College Football Top 25: Predicting Every Team's Offensive and Defensive MVP
While success in football requires a complete team effort more so than other sports, it still has its stars who can take over games at any time. That's the beauty of sports, and it's what keeps us on the edge of our seat every Saturday in autumn.
For some teams ranked in the USA Today Coaches Poll Preseason Top 25, pinpointing their star player on both sides of the ball is obvious. For others, you can sit around and debate it all night long.
Nevertheless, I've identified the offensive and defensive most valuable player for each of the 25 teams ranked in the Coaches Poll that was released earlier this month. We all love stars, and here are 50 of the brightest that we'll witness in the coming months.
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Offense: WR Emory Blake
The son of a former NFL quarterback, Blake was asked to anchor the Tigers receiving corps last year after severe losses from the 2010 national title team. Blake led the team with 613 yards but may have been a year away from reaching his peak. That will occur this year with a more established quarterback and better talent around him.
Defense: DE Corey Lemonier
An All-SEC performer last season, Lemonier is poised to take his game to a whole new level this year under the guidance of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The former Georgia assistant coached the great David Pollack, and Lemonier has the chance to duplicate what Pollack accomplished a decade ago after 9.5 sacks in 2011 as a sophomore.
24. Notre Dame
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Offense: TE Tyler Eifert
The Mackey Award finalist will ease the loss of the school's all-time leading receiver, Michael Floyd. Eifert can play both on the line and split out wide, giving the Irish one of the more versatile weapons in the country. Notre Dame has become "Tight End U" of late, and Eifert may be its best one yet.
Defense: LB Manti Te'o
This one's a no-brainer, although strong safety Jamoris Slaughter may be the most important Irish defender thanks to the lack of depth at the position. Te'o has great football instincts and defends the run as well as anyone in college football. Expect an All-American season in his final year in South Bend.
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Offense: RB Mike Gillislee
Let's put it this way: If Gillislee isn't the team's offensive MVP, Florida probably won't finish with any more wins than the seven it had last year. The senior spoke confidently at last month's SEC Media Days about his potential for this season, but unless the Gators can get some improved quarterback play, defenses will be keying in on Gillislee.
Defense: LB Jon Bostic
The Gators have a tremendous pair of linebackers in Jelani Jenkins and Bostic, who will don the No. 1 jersey this season. The team's leading tackler a year ago, Bostic is the emotional leader of the Florida defense. There's plenty of talent all over the field for the Gators, but none can match the intangibles of Bostic.
22. Boise State
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Offense: RB D.J. Harper
Despite battling injuries throughout his career, Harper has been a very productive back for the Broncos when he has been able to stay on the field. With Kellen Moore's career having come to a close, Boise State will rely on its running attack more so than ever this season. With no Doug Martin, that load falls squarely on Harper.
Defense: CB Jamar Taylor
The Broncos lose all but two starters from their 2011 defense, with Taylor being one of the two to return. Taylor had a pair of interceptions last season, including one returned for a touchdown. He has decent size at just under 200 pounds and tackles well. Boise State needs him not only on the field, but in the locker room as well with such a young group of defenders.
21. Kansas State
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Offense: QB Collin Klein
No player was more of a surprise last season than Klein, who carried the Wildcats offense on his back with a combined 40 rushing and passing touchdowns. Kansas State won 10 games for the first time in eight years. He's a quarterback with a linebacker's body and mentality. With seven other starters on the offense back, his 2012 season could be even better than last year.
Defense: LB Arthur Brown
While his brother Bryce will go down as one of the bigger recruiting busts in recent memory, the elder Brown finally lived up to his own hype last season after transferring from Miami (FL). His 101 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss led the Wildcats. He also had a knack for the big play, including a game-changing interception in a win over Baylor.
20. Virginia Tech
Offense: QB Logan Thomas
The Cam Newton comparisons are endless and frankly were unfair to Thomas heading into last season. Thomas was still able to lead the Hokies to 11 wins and the ACC championship game. He'll be asked to carry even more on his shoulders this season with only two other starters returning on offense. The 6'6", 260-pound Thomas will be up to the challenge.
Defense: DE James Gayle
The junior plays the aptly-named STUD position in Bud Foster's defense. A second-team All-ACC performer last season, Gayle is the best of one of the strongest front sevens the Hokies have had. His seven sacks led the team a year ago. Gayle is a freak athlete who has yet to maximize his ability. This will be the year in which he does.
19. Oklahoma State
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Offense: RB Joseph Randle
The Cowboys' prolific 2011 offense wasn't just Brandon Weeden to Justin Blackmon on repeat. Randle was the unsung hero for the Big 12 champions, topping 1,200 yards on the ground and finding the end zone a whopping 26 times overall. The junior is the best running back in the conference and should get his due this year with Weeden and Blackmon now playing on Sundays.
Defense: CB Brodrick Brown
To call the Oklahoma State defense opportunistic last season would be an understatement. The Cowboys had an incredible plus-21 turnover margin, the best in the nation. Brown helped account for many of those, including five interceptions. The senior has started 26 straight games and will again play a vital role in stopping the pass-happy Big 12 offenses.
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Offense: RB Stepfan Taylor
Anytime an offense loses four players selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, it will have obvious concerns the following season. While there are plenty of question marks in Palo Alto, Taylor is not one. The senior ran for over 1,300 yards and scored 10 touchdowns last season in the Cardinal's pro-style offense.
Defense: LB Chase Thomas
It's basically a coin flip between Thomas and fellow linebacker Shayne Skov, but the edge here goes to Thomas with Skov coming off a serious knee injury. Stanford will rely heavily on its front seven with a young secondary playing behind them. Matching last year's 8.5 sacks is not only possible but necessary if the Cardinal hope to once again contend for the Pac-12 title.
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Offense: QB Casey Pachall
The heavily tattooed Pachall eased the loss of Andy Dalton last year with his toughness and clutch play, including leading a furious rally against Baylor in a 50-48 loss and a game-winning touchdown drive to stun Boise State in Bronco Stadium. Pachall isn't afraid to take a hit, and the Horned Frogs are fortunate to be entering the Big 12 with an experienced quarterback under center.
Defense: DE Stansly Maponga
The Frogs have churned out a number of stars from their front seven in recent years, notably Jerry Hughes and Tank Carder. Maponga is the next great one, a furious edge-rusher who will wreak havoc on Big 12 quarterbacks this season. He led the team in sacks and tackles for loss a year ago and will do so again this fall. Some TCU players may struggle with adjusting to a tougher conference. Maponga won't be one.
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Offense: RB Rex Burkhead
He won't wow you with size or speed, but Burkhead was a horse last season for the Cornhuskers, carrying the ball 284 times, second to only Wisconsin's Montee Ball in the Big Ten. Nebraska still has little semblance of a passing game, so a lot will again be asked of the senior. As he goes, so do the 'Huskers, as evidenced by their 7-0 record last year when Burkhead topped 100 yards.
Defense: LB Will Compton
Nebraska loses much of its star power on the defensive side of the ball but should have more of a complete unit this season. The defensive line should be better even without Jared Crick, and Compton and Sean Fisher will anchor a linebacking corps that is more experienced despite the loss of Lavonte David. Expect Compton to flourish in his final season in Lincoln.
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Offense: RB Malcolm Brown
The Longhorns are still searching for an offensive identity, but expectations are high for the 2012 season with coordinator Bryan Harsin now in his second season in Austin. Quarterback play has been shoddy, and the receivers are unproven, but the sophomore Brown should be a bright spot. He ran for over 700 yards as a freshman and should only get better.
Defense: DE Jackson Jeffcoat
It's a tough call here between defensive line bookends Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor, but the nod goes to Jeffcoat, who has lived up to the hype given to him during his recruitment. Jeffcoat's father Jim starred for the Dallas Cowboys in the '80s and '90s. Jeffcoat and Okafor thrive thanks in part to attention being given to the other player. That should continue this season as the 'Horns continue their road back to the top of the Big 12.
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Offense: WR Sammy Watkins
He'll only be available for 10 games as opposed to 12 thanks to a two-game suspension, but Watkins should again be the main playmaker in Clemson's wide-open offense. Many of his 13 total touchdowns as a true freshman came right when the Tigers needed them most, including a kickoff return touchdown to help avoid an upset at Maryland.
Defense: DE Malliciah Goodman
Clemson has had a defensive end selected in the second round of the past two NFL drafts, and Goodman could be the third next April after a final season in Death Valley. Goodman was on the field for 767 plays last season, the most ever by a Tigers defensive lineman. He'll anchor a relatively young front four in new coordinator Brent Venables' system, a system that should be more effective than the one that allowed 70 points in the Orange Bowl.
13. Michigan State
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Offense: OG Chris McDonald
There will be a lot of turnover on the Spartans offense, but not in the trenches, as four offensive line starters return. There won't be a ton of big plays with a new quarterback and new wide receivers, so Michigan State must again be productive on the ground. McDonald anchors a strong right side of the line with 26 career starts under his belt.
Defense: DE William Gholston
Michigan State has one of the nation's better defenses, with Gholston the best of a talented bunch. He plays with emotion, although sometimes too much, which cost him a one-game suspension last season after an incident against Michigan. Few defensive linemen are as disruptive as Gholston, who, despite the loss of Jerel Worthy inside, will benefit from having rising star Marcus Rush on the opposite end of the line.
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Offense: RB Montee Ball
The Heisman Trophy finalist has a new pronunciation of his name but is still the same player that rose to stardom last season in Wisconsin's dominant rushing attack. Expectations are of course raised from where they were a year ago, but Ball didn't forgo the NFL draft just to enjoy another year of college life. Expect him to return to New York on the second Saturday in December.
Defense: LB Chris Borland
The Badgers defense was most known last year for its late-game collapses in losses to Michigan State and Ohio State in consecutive weeks. Those failures unfortunately overshadowed the stellar play of Borland, who finished second in the Big Ten in tackles and third in tackles for loss. He'll team with Mike Taylor to form one of the league's top linebacking duos.
11. West Virginia
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Offense: QB Geno Smith
Smith and new head coach Dana Holgorsen were the perfect match for each other last season, as the Miami native thrived in the Mountaineers' new spread offense, culminating with a 70-point performance in the Orange Bowl. The two-year starter is poised to shatter the school's passing records in his last season in Morgantown with a speedy corps of receivers to help him out.
Defense: LB/DB Terence Garvin
Losses are aplenty on the defensive side of the ball, including coordinator Jeff Casteel, who took his trademark 3-3-5 stack defense to Arizona. Former Pitt defensive coordinator Keith Patterson was brought in to help install a new 3-4 scheme. His top pupil is Garvin, who has played in all but three of the team's past 39 games. He'll play the hybrid STAR position, which is perfect for his 6'3", 223-pound frame.
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Offense: QB Tyler Wilson
The top quarterback in the SEC, Wilson was brilliant last season despite playing behind a shoddy offensive line. His toughness cannot be questioned, as he withstood repeated hits to lead the Razorbacks to 11 wins, falling only to Alabama and LSU. He'll benefit from the return of running back Knile Davis but could top the 3,600 yards for which he threw last season.
Defense: LB Tenarius Wright
The senior is making the seemingly awkward transition from defensive end to middle linebacker, but Wright does have experience at the position from his high school days. How quickly he adjusts to a new role will go a long way in determining whether or not the Hogs are ready to play with the big boys of the SEC.
9. South Carolina
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Offense: RB Marcus Lattimore
A knee injury cost the dynamic Lattimore the final half of his sophomore season, but he'll be back with a vengeance this season in what will likely be his last as a Gamecock. Head coach Steve Spurrier has committed to running the football in a change from his Fun 'n' Gun days at Florida, which will benefit Lattimore's numbers and the Gamecocks as a team.
Defense: DE Jadeveon Clowney
Few recruits in recent years have arrived in college with more hype than Clowney, who will play the role of predecessor Melvin Ingram this season in which he'll line up at both end and tackle. He had a strong freshman season with eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss and should surpass those numbers as a sophomore. Clowney and Devin Taylor are about as good of a pair of defensive ends as any in college football
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Offense: QB Denard Robinson
The marriage between Robinson and offensive coordinator Al Borges seemed like it would be a rocky one heading into the 2011 season, but the two were able to put egos aside and combine Robinson's speed with Borges' West Coast philosophies in an 11-win season. Robinson keeps everyone on the edge of their seats, with a big play, either good or bad, possible at any moment.
Defense: SS Jordan Kovacs
There are no Charles Woodsons or LaMarr Woodleys walking around Ann Arbor anymore, but the Wolverines defense was one of college football's most pleasant surprises a year ago. Kovacs, a former walk-on, has 33 career starts. A valuable run-stopper, his 75 tackles were second on the team in 2011.
7. Florida State
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Offense: QB E.J. Manuel
The fifth-year senior's first season as the full-time starter in 2011 was a roller-coaster ride, but it ended on a high note with an impressive, late rally to beat Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl despite playing behind four freshman offensive linemen. You can't question Manuel's toughness, but he's yet to defeat a ranked opponent. He will in 2012 with improved offensive personnel surrounding him.
Defense: DE Brandon Jenkins
The nation's fourth-ranked defense a year ago returns most of its key players, led by the fierce pass-rusher Jenkins. Expect double-digit sacks from the senior after dropping quarterbacks for a loss eight times a year ago. He's the best in the ACC at his craft and is a likely first-round pick in next April's NFL draft.
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Offense: QB Aaron Murray
What he lacks in height, he makes up for in accuracy, toughness and leadership. The fourth-year junior helped spark a 10-game winning streak last season after an 0-2 start. He must cut down on his interceptions, however, which rose from eight to 14 from 2010 to 2011. That said, he is considered by some to be the best quarterback in the best conference in college football. That's certainly something to hang your hat (or helmet) on.
Defense: LB Jarvis Jones
It's no coincidence that Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense started to click in Jones' first year on the field for the Bulldogs. His 13.5 sacks were second-most in the SEC, and despite high NFL draft stock, Jones did not even consider going pro after last season. He's the best defensive player in the SEC, a prestigious honor given the quality of defensive players in the league.
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Offense: RB De'Anthony Thomas
While he's not even technically a starter, Thomas, who had committed to USC (think about the Trojans offense with Thomas) before flipping to the Ducks, might be the biggest offensive and special teams weapon in the country. The sophomore led the team in receiving yards last season and was third in rushing. He'll again be used in a variety of ways in Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense.
Defense: DE Dion Jordan
The Ducks aren't necessarily known for their defensive linemen, but Jordan is one of the best to have passed through Eugene. He's a frequent visitor to opposing backfields with 7.5 sacks last year and 13 tackles for loss. Jordan thrives in defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti's aggressive schemes, which helped the Ducks lead the Pac-12 in sacks and finish fourth nationally.
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Offense: QB Landry Jones
Yes, he's still in college. Despite a rough finish to the 2011 season, Jones could leave Norman as college football's all-time leading passer. He'll have to do it without top target Ryan Broyles, but Broyles' replacement, freshman Trey Metoyer, might be more talented than his predecessor. The Sooners go as Jones goes, never more evident than in last year's 44-10 loss to Oklahoma State in which Jones was responsible for four turnovers.
Defense: FS Tony Jefferson
Some key players have departed from last season's defense, but the biggest change comes in the return of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops after eight years with Arizona. Jefferson's physical style of play is a good match for what Stoops likes to do, and he should be the biggest beneficiary of the coaching change. He's a free safety with a strong safety's mentality.
3. Southern California
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Offense: QB Matt Barkley
The Trojans signal-caller surprised everyone when he announced last December that he was returning for his senior season. He immediately became the favorite for the Heisman Trophy and will now attempt to dethrone the SEC from the top of college football with the help of a loaded group of skill position players. Barkley doesn't have the strongest arm, but he's smart, accurate and throws well on the run.
Defense: FS T.J. McDonald
This honor could go to a number of different USC defenders (Dion Bailey, Nickell Robey), but the call here is for the veteran McDonald to close his career in Los Angeles with an All-American season. He's extremely versatile, leading the team in interceptions last year and finishing third in tackles. With a slew of question marks up front, the Trojans will rely heavily on McDonald and a very strong secondary.
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Offense: C Barrett Jones
The fifth-year senior will continue his tour around the offensive line this year at center after playing right guard and left tackle the past two seasons. Jones' toughness and versatility have helped the Crimson Tide build what should be the best offensive line in the country. Combine that with a Nick Saban defense, and that's a pretty good recipe for a third national title in four years.
Defense: LB Nico Johnson
The losses are heavy on defense, but there's still a ton of talent in Tuscaloosa. That starts with Johnson, who will anchor a young linebacking corps that will likely consist of Johnson, a senior and three sophomores in the starting lineup. His 47 tackles last year are the most of any returning player. He should garner more attention this season now that he won't be overshadowed by the departed Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw.
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Offense: OT Alex Hurst
If LSU is to return to the BCS championship game, quarterback Zach Mettenberger probably needs to be the offensive MVP, but Hurst is too dominant to not bestow this honor on him. He could be a top-10 pick in the NFL draft next spring and is arguably the best tackle in college football. He'll be paving the way for the Bayou Bengals' stable of running backs in what should be a much more productive offense this season.
Defense: DEs Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo
I couldn't pick just one. The two had nearly identical statistics in 2011, with Montgomery winning the sack battle, 9-8, and Mingo the top in tackles for loss, 15-13.5. Both will have monster 2012 seasons, wreaking havoc on SEC backfields on a weekly basis. If any pair of defensive ends could both be All-Americans in the same year, these are the two who could do it.