12 in yards per play, but Spruce gives them a steady presence who can move the chains. With Paul Richardson gone, he jumped from 55 catches to 106 for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He catches a lot of short passes, but he's a huge asset for this still-developing Colorado offense as one of the most reliable possession receivers in the game.
93. William Fuller, WR, Notre Dame. The best player in a deep receiving corps, Fuller picked up the slack for the unexpected absence of DaVaris Daniels last year. After catching six passes as a freshman, Fuller jumped to 76 catches for 1,084 yards and 15 touchdowns, proving to be a dangerous threat after the catch.
92. Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee. Sometimes it's tough to get publicity when you're stuck in the same division as a player like Vernon Hargreaves, but Sutton deserves more praise for his stellar play last season. Sutton, a junior, and sophomore end Derek Barnett give the Vols a pair of rising stars who are fueling the team's turnaround under Butch Jones. He had there interceptions and 37 tackles last year, and like a lot of top corners, he doesn't necessarily see the ball come his way often.
91. Jack Allen, C, Michigan State. If it's possible for an offensive lineman to feel like he's been around the college game forever, then Allen qualifies. He has started 35 games in his career, dating back to the time when the Spartans offense appeared to be a severe liability. Now, he's the veteran in the middle of what might be the nation's best line, protecting one of the nation's top quarterbacks in Connor Cook.
90. Gunner Kiel, QB, Cincinnati. Kiel finally settled into a starting role last year, after an eventful recruitment and a transfer from Notre Dame. Once a five-star recruit, he showed flashes of that ability as a sophomore for the Bearcats, including throwing for 352 yards and four touchdowns vs. Ohio State. He averaged 8.3 yards per attempt for the season, and with all his receivers returning, Kiel should be one of the nation's most prolific passers for a team that can contend for a major bowl bid as an AAC frontrunner.
89. Pat Elflein, G, Ohio State. Elflein was a breakout star for what had been a questionable offensive line entering the 2014 season but finished as one of the nation's top units. The 300-pound junior broke into the lineup at left guard, and the offense's phenomenal finish to the season was not only because of the wealth of skill talent, but because players like Elflein established themselves as future pros too.
88. Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech. Thomas proved to be a better fit for Georgia Tech's option offense than Vad Lee, whose transfer opened the door for Thomas to become the full-time starter. He led the Yellow Jackets to a division title and a win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl, rushing for 1,086 yards, averaging 9.2 yards per pass attempt and emerging as a terrific point guard for an offense that ranked ninth nationally in yards per play. His return is the main reason why many suspect the Yellow Jackets will repeat as ACC Coastal champions.
87. KeiVarae Russell, CB, Notre Dame. Russell missed last year because of an academic suspension, and his return gives a big boost to a Notre Dame defense that melted down in the second half of last season. In fact, this secondary could turn out to be one of the nation's most improved units. Russell has started all 26 games he's been eligible for thus far, and he was poised to break out on the national level last year. With a ton of talent returning to the Irish, that breakout could finally come this fall.
86. Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo. Maybe the best running back that casual fans don't know much about. In only 10 games last year -- he missed three games with an ankle injury -- Hunt ran for 1,631 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging nearly eight yards per carry. Only Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman averaged more than Hunt's 163.1 yards per game, and he ended the year with 265 yards against Bowling Green and 271 in the GoDaddy Bowl vs. Arkansas State. He could lead Toledo to its first MAC title since 2004.
85. Kenny Clark, DT, UCLA. You could also put Eddie Vanderdoes here, as the Bruins boast a top-notch combination of defensive tackles capable of occupying blockers to allow Myles Jack to make a ton of plays behind them. A 308-pound junior, Clark had 57 tackles last season, and while he could use improvement as a pass rusher, he's a valuable player because of his strength in the middle of the Bruins defense.
84. Sheldon Day, DT, Notre Dame. Day was one of several Fighting Irish defenders to run into injury problems last year, but his return for his senior season is a big boost for this defense that is primed for at turnaround. Capable of playing end or tackle, the 285-pound Day brings much-needed burst and agility to the Irish line as they try to improve their pass rush.
83. Leonte Carroo, WR, Rutgers. Carroo's decision to return for his senior season was a boon to a Rutgers offense that lost coordinator Ralph Friedgen after one year and also lacks a clear starter at quarterback. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior caught 55 passes for 1,086 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2014, averaging nearly 20 yards per catch to elevate an inconsistent offense.
82. Tre'Davious White, CB, LSU. It can be hard to find playing time in crowded LSU defensive backfields, but White has started 24 games in two years for the Tigers. He'll likely emerge as one of the nation's top corners as a junior, a standout No. 1 cornerback in what might be the nation's best secondary alongside safeties Jamal Adams and Jalen Mills.
81. Danzel McDaniel, CB, Kansas State. One of the nation's most underrated defenders, the hard-hitting McDaniel shined in his first year as a starter after transferring from the juco level. He's a typical Bill Snyder star, then: from the juco level to a complete Big 12 cornerback who is an asset for the Wildcats in run support, although he's still developing in coverage.
80. Sheldon Rankins, DE, Louisville. There were a few hiccups down the stretch against quality offenses, but overall Louisville's defense was outstanding under coordinator Todd Grantham last season. Several key contributors must be replaced, but there's still enough talent to make this among the ACC's strongest units again, led by Rankins. The 303-pound Rankins is the type of versatile defensive lineman who is perfect for the hybrid type of defense that the Cardinals run. Last year, he finished fourth on the team with 53 tackles and first in sacks (eight) and tackles for loss (13 ½).
79. Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin. Clement has a tough act to follow, given that he's replacing 2,500-yard rusher Melvin Gordon and will have to run behind a line that loses three starters. Still, there's little reason to ever doubt the Wisconsin running game, especially with former Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst returning to run the show. Even in playing behind Gordon last year, Clement somehow ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns on 147 carries, averaging 6.5 yards per attempt. The Wisconsin offensive line may have more questions than usual, but Clement is a near-lock to produce in a big way as he takes over for Gordon.
78. Budda Baker, S, Washington. With a wave of stars from the Washington defense off to the NFL, Baker is set to step into the spotlight. A touted recruit in the class of 2014, Baker started all 14 games as a freshman, recording 80 tackles, six pass breakups, two forced fumbles and an interception. Baker is a great athlete who could also get some looks on offense and as a return man.
77. Taysom Hill, QB, BYU. A darkhorse Heisman candidate early last season, Hill broke his leg in the Cougars' fifth game, sidelining him for the season. Prior to the injury, he ran for 463 yards and eight touchdowns and threw for 975 yards and seven touchdowns, continuing what he did in a phenomenal 2013 campaign in which he bulldozed Texas and ran for 1,344 yards while passing for nearly 3,000. He's BYU's version of Dak Prescott.
76. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State. Talent could place Hackenberg in the top 10 of this list, but performance puts him well outside the top 100. We'll meet somewhere in between. Hackenberg's accuracy, footwork and decision-making all left a lot to be desired last season, but it's hard to figure out how much unfavorable circumstances around him are to blame. The offensive line, ravaged by scholarship restrictions, severely limited the offense -- from the run game to pass protection to play-calling under a new coaching staff -- and Hackenberg seemed to get caught up in all those other issues, with frustration building during the season. He has a chance for a big turnaround, with his huge arm, a better line, more seasoned receivers and glimpses of brilliance we've seen from him, like in the first (454 yards vs. UCF) and last games (371 yards vs. Boston College) of last season.
75. Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn. This year presents a perfect opportunity for a the reinvention of the Auburn defense. Will Muschamp arrives to take over a defense that does not lack talent, despite its flaws, and Auburn will finally have a seasoned Adams paired with a healthy Carl Lawson -- both five-star recruits in 2013 -- on the front line. Adams is still a work-in-progress, but he can be the catalyst for improvement on the line around him thanks to his quickness and disruptive play on the interior.
74. Jamal Adams, S, LSU. A budding superstar, Adams started only two games last year in a talented LSU secondary, but he showed signs of big things to come. He finished sixth on the team with 66 tackles, and he also had five pass breakups and five tackles for loss. He's the type of defensive back LSU is known for: a 6-foot, 206-pound sophomore who flies to the ball and will undoubtedly change the tide of a game or two.
73. Landon Turner, G, North Carolina. Turner is the best player on an underrated Tar Heels offense, a legitimate NFL prospect with the possibility that he'll be the first guard off the board. A 6-foot-4, 325-pound senior, Turner has excelled as a physical run blocker in 28 career starts.
72. Jordan Jenkins, LB, Georgia. Playing what's essentially a stand-up defensive end role, the 6-foot-3, 253-pound Jenkins had five sacks, 9 ½ tackles for loss and 70 total tackles last year, making strides while still not reaching his full potential. He's not as explosive of an athlete as teammate Leonard Floyd, but he teams with Floyd and sophomore Lorenzo Carter to form a lethal combination of versatile pass rushers for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
71. Le'Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech. A mainstay on the Red Raiders offensive line, Clark has 38 career starts under his belt, beginning his career at right guard before becoming an All-Big 12 left tackle the last two years. He could play either position in the pros, but at Texas Tech he boasts the quickness to seal the edge in an offense in which the quarterbacks don't get sacked often, despite the high number of pass attempts.
70. Dante Barnett, S, Kansas State. An All-Big 12 performer, Barnett has started 28 career games at safety. He's the Wildcats' leading returning tackler (77), and he finished with three picks and eight pass breakups last season. The Wildcats were solid in pass defense last year, giving up 6.8 yards per pass attempt, and that number should improve with Barnett and cornerbacks Danzel McDaniel and Morgan Burns returning for their senior seasons.
69. Vadal Alexander, OT, LSU. Alexander is a valuable player wherever LSU has needed him in its physical offense. After starting nine games at right tackle as a freshman, he has started 25 games the last two seasons at left guard. Now, he's back at right tackle for his senior campaign, with La'el Collins gone. The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Alexander is one of the SEC's best linemen and will be a key factor in Leonard Fournette's development at tailback.
68. Hunter Henry, TE, Arkansas. Bret Bielema loves his offensive linemen, and that extends to Henry, who is a prototypical tight end who emerged as the team's best receiving threat . A 6-foot-5 junior, Henry has racked up nearly 1,000 yards over two years, including 37 catches for 513 yards last season as a great play-action outlet for QB Brandon Allen in a run-heavy offense.
67. Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama. A five-star recruit last year, Robinson made the impressive leap from high school to true freshman starter at left tackle for a playoff team. He benefited from enrolling early, and he quickly established himself as one of the SEC's best offensive linemen. At 6-foot-6, 326 pounds, Robinson already looks like a pro tackle, meaning he'll be a coveted player in a couple years.
66. Joshua Garnett, G, Stanford. The Cardinal lost first-round pick Andrus Peat at tackle, but the line as a whole should be better in 2015 -- and the run game should be better too. Garnett, a 325-pound senior, is the best of the bunch, bringing impressive physicality to the table for a team that continues to develop quality offensive linemen.
65. Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA. Perkins pulled off the rare feat of leading the Pac-12 in rushing but not earning first- or second-team all-conference honors. He was a revelation for the Bruins last season, fixing what had been a problematic run game in 2013. With the help of an improved offensive line, Perkins ran for 1,575 yards and nine touchdowns on 251 carries (6.3 yards per carry). He also caught 25 passes, meaning he's a versatile, explosive weapons who will greatly aid the move to a new quarterback.
64. Dadi Nicolas, DE, Virginia Tech. The Hokies' aggressive defense continues to thrive under coordinator Bud Foster, and Nicolas is one of many weapons on one of the nation's top defensive lines. The Hokies ranked fourth with 48 sacks in 13 games last year, and Nicolas had 8 ½ sacks and 18 tackles for loss. While undersized at 236 pounds, he's developed into a more complete player and teams with Ken Ekanem to form a prolific pass-rushing tandem.
63. Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina. The current Gamecocks roster is lacking star power, but Cooper is a game-changer. He's a 5-foot-11, 208-pound athlete who can line up anywhere and get the ball in different ways: Last season, he caught 69 passes for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns, ran 27 times for 200 yards and two touchdowns and even attempted eight passes, completing five with two touchdowns. He's one of the nation's most dangerous players in space and after the catch.
62. Adolphus Washington, DT, Ohio State. Washington has steadily progressed at tackle since coming to Ohio State as a blue-chip defensive end recruit. Teaming with Michael Bennett last year, he had 10 ½ tackles for loss and 4 ½ sacks, and now he'll return for his senior season and shift to a three-technique role. He's a great player on his own, but he'll also benefit from all the attention Joey Bosa is sure to receive from opposing offenses.
61. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia. Floyd is still searching for consistency, but he has the potential to be one of the nation's most disruptive pass rushers. A movable chess piece on the Georgia defense, Floyd can attack backfields from different angles, lining up anywhere. He had six sacks and three forced fumbles last year, and his numbers are likely to improve as a junior in a group that also features talented pass rushers in Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter.
60. Josh Doctson, WR, TCU. Doctson began his college career at Wyoming, and his transfer has worked out brilliantly. He proved to be a perfect fit for Trevone Boykin and TCU's new-look Air Raid attack last year, combining a 6-foot-3 frame, deep speed, leaping ability and ball skills. He caught 65 passes for 1,018 yards, becoming the top option in what is suddenly one of the nation's top receiving corps.
59. DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon. Fellow towering defensive end Arik Armstead got more hype, but Buckner may turn out to be even better than his former teammate, who was the 17th pick in the draft. Buckner is 6-foot-7, 290 pounds, making him a perfect fit at end for the Ducks' three-man front, and he's coming off a breakout season in which he recorded 13 tackles for loss.
58. Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma. Sanchez can be an all-or-nothing player prone to giving up big plays, but that's because he plays with an aggressive style. Few defenders are better at jumping routes, and last year Sanchez finished with six interceptions and eight pass breakups as he moved into the No. 1 cornerback role on the Sooners defense as a sophomore. He's still searching for greater consistency, but his instincts make him a dangerous ball hawk capable of game-changing plays.
57. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon. The Ducks offense is all about spreading the field and moving as fast as possible, but Freeman brings another dimension, as a 230-pound back who can attack defenses downhill and between the tackles. That's not to say he lacks speed, either. As a true freshman, Freeman broke out as a perfect complement to Marcus Mariota, rushing 252 times for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns.
56. Evan Engram, TE, Ole Miss. Wideout Laquon Treadwell is the headliner on the Ole Miss offense, but Engram commands a ton of attention in the passing game too. Engram is a version of the modern receiver/tight end hybrid, meaning he'll split out wide and line up anywhere, really, creating matchup advantages with his combination of size and speed. He had more yards on fewer catches than Treadwell, in fact, catching 38 passes for 662 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 17.4 yards per reception.
55. Maliek Collins, DT, Nebraska. Few teams have more potential up the middle on defense than the Huskers, who pair Collins with Vincent Valentine, both juniors. Collins had 10 ½ tackles for loss and four sacks last season, showcasing impressive quickness to make him a disruptive force for Nebraska. He'll have to do it without teams paying so much attention to pass rusher Randy Gregory, but he's a strong best to emerge as the leader of this defense.
54. Devontae Booker, RB, Utah. Booker finished eighth nationally in carries last year, and there's a decent chance he'll finish fist in that category as a senior. Utah has developed an identity as a physical running team, and Booker did it all for the Utes: He ran 292 times for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 42 passes for 311 yards. He's a smooth one-cut runner, and Utah has to just make sure to avoid overworking him.
53. Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor. KD Cannon probably has the highest upside among Baylor receivers, but Coleman has proved the most thus far, as the latest ultra-productive receiver in this unstoppable Art Briles offense. As a sophomore, Coleman caught 64 passes for 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns, even though he missed the first three games of the season (against Baylor's nonconference opponents). He had 15 catches for 224 yards in the Oklahoma game alone. He's a terrific athlete, whose deep speed allows him to excel in a Briles offense that loves to push the ball downfield. Ten of his 64 catches went for 40 yards or more.
52. Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia. West Virginia's defense has quietly made impressive strides the last few years, and Joseph is the centerpiece. One of the hardest hitters in the game, the 5-foot-11, 197-pound senior has been a highly productive player throughout his career. He had 90 tackles, three forced fumbles and 4 ½ tackles for loss last year, and he's now the senior leader of what has become a terrific secondary.
51. Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma. Injuries unfortunately derailed what was shaping up to be a spectacular season for Shepard. He caught only two passes after November began, but before then he had 49 catches for 911 yards in just eight games, in an inconsistent Oklahoma offense. He's only 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, but he's a quick, reliable and tough receiver who is poised for a huge senior season under new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.
50. Braxton Miller, WR/QB, Ohio State. Miller has to be somewhere on this list, but it's impossible to tell where after he announced that he'll switch from quarterback to receiver. So we'll stick him in the middle. As a quarterback, he's in the top 25. As a receiver … well, we know he's still one of the most explosive and agile runners in college football. Ohio State will get him the ball in space, and through two 1,000-yard rushing seasons at quarterback, Miller has proved that he can make the most of the opportunities.
49. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia. Blanding has quickly lived up to the recruiting hype. Mike London successfully signed the five-star prospect from Virginia Beach, and Blanding broke into the starting lineup and made a big impact for a solid Cavaliers defense. He finished with a team-high 123 tackles in 12 games, plus three interceptions and six pass breakups. He's the total package at free safety.
48. Duke Williams, WR, Auburn. With Sammie Coates gone at receiver and Jeremy Johnson stepping in at quarterback, Williams is about to become the clear No. 1 target in an offense that should be more productive in the passing game. He had an up-and-down debut season for the Tigers after transferring in from the juco level, but he caught 45 passes for 730 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games, and he possesses a rare combination of size, speed and physicality for a college wideout.
47. Jared Goff, QB, California. Goff is proving to be a terrific match for Sonny Dykes' Air Raid attack, and he's more than just a system quarterback. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior threw for 3,973 yards and 35 touchdowns last season, showing off pro-caliber tools. This Golden Bears team is a lot more experienced now, and while Cal's success is tied to how much its defense improves, Goff might keep the team in any game with an offense that will average over 40 points.
46. Max Tuerk, C, USC. Tuerk has done it all for the Trojans offensive line, but after playing some at left tackle, left guard and right tackle, he has become one of the nation's best centers. Now a senior, he's the veteran anchor (33 career starts) of a line that struggled with youth last year but should start to become a strength of the team going forward. Tuerk brings experience, quickness and versatility to the table and could be an All-American.
45. Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss. While maybe not as hyped as Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell or Laremy Tunsil from Ole Miss' acclaimed recruiting class of 2013, Conner was also a five-star recruit. He's played like it too. He's a jack-of-all-trades athlete in the Rebels' 4-2-5 defense, with the size and physicality to play a linebacker type role and the athleticism to play nickel corner. He had 69 tackles and nine tackles for loss last year, and he might be the embodiment of what this defense is about: an attacking group that flies to the ball.
44. Adoree Jackson, CB, USC. Possibly the next great two-way player in college football, Jackson started 10 games at cornerback as a freshman, and that's where he'll make the biggest impact. Still, he's a phenomenal athlete -- the Pac-12's long jump champion -- who averaged 29.7 yards per kick return and caught 10 passes too. USC is going to find a way to get him on the field as much possible, with his biggest impact coming as the team's top cornerback. The Trojans are hoping for shades of Charles Woodson.
43. Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State. One of many young players to improve greatly over the course of last season as Ohio State evolved into a national championship team, Bell was a star by the time the College Football Playoff rolled around. As a sophomore, he finished second on the team with 92 tackles and had six interceptions and six pass breakups. Ohio State's secondary was a liability two years ago, but now Bell leads an accomplished group.
42. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson. The front seven got all the attention for Clemson's superb defense last season, and all that talent up front -- and the pressure it got on opposing quarterbacks -- made life easier for the secondary. Still, Alexander's performance as a redshirt freshman shouldn't be discounted. A five-star recruit in 2013, Alexander missed that season with an injury, but he quickly became an integral part of the Tigers defense last year, shutting down opposing wideouts and rarely getting targeted.
41. Rashard Higgins, WR, Colorado State. Quarterback Garrett Grayson and coach Jim McElwain are gone from the prolific Rams offense, so it will be interesting to see what Higgins does for an encore after bursting onto the scene last year as a sophomore. He caught 96 passes for 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns, with at least 98 yards in all but one game he played in. He's a smooth athlete and natural receiver who is among the nation's most dangerous after the catch.
40. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State. Calhoun is the top player on one of the nation's top defensive lines, a group that will ensure that the defense won't experience much of a drop-off in the immediate aftermath of coordinator Pat Narduzzi's departure. He had eight sacks and 12 ½ tackles for loss as a junior, and he returns for his senior season having shown solid improvement that could put him in the first-round mix of next spring's draft.
39. Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama. The 254-pound Ragland is the prototypical Alabama linebacker. Playing behind a massive, talented defensive line, Ragland is a physical run defender with NFL-ready size. He had 93 tackles and 10 ½ tackles for loss last season, and while he's better in run defense than dropping into coverage, he's a valuable player for what will be a physical defense, especially in the front seven.
38. Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor. Billings is an excellent partner in crime for Shawn Oakman on what has become one of the nation's top defensive lines. Underrated and overshadowed by Oakman, Billings is actually the more consistent player, a physical 300-pound athlete on the interior with a powerlifting background. For as talented as Oakman is, perhaps Billings should be receiving equal attention.
37. Jeremy Cash, S, Duke. Even in this era of relative success under David Cutcliffe, Duke's best players tend to fly under the radar. That shouldn't be the case with Cash. A 6-foot-2, 210-pound fifth-year senior, Cash quietly excels in multiple roles for the Blue Devils, serving as a hybrid safety. He's had 235 tackles over the last two seasons after transferring from Ohio State, with 10 ½ tackles for loss and two picks last season.
36. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh. Boyd's offseason was marred by a DUI charge, but he rejoined the team in late July after entering a first-time offenders program. While James Conner receives a heavy workload at tailback, Boyd carries the passing game: He had 78 catches for 1,261 yards and eight touchdowns last year, while no other Panther had more than 21 catches or 201 receiving yards. He's both a possession receiver and a dangerous deep threat, a complete all-around receiver who will continue to excel in a passing game poised to take a step forward.
35. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh. Conner was a perfect fit for Paul Chyrst's Wisconsin-like offense, but now that Chryst is back in Madison, it will be interesting to see Conner's workload. New coordinator Jim Chaney operated a similar physical attack at Arkansas, but he has more of a passing background, and the Panthers do have Tyler Boyd at wideout. They're be crazy not to give the ball to Conner a lot, of course, but he did wear down last year: He ran 298 times for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns, with only 203 yards total over the last three games. Conner is a load to tackle, though, and Chaney always adapts to his talent. Conner should be poised for another big year.
34. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State. Cook helped transform the Michigan State offense over the course of his sophomore season in 2013, taking this from a defense-driven team to a balanced contender that's strong in nearly every facet of the game. While Cook's decision-making and accuracy aren't as consistent as you would like, behind a great offensive line Cook has avoided making many costly mistakes, with a manageable eight interceptions last year and hardly any sacks taken. His arm strength and ability to fit passes into tight windows have allowed the Spartans to make big plays in the passing game to support a consistently good ground attack.
33. Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State. The Buckeyes offensive line has gone from liability to strength over the last year. Whereas Decker was the only returning starter a year ago, he now returns for his senior season as the best player on one of the best lines in the country. At 6-foot-8, 315 pounds, he's a big and nimble blind-side protector for whomever is actually playing quarterback for the Buckeyes.
32. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma. New offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley may have an Air Raid background, and Oklahoma may have running back depth with Alex Ross and Joe Mixon, but Riley will absolutely get the ball in the hands of Perine. As a true freshman, Perine, a punishing runner, broke into the starting lineup at West Virginia in late September by necessity, and he ran for 242 yards. He also ended the year with a string of four big games in a row: 213 yards vs. Texas tech, a single-game record 427 yards vs. Kansas, 151 vs. Oklahoma State and 134 vs. Clemson. He's one of the best running backs in the nation, and Oklahoma will find a way to spread the wealth on an offense that has more potential than it's been given credit for.
31. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss. Treadwell has yet to show off his true potential over the course of a full season. As a freshman, he averaged just 8.44 yards per catch. As a sophomore, his season was unfortunately cut short by a devastating leg injury against Auburn. Treadwell is well on his way to a comeback, though, and if 100 percent he should be the best receiver in the game, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior with absurd athleticism and impressive physicality. He's the most complete receiver in college football.
30. Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma. Striker looks like a defensive back but instead wreaks havoc on opposing backfields as an edge-rushing linebacker. While only 6-foot, 223 pounds, Striker is an explosive playmaker who had nine sacks, 17 tackles for loss and five pass breakups as a junior. He's at his best rushing the passer, but he has the athleticism to drop into coverage. He's the type of player that offenses always need to be aware of.
29. Jack Conklin, OT, Michigan State. Originally a walk-on, Conklin has been one of the most reliable pass protectors in the nation since taking hold of a starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2013. The Spartans have given up a total of only 28 sacks over the last two seasons, with Conklin allowing only 2 ½ sacks in his career. The Spartans might have the best offensive line in college football, and Conklin has gone from obscurity to potential first-round pick.
28. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama. We're finally about to see what happens when Henry is the clear-cut starter for Alabama, in an offense that will no longer have Amari Cooper. Lane Kiffin loves feeding the ball as much as possible to his best player, and that should be Henry this year. We've seen flashes of stardom from the 6-foot-3, 238-pound junior, from the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma as a freshman to various late-game situations in which he pulverized worn-down defenses. With T.J. Yeldon gone and Kenyan Drake serving in various complementary roles, it's Henry's show now, after he split time and ran for 990 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. When he gets rolling, tackling him is a frightening proposition.
27. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M. Garrett's SEC freshman record of 11 ½ sacks comes with an asterisk because only three of those sacks happened in eight SEC games. Still, he has quickly become one of the most feared defenders in the nation, and rightfully so. He was a dynamic pass rusher from day one for the Aggies, a five-star recruit who immediately bolstered a struggling pass rush. He just needs help around him, because as it stands he'll receive every bit of attention from opposing offenses. He should thrive under new coordinator John Chavis, who will improve the rest of the defense.
26. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee. Barnett somehow upstaged Garrett in SEC play, with all 10 of his sacks as a true freshman coming against SEC opponents. He totaled 20 ½ tackles for loss, finishing seventh nationally, and he teams with senior Curt Maggitt to form one of the nation's top pass-rushing duos. Barnett looked nothing like a freshman last year, showcasing veteran instincts to go along with his quickness off the edge.
25. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State. Easily the best returning starting quarterback in the SEC, Prescott was the face of Mississippi State's meteoric rise to the No. 1 ranking in the middle of the season. While it didn't last, Prescott's performance was mostly terrific: 3,449 yards and 27 touchdowns passing, plus 986 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing. He emerged as a variation on the Tim Tebow type of player for Dan Mullen, Urban Meyer's former offensive coordinator, powering the Bulldogs with a lot of read-option and a lot of play-action.
24. Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State. Lost in a mediocre season for Oklahoma State, Ogbah emerged as a force for a defense in need of playmakers. He's a high-energy, disruptive player off the edge, finishing with 11 sacks and 17 tackles for loss as a redshirt sophomore. His return gives Oklahoma State hope for a much-improved defense this fall, for a team that could make some noise in the Big 12 race.
23. Spencer Drango, OT, Baylor. Baylor returns all five starters on its offensive line, and Drango is the headliner, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound senior who has started 35 games in his career. Expectations are high for new quarterback Seth Russell not only because of his talent and not only because of Art Briles' prolific system, but because he'll have people like Drango blocking for him.
22. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU. In 12 months, Boykin has gone from possible wide receiver to Heisman candidate at quarterback. He played both positions in his first two seasons, but last year he emerged as a surprise breakout player, leading the transformation of the Horned Frogs offense under new co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. Boykin is great within the system but also an expert improviser because of his speed. He threw for 3,901 yards and 33 touchdowns and ran for 707 yards and eight touchdowns, and now he's one of 10 starters returning to an offense that scored 46.5 points per game.
21. J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, QBs, Ohio State. With Braxton Miller shifting to a receiver role, Barrett and Jones will duel for the job in August. Yes, we're cheating by grouping them together, and Ohio State can't lose with the decision. If we're going to make the evaluation simplistic, we'll say that Barrett is more reliable, and Jones has more upside. Barrett is a better all-around college player, having rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and ranked second nationally in passer rating before getting hurt last year. Jones has a mammoth arm and powerful running ability. Barrett can handle pressure better, but Jones will likely develop in that category. Jones had the momentum from his playoff run, but don't forget how good Barrett was as the starter. He's a better distributor, and that may be the best thing for this offense with all the versatile weapons it has. It's hard to go wrong with Jones' tools, though, behind what will be a great offensive line.
20. A'Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama. The stats may not show it -- 49 tackles, 6 ½ tackles for loss -- but few players are as difficult to handle as Robinson, who teams with Jonathan Allen, Jarran Reed and a deep rotation to form the nation's top defensive line. Alabama always seems to have defensive linemen that are bigger and more athletic than everyone else, and that's especially true for Robinson, who sets the tone for everything Bama does.
19. Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish should experience a considerable turnaround on defense this year, and it starts with the presence of Smith, one of the most complete defensive players in the nation. An explosive, instinctive athlete, Smith is a playmaker in all facets of the game, defending the run, making plays in the backfield and dropping into coverage.
18. Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State. A former defensive end, Zettel terrorized opposing backfields under coordinator Bob Shoop last year, leading the way for one of the nation's stingiest defenses. He may be only 278 pounds, but he's a disruptive athlete with a quick first step, plenty of strength and speed that makes him impossible to handle on the interior. He finished a breakout 2014 campaign with eight sacks, 17 tackles for loss and three interceptions.
17. Darron Lee, LB, Ohio State. Once a 195-pound true freshman, Lee emerged as one of the nation's best players by the end of his redshirt freshman season, playing a pivotal role in the Buckeyes' run to a national championship. He's a tremendous athlete capable of playing many roles at outside linebacker, with 16 ½ tackles for loss, 7 ½ sacks, two picks and two fumbles returned for touchdowns last year.
16. Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss. Forget the so-so numbers. Nkemdiche presence as the anchor of the Ole Miss defense demands constant attention. It's not just the hype as five-star recruit in 2013; Nkemdiche is the real deal. He has room for improvement, technically speaking, and you'd like him to be more consistent, but he's a freakish athlete for a 300-pound defensive lineman, with the versatility to make an impact from anywhere up front on a talented Rebels defense.
15. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. He's only scratching the surface, and that's a scary thought for the rest of the SEC. Rated by some as the top recruit in the class of 2014, Fournette struck a Heisman pose after his first career touchdown and quickly became an impact player. His combination of speed, power and size has been compared to Adrian Peterson, and it's possible Fournette will reach that level. Without much support from the passing game, Fournette ran 187 times for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns and also starred on kick returns. The Heisman pose may have been premature, but it still may have been a sign of things to come.
14. Cody Kessler, QB, USC.
Matt Leinart, 2004: 65.3 percent, 3,322 yards, 33 TDs, 6 INTs, 8.1 Y/A, 156.5 rating
Cody Kessler, 2014: 69.7 percent, 3,826 yards, 39 TDs, 5 INTs, 8.5 Y/A, 167.1 rating
Sure, the quarterback position has changed in the last 10 years. Passing numbers are skyrocketing in many cases, and the tempo is being pushed. Still, for how many times Kessler has been called underrated, maybe he still is somehow underrated. Leinart won the Heisman for that junior season 10 years ago. Kessler put up those terrific numbers with a weaker supporting cast, including a very young offensive line. Kessler's numbers were certainly inflated against weak opponents, and this is not an argument that he was Leinart's equal or should have been in the Heisman conversation last year. But he's a smart, accurate player who avoids mistakes and reliably gets the ball in the hands of USC's ample playmakers. With a better offensive line, Kessler is poised for a big senior season.
13. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss. Injuries have plagued Tunsil, a five-star recruit in the class of 2013, and he's returning from a broken leg suffered in the Peach Bowl. He's also embroiled in a messy situation in which he got into a fight with his stepfather, who made accusations about Tunsil's dealings with agents. If healthy and on the field, Tunsil is a supremely talented left tackle who could be a top-10 pick in the draft. He's a fluid athlete who can adeptly handle speed rushers off the edge.
12. Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor. The scariest thing about Oakman is that he's yet to develop into a consistent playmaker. He's freakish athlete and physical terror, a 6-foot-9, 280-pound transfer from Penn State who had 11 sacks and 19 ½ tackles for loss in his first season as a full-time starter. Oakman is still inconsistent and somewhat raw, but his power and athleticism make him a nightmare for opposing offenses to attempt to handle. There is no more intimidating player.
11. Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech. The next in line in the Virginia Tech Fuller Dynasty. Vincent, Corey and Kyle Fuller have all played for the Hokies, and now little brother Kendall is starring as one of the nation's best cornerbacks. He's been a standout since day one, starting 25 games in his first two years, and last year he broke up 15 passes and intercepted two passes, returning one for a touchdown. He can compete to be the best cornerback in the country.
10. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. We ranked Watson No. 1 among college quarterbacks despite several caveats: His injury struggles as a freshman, the loss of offensive coordinator Chad Morris and an unproven offensive line that just lost left tackle Isaiah Battle to the supplemental draft. Still, this ranking is based on the assumption that Watson has the most natural talent and upside among any quarterback currently in college football. He averaged 10.7 yards per attempt in eight games last year (better than Marcus Mariota), throwing 14 touchdowns and two picks, and he can run too. He's a great athlete who shows maturity and poise with a strong command of the offense from the pocket. The sky's the limit, assuming he bounces back well from his torn ACL -- an injury he played on while still accounting for four total touchdowns in a 35-17 win over South Carolina.
9. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA. The emergence of Paul Perkins at tailback eliminated the need for Jack to be a two-way player, although he still did score three touchdowns on offense last season. Jack has proved to be a natural at running back, but he may turn out to be a pro star at linebacker. With Eric Kendricks gone, Jack will run the show on defense for the Bruins, bringing the same skill set we've seen from him on offense: aggressiveness, burst, closing speed and physicality. He can do whatever UCLA asks for him, and new coordinator Tom Bradley has a long history of producing top linebackers at Penn State.
8. Su'a Cravens, LB, USC. Call him a safety, call him a linebacker, it doesn't matter. Cravens is one of the best defenders in college football. A five-star recruit in 2013, Cravens made an instant impact. He's started all 26 games in two seasons, moving into more of a hybrid linebacker role from safety last year, when he had 17 tackles for loss, five sacks, 68 tackles, three picks and nine pass breakups. He can line up just about everywhere and is now the best player on a talented USC defense with Leonard Williams gone.
7. Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame. A terrific athlete for a 315-pound offensive tackle, Stanley may be a top-five pick in next spring's NFL draft. He's played at both tackle spots, slotting in on the left side last season, when he allowed just one sack and also excelled in the run game. He leads a very solid offensive line that will allow Malik Zaire to do big things at quarterback in what could be a more run-oriented Irish attack.
6. Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Florida. The best pure cover corner in college football, Hargreaves has everything but size (5-foot-11, 192 pounds), and he plays bigger than his size anyway. He's broken up 24 passes and intercepted six in two years, and he probably won't put up big numbers this year because nobody will bother throwing his way. He's quick, instinctive and technically sound, and he's also a sure tackler when coming up in run support. Nobody is going to move the ball on him this year.
5. Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona. Wright's statistics from last year will never cease to amaze: He finished first in the nation in tackles (163), first in tackles for loss (29), first in forced fumbles (six) and third in sacks (14). He was an overlooked recruit, and he's used that as a chip on his shoulder, developing into one of the nation's best defenders as a sophomore. Now a junior, he's a Bednarik Award frontrunner and the clear centerpiece of the Arizona defense as the Wildcats again try to surprise and repeat as Pac-12 South champions.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State. Nobody has ever had a postseason quite like Elliott. After a solid regular season in which he was overshadowed by other Big Ten stars, as he played behind a still-developing line, Elliott exploded down the stretch with Cardale Jones at quarterback. He toppled Wisconsin for 220 yards in the Big Ten title game, then put up 230 on Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and 246 on Oregon in the national title game. He finished with 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns in 15 games, showcasing the size to move the chains between the tackles but home-run speed with the ability to turn the corner and get into space. With the Ohio State quarterback situation still up in the air, he's the Buckeyes' best Heisman candidate.
3. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia. Chubb was Georgia's savior last season. Todd Gurley, arguably the best player in the nation, was suspended in October, then tore his ACL. Neither Keith Marshall nor Sony Michel stayed 100 percent healthy. So Chubb, a true freshman, took over and carried the Bulldogs offense on his back. He finished with 219 carries for 1,547 yards (7.1 per carry) and 14 touchdowns, rushing for well over 100 yards in all eight games after Gurley was sidelined. The 228-pound Chubb is a compact, physical runner who hits hard but also has the speed and lateral agility to make defenders miss. He proved to be an incredibly natural runner last year, and now the offense will revolve around him again, although Michel and Marshall will be counted on to ease the burden on Chubb's shoulders so he's not overworked.
2. Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State. Somehow underappreciated, Ramsey has a good argument for being the top player returning to college football in 2015. The Seminoles had issues with depth and injuries on every level of the defense last year, and Ramsey, at times, attempted to solve all their problems. Playing a hybrid Star position, Ramsey sometimes acted like a pure cornerback, sometimes played center field, sometimes lined up as a stand-up edge rusher, sometimes appeared to be a linebacker. In every respect, he succeeded, a jack of all trades who seemed to actually master everything. Look no further than the Miami game for his impact: only three tackles, but a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, four pass breakups, a blocked kick and a game-clinching interception. This year, Ramsey is expected to return to more of a pure coverage role at boundary cornerback, and he'll undoubtedly thrive there, although that still means he'll be used as a blitzer and in run support. He's big at 6-foot-1, 201 pounds, and he's a smooth athlete who's a track and field star in the long jump. Florida State could have some depth issues on defense this year, but Ramsey is the rare talent and rare athlete who can mask many of those problems.
1. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State. Bosa is the current favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL draft for a good reason. He's a 6-foot-6, 275-pound monster for the Buckeyes defense, capable of lining up anywhere on the line. While many high-profile ends come to the college level as raw players who use their athleticism to succeed as pass rushers, Bosa has always been different: Not only is he a great athlete, but he's a complete player, a productive run defender who can also beat blockers as a pass rusher with technique, quickness, raw power or a combination of all of those. Last year, he proved the hype was justified, racking up 13 ½ sacks, 21 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and 55 total tackles. He's worth every bit of the hype, and on an Ohio State team with an absurd amount of talent, he's not only the team's best player, but the entire sport's best player. (**UPDATE: Of course, Bosa's season has already gotten off to a rough start. On Thursday, the Columbus Dispatch reported that Bosa and receivers Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and Dontre Wilson have been suspended for the team's season opener at Virginia Tech).