The scope of FBS college football is so large that it's easy for good players to get lost in the shuffle. Whether it's because of injury disruption, more acclaimed teammates or a starring role on an otherwise bad team, plenty of talented players get left out of the national discussion to some degree.
"Underrated" is a very subjective term, of course, one with an even looser definition that "breakout," which was covered last week. So, trying to identify the most underrated -- or underappreciated -- players in college football is basically an exercise in watching old games, looking at numbers and consuming the national college football conversation. So here's one attempt to find the sport's 10 most underrated players, the types of impact players who can get lost in the shuffle but are worth paying attention to in the 2014 season, and perhaps beyond.
1. Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern. How to become underrated: Have a breakout season as a junior, then disappear as a senior because of nagging injuries, as your team loses seven of its final eight regular-season games. Mark went from sparkplug for a sleeper Big Ten contender to watching from the sidelines as the Wildcats became a punch line. But he was granted another season of eligibility, and assuming he's fully recovered from a broken ankle, he should reclaim his status as one of the most dynamic players in all of college football -- both on offense and special teams.
In 2012, Mark -- at just 5-foot-8, 175 pounds -- ran for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on 226 carries (six yards per attempt), while also averaging 18.7 yards per punt return thanks to two touchdowns. He also caught 20 passes, for good measure. While Treyvon Green stepped in and had a solid season as the de facto No. 1 back last year, Mark brings an entirely different dimension to the Northwestern offense, one that was sorely miss during the prolonged post-Ohio State funk of last season. Unfortunately, the Wildcats won't have another dynamic weapon in quarterback Kain Colter back alongside him, but experienced passer Trevor Siemian returns, along with the Wildcats' top two receivers Christian Jones and Tony Jones. So while the most explosive running back in the country is on the roster of a division rival, Mark isn't too far away from that title, and he help get the Wildcats back on track after a season that is likely an anomaly under Pat Fitzgerald.
2. Marcus Peters, CB, Washington. Peters gets overshadowed in the Pac-12 North by Oregon and Stanford, just as Washington as a whole does. The Ducks may have the nation's best cornerback in Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who elected to return for his senior season, while Stanford has boasted some of the nation's best defenses lately and currently has a top cornerback in Alex Carter. Washington has struggled to break through into the top tier of the division, just as Peters has struggled to get universal recognition for becoming one of the top defensive backs in the nation.
At 6-feet, 198 pounds, Peters has solid size and has shown a knack for physical coverage. He can play press man with little help behind him, he tackles well and he makes plays on the ball, resulting in five interceptions last season. Despite playing in a conference with talented quarterbacks, the Huskies ranked seventh nationally in yards per pass attempt allowed (5.8), and while a big part of that was a stellar pass rush that harassed opposing quarterbacks, it certainly helps to have a talented cornerback locking down half the field. Peters was often successful at doing so last year, and now he should emerge as one of the nation's best at the position.
3. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State. OK, Kelly is possibly no longer underrated because he is the most likely candidate for player who gets labeled underrated the most often. Still, he's been buried in the Pac-12 behind Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley, especially, and even though Pac-12 coaches actually voted him Second Team All-Pac-12 last year over Hundley, who's touted as a top-10 draft pick. In leading the Sun Devils to a division title, Kelly completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Kelly is not, in fact, better than Hundley, and he may have gotten that all-conference nod only because the Sun Devils edged UCLA for the South title. But he's entering his third year of relative anonymity as a starter for a good program on the rise. With a lot of defensive turnover, a lot of pressure will be on the Sun Devils offense to carry the team, and even without running back Marion Grice, they'll boast a highly productive trio of skill talent with Kelly, wideout Jaelen Strong -- an All-America candidate -- and running back D.J. Foster. Kelly is a mobile quarterback who ran for 608 yards and nine touchdowns on top of the stellar passing numbers, and he does a good job moving around in the pocket, although he took too many sacks last year. While he doesn't have the arm strength of Mariota or Hundley, he's proven to be an effective timing-and-rhythm passer.
4. Alvin Dupree, DE, Kentucky. Mark Stoops is busy trying to infuse young talent into a roster for a team that has gone 4-20 the last two seasons, but he did at least inherit one of the SEC's best defenders from the previous staff. Dupree finished with seven sacks last season and 6 ½ the year before, and at 6-foot-4, 267 pounds, he's an explosive, disciplined edge rusher who can make plays all over the field. In fact, he finished second on the team in tackles each of the last two years, with 91 in 2012 (when he was listed as a linebacker under the previous regime) and 61 last year. Stoops' rebuilding project in Lexington requires patience, but between Dupree and fellow senior Za'Darius Smith, the Wildcats have an impressive, disruptive pair of defensive ends.
5. Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA. In addition to developing one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Brett Hundley under Jim Mora the last two years, the Bruins have also boasted one of the nation's best linebacking corps. In 2012, Kendricks led the Pac-12 with 149 tackles (10.6 per game) but was not selected to either All-Pac-12 teams. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr nabbed first-team honors and led the league in sacks with 13. Last year, Kendricks again failed to get all-conference attention, in a season in which he finished with 105 tackles despite dealing with numerous injuries during the season. Meanwhile, Barr was an All-America pick with 10 sacks, and newcomer Myles Jack won both Pac-12 offensive and defensive freshman of the year thanks to his stellar linebacker play and sudden emergence as a threat at running back. So while Barr and Jack have received deserved national attention, Kendricks has been the steady yet overlooked force in the middle, cleaning up as the team's sure tackler. Barr may be gone, but the presence of Kendricks and Jack means UCLA will continue to have one of the nation's best groups of linebackers.
6. Cody Kessler, QB, USC. There still seems to be a feeling that Kessler's hold on USC's starting quarterback is only temporary, because of the untapped potential of backup Max Browne, the top rated quarterback in the recruiting class of 2013. Browne redshirted last year as Kessler outdueled Max Wittek for the starting job, then Wittek elected to transfer this offseason. But despite trying to establish himself in a tumultuous season in which Lane Kiffin was fired in September, Kessler grew as a passer over the course of the season, proving to be an accurate option, highlighted by his performances against Stanford's stingy defense (25-of-37 for 288 yards and a touchdown) and his dismantling of Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl (22-of-30 for 344 yards, four touchdowns, one interception). Even through the coaching turnover, with Steve Sarkisian stepping in, Kessler has a level of familiarity, as Sarkisian retained offensive coordinator Clay Helton.
Last year at Washington, Sarkisian pushed the tempo on offense, with the Huskies ranking 16th nationally in plays per game (78.7). USC was much more methodical, ranking 105th at only 66. USC's offensive identity won't be overhauled, as it will continue to run a balanced attack, but Sarkisian's influence should lead to an increased tempo with Kessler running the show. The threat of Browne and his raw talent remains, but Kessler maintained a hold on the starting job through the spring. Even with Marqise Lee gone, USC has a talented enough supporting cast -- WRs Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers, RBs Javorius Allen and Tre Madden -- for Kessler to thrive. And if Browne's apparent talent wins out at some point? There's always the Matt Cassel route.
7. Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia. It's easy to get lost in the shuffle as a defender for an Air Raid team, let alone one that went 4-8 last season. But Joseph, despite not being voted All-Big 12 last year, has been a sturdy presence in his two years in the Mountaineers defensive backfield. Last year, he finished with 68 tackles, bringing a hard-hitting presence to a team in need of defensive playmakers, although it did represent a bit of a disappointment after he led the team with 104 as a freshman. Mostly, when your team ranks second to last in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed (5.9) and gives up 33.3 points per game, including 73 points to Baylor, 47 to Texas and 52 to Iowa State, it's hard for a defender to get positive attention.
The defensive coaching staff has been reshuffled, with Tony Gibson promoted from safeties coach to defensive coordinator, and longtime Penn State coordinator Tom Bradley added as associate head coach. They'll lean heavily on the secondary as a foundation, led by Joseph and emerging sophomore cornerback Daryl Worley. Joseph has started since day one, and this year he'll slide from free safety to the bandit position, which should allow him to make a lot of plays in run support, which seems to suit him just fine.
8. Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana. Unless you're Antwaan Randle-El, it's hard to get noticed at a school that has been to one bowl game since 1993. Indiana has been productive offensively under coach Kevin Wilson, though, and Coleman is quietly one of the most explosive runners in college football. The Big Ten has a great collection of backs, including Venric Mark, Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah and Jeremy Langford, meaning Coleman is lost in the shuffle in Bloomington despite averaging 7.3 yards per carry (131 attempts for 958 yards) and rushing for 12 touchdowns as a sophomore.
He accomplished that despite missing the final three games of the season (his final outing was a 215-yard performance against Illinois) with a sprained ankle. Now, he's poised to become the centerpiece of a Hoosiers offense that lost wideout Cody Latimer, and one of its two quarterbacks Tre Roberson, who decided to transfer to Illinois State this week. Coleman, with his speed at 210 pounds, is ready to handle an increased role while already having proven to be a great fit for Wilson's spread offense.
9. Bryce Hager, LB, Baylor. Baylor's defense was legitimately decent last year, ranking ninth nationally in yards per play allowed (4.75), and while that's partly because of an easy schedule, the Bears also ranked a solid 21st in Football Outsiders' S&P+ rankings, which accounts for quality of opponents. Last year was the high-water mark -- they ranked 60th in S&P+ defense in 2012 and 95th in 2011 -- serving as a culmination of an impressive turnaround under coordinator Phil Bennett that really took hold in November 2012 when the Bears upset No. 1 Kansas State.
Over the last two seasons, linebacker Eddie Lackey and safety Ahmad Dixon have starred. Now, with them gone, it's Hager's turn, alongside defensive end Shawn Oakman. Hager missed Baylor's last four games last year -- including both losses -- with a groin injury, and he sat out spring ball for the same reason. This summer, he'll return as the unquestioned leader of a unit that experiences a lot of turnover, with a strong chance of repeating 2012, when he has 124 tackles and 9 ½ tackles for loss. Baylor doesn't have to play defense like Alabama to win the Big 12, but it also can't afford a sharp drop. If the improved level of plays continues, Hager will be big reason why.
10. Gerald Christian, TE, Louisville. In his first season at Louisville after transferring from Florida, Christian somehow wasn't voted all-conference in the American last year, despite the fact that three tight ends made the two teams in a 10-team league. He caught 28 passes for 426 yards and four touchdowns, serving as a perfect secondary option for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in a passing game dominated by wideout DeVante Parker. Again in 2014 Christian may be overlooked, as he joins the ACC, where two of the nation's best at the position return in Florida State's Nick O'Leary and Duke's Braxton Deaver. Obviously, the departure of Bridgewater leaves a hole Louisville can't fill at quarterback, but it doesn't mean the Cardinals offense will experience a big drop-off under new coach Bobby Petrino. With Christian, Parker, a solid group of running backs and a veteran offensive line, there's a lot of talent in place for promising sophomore QB Will Gardner.