The fate of any college football season can hinge on one player or position group. Get a breakout season from someone at a key position, and a team can go a lot further than expected. But if a position breaks down, it can lead to a season (or more) of frustration.
As always, no position is more important than quarterback, but this type of pressure extends to line play and beyond. So as the 2016 season nears, it's time to take a look at 10 players or position groups under the microscope this fall, whether it's to provide the missing piece for teams hoping to be contenders, to rebound from disappointing 2016 seasons or to help fix long-running problems that have caused years of angst.
1. Brandon Harris, QB, LSU. It's not that LSU needs its quarterbacks to be the main factor in winning games. For better or worse -- and mostly for better with Leonard Fournette still around -- the Tigers run to win on offense. This is a physical offense, which hasn't changed much in the Les Miles era, and quarterback limitations have not prevented the Tigers from winning a lot of games in the past. They have, however, prevented the Tigers from winning big games on several occasions, especially because it is very hard to line up and try to out-Alabama Alabama. LSU found out the hard way last year, when its unbeaten season was dismantled by the Crimson Tide, who held Fournette to 31 rushing yards.
There is no consistency to the LSU passing game, and now a lot of weight is on the shoulders of Harris in a season in which the Tigers will have playoff aspirations. They have Fournette -- arguably the most talented player in the country -- they have a talented receiving corps and they have a loaded defense. Harris does not need to be a superstar, but he needs to be able to consistently put enough pressure on defenses to ease some of the burden on Fournette. Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron are back this year, but last season's Miles vs. boosters soap opera showed how short the leash is, especially if LSU implodes against its rivals again (it followed the Alabama debacle with double-digit losses to Arkansas and Ole Miss).
Harris, a four-star recruit, played briefly before he was ready as a true freshman in 2014, then completed 53.6 percent for 2,158 yards with 13 TDs and six INTs as the full-time starter as a sophomore. He's mobile but doesn't run more than a few times per game. The key is for LSU to be able to hit some downfield shots to its big-play receivers like Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, and for Harris to keep defenses honest and make them pay when they load the box to attempt to slow down Fournette.
2. Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin, QBs, Auburn. The combination of coach Gus Malzahn's track record on offense and soaring hype for Johnson pushed Auburn to No. 6 in the preseason AP top 25 last year, but the Tigers proved to be one of the season's biggest busts. They finished 7-6, dropping from 10th to 86th in yards per play. Johnson looked lost early in the season and was replaced by White, and as a team, Auburn ultimately threw for 2,258 yards, 11 TDs and 12 INTs. White and Johnson are back and competing for the QB job, although there is a new challenger in Franklin, a Florida State/juco transfer who brings more speed and running ability to the table, like previous starter Nick Marshall.
It's hard to know who will win the job, but Franklin's running is intriguing, especially for an offense that lacks proven receivers. Auburn will be able to run the ball this fall, but the quarterback and the passing game as a whole remain huge unknowns in a pressure-packed season. Auburn won only two SEC games last year and is 15-11 overall since losing the national title game in the 2013 season. Malzahn's offensive genius reputation has taken a big hit, and the Tigers now need a big turnaround at quarterback to stop the bleeding after back-to-back seasons that started with high expectations and ended in disappointment.
3. Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech. After winning the ACC Coastal and the Orange Bowl in 2014, the Yellow Jackets' offense imploded last season, with a preseason No. 16 AP ranking turning into a 3-9 disaster in which their only win in the last 10 games was the blocked-field-goal-return-TD upset against Florida State. Thomas emerged as an excellent option quarterback over the course of 2014 as a sophomore, but with complete turnover among the backs and receivers, the offense fell apart.
A thousand-yard rusher the year before, Thomas ran for only 485 yards and six TDs. Georgia Tech's passing game is mostly predicated on big plays, but Thomas' completion percentage dropped nearly 10 points to 41.7 percent. On the ground, his production fell from 5.7 yards per carry to just 3.4. As a team, the Yellow Jackets went from ninth to 51st in yards per play and first to 108th in third-down conversions. Thomas' season unraveled at the center of an inexperienced offense that ran into plenty of bad luck, and he'll be counted on as the point man in an attempted rebound in which Georgia Tech will hope to at least get back to its typical seven- or eight-win respectability.
4. Penn State offensive line. On one hand, it's an accomplishment that Penn State has finished with a winning record every season since crippling NCAA sanctions hit in 2012. On the other hand, fans are getting restless because of the inability of the offense to be consistently watchable, at least beyond rising star tailback Saquon Barkley. Since James Franklin took over, the biggest issue, by far, has been the lack of development of the offensive line, which had a major impact on Christian Hackenberg's struggles at quarterback. No position was hit harder by sanctions, and over the last two years, the Lions have struggled with depth, unable to find a cohesive line, with 83 sacks allowed in the last 26 games.
Offensive coordinator John Donovan was fired, and line coach Herb Hand left for the same job at Auburn. In steps Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead as the new offensive coordinator, and former Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover to coach the line. The good news for both is that Penn State has more bodies to work with, meaning more competition for playing time. Four starters are back -- Andrew Nelson, Brendan Mahon, Brian Gaia and Paris Palmer -- but Nelson is the only one who has stood out the last couple years. There's competition everywhere, and while there is little hope that the O-line will become a strength in 2016, tangible improvement is expected to protect the new QB -- likely Trace McSorley -- and make life a bit easier for Barkley, who shined as a freshman despite the problems up front. Moorhead's system combined with a mobile QB will likely be able to mask some of the lines' flaws, but Penn State won't be able to break free from the middle of the pack in the Big Ten without taking a big step forward at the line of scrimmage.
5. Shane Buechele, QB, Texas. Maybe a true freshman should never be included on a list like this, but it's hard to avoid. This is simply the reality of 2016 Texas football, with Charlie Strong desperately needing his offense to find consistency and an identity under new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. The Longhorns have gone 11-14 in two years under Strong, and while the offense had glimpses of production last season, Texas has been held to 10 or fewer points eight times since Strong arrived.
Quarterbacks Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes are back again, but both have been erratic as passers. After the spring, it seems increasingly likely that Buechele, a four-star true freshman who enrolled early, is the best bet in Gilbert's new offense. Gilbert is part of the Art Briles coaching tree, and Texas is expected to spread the field and push the tempo. However, that doesn't mean it won't run a lot. With a solid group of running backs and an improved offensive line, there will be support for Buechele, should he win the job. Texas has a lot of promising young players -- five-star WR Devin Duvernay, who defected from Baylor, just committed -- and now it's a question of how quickly the offense can develop and how much patience there is in Year 3 for Strong.
Buechele himself won't be burdened with astronomical expectations, but Texas' quarterback will be responsible for leading a unit that needs to show it is on an upward trajectory.
6. Texas Tech defensive line. Nobody ever expects Texas Tech to have a great defense, but at some point, it has to do better than what we've seen in three years under head coach Kliff Kingsbury. The Red Raiders ranked 122nd in yards per play allowed last season and 106th the year before, in addition to being 97th in defensive passer rating and 127th against the run in 2015. That is how a team scores over 50 points and loses … twice. The Red Raiders finished second in the nation in scoring but fourth-worst in points allowed, meaning there is pressure on the entire unit to starting turning things around under second-year coordinator David Gibbs, who formerly had success at Houston with defenses that forced a lot of turnovers.
There have been problems everywhere, so we might as well start with the line, given that the Red Raiders had just 19 sacks in 13 games and allowed 300 rushing yards seven times. It's likely to be a new-look unit, with sophomore tackle Breiden Fehoko the lone returning starter and newcomers like Notre Dame transfer end Kolin Hill, juco transfer tackle Mych Thomas and Michigan transfer tackle Ondre Pipkins vying for playing time in a revamped unit. Texas Tech is a dangerous team behind QB Patrick Mahomes, but the defense has prevented significant growth and needs to show it is capable of getting stops every once in a while.
7. Missouri and Boston College offensive lines. Three FBS teams averaged single-digit points per game in conference games in 2015: Kent State, Boston College and Missouri, all of whom scored a total of 73 points in eight conference games each (9.1 points per game). Make no mistake, all of their offenses need overhauls, but the line was especially an area of concern for Mizzou and BC.
Running back is a big issue for Missouri, but the line was a mess last year, and one starter -- guard Nate Crawford, who missed the spring with a back injury -- returns in front of sophomore QB Drew Lock. The Tigers allowed 30 sacks and finished 120th in rushing and 122nd in third-down conversions. New offensive coordinator Josh Heupel has his work cut out for him trying to rebuild the foundation of an offense that scored four touchdowns in its last seven games, as depth remains a huge issue for the unproven front five.
Boston College knows the feeling, and it's especially hard to stomach when the head coach, Steve Addazio, is known as an offensive line guru. The Eagles lost their entire starting unit from a bowl team in 2014, and that, combined with injuries at QB and RB, doomed the offense to a disastrous season. Boston College opened its season with two FCS opponents, scoring 24 points vs. Maine and 76 vs. Howard. It proceeded to score no more than 17 the rest of the season, including a 3-0 loss to Wake Forest, and give up 28 sacks in 12 games despite barely passing. Three starters are back up front, and the pressure is on Addazio to conduct a turnaround, one that will at least be boosted by the returns of QB Darius Wade and RB Jon Hilliman from injuries, plus the transfer of QB Patrick Towles from Kentucky.
8. Dakota Prukop, QB, Oregon. Quarterback was ultimately a strength for most of Oregon's 2015 season. After all, Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams led the nation in passer rating. Still, the Ducks' offense was susceptible to imploding when he wasn't 100 percent, as seen in the meltdown in the Alamo Bowl in which they blew a 31-0 halftime lead to a TCU team playing with its backup quarterback. A lot of blame goes to a defense that will now try to regroup under new coordinator Brady Hoke, but Oregon is always defined by its offense, and it will continue to be in the post-Mariota era by potentially turning to another FCS transfer instead of a quarterback it has developed itself.
Prukop, who was the starter at Montana State, is competing with Travis Jonsen for the starting quarterback job. He arrived over the winter and participated in spring ball -- unlike Adams -- and his dual-threat ability is a good match for Oregon's style. The Ducks have plenty of talent around the QB, particularly star tailback Royce Freeman, but after a period of dominance (seven top-11 finishes in a row), they are trying to avoid the perception that the program may be losing steam in a Pac-12 that is increasingly ripe for parity. If Jonsen wins the job, there will still be pressure, but he's only a freshman. Prukop was brought in to provide experience and prevent a drop-off like the Ducks experienced when a healthy Adams wasn't at quarterback last year.
9. Miami defensive line. Miami was once known for its intimidating, disruptive defensive lines, but the school that produced Warren Sapp, Vince Wilfork and countless others hasn't had a tackle drafted by the NFL since 2007, with three ends drafted in that span. For context: Miami had five defensive linemen drafted in 2003 alone. The Hurricanes defense hasn't finished in the top 100 in tackles for loss per game since 2011, Al Golden's first year, and last year they ranked last in the ACC in rushing yards per attempt allowed. They also haven't had a player record more than five sacks in a season since 2010.
If Miami is to experience a revival under Mark Richt, it's going to have to change its fortunes in the trenches. Fortunately, Richt made one of the biggest hires of the offseason, landing Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who has produced some of the nation's best players up front the last few years in Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, Markus Golden, Shane Ray and Sheldon Richardson. He does have some building blocks at Miami, including promising ends Al-Quadin Muhammad (if he's cleared amid a reported NCAA investigation) and Chad Thomas and Florida transfer Gerald Willis. If Miami hopes to compete for an ACC Coastal title right away, line play will be the biggest factor.
10. Barry J. Sanders, RB, Oklahoma State. While the Cowboys went 10-3 last season, their three-game losing streak to end the season showed off some of their vulnerabilities. We could address a defense vulnerable to big plays, but instead we'll focus on the running game, which had eight yards in the loss to Baylor, 63 yards in the blowout Sugar Bowl loss to Ole Miss and 49 yards in the close win over Kansas. Leading rusher Chris Carson averaged 3.95 yards per carry, and now the Cowboys will be without the services of changeup running QB J.W. Walsh.
Perhaps the biggest issue is the offensive line, which will at least be more experienced this year. But the hope is that an old name but new face can liven up the running game to complement QB Mason Rudolph. In 1988, Barry Sanders won the Heisman Trophy with 2,628 yards as a junior. In three years at Stanford, his son ran for a total of 672 yards as a backup. With Christian McCaffrey entrenched as the Cardinal's star, the younger Sanders graduated and decided to follow in his father's footsteps in Stillwater as a transfer.
They are, of course, impossible shoes to fill, and Barry Sanders' son coming in to try to help revive a running game will automatically lead to a lot of pressure. Sanders will likely share time with Carson and others, but the hope is that he can be a spark for a rushing offense that has been outside the top 100 in yards per attempt the last two years.