In just five short weeks, the desperate wait of college football fans ends. No more Signing Day talk, no more spring games, no more media days, just actual football.
So with fall nearing, it's time to take a look at this season's main characters: the 100 best players, as they stand entering the 2014 season, based on their talent as college players. Naturally, this list will in some cases reflect NFL potential, because the best college players usually make the best pro players. But this is not an NFL big board; it's a list of the best players currently playing college football, based on watching everything last season, rewatching games this offseason, watching cutups (thanks, as always, draftbreakdown.com), studying statistics and reading as much offseason news as possible.
Inevitably, even though 100 players seems like a lot, there are always hard names to leave off (Florida State TE Nick O'Leary, Virginia Tech CB Brandon Facyson, Texas DT Malcom Brown, Navy QB Keenan Reynolds, Penn State OT Donovan Smith, LSU LB Kwon Alexander, Clemson LB Stephone Anthony, Stanford DB Jordan Richards, Boise State RB Jay Ajayi, Oklahoma DE Charles Tapper and on and on and on) and players who will inevitably break out this season and deserve spots on the list by midseason (Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott, Miami WR Stacy Coley, Alabama QB Jacob Coker, various freshmen and on and on).
Alas, there are only 100 spots available. So with that said, here are college football's top 100 players entering the 2014 season.
100. Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall. The Thundering Herd may beat everyone in Conference USA by at least two touchdowns. With East Carolina joining the rest of the former CUSA heavyweights in the American, the league is Marshall's show -- and that means it's Cato's show. In the Herd's up-tempo offense, Cato -- who has 35 career starts -- threw for 3,916 yards with 39 touchdowns and nine interceptions last year. He's undersized and won't wow anyone with his arm strength, but he's a mobile playmaker who fits exactly what Marshall wants to do offensively. Honorable mention at this spot goes to another two Group of Five QBs worthy of consideration: Bowling Green's Matt Johnson and East Carolina's Shane Carden.
99. Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State. While much of the early-season attention was focused on the quarterback part of Michigan State's offensive struggles, the Spartans also desperately needed a running back to emerge and replace Le'Veon Bell. Langford, a converted DB, proved to be the answer. While not particularly explosive or dangerous on the outside, Langford developed into exactly what the Spartans needed: a consistent, hard-running chain-mover who could handle a lot of carries and can block.
98. Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas. A heralded recruit in 2011, Diggs has been a three-year starter who has shown flashes of stardom but has never really gotten over the hump. He is an All-Big 12 performer who broke up 10 passes last year, though, and it's possible that Charlie Strong's staff will put him in position to truly break out.
97. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. Too soon? Probably not. Fournette established himself as one of the greatest running back prospects ever, and while comparisons to Adrian Peterson and Herschel Walker are unfair, he does have a golden opportunity to make a big impact immediately. Les Miles talked up the 6-foot-1, 224-pound true freshman from New Orleans at SEC media days, and with the LSU skill positions turning over but four offensive line starters back, Fournette is primed to live up to the hype and potentially move up this list quickly.
96. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State. After getting action late in the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, it took a few games for Cook to actually unseat Andrew Maxwell in 2013. What followed was a remarkable transformation for the Michigan State offense, moving from embarrassing to competent to at times even quite good. Much of the credit should go to Cook, who got better and better as the season went on. He completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 2,755 yards with 22 touchdowns and six picks overall, but he was at his best in the biggest moments, hitting 300 yards against both Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
95. Byron Marshall, RB, Oregon. Marshall doesn't jump off the screen like some of Oregon's other recent standout backs (Kenjon Barner, LaMichael James, De'Anthony Thomas), but that doesn't mean he won't be highly productive. Last year, he averaged 6.2 yards per carry, running 168 times for 1,083 yards and 14 touchdowns, with deceptive power on top of his solid speed out of Oregon's spread.
94. Ryan Switzer, WR/PR, North Carolina. There has to be some special teams love on this list. While not there yet as a receiver (Quinshad Davis is the Tar Heels' best wideout and deserves consideration for this list), Switzer did catch 32 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns last year. That, of course, is on top of his record-tying five punt returns for touchdowns, which helped give him an average of 20.9 yards per return.
93. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State. The Sun Devils do exactly what they need to help Kelly succeed: He doesn't have a big arm, so they focus on a shorter passing game, with the top two running backs and starting tight end combining for 132 catches last year. Kelly utilizes his quick release and also his mobility, as he ran for 608 yards and nine touchdowns on top of his 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns passing. With Jaelen Strong back at receiver, Kelly should have problem putting up a lot of points again after the Sun Devils averaged 39.7 per game last year.
92. Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State. Jones only scratched the surface last year, starting just three games. In that time, the five-star true freshman made his presence felt, notching three sacks and seven tackles for loss with 32 tackles. With a full-time role now and a full offseason of work, Jones is poised to become an All-SEC performer quickly.
91. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama. Like Mississippi State's Jones, we got a small taste of what Howard, a top recruit, could do in his true freshman season. His role should expand greatly in 2014. The 6-foot-6, 237-pounder is able to line up anywhere for Alabama, drawing mismatches with his combination of size and speed that brings to mind many of the modern star receiving tight ends. Now, it's just up to Lane Kiffin to use him properly.
90. Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State. Remember last October? There was a time where Mannion was briefly on the Heisman radar. It was short-lived, given that Oregon State fell apart as soon as it hit the tough part of its back-loaded schedule. Still, Mannion impressively took hold of the Beavers' starting job and turned in a prolific season, finishing second to Derek Carr nationally with 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns, although he did throw 15 interceptions. We'll see what he can do as a senior without ultra-productive receiver Brandin Cooks.
89. Josh Shaw, CB, USC. (Editor's note: After publication, Shaw sprained both his ankles and was suspended from the team indefinitely after lying about how the injuries happened.) Shaw gives USC's defensive backfield flexibility because he's versatile enough to excel at both safety and cornerback. He's a senior with good size at 6-foot-1, and he has a knack for making plays on the ball, including four interceptions last season. He appears slated for cornerback this season, but he'll likely end up playing both, depending on the situation and USC's needs.
88. Frank Clark, DE, Michigan. A somewhat overlooked standout for an inconsistent Michigan defense, Clark is a disruptive end who had 12 ½ tackles for loss and five sacks as a junior. Clark was an under-the-radar linebacker recruit who has bulked up in college but still brings great athleticism to the line.
87. Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington. The closest thing to Myles Jack in the Pac-12 who's not actually Myles Jack. Thompson is a terrific athlete at linebacker, so much so that he could get some looks on offense. The 231-pound junior finished second on the team in tackles with 78 last year and has proven to be an asset in coverage for a team that gave up only 5.8 yards per pass attempt last year.
86. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama. All we needed were a few brief glimpses to understand what Henry is capable of. Nick Saban may have kept his blue-chip true freshman on the bench for much of the season, but he sprung Henry on Oklahoma and the Sugar Bowl, and the results were dazzling. Henry is built like a middle linebacker at 6-foot-3, 238 pounds and runs with power, but he also displayed agility, explosiveness and receiving ability. Against the Sooners, he had 100 yards on eight carries and a 61-yard catch. While he has to patiently share the Alabama backfield with T.J. Yeldon, the Tide will find more than enough touches to go around.
85. Anthony Harris, S, Virginia. While Virginia has struggled to just six wins over the last two seasons, it has had a great bright sport in Harris, a ball-hawk safety who led the nation with eight interceptions in 12 games last year and also finished with 80 tackles.
84. A.J. Johnson, LB, Tennessee. The Volunteers haven't had a lot to be happy about over the last several years, but they still have had some of the SEC's best individual players. Few have been more reliable than Johnson, a 242-pound middle linebacker who is a three-year starter and has made 324 tackles in his Tennessee career.
83. Danny Shelton, DT, Washington. The 6-foot-2, 332-pound senior tackle is nearly impossible to handle in the middle of the line, acting as a perfect space eater for Washington's talented players on the outside -- Hau'oli Kikaha, Shaq Thompson, Cory Littleton -- to make plays. It's not necessarily his job to get to the quarterback, but Shelton did have a couple sacks to go along with 59 tackles last year.
82. Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma. Knight showed against Alabama that he has the potential to shoot up this list in a hurry. It's still possible that game was an anomaly, but there also wasn't much reason to doubt that Knight would become a very good starting quarterback in the first place. He had his issues in his first year as starter, like most players do, and now he's had a full offseason as the clear starter. He's poised for big things as both a runner and thrower.
81. Ronald Darby, CB, Florida State. One of the top cornerbacks in the recruiting class of 2012, Darby instantly made an impact, winning ACC defensive newcomer honors of the season as a true freshman. Darby hasn't racked up big stats -- most notably, eight pass breakups in 2012 and two interceptions last year -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing for a cornerback.
80. Spencer Drango, OT, Baylor. Wideout Tevin Reese wasn't the only offensive player Baylor struggled to replace when he was hurt. Drango, the starting left tackle, missed the final four games of his sophomore season with a back injury, but he was still voted first-team All-Big 12, for good reason. He's the star of the line with Cyril Richardson gone.
79. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss. Hugh Freeze turned heads with his signing of a handful of blue-chip recruits, and perhaps none have paid off instantly quite like Tunsil. Rivals' No. 1 offensive tackle in the class of 2013, Tunsil earned second-team All-SEC honors as a true freshman, allowing just one sack all season.
78. Marcus Peters, CB, Washington. New coach Chris Petersen has the potential for a really good defense at Washington, with several All-Pac-12 caliber cornerstones returning. It starts up front with the veteran line, but on the back end Peters has turned into a shutdown corner. He's a physical player who finished his sophomore season with five interceptions.
77. Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame. Smith lived up to the hype as a five-star recruit as a freshman, finishing third on the Fighting Irish with 67 tackles. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder has great athleticism and a reputation for tremendous instincts for a young player.
76. Jamison Crowder, WR, Duke. Duke isn't exactly the first place one usually looks for multi-dimensional playmakers, but many perceptions of Duke have changed under David Cutcliffe. A 5-foot-9, 175-pound senior, Crowder led the ACC in catches with 108 for 1,360 yards and eight touchdowns last year, while also finishing sixth nationally in punt return average at 16, with two touchdowns. He gives Duke a quick, explosive target with reliable hands and big-play ability.
75. La'el Collins, OT, LSU. LSU may have lost a ton of early departures to the NFL draft, but it's still hard not to like a Les Miles that returns four of five starters along the offensive line. The unit paved the way for lead running backs who averaged 6.9 (Jeremy Hill) and 7.3 (Terrence Magee) yards per carry, and while Zach Mettenberger was sacked fairly often, perhaps that's to be expected with an immobile quarterback who threw downfield a lot. By no means has Collins been dominant yet as a blind-side pass protector, but he has an NFL frame and the potential to develop into one of the nation's best as a senior.
74. Su'a Cravens, S, USC. Expected to be an instant-impact true freshman in 2013, Cravens delivered. At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, he looks more like a linebacker but appears next in line among the star oversized safeties in the USC defensive backfield. He had 52 tackles and four picks last year and gives the Trojans a well-rounded young star who can make plays in coverage but also provides great run support.
73. Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State. As if the strong pass rush, smart linebackers and lockdown corners weren't enough last year, the Spartans had one of the nation's best safeties roaming the middle of the field too. A talented all-around safety, Drummond is the Spartans' leading returning tackler, with 91 on top of 3 ½ tackles for loss and four interceptions.
72. Le'Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound junior has started all 26 games in his career so far, first playing right guard as a redshirt freshman, then moving to left tackle last season. All five starters return to block for Davis Webb, who should put up typical Texas Tech-ian passing numbers, with the help of a first-team All-Big 12 talent protecting his blind side.
71. Grady Jarrett, DT, Clemson. Vic Beasley isn't Clemson's only standout along the defensive line. Jarrett gives the Tigers an athletic penetrator in the middle who pulled off the rare defensive tackle feat of ranking third on the team with 83 tackles last year, with 10 ½ tackles for loss.
70. Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss. Uneven as a freshman, Nkemdiche still flashed massive potential as the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2013. He's versatile enough to play tackle or end, and he posted eight tackles for loss in 11 games. On a talented Ole Miss defense, he's poised to break out as a force.
69. Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State. While not quite a complete player yet, Spence has shown plenty of ability as a speed rusher. The former five-star recruit finished his sophomore season with 7 ½ sacks, and he will get ample opportunities to make plays this season because the Ohio State defensive line is filled with standouts, meaning offenses can't double team everybody.
68. Carl Davis, DT, Iowa. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Davis has a tall frame for a defensive tackle, and while his numbers don't jump off the page, his quickness, strength and size allow him to fill space and open the door for linebackers to clean up. All three starting linebackers for Iowa had 100-plus tackles last year, although the Hawkeyes must replace all three of them. The transition will be much easier playing behind Davis.
67. Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston. Nobody should be surprised by Greenberry's success, and it's not just because he's a receiver player in Houston's typically prolific passing offense. A Fresno, Calif., native and Rivals.com's No. 7 wide receiver in the class of 2012, Greenberry switched from Notre Dame to Houston in the type of recruiting move that never happens. Nobody can say it hasn't worked out: Greenberry has started 21 games in two years, and last season he caught 82 passes for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns, putting him firmly on the NFL radar heading into his junior season, with a prolific young quarterback, John O'Korn, returning to get him the football.
66. Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State. One of the nation's top overall recruits in 2013, Edwards still hasn't quite turned his potential into consistent dominance. He had 3 ½ sacks and 9 ½ tackles for loss as a sophomore, coming on strong toward the end of the year, including three tackles for loss against Auburn. A great athlete at 294 pounds, Edwards will be counted on to reach that potential as a leader of the defense in his junior season.
65. Trey DePriest, LB, Alabama. It's possible that a rising player like Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland will develop into Alabama's best linebacker, but for now DePriest is the steadying, reliable force in the middle of the Crimson Tide defense -- especially with C.J. Mosley gone. DePriest was third on the team with 65 tackles last year, and at 242 pounds with 26 career starts he gives Alabama a dependable stopper against the run.
64. Chuckie Keeton, QB, Utah State. Before he tore his ACL last October, Keeton was one of the nation's most electrifying players. He's an athletic improviser who completed 69 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and two picks in six starts. If he's back at 100 percent, he'll keep the Aggies in the Mountain West title hunt even though they return only eight starters.
63. Derron Smith, S, Fresno State. The nation's leading ballhawk, Smith has intercepted 13 passes over the last two seasons, so while the Bulldogs were rather lackluster in pass defense last season, they know they can count on Smith for big plays. Not only did he pick off seven passes in 2013, but he also had four sacks and eight tackles for loss.
62. Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn. Auburn's running game totally overshadowed the passing game by the end of the season, which will happen when you rush for 545 yards in the SEC title game. But the Tigers should be more balanced in 2014 behind the improved passing of Nick Marshall, and that means the potential for a big season from Coates. While Auburn attempted an SEC -low 20.4 passes per game, Coates still finished with 902 yards on 42 catches (21.5 per catch) with seven touchdowns. He's a phenomenal athlete at 6-foot-2, 201 pounds, and he may develop into one of college football's most productive wideouts if Marshall progresses as hoped.
61. Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State. The tall (6-foot-5), rangy McKinney gives Mississippi State a versatile middle linebacker with sideline-to-sideline athleticism and pass-rush potential. As a sophomore, he led the team with 71 tackles and had 3 ½ sacks. Even in an SEC loaded with linebackers, he'll compete for first-team all-conference honors.
60. Josue Matias, G, Florida State. Even the assumed third wheel of the Florida State offensive line, next to Cameron Erving and Tre' Jackson, is one of the best players in the country. A 325-pound senior with surprising mobility, Matias was a key cog for a Florida State rushing offense that averaged 5.6 yards per attempt.
59. Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern. Some might say he's the most underrated player in college football. Mark has been lost in the shuffle thanks to injuries that sidelined him for much of last season, but make no mistake: He's one of the most explosive playmakers in the nation. When healthy in 2012, he averaged over six yards per carry, rushing for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns, while also ranking second in punt return average at 18.7. If he's 100 percent, he's a major difference-maker who Northwestern sorely missed during its second-half collapse last season.
58. KeiVarae Russell, CB, Notre Dame. (Editor's note: After publication, Russell was removed from the team during a university investigation into possible academic fraud.) Russell's star continues to rise, and now he may be the best player on the Fighting Irish defense as a junior under new coordinator Brian VanGorder. The defense is expected to become more aggressive, giving an opportunity for Russell to shine as a lockdown corner on the outside.
57. Sam Carter, S, TCU. While the TCU defense last year couldn't match up with the best of the Gary Patterson era, it was still very good, meaning blame for the 4-8 season mostly goes to the offense. The key to the defense is Carter, a former quarterback who is built like a linebacker and plays a hybrid role for the Horned Frogs. He finished with five interceptions and four sacks as a junior.
56. Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland. Maryland may not be able to compete instantly in the Big Ten East, but it can say it has the league's best wide receivers, led by Deon Long and Diggs. Both were limited by injuries last year, with Diggs breaking his leg in October. He had 34 catches for 587 yards and three touchdowns in seven games, after finishing with 54 for 848 and six touchdowns in 2012. Diggs, a junior, is one of the most explosive athletes in college football and also was one of the nation's best kick returners in 2012.
55. A.J. Cann, G, South Carolina. Teaming with monstrous senior tackle Corey Robinson on the left side of the South Carolina line, Cann has established himself as one of the nation's best run blockers. With 38 career starts, he's also one of the most experienced linemen, and he plays a key role in All-SEC success of running back Mike Davis.
54. Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State. Lose do-everything All-America defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, insert a clone. Ramsey started all 14 games as a freshman, playing both cornerback and safety and doing just about everything well for the Seminoles. With Joyner gone and a pair of top cornerbacks in Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams, Ramsey will likely play mostly at safety -- but really, he'll move around the field as Florida State's top playmaker in the back seven, playing in the slot in nickel packages.
53. Cedric Reed, DE, Texas. The Longhorns defense developed a reputation for underperforming in Mack Brown's final seasons, but that wasn't the case for Reed as a junior last year. He ranked third in the Big 12 with 10 sacks and fourth with 16 ½ tackles for loss, leading the way for a team that, despite its struggles, ranked eighth nationally in sack percentage. The loss of the Big 12's sack leader, Jackson Jeffcoat, may knock down the Texas pass rush a peg, but the presence of Reed and nose tackle Malcom Brown ensures that the Longhorns remain in good shape in the front four.
52. Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss. An asset both in pass coverage and against the run, Prewitt -- a 6-foot-2, 217-pound senior free safety -- was second on the Rebels with 71 tackles and intercepted an SEC-best six passes last season. The Ole Miss defense has a handful of players with big-time talent, and while Nkemdiche may ultimately be the best of the bunch, Prewitt is the best player right now.
51. Ryan Mueller, DE, Kansas State. Mueller's breakout junior season came a year too late for him to truly get noticed on the national level, as Kansas State slipped to 8-5, but the 6-foot-2, 245-pound former walk-on emerged as a standout, finishing second in the Big 12 with 11 ½ sacks. His NFL future is probably at linebacker, but for now Mueller gives the Wildcats defense and explosive pass rusher with a quick first step to cause havoc off the edge.
50. Denzel Perryman, LB, Miami. The Hurricanes defense gave up too many big plays last season, but the one reliable figure has been Perryman. A senior, Perryman has bulked up to 242 pounds, coinciding with a shift to the middle of Miami's 4-3 from the weak side for the do-it-all linebacker who had 108 tackles last season.
49. Reese Dismukes, C, Auburn. Dismukes has seen it all, arriving at Auburn just after its 2010 national title, starting immediately as a freshman and experiencing the downfall of the Gene Chizik era, then the massive rebound under Gus Malzahn last year. He has 37 career starts under his belt, and he's now the anchor of what should still be one of the nation's best offensive lines despite the loss of No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson at left tackle.
48. Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State. The Seminoles lost Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, but they still return Jameis Winston's favorite target. Greene was a consistent producer, catching 76 passes for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns, and Florida State's best pure wide receiver because of his hands and route-running ability. Throw in his willingness as a blocker, and he's one of the most complete players in college football.
47. Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State. The Spartans lost half of arguably the best secondary in the country, but fortunately they return two stars in Kurtis Drummond at safety and Waynes at cornerback. He'll replace Darqueze Dennard as the top cover man in Pat Narduzzi's aggressive defense that relies on cornerbacks being able to match up one-on-one on the outside. Big plays will happen by nature, but generally the Spartans succeed in doing so, because of players like Waynes.
46. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia. While Jordan Jenkins was expected to emerge last season as the top replacement for All-America Jarvis Jones, Floyd put together a strong freshman debut to lead the Bulldogs with 6 ½ sacks. He played close to the line of scrimmage often as essentially a stand-up defensive end, flashing a lot of potential as an explosive pure pass rusher with a high ceiling.
45. Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan. Michigan's playmaking tight end is now technically a wide receiver, but it doesn't matter; it's all semantics. Funchess will be the same as always, a matchup nightmare as a 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior who can line up anywhere. With Jeremy Gallon gone, he'll become the No. 1 target in the offense, and he's poised for a massive year -- especially if the offensive line can give Devin Gardner time to settle down.
44. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh. Pitt has been mired in a run of thorough mediocrity, with coaching musical chairs and a 19-20 record over the last three years. Since 2010, the Panthers have been to the BBVA Compass Bowl three times and the Little Caesars Bowl once. Needless to say, there hasn't been a lot of attention directed toward Heinz Field on Saturday, except in the case of all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald. With Donald gone, the focus shifts to an offensive player. Tom Savage's rise at quarterback was boosted in a big way by Boyd's phenomenal freshman season, in which he caught 85 passes for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns. He'll make the transition for sophomore QB Chad Voytik much, much easier.
43. Karlos Williams, RB, Florida State. The Seminoles entered last season with two known quantities at running back in Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, but Williams moved from defensive back and became indispensable at running back too. At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Williams became Florida State's powerful big-play threat from the backfield, rushing 91 times for 748 yards (8 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns. With both Freeman and Wilder gone, Williams will become the go-to back in what still should end up being a pretty deep group of running backs (sophomores Mario Pender and Ryan Green, freshman Dalvin Cook).
42. Ty Montgomery, WR, Stanford. Stanford's offense isn't solely about power football. For that to work as it has, the Cardinal needs to somehow find a way to spread defenses. In the past, that's been done through tight ends. Now it's Montgomery. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior broke out last year after struggling with injuries in 2012, catching 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, while also averaging 30.3 yards per kick return. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is still a bit uneven, but he's helped in a big way by Montgomery's straight-line speed and ability to stretch the field.
41. A'Shawn Robinson, DL, Alabama. Robinson might be the embodiment of one of the main reasons Alabama has been so good under Nick Saban: a 320-pound defensive lineman with freakish athleticism. In a rotational role as a true freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5 ½ sacks and had a blocked kick, and he should emerge as a full-time impact player as a starter, playing end in the Crimson Tide's 3-4 alignment.
40. DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville. (Editor's note: Parker suffered a foot injury after the publication of this article, sidelining him for the first 6-8 weeks of the season.) Fortunately Louisville doesn't lose all of one of the most talented passing combinations in the country. Gone is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, but Parker elected to return for his senior season. The Cardinals spread the ball around, so Parker's numbers don't look particularly dominant -- 55 catches for 885 yards and 12 touchdowns -- but he's a top talent as a big, physical receiver with excellent ball skills. Even without Bridgewater, he's primed for a big season under new coach Bobby Petrino with promising sophomore Will Gardner stepping in at QB.
39. Ramik Wilson, LB, Georgia. The Bulldogs have become known for their talented edge rushers in their 3-4, but they also have one of the best all-around players manning the inside. Wilson led the SEC in tackles with 133 last season (10.2 per game), also recording four sacks. Also adept in pass coverage, Wilson is a key consistent presence in a defense looking to find greater consistency under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
38. Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma. While not necessarily a complete player because of his lack of size -- 6-foot, 221 pounds -- Striker is still one of the most valuable defensive players in the country. Oklahoma likes to be flexible with its defense, and Striker is a versatile and athletic pass rusher who uses his speed to get around the edge and make plays in the backfield. He came on strong in the second half of the season and especially shined in the Sugar Bowl with three sacks and a game-clinching forced fumble against Alabama. Now a junior, Striker should build on that as a pass-rushing force, coming at quarterbacks from a variety of angles around the formation.
37. Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State. The Sun Devils offense thrives on a lot of short passing, with running backs D.J. Foster and Marion Grice catching a combined 113 passes last year. Fortunately, Strong broke out in his first season as a juco transfer as one of the nation's best wide receivers to give Taylor Kelly a top target on the outside. The 6-foot-4, 212-pound Strong is the total package out wide, a big, physical target who is dangerous after the catch. He had 75 catches for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns in his sophomore debut season, and with a repeat he'll surely be coveted by the NFL.
36. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State. Hackenberg was exactly the type of quarterback scouts pegged him to be out of high school -- a bit uneven at times, but tremendous arm strength and the ability to develop into a dominant pocket passer. What was most impressive about his freshman season was his poise and command of the Penn State offense, which really set him apart. Hackenberg completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 picks, getting better as the year went on, playing his best game (339 yards, four TDs) in an upset win at Wisconsin to end the season. With O'Brien gone, along with star wideout Allen Robinson, plus a very thin offensive line aside from Donovan Smith, Hackenberg faces some major hurdles as a sophomore. Based on what we've seen so far, though, he's the type of quarterback who will make everyone around him look better.
35. Tre' Jackson, G, Florida State. The Seminoles scored an offseason coup when their junior All-ACC offensive linemen all decided to return. Jackson forms the nation's best guard duo with Josue Matias, and at 330 pounds, his powerful blocking helped pave the way for one of the most explosive running games in college football.
34. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina. We didn't used to think about running backs being the focal point of Steve Spurrier offenses, but here we are. First there was Marcus Lattimore, and now there's Davis, who shined as a sophomore first-year starter. He ran for 1,183 yards (5.8 per carry) and 11 touchdowns and caught 34 passes for 352 yards in 12 games, serving as a smooth, talented all-around runner with deceptive breakaway speed and some power.
33. Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa. Kirk Ferentz may have some faults as a coach, but finding and developing offensive linemen isn't one of them. Scherff is the latest top Hawkeyes lineman, and he's pretty much what we've come to expect a star Iowa lineman to be: 6-foot-5, 320 pounds, with aggressiveness and physicality as a run blocker. Plus, he's the blind-side protector for Jake Rudock in an offense that ranked 18th nationally in sack percentage allowed.
32. Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa have emerged as the star pass rushers at defensive end for Ohio State, but the Buckeyes also have a star disruptor in the middle too. At 6-foot-2, 288 pounds, Bennett isn't any bigger than Bosa, actually, and has stood out thanks to his ability to quickly penetrate the line of scrimmage. He had seven sacks and 11 ½ tackles for loss as a junior, and with another strong season he could position himself to be a first-round pick.
31. Dante Fowler, DE, Florida. Fowler's numbers have yet to really jump off the page to match the hype as one of the top overall prospects in the class of 2015, as he had 2 ½ sacks as a freshman and only 3 ½ as a sophomore last year. But he's shown signs of stardom and is poised to really break out now as a junior. The 277-pounder can line up anywhere in the defensive front, using tremendous burst and quickness to attack the backfield. He did lead the team with 10 ½ tackles for loss, and those numbers should all rise this season.
30. Landon Collins, S, Alabama. Poor Alabama. Veteran safety Vinnie Sunseri saw his season cut short after seven games, but there to step into the starting strong safety role, next to 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, was former blue-chip recruit Landon Collins, who also may be on track to be a first-round pick. Despite not being a full-time starter in 2013, Collins finished second on the Crimson Tide with 70 tackles, serving as a 215-pound jack-of-all-trades safety who can deliver hard hits. For good measure, Nick Saban plucked him from Les Miles' backyard in Geismar, La.
29. Nelson Agholor, WR, USC. No Marqise Lee, no problem. Overshadowed by Lee so far in his career, Agholor is poised for an All-America year as a receiver -- on top of the accolades he's already received as a return man. Agholor's combination of natural receiving skills and explosiveness make him a perfect weapon in Steve Sarkisian's offense, especially as Cody Kessler continues to settle into the quarterback role. Throw in his return ability -- two punt returns for touchdowns as a sophomore in 2013 -- and Agholor is one of the most dangerous playmakers in the nation.
28. P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State. The Seminoles may have an endless supply of defensive back talent, with Williams standing out as arguably the best of a group of All-America candidates in 2014. The 6-foot, 196-pound junior ended a stellar 2013 season as the defensive player of the game in the national championship, and with his instincts, versatility and physicality, he's poised for big things.
27. Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech. His brother, Kyle Fuller, was the No. 14 overall pick in the draft to the Bears after a great career at Virginia Tech. Kendall Fuller can be every bit as good or even better. With both his brother and Antone Exum dealing with injuries, Fuller made an immediate impact as a true freshman and lived up to his five-star recruiting hype. He finished the season with six interceptions and 11 pass breakups, earning second-team All-ACC honors.
26. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State. Bosa looked nothing like a true freshman last year. In fact, the 6-foot-5, 285-pounder looks like he wouldn't have much of a problem stepping onto an NFL field now. He quickly climbed the Buckeyes' depth chart and started 10 of their 14 games, finishing the season with 7 ½ sacks and 13 ½ tackles for loss. All but two of those sacks came in the final five games. Bosa is a relentless, powerful pass rusher with strong hands, and he may end up being the best player on a star-studded Ohio State defensive line.
25. Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford. Texas A&M has become O-Line U lately, but Stanford, of course, isn't going anywhere. The Cardinal still loves to play power football, continuing to churn out NFL-quality players along the line. Next in line is Peat, a 6-foot-7, 312-pound junior who was a five-star prospect out of high school. While still a work in progress, Peat has the body and athleticism of a top pro prospect with impressive quickness to go along with his massive frame.
24. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama. Yeldon's not going anywhere, despite the impending emergence of Derrick Henry. He's rushed for over 2,300 yards and 26 touchdowns in his career, with a great blend of vision, quickness and power between the tackes. Occasional fumbling could give a greater opportunity to Henry, but the Crimson Tide will undoubtedly find a way to get both of them plenty of touches -- remember, Yeldon rushed for 1,000 yards as the "backup" to Eddie Lacy two years ago.
23. Antwan Goodley, WR, Baylor. Built like a running back at 5-foot-10, 225 pounds, Goodley broke out as one of the nation's best big-play threats at wide receiver in Baylor's prolific offense last year. He caught 71 passes for 1,339 yards (18.9 per catch) and 13 touchdowns, with 22 catches going for at least 20 yards. Baylor will need some new blood to step up at receiver with Tevin Reese gone (the offense had some issues when he was hurt late last year) and Robbie Rhodes dismissed, but Goodley gives Bryce Petty an experienced top playmaker who can beat defenders on deep routes but also pick up yards after the catch on shorter passes.
22. Myles Jack, LB, UCLA. Few linebackers have garnered more hype heading into their sophomore season than Jack, but that's what happens when a standout defensive player has a midseason star turn as a running back. Not only did Jack break out as a true freshman outside linebacker, making 75 tackles as an instinctive hard hitter, but with injuries at running back he stepped in and ran 38 times for 267 yards and seven touchdowns. Jack's home is still on defense, where even without all the two-way attention he has the potential to be one of the nation's best players. But based on what we saw last year, UCLA would be crazy to not give him some touches on offense too.
21. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon. Grasu is exactly what an Oregon lineman needs to be: smart, quick, agile. Scheme and skill-position talent obviously have been primary drivers of the Ducks' offensive dominance, but it helps to have consistent lines too. While Kyle Long was picked 20th overall in the 2013 draft, Grasu has the potential to be the best Oregon offensive lineman since Chip Kelly arrived as coordinator in 2007. He has 40 career starts in three years, and Oregon is lucky to have him back for his senior season.
20. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska. Dependably great, Abdullah has been a much-needed constant for a somewhat identity-less Nebraska offense. Even with an undersized frame at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, Abdullah does everything the Cornhuskers need and more, rushing 281 times for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns and catching 26 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns last year. He went over 100 yards rushing 11 of 13 games, and with his explosiveness he had eight runs of 30-plus yards. With sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong still settling in, the Huskers will again lean heavily on their prolific senior running back.
19. Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State. Rated a three-star defensive tackle out of high school by Rivals, Ervin began his career playing defense in 2012, only to switch and start 28 games at left tackle on offense over the last two seasons. Obviously, the move has paid off, with Erving developing into an All-America performer as a junior. Now, he returns for his senior year as a coveted pro prospect and the best player on the nation's best offensive line.
18. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor. Yes, it's hard not to put up ridiculous numbers in Art Briles' Baylor offense, but still, Petty played out of his mind for much of the season and is a clear Heisman candidate heading into 2014. In his first year as starter as a junior, Petty completed 62 percent of his passes for 4,200 yards with 32 touchdowns and three interceptions, while also rushing for 14 touchdowns. As Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman explained, Petty may be one of the most freakish athletes in college football.
17. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami. While Johnson's deserving of his reputation as one of the nation's best big-play threats at running back, he's proven to be valuable to Miami in all facets of the game. The offense was lost late in the season when Johnson missed the final five games with an ankle injury. Before then, he rushed 145 times for 920 yards (6.3 per) and six touchdowns, making plays in space but also acting as an effective workhorse. Johnson runs hard between the tackles, and if fully recovered, only Melvin Gordon can match his breakaway open-field talent.
16. Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas State. Forget his size (5-foot-11, 175 pounds). Pound-for-pound, Lockett has an argument for best all-around receiver in the country. He's a precise route runner. He has great hands. He's elusive in the open field. He has a knack for big plays, both as a wideout and as kick returner. Lockett does everything well, and his numbers last year represented that -- 81 catches for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns. Not only did he have a three-touchdown game against Michigan in their bowl, but he torched Oklahoma (12 for 278 and three scores) and Texas (13 for 237).
15. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn. While Marshall still faces unclear punishment for a citation for marijuana possession, it's likely to be just a minor hiccup. On the field, he's quickly evolved into a dynamic playmaker at quarterback, getting increasingly comfortable in Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense. Last year, everything revolved around the running game, of which he played a major role in rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns. This year, Marshall's development as a passer should lead toward a more balanced offense, especially with the talent he has at receiver.
14. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon. While the Pac-12 has no shortage of quality quarterbacks, it wasn't much of an issue for the Oregon defense: The Ducks ranked third nationally by averaging only 5.5 yards per pass attempt. The biggest asset there is Ekpre-Olomu, an undersized shutdown corner who returned for his senior season to make a run for more All-America honors. Despite his 5-foot-10, 195-pound frame, he plays big, challenging receivers at the line of scrimmage and also proving to be an adept tackler.
13. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State. Calhoun made waves as Michigan State's leading scorer during the Spartans offensive dark days early last season (he scored three defensive touchdowns in two games), and he sustained his all-around success through the season as the best defensive lineman on arguably the nation's best defense. A physical 257-pound junior, Calhoun is strong against the run and had 7 ½ sacks and 14 tackles for loss last year.
12. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA. Hundley has been a revelation for a UCLA program that struggled with quarterback play for several years. He's paired perfectly with head coach Jim Mora, throwing for 3,740 yards with 29 TDs and 11 picks as a redshirt freshman, then throwing for 3,071 yards with 24 TDs and nine picks last year. Plus, he was the Bruins' leading rusher with 748 yard and 11 TDs in 2013. While Hundley does take too many sacks, he's a big quarterback with pocket mobility and a great arm, and his return to school is the reason UCLA is considered by many to be a playoff contender.
11. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin. College football's most explosive running back, Gordon has proved that he's more than just a speedy change-up. After playing that role as a freshman who averaged 10 yards per carry, he moved into a co-starting job with James White and ran 206 times for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt despite the heavily increased workload. While his bread and butter is still jet sweeps that get him the ball on the run into the open field, he's also able to create on his own with vision and his unmatched quick strides as a ball carrier.
10. Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Florida. Just about everything involving Florida football was a massive disappointment last year. The big exception? Hargreaves, a true freshman who surpassed acclaimed corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson to become the best cover man on the team and perhaps the SEC as a whole. Despite Florida's problems, the defense gave up 6.5 yards per pass attempt, a 49.8 percent completion rate and only nine touchdown passes. Hargreaves stood out as a big reason why, a 5-foot-11, 192-pound five-star recruit who instantly lived up to the recruiting hype. He broke up 11 passes and intercepted three, and he's in line for a big season in which inexperienced SEC quarterbacks spend most of their time trying to avoid throwing to his side of the field.
9. Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska. It's hard to find a more explosive athlete playing defensive line. As a juco transfer, Gregory somewhat unexpectedly burst onto the scene as a near-instant star last season, leading the Big Ten with 9 ½ sacks. Despite playing end, he finished third on the Cornhuskers' defense with 65 tackles. While somewhat undersized, he's one of the top candidates to leave for the NFL after his junior season. He's the rare pass rusher who can truly make plays anywhere on the field, and he'll wreak havoc on a Big Ten West division that lacks top quarterbacks.
8. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State. (Editor's note: Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury after the publication of this article.) Not everything went well for Miller last year -- the offense was fine without him when he was banged up in September; the Buckeyes lost the Big Ten title game and the Orange Bowl -- but the end result, individually, was still fantastic. In his second year under Urban Meyer, he ran for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns and completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 2,094 yards with 24 touchdowns and seven picks. Miller has made solid strides as a passer throughout his career, and he remains the most explosive runner at quarterback in the country.
7. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama. Don't be fooled by last year's numbers. Cooper did have a sophomore slump, catching 45 passes for 736 yards and four touchdowns. One of those catches was a 99-yarder. But he spent much of the first half of the season plagued with foot issues, limiting his production -- especially when compared to his 1,000-yard debut as a true freshman. Now healthy, Cooper is on track to rebound and beat his freshman numbers, assuming Alabama does get stellar play from its new quarterback (likely Florida State transfer Jacob Coker). Cooper has NFL written all over him, with good enough size to go along with excellent physicality, hands and big-play ability. Nick Saban's best receiver at Alabama was clearly Julio Jones, but Cooper has the talent to try to make that a legitimate debate.
6. Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson. The face of Clemson's defensive renaissance, Beasley broke out as a junior last season with 23 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, becoming the best edge rusher in college football. His 6-foot-2, 235-pound frame means he's almost certainly heading for a stand-up role as a linebacker in the pros -- where's he projected to be a first-round pick -- but for now he leads the way for one of the nation's best defensive lines as a 4-3 end. Beasley may not be able to be counted on to always anchor well against the run, but his quickness off the edge makes him a frontrunner for the Bednarik Award for the nation's best defensive player.
5. Leonard Williams, DL, USC. Williams played through a torn labrum last season (he underwent offseason surgery and was held out of spring ball) as well as constant double-teams, yet he still had a solid 12 ½ tackles for loss with five sacks and somehow finished second on the Trojans with 74 tackles. The double-teams won't go away, but Williams should be healthier this fall, as the leader of what appears to be the Pac-12's best defense. At 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, the junior has the ability to play anywhere on the defensive line, combining both impressive size with athleticism that NFL scouts will drool over. The scary part is that he hasn't appeared to consistently hit his potential just yet.
4. Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M. Johnny Manziel is the type of quarterback who should have gotten sacked more often: He's a risk-taker, a player who held onto the ball and danced around to make plays. He made those plays because of his unmatched talent, but also because he had such a good offensive line for two years. Last year, Texas A&M ranked a respectable 24th in sack percentage, second in the SEC, against the nation's best defensive linemen. While Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews have both moved on to the NFL as top-10 picks, it's now Ogbuehi's turn. With a little help, he decided to return to school and move to left tackle, trying to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and become one of the first players drafted. There's little reason to think that won't happen. Ogbuehi is a mobile 6-foot-5, 300-pounder with quick footwork, and his presence will make life a lot easier for the winner of Texas A&M's quarterback derby.
3. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia. The NFL continues to shy away from drafting running backs early, but Gurley's the type of player who can be an exception. After rushing for 1,385 yards as a true freshman, injuries limited him to 10 games last year, yet he still ran for 989 yards (six per carry) and 10 touchdowns and caught 37 passes for 441 yards and six touchdowns. He's one of the most complete running backs in recent history, a 232-pounder who is frightening to tackle because of his size and physicality but can also break away from defenders in the open field.
2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. Mariota is the perfect quarterback for Chip Kelly's offense, even if Kelly is no longer in Eugene. Stellar as a freshman under Kelly, Mariota made the leap to Heisman contender last season, only to suffer a setback late in the season when he dealt with knee troubles. Overall, Mariota played brilliant football, completing 63.5 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and four interceptions, while rushing for 715 yards (7.4 per carry) and nine touchdowns. He's one of the best running quarterbacks in the country, and he also didn't throw an interception until November -- after the knee injury, when he wasn't able to operate at full capacity. Now healthy again, Mariota might be the Heisman favorite, if one doubts Jameis Winston's ability to repeat. He's the most complete quarterback in the country, poised for a big season behind a veteran offensive line.
1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State. Mariota has an argument for the top spot, but that's about it. On the field, Winston proved last year that there's nobody better. Sure, he also has the best supporting cast, with NFL-caliber talent at every position around him, but that doesn't take away from his franchise-quarterback skill set. Winston was much hyped as a redshirt freshman last season, and he lived up to every ounce of it and more, completing 66.9 percent for 4,057 yards with 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He's mobile, but Florida State won't run him a lot because it doesn't need to. He has a cannon arm, great field awareness and knack for making plays even when things break down. Throw in unmatched poise in the face of pressure, and Winston -- who still faces deserved scrutiny of his character and maturity -- is the both the best quarterback and best overall college football player entering the 2014 season.