The 25 most important players in the College Football Playoff chase


It appears the band might be getting back together after all. After months of hemming and hawing about if, when and who their teams will play, all five FBS power conferences have committed to playing football this fall. All Group of 5 conferences might end up patching a schedule together, too.

Now that we’re looking at a reasonably full, if awkwardly timed, fall of college football, I have a chance to revisit one of my favorite pieces from last season … and right a wrong of sorts.

Last year, I attempted to look at what I defined as the 25 most important players in the 2019 College Football Playoff chase. I defined the list as “an attempt to look into the future.”

It was a fun, forward-facing exercise, and I almost perfectly stuck the landing. My two candidates for the No. 1 player on the list were Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and LSU’s Joe Burrow. I chose the former, who had a disappointing fall. The pick was still justifiable since this list isn’t a prediction of breakthroughs, but choosing the latter would have had me peacocking about the pick all offseason.

This year, I’m pretty confident in my No. 1 pick, I just don’t know the guy’s name yet. To the list!

Pure transcendence potential

We already know quite a bit about these guys, but they might have yet another gear.

25. OT Samuel Cosmi, Texas: New offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich’s offense might require quarterback Sam Ehlinger to look downfield more and, at times, hang in the pocket more. In Cosmi, Ehlinger’s has a hell of a blindside protector who could become the best tackle in the country.

24. WR Jaylen Waddle, Alabama: He scored return touchdowns in Bama’s two biggest games last year and already has over 1,400 receiving yards despite being the No. 4 passing option. Now, alongside DeVonta Smith, he’s a go-to guy. Look out.

23. OLB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame: If the junior rover can top last year’s rates — a havoc play on every 34 snaps, a pass rush pressure rate over 22% — the Irish defense has top-10 potential. It has looked great early this season, albeit against severely limited opposition (Duke, USF).

Other candidates for this category: Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace (I listed him 24th last year) and Chuba Hubbard, Tennessee’s Trey Smith, LSU’s Jabril Cox, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Louisville’s Tutu Atwell, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman (if he successfully opts back in), Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey, Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux.

The Next Chase Youngs

Here are some recent star defensive recruits who could transform their respective defenses with a huge breakthrough.

22. CB Andrew Booth Jr., Clemson: One could make the case for listing Mike Jones Jr. or Trenton Simpson — the two players most directly attempting to fill Isaiah Simmons’ shoes at nickel linebacker — but we’ll instead go with the guy filling A.J. Terrell’s.

21. DT Taron Vincent, Ohio State: We’re assuming a lot from OSU’s great, recent recruiting classes. The Buckeyes need at least one new DE and one DT to come up big, and the secondary’s got a lot of holes to fill. Players like Vincent and sophomore end Zach Harrison should help immensely with the latter need.

20. LB Palaie Gaoteote IV, USC: The Trojans’ defense was flaky but ultra young last year, and 2019’s sophomores are now 2020’s juniors. The QB in the middle of Todd Orlando’s remodeled unit is Gaoteote. If he thrives, so does the USC D.

19. OLB Will Anderson Jr., Alabama: Nick Saban signs approximately 113 blue-chip freshmen every year, but we’ve rarely heard more fall-camp raves about a guy than we’ve heard about this freshman from Hampton, Georgia, who’s already listed as a starter.

18. CB Mykael Wright, Oregon: He thrived as Oregon’s No. 3 corner last year with five passes defensed, two TFLs and 0.7 adjusted yards allowed per attempt in under 300 snaps. Now he’s potentially No. 1.

17. DE Demarvin Leal, Texas A&M: The Aggies are basically a star pass-rusher away from a top-10 D, and after holding his own in the trenches as a true freshman, Leal could explode in 2020. He’s a 290-pounder with the pass-rush potential of a 260-pounder.

16. DB Chris Adimora, Texas: He wasn’t quite as much of a star recruit as others on this list, but it appears he has beaten out quite a few, and he’s a potential Swiss Army knife for new coordinator Chris Ash’s attack.

15. LB Owen Pappoe, Auburn: Speaking of Swiss Army knives, Pappoe had a pressure rate of 24% last year and allowed just 6.4 adjusted yards per attempt in primary pass coverage. He might be Auburn’s best blitzer and best nickel coverage guy.

14. LB Brandon Smith, Penn State: With Micah Parsons’ return still uncertain, Smith could find extra pressure to dominate as a sophomore. He looked awfully good in a reserve role last year, and if he’s ready, Parsons’ absence doesn’t hurt as much.

Other candidates for this category: USC’s Olaijah Griffin, Clemson’s Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy.

Spoiler quarterbacks

Plenty of quarterbacks could pilot an upset that turns the title race, even if they (and their teams, probably) aren’t quite strong enough to do it repeatedly.

13. QB KJ Costello, Mississippi State: Mike Leach’s first MSU squad will feature an enormous receiving corps and former blue-chip quarterback who threw for 3,540 yards in a much different Stanford offense in 2018. This chemistry experiment won’t produce a contender, but it could absolutely produce an upset or two.

12. QB Kenny Pickett, Pitt: Lots of names could have gone here, but we’ll go with the guy who (A) gets shots at Clemson, Notre Dame and Miami and (B) has a defense so good he doesn’t necessarily have to dominate to pull an upset. Pitt’s an awfully interesting ACC sleeper.

Other candidates for this category: Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano, Baylor’s Charlie Brewer, Iowa State’s Brock Purdy.

Key supporting cast members

These are either returning starters that have to take on bigger roles or new starters facing quite a bit of pressure to thrive immediately.

11. OT Jackson Carman, Clemson: Carman’s numbers were decent last year (2.8% blown block rate on passes, 2.0% on rushes), but as the only returning starter on the Tigers’ O-line, the former top-25 prospect has to both improve and provide leadership with a solid set of pass-rushing opponents on deck.

10. WR Trevon Grimes, Florida: Grimes is the only returning Florida wideout who caught more than 21 passes last year, and his per-target rates (10.7 yards per target, 67% success rate) suggest he could be ready for a senior-year leap.

9. WR Jalen Preston or Caleb Chapman, Texas A&M: The Aggies’ offense stunk on passing downs last year, and no returning wideout caught more than three passes in 2019. Preston and Chapman are “veterans” as sophomores … but they could be really good sophomores.

8. WR Terrace Marshall, LSU: The junior caught 13 touchdown passes last year and averaged 10 yards per target. But with both Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase gone, Marshall has huge standards to live up to as the new No. 1 guy.

Other candidates for this category: Miami’s Mark Pope, Georgia’s Zamir White and Demetris Robertson (No. 14 last year), Clemson’s Joseph Ngata and/or Frank Ladson Jr., Texas’ Jake Smith and/or Josh Moore.

It’d be really cool if he went Full Burrow

OK, that header sets an unfairly high bar, but this is for QBs who could clearly take another step forward … and would completely transform their team’s outlook if they did so.

7. QB Sean Clifford, Penn State: No. 5 on our list last year, Clifford was perfectly fine as a sophomore — 17th in Total QBR, 2,654 yards — but struggled mightily in PSU’s two losses. It has been a while since a team won the national title with merely good QB play. Can new OC Kirk Ciarrocca unlock added potential?

Other candidates for this category: Alabama’s Mac Jones, Notre Dame’s Ian Book, Florida’s Kyle Trask, Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels, Wisconsin’s Jack Coan, Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez (No. 9 last year).

No pressure, new guy

These new starters need to play at a high level immediately.

6. QB Joe Milton, Michigan: With Dylan McCaffrey entering the transfer portal, it appears Milton’s the guy in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines might be playing for 2021 in some ways, but the offense played at a high level late last year, and if Milton provides extra explosiveness, UM’s expectations will change quickly.

5. QB Tyler Shough or Anthony Brown, Oregon: Shough drew raves in practice last year and was almost perfect in backup duty (12-for-15 with three touchdowns), and Brown piloted a unique, speedy, physical offense at BC. Whomever wins this job will have to push the Ducks toward an unbeaten record despite an overhauled line. Have fun with that.

4. QB Myles Brennan, LSU: Brennan’s predecessor put together maybe the most impressive single-season passing performance in the sport’s history last year. Almost anything he does will pale in comparison. But if he’s ready for the spotlight, LSU still has top-five potential.

3. QB Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma: It’s easy to assume great things of an OU quarterback, and Rattler certainly looked the part in Week 2. But he needs to keep looking great, especially with OU’s defense still potentially in transition.

Other candidates for this category: Washington’s Jacob Sirmon or Kevin Thomson.

Full Burrow + spoiler potential

A combination typically reserved for SEC West quarterbacks.

2. QB Bo Nix, Auburn: The Tigers mostly ended Oregon’s national title hopes in Week 1 last year and officially ended Alabama’s in the Iron Bowl. Nix was at the helm for both, but for Auburn to contend, Nix has to be far more consistent than he was in 2019, and must do so with a new offensive line. The defense will help, but he needs to make more plays. Can he?

Other candidates for this category: Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond (No. 1 last year).

All of the above

A new starting QB who has the potential to wreck his opponents’ title dreams and fulfill his own frustrated program’s ambitions? Sounds like the most important player in college football to me.

1. QB JT Daniels or D’Wan Mathis, Georgia: Daniels was No. 8 on this list last year, when it looked as if he were getting tasked with saving Clay Helton’s job at USC. He got hurt in the first game, however, and lost his job to sudden star Kedon Slovis. Now at Georgia, Daniels could be the guy to push the Dawgs out of last year’s “all-world defense, terribly limited offense” imbalance. But first he has to be cleared for competition.

His ongoing recovery from injury has opened the door for Mathis, who spent 2019 on the sideline after having a cyst removed from his brain. Mathis has apparently impressed head coach Kirby Smart and new offensive coordinator Todd Monken.

It doesn’t really matter who ends up starting here; it only matters that whomever it is thrives. Georgia will start 2020 with the most proven defense in college football, and while the offense could use another top skill-corps player, it still has a couple of proven linemen in receiver George Pickens, running backs Zamir White and James Cook and a new batch of blue-chippers. With great quarterback play, the Dawgs go from SEC East co-favorites to, potentially, national title co-favorites. Sounds like the QB of choice is the most important player in the country to me.

Week 4 playlist

Here are 10 Saturday games — at least one from each time slot — you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both an information and entertainment perspective.

All times Eastern.

Early Saturday

No. 23 Kentucky at No. 8 Auburn (12 p.m., SEC Network): Maybe the most fascinating game of the weekend to me. It’s Bo Nix’s first opportunity to prove he has a leap in him, and it’s Kentucky’s first opportunity to show what lessons it has learned during the Great Lynn Bowden Jr. Experiment of 2019 and how it translates now that the Wildcats have an actual quarterback at quarterback again.

No. 24 Louisville at No. 21 Pitt (12 p.m., ACC Network): Per SP+, this pits the country’s No. 13 offense (UL’s) against the No. 2 defense (Pitt’s). It’s also a marquee opportunity for Pitt’s Kenny Pickett to prove he can take advantage of what we’ll politely call a defense that hasn’t quite clicked yet.

No. 5 Florida at Ole Miss (12 p.m., ESPN): Our first look at both what Lane Kiffin can do with a high-potential Ole Miss offense and what Kyle Trask and his new receiving corps might be capable. Expect a Florida win, but how long Ole Miss hangs around might tell us something about the Gators’ title potential.

Saturday afternoon

No. 22 Army at No. 14 Cincinnati (3:30 p.m., ESPN): Granted, the potential for a total wild card entering the CFP conversation is far diminished now that the Big Ten and Pac-12 have rejoined the party, but this one still has high stakes. It also pits one of the nation’s more interesting and exciting defenses against a good old-fashioned triple-option attack.

Mississippi State at No. 6 LSU (3:30 p.m., CBS): I officially talked myself all the way back into LSU when writing about the Tigers for this week’s SEC West preview. Now’s our chance to finally find out what they have to offer. It’s also a chance to see what Mike Leach does with an utterly enormous receiving corps.

West Virginia at No. 15 Oklahoma State (3:30 p.m., ABC): WVU is one of only three Big 12 teams that actually looked good in their respective first games, and now we find out if the Mountaineers are really second-year-leap candidates. We also get to find out how OSU’s offense responds to a first-week dud performance.

Saturday evening

Florida State at No. 12 Miami (7:30 p.m., ABC): Miami has been the story of the young season, but the Hurricanes’ offensive efficiency is still pretty questionable. Can FSU’s defensive front frustrate the Canes enough to keep things close? Will FSU’s own O-line (and QB) issues negate whatever good things its defense does?

No. 16 Tennessee at South Carolina (7:30 p.m., SEC Network): Easily the most tightly projected SEC game of the league’s opening weekend, this will go a long way in determining whether Tennessee is worthy of top-25 hype. I’m guessing the Vols’ D dominates a depleted SC offense, but the Gamecocks’ defense is pretty good, too.

No. 2 Alabama at Missouri (7:00 p.m., ESPN): After a frustrating and humiliating 2019 campaign that saw it finish only (gasp) eighth in the AP poll, we get to find out what Alabama looks like. Is the front seven as dynamite as advertised? Is the offense humming against what should be a pretty solid Mizzou D?

Late Saturday

Troy at No. 18 BYU (10:15 p.m., ESPN): I enjoyed finding killer deep cuts to include in this list last year, but the opportunities for such a thing have been minimal so far. Maybe this one qualifies? BYU looked incredible in humiliating Navy in Week 1, and Troy thoroughly destroyed Middle Tennessee last week. Crushing unprepared competition can be fool’s gold sometimes, but this one has lots of potential.

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