College football is a team sport. It’s incredibly program/team oriented. People go to school or grow up cheering for one program, and they will usually continue to cheer for that program even if they don’t know a single player. Some of the guys are easy to know. The Heisman candidates and quarterbacks, mainly. But there are a ton of great players in college football. Some you probably have heard of (Matt Barkley, Denard Robinson) and some you probably haven’t (Star Lotulelei, Luke Joeckel). Before the 2012 season kicks off, here’s a list of the 50 best. These rankings are not based off pro potential, but college production, skill and expected performance for this year. Take a look at who could be making big noise on Saturdays this fall:
Others Receiving Votes:
TB Fitz Tousaint, Michigan
WR Kenny Stills, Oklahoma
P/K Brad Wing, LSU
QB Taylor Martinez, Nebraska
OL James Hurst, North Carolina
TB Ray Graham, Pittsburgh
RB Robbie Rouse, Fresno State
RB Zach Line, SMU
K/P Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State
DE Bjoern Werner, Florida State
DT Sylvester Williams, North Carolina
FS John Boyett, Oregon
QB Casey Pachall, TCU
DE Barkevious Mingo, LSU
LB Arthur Brown, Kansas State
LB Dion Bailey, USC
LB Chase Thomas, Stanford
RB Andre Ellington, Clemson
WR Tavon Austin, West Virginia
DE Brandon Jenkins, Florida State
TB Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford
DE Alex Okafor, Texas
LB Chris Borland, Wisconsin
CB Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State
50. S Robert Lester, Senior, Alabama
A three year starter in Tuscaloosa, Lester is looking to return to his Sophomore season form, when he picked off an SEC-high eight passes for the Tide. Regardless of how many interceptions Lester racks up, he will undoubtedly be a physical presence in the back of Alabama’s once again world class defense.
49. TB Joseph Randle, Junior, Oklahoma State
As a Sophomore last year, Randle exploited the wide open spaces that Oklahoma State’s offense creates. The speedy back tallied up 24 TDs on the ground and a few more through the air. With the loss of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, Randle will now be the featured player in the Cowboys attack.
48. LB Kevin Reddick, Senior, North Carolina
A four year starter at UNC, Reddick has been the epitome of consistent. The Tar Heels can count on the middle linebacker to stuff runs, drop back in zone coverage and orchestrate the defense. At 240 pounds, Reddick possess the size to be a presence at the line of scrimmage and also the athleticism to stay on the field during all downs.
47. QB Collin Klein, Senior, Kansas State
Michael Vick Klein is not, but Klein is effective nonetheless. Very effective. Klein had possibly the best season for a running quarterback ever last year, finishing with 1,100 yards and a staggering 27 TDs on the ground. Klein cannot throw it to save his life, but he doesn’t need to.
46. TB Silas Redd, Junior, USC
The big name Penn State transfer will be coming to a stacked USC offense where Redd can duplicate last season’s effort and then some. While playing with two struggling QBs in Happy Valley, Redd was still able to rush for over 1,000 yards on the ground. Now as the feature back for the Trojans, Redd will give Lane Kiffen an option to complement Matt Barkley.
45. OT Jake Matthews, Junior, Texas A&M
Football is in Matthews’ blood. His dad Bruce is a hall of fame offensive lineman, and his cousins Clay and Casey are both successful NFL linebackers. Matthews teams with Luke Joeckel to form the best offensive tackle duo in the nation.
44. FS T.J. McDonald, Senior, USC
Like former USC safety Taylor Mays, McDonald is big, strong and fast. At 6’3 210, McDonald is about as intimidating as you can get from the free safety position. In addition to his ability to deliver the big hit, McDonald also has excellent ball skills. He picked off six passes and blocked two kicks last year for the Trojans.
43. G Travis Frederick, Junior, Wisconsin
Year after year Wisconsin churns out massive, skilled offensive lineman. Frederick is just another one of their big maulers. The 6’4 330 pound bulldozer excels in the run game when he can use his size to move defenders off the line of scrimmage. Frederick is widely regarded as one of the best guards in the nation.
42. TE Tyler Eifert, Senior, Notre Dame
Eifert is probably the best tight end in college football right now, but that’s not saying a whole lot. Eifert is good, but not amazing. He put up 800 yards last year but only five TDs, a number that he needs to double this year for the Irish. Brian Kelly’s spread offense fueled Eifert’s inflated yardage total, and it’s hard to argue that he would have been equally productive in another system. Eifert is good, but can get a lot better.
41. QB E.J. Manuel, Senior, Florida State
Ok, so Manuel hasn’t quite put it all together on the field. Injuries and solid competitors at his position have kept Manuel from fulfilling his potential to this point, but that can and should all change in his senior season. Manuel has great size, is mobile and is becoming a true quarterback under the tutelage of Jimbo Fischer and co.
40. DE Jadeveon Clowney, Sophomore, South Carolina
Clowney has a long way to go before he is a complete defensive end, but this guy can flat out play already. As a true freshman, Clowney tallied eight sacks and five forced fumbles. Now with a year and offseason under his belt, Clowney could easily become one of the best pass rushers in the nation. SEC quarterbacks beware.
39. QB Logan Thomas, Junior, Virginia Tech
In his first season as the full time starting QB, Thomas had some ups and downs but showed a lot of potential. At 6’6 260, Thomas looks more like a undersized lineman than a quarterback, but his size lets him see over the line and be a physical threat while running. Thomas used his size to finish off runs several times, finishing with 11 rushing TDs. When dropping back, Thomas has an inconstant cannon for an arm. He tossed 19 TDs and 10 interceptions last year.
38. QB Keith Price, Junior, Washington
Price was a little inconsistent last year, but man can this guy do it all. Despite his at times up and down play, Price finished with 3,300 yards passing, 33 scores through the air and and completion percentage near 70. And he was only a sophomore.
37. TB Giovani Bernard, Sophomore, North Carolina
Bernard broke onto the scene with a huge redshirt freshman season in Chapel Hill. The shifty 205 pound downhill runner racked up over 1,200 yards rushing and 13 TDs via the ground. These stellar numbers led to several freshman All American honors. Bernard’s role is only expected to get bigger in the Tar Heels new spread O, which emphasizes the running game.
36. FS Tony Jefferson, Junior, Oklahoma
Jefferson is one of the best Swiss army knife players in college football. In his two season in Norman, Jefferson has played corner, safety and linebacker. While Jefferson will be more of a natural safety this year, he won’t just be a centerfield type guy. He is best when he’s up near the line of scrimmage making plays, and quite often that’s where Jefferson will be. He has seven career sacks and 15 tackles for loss, look for those numbers to go up this season.
35. DT Kawann Short, Senior, Purdue
At 6’3/310, Short has the size to eat up space in the middle, but also the athleticism to get to the quarterback. The Boilermakers big man flattened signal callers 6.5 times last year, proving to be one of the best pass rushing tackles in the nation. Short also used his ability to get up the field in the kicking game, where he blocked two field goals. He his a consensus All American in 2012.
34. LB Shayne Skov, Senior, Stanford
How do you know when a linebacker is really good? He wears a number below 20 or in the single digits. Skov, who sports number 11 for the Cardinal, is a middle class man’s Manti Te’o. He plays reckless, intimidating football and winds up wherever the ball is. Skov can flatten running backs, rush the passer and drop back into zone. He had 6.5 sacks in 2010.
33. G Jonathan Cooper, Senior, North Carolina
A four year starter at UNC, Cooper is expected to dominate the line of scrimmage in Larry Fedora’s fast paced system. Cooper could have turned pro after last season, where he would have been a solid 1st round pick. Since returning to Chapel Hill, Cooper has seen his NFL stock get even higher. If Cooper plays as well as he is expected to, he could be a top 10 selection. His mobility and athleticism should work to his advantage in UNC’s spread O.
32. QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson
Boyd could do no wrong for the Tigers last year. He proved to be the perfect fit at QB for Chad Morris’ speed-centric offense, providing both a threat on the ground and mainly through the air. With even more playmakers to choose from, Boyd should duplicate last year’s numbers for the Tigers.
31. G Chance Warmack, Senior, Alabama
Warmack is just one of the five dominant players that make up Alabama’s massive offensive line. His name just sounds like he should be a bulldozer of a lineman. At 320 pounds, Warmack prefers to be working downhill and moving defensive lineman off the line in the running game, but he is also a more than adequate pass protector.
30. FS Eric Reid, Junior, LSU
As a full time starter last year, Reid began to develop as a ball-hawking safety. Now with a full year under his belt, Reid is ready to take the next step. He tallied only two interceptions last year, usually looking to lay a big hit rather than make a play on the ball, but Reid showed that he has plenty of ball skills. In the biggest regular season game of the year, Reid made the biggest play of the year by intercepting a pass bound for an Alabama receiver at the goal line.
29. QB Aaron Murray, Junior, Georgia
Murray is a flat out gunslinger for the ‘Dawgs. He has no fear and routinely goes for big plays in small windows. His confidence often pays off (35 TDs last year), but sometimes gets him into trouble (14 picks). Bottom line is that more often than not, Murray makes an average receiving core look great. With more experience under his belt, and more trust from coach Marc Richt, Murray should see his TDs go up and interceptions go down.
28. TB Knile Davis, Arkansas
After suffering an injury that kept him out all of the 2011 season, the speedy Davis is back and ready to provide the ground power to Arkansas’ up tempo attack. In 2010, Davis ran for over 1,000 yards and 13 scores while splitting time in the backfield. Now as the feature back, Davis could put up even better numbers for the Hogs.
27. FS Bacarri Rambo, Senior, Georgia
This is definitely one of the coolest names in college football, and Rambo’s play matches his name. The three year starter is all over the place, delivering big hits and coming up with big interceptions. Rambo had 55 tackles and eight picks last year for the ‘Dawgs.
26. QB Landry Jones, Senior, Oklahoma
Jones entered last year with Heisman hope, but injuries and an inconsistent Sooner team ended those dreams. Now back for his fourth season under center, Jones leads a young an inexperienced Sooner offense. If young receivers can step up, Jones could once again emerge as one of the best signal callers in the nation.
25. OT D.J. Fluker, Junior, Alabama
You could list Fluker’s size in the typical height/pounds measurables, but Fluker’s size might be easier to list in tons. The guy is mammoth. He will start at right tackle on Alabama’s O-line for the third straight season this fall, where Bama coaches hope he can become a better pass blocker to go along with his strong run-blocking skills.
24. RB Kenjon Barner, Senior, Oregon
Barner the burner will take over Oregon’s starting running back role after the early departure of LaMichael James. Chip Kelly’s Ferrari fast offense fits Barner perfectly. While serving as a backup to James, Barner posted 900+ and 600+ yard seasons. Expect Barner to be nearly as explosive as James was in the same role.
23. OT Taylor Lewan, Junior, Michigan
At 6’8, Lewan possess the ideal size for an offensive tackle. Lewan’s long arms and size have helped him become one of the best pass blockers in the nation. Still only a junior, Lewan has a lot of room for improvement. Lewan can bulk up a little to be more effective in the run game, and needs to work on keeping an even keel. If Lewan can improve in these areas he will be a complete tackle.
22. WR Marqise Lee, Sophomore, USC
With (a lot) of help from Heisman candidate Matt Barkley, Lee was the best true freshman receiver in the nation last year, racking up over 1000 yards and 11 TDs. A speedster, Lee has a knack for making the big play opposite of stud receiver Robert Woods. Lee, Woods and Barkley will once again dominate through the skies this year.
21. QB Tyler Wilson, Senior, Arkansas
Wilson put up some impressive numbers in his first season as Arkansas starting QB, but don’t get carried away in the big yardage Wilson put up. He was throwing the ball a ton in a spread O, so you are bound to rack up yardage. Wilson only passed for 24 scores, a number that needs to go up this year for Wilson to be considered a top of the line QB. Even though he struggled to finish off drives with TD passes, Wilson was excellent at protecting the ball. He only tossed six picks last year.
20. QB Geno Smith, Senior, West Virginia
There is really no area to criticize Geno’s 2011 season. 4,000+ yards passing, 31 scores and only 7 picks. Dana Holgerson’s offense couldn’t fit Smith better. In West Virginia’s bowl game, Smith led the Mountaineers offense to an incredible 70 point outing. Look for Smith’s success to continue in the pass happy Big 12 this year.
19. WR Keenan Allen, Junior, California
Keenan Allen is a complete receiver. He has prototype size (6’4, 210) and speed, and can flat out do it all. Allen has NFL written all over him. His success this year at Cal will be riding on his quarterback and half-brother Zach Maynard. If Maynard and the Cal offense can develop some consistency Allen could have a monster year.
18. DE Jackson Jeffcoat, Junior, Texas
The talent has always been there, and Jeffcoat finally put it together last season, compiling 7.5 sacks and 15 tackles behind the line. Now, with teammate Alex Okafor at the opposite end position, Jeffcoat looks ready to explode onto the scene as one of the premier all around defensive ends in the nation.
17. WR Marquess Wilson, Junior, Washington State
This guy had 1,300 yards and 12 TDs at Washington State. That is impressive. Now with Mike Leach calling the shots, Wilson’s numbers could reach astronomical heights. At 6’4, Wilson has the size to make tough plays and the speed to get down field. Wilson could easily be another Michael Crabtree-esque player for Leach.
16. WR/RB De’Anthony Thomas, Sophomore, Oregon
Thomas is the nation’s most explosive player, and he’s playing in the nation’s most explosive offensive. It’s the perfect match. As a true freshman, Thomas took it to the house 18 times in limited action. This year, the Ducks will be feeding Thomas the rock in all sorts of ways. No matter where he lines up or gets the ball, Thomas is always a threat to take it all the way.
15. C Barrett Jones, Senior, Alabama
Jones, the Outland trophy winner from 2011, will be making the move from tackle to center. While a small learning curve is expected, don’t expect Jones to struggle once the season begins. The senior has too much experience, talent and football IQ to let the position change effect his performance. Jones and the entire Alabama line will be stellar.
14. T Luke Joeckel, Junior, Texas A&M
In two previous seasons as a starter, Joeckel has been about as good as possible. He earned freshman All American honors in 2010, then first team All Big 12 last year. Joeckel is a NFL 1st round lock. The 6’6 310 pound left tackle should continue to dominate this year in the SEC.
13. DE Sam Montgomery, Junior, LSU
Like Jackson Jeffcoat, Montgomery is a skilled defensive end who can get up the field and pressure the QB. Montgomery, maybe less physically gifted than Jeffcoat, has however produced more. His agility and quick burst off the line of scrimmage helped him get to the passer 9.5 times last year for the Bayou Bengals. Montgomery and teammate Barkevious Mingo could be meeting at the quarterback several times this year.
12. DE William Gholston, Junior, Michigan State
This guy is a absolute physical freak. 6’7 278 and crazy athletic. After a slow start production wise, his on field numbers are starting to catch up to his potential. Gholston looked dominant in the Outback Bowl last year, terrorizing Georgia QB Aaron Murray time after time. If Gholston can replicate that effort, he could be one of the best all around defenders in college football this year.
11. CB David Amerson, Junior, NC State
Interception numbers can be misleading, but 13 picks are hard to argue with. That’s how many Amerson pulled in last year, an ACC record. Amerson’s good hands earned him first team All American honors. We will see if he can duplicate the effort this year.
10. NT Star Lotulelei, Senior, Utah
They don’t make jerseys big enough for Lotulelei. The Utes big man is the biggest and best nose tackle in college. He eats up the middle of the field, clogging any potential lanes for opposing running backs. Since defensive tackles don’t rack up sacks, it can sometimes be hard to quantify how good they are. For Lotulelei, it’s pretty easy: Offensive lineman voted him as the best defensive lineman in the nation last year.
9. WR Sammy Watkins, Sophomore, Clemson
It seemed like Watkins was crossing the goal line in some form or another every time you turned on a Clemson game last year. He can beat you down the sideline in a go route, he can catch a screen and make five defenders whiff, he takes sweeps, he returns kicks etc. etc. Sammy can do it all… except stay on the field. Unfortunately for Clemson, Watkins is facing a two game suspension.
8. TB Marcus Lattimore, Junior, South Carolina
If Lattimore can stay healthy, he’s the most complete back in the nation. Listed at 6’0 218, Lattimore is a load to bring down. He can both through or around defenders. Before suffering a season ending knee injury last season, Lattimore was a Heisman candidate. As a freshman, Lattimore was the unanimous freshman of the year. If he returns at full strength, the Gamecocks big tailback should pick up right where he left off.
7. WR Robert Woods, Junior, USC
Woods and Barkley were the best wide receiver-quarterback duo in the NCAA last year. In only his sophomore seasons, Woods compiled 1,300 yards and 15 TDs through the air, gaining first team All American honors. Now with a championship to play for and another year of experience under his belt, Woods should be even better for the Trojans.
6. DE/OLB Jarvis Jones, Junior, Georgia
With so many spread offenses and reduced emphasis on the rushing attack, pass rushers have become some of the most important players on the field. No one gets to the quarterback better than Jarvis Jones. After transferring from USC, Jones has thrived in Athens. He racked up 14 sacks on his way to first team All American honors last year.
5. LB Manti Te’o, Senior, Notre Dame
This guy is intimidating just to look at. Te’o tackles everything in sight and is as good of a run stopping linebacker as there is. The five star recruit from Hawaii has led the Irish in tackles each of the last two seasons, and shows no signs of slowing down. Throughout his career, Te’o has worked to become an every down linebacker who can drop back in coverage, a skill he is still developing. Regardless of his ability to defend the pass, Te’o is still the best linebacker in college football.
4. CB Tyrann Mathieu, Junior, LSU Kicked Off Team
“The Honeybadger” is the ultimate playmaker on defense. Mathieu forced six fumbles, recovered five, picked off two passes, led the team in tackles, had two sacks and took multiple punts and fumble recoveries back for scores. Ball-hawk doesn’t even begin to describe Mathieu. While he still has work to do to become a complete cornerback, Mathieu’s playmaking ability couldn’t get any better.
UPDATE: As of 8/10/2012, Tyrann Mathieu has been kicked off the LSU team.
3. QB Denard Robinson, Senior, Michigan
“Shoelace” isn’t the best quarterback, doesn’t throw a pretty spiral, and doesn’t even really fit the position. But he’s still the most exciting player in college football. You never know what Denard is going to do. He routinely makes the most un-routine plays in college football. Every snap is an adventure with Denard. While his all out style is incredibly fun to watch, it also has cons. Denard seems to get hurt every other play and can sometimes make big mistakes. For now, Michigan will live with the mistakes and take the huge plays.
2. RB Montee Ball, Senior, Wisconsin
Ball is the consensus top running back in the nation and a returning Heisman trophy finalist. The Badgers back isn’t a Reggie Bush, or even Ron Dayne, but just a solid all around back who flat out gets it done behind one of the best lines in the nation. Ball tied Barry Sanders’ college record of 39 TDs in a single season last year.
1. QB Matt Barkley, Senior, USC
The top spot on the list belongs to the 2012 Heisman favorite and all around goldenboy Matt Barkley. After killing it in 2011, Barkley decided to return to USC for his senior season and a chance at the national championship. In his fourth year behind center, the three time team captain is on pace to break basically every USC passing record. For Barkley, the only thing that matters is bringing the title back to Southern Cal.