Often the top performances in college football come from exactly the places you'd expect: the former 5-star prospect, the returning superstar senior, the lauded underclassmen. These guys get all the media attention, and for good reason. We expected them to be good, and they met or exceeded everyone's expectations.
But there are a number of top-quality offensive weapons in college football today that go unheralded, but contribute to their teams just as much as the superstars—if not more. They may not get the hype or accumulate the press clippings as quickly as players like Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater, but they still deserve every ounce of recognition for their underrated contributions.
San Jose State was once—not all that long ago—a down and out program that was rightfully the butt of many jokes in college football. Not anymore.
Gone are the 2-10 and 1-12 records of 2009 and 2010, respectively. San Jose State was an amazing 11-2 in 2012—one of the greatest two-year turnarounds in college football history. Returning senior quarterback David Fales is a major reason for the Spartans' new-found success.
When SJSU came close to knocking off Stanford in Week 1 last season, it could have been seen as a sign that Stanford wasn't all it was cracked up to be. But the much-closer-than-expected 20-17 win for the Cardinal was more about San Jose State than it was about the eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford team.
Fales emerged as one of the nation's top quarterbacks, finishing sixth in the nation in passing yards (4,193) and tied for ninth in passing touchdowns with 33.
Fales also threw just nine interceptions in 13 games, besting all his fellow top 10 quarterbacks except West Virginia's Geno Smith and Fresno State's Derek Carr.
The Spartans played in their first postseason game since 2006 and knocked off Bowling Green State in the Military Bowl.
Fales is one of only three FBS quarterbacks returning this season after a 4,000-plus yard season, and his leadership will go a long way to sustaining success for San Jose State as it makes the move to the Mountain West's new West Division for 2013.
It's often difficult to think of Tulane football as being good at anything. Unfortunately for fans of the Green Wave, Tulane has consistently been one of the nation's least successful programs. Since World War II, only three FBS programs have fared worse than Tulane's ugly .369 win percentage (Vanderbilt, .362; New Mexico State, .341; Florida International, .338).
Tulane hasn't had a winning season since 2002, and the program is light years away from what its 12-0 run in 1998. But that doesn't mean there aren't some silver linings as the Green Wave prepares for its final Conference USA season in 2013 before joining the American Athletic Conference (old Big East) in 2014.
When we talk about a team ranked 99th in FBS scoring offense, every point counts and place kicker Cairo Santos is good for quite a few. In 2012, Santos was a perfect 21-of-21 on field goals, and nearly perfect (26-of-27) on PAT attempts. His 7.4 points per game ranks him as the team's top scorer, which also places him behind just the top echelon of running backs and wide receivers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Santos was the 2012 recipient of the Lou Groza Award.
With his consistency, Santos has become an integral part of Tulane's offense. There's something comforting about knowing your team's trip to the red zone is almost guaranteed to end in points, even if it is only three.
With Rich Rodriguez bringing his style of football to Arizona, you can bet that any anonymity Wildcat wide receivers have will be relatively short-lived. If the 2012 turnaround is any indication, Austin Hill won't be among the ranks of the underrated offensive weapons for long.
Hill finished the 2012 season with 104.9 receiving yards per game—seventh in the FBS. Hill lost out on a lot of national press attention last season mainly due to the plethora of wide receiver talent around the country, but in 2013 he should give USC's Marqise Lee a good run for the top receiving spot in the Pac-12.
Hill will again be the featured receiver for the Wildcats, and as his receptions per game shoot upwards, so too should his yardage and touchdown totals. Lee averaged three receptions more per game last season, but accounted for only three more touchdowns than Hill. Keep an eye on that race this year, as it could become one of the more entertaining storylines in the Pac-12 for fans of a great pass attack.
It might seem odd to add Braxton Miller to a list of underrated offensive players, especially with some early Heisman buzz that's probably a little too early. But scratch just below the surface, and you'll see a quarterback that hasn't really lived up to his potential—yet.
Last season, Miller finished the year with just169.9 passing yards—90th in the nation—while Ohio State posted the 105th-rated passing offense. With those kind of numbers, it's easy to understand why the 12-0 Buckeyes were never seriously considered for an AP title in 2012. Miller did have nearly 1,300 rushing yards and averaged over five yards per carry. But there's still tremendous room for growth—which is why we believe he's still an underrated weapon.
Miller's passing game was just plain terrible, and like his now departed counterpart at The School Up North, Denard Robinson, his contributions came via the ground. Still, Miller's rushing average took a nose-dive on third downs, where he barely broke three yards per carry. As he matures and hopefully adds a serviceable passing attack, Miller could emerge as a bona fide Heisman contender by midseason.
If he does, Miller will make believers out of people other than those who currently reside in the state of Ohio.
Maybe, just maybe, Western Kentucky is finally shaking off the baby blanket of its transition to the FBS. After stumbling through their first few seasons without a win against an FBS opponent, the Hilltoppers finally broke through with a pair of conference wins in 2010. By 2011, WKU had won seven against Sun Belt opponents, but still failed to attract any attention from a bowl selection committee.
Last season, the Hilltoppers put their past firmly in the rear-view mirror with another seven victories, this time including a win against an opponent from a BCS-AQ conference—the SEC, no less—with a 32-31 upset of Kentucky, earning a trip to the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl (a 24-21 loss to Central Michigan).
Much of that success came thanks to one of the nation's top running backs, Antonio Andrews.
Andrews averaged 133.3 yards per game, fifth in the FBS. He's behind only Arizona's consensus All-American honoree Ka'Deem Carey as the nation's top returning rusher, and with the defenses he'll be facing in the Sun Belt, a run at the rushing title in 2013 could be in the offing.
With all of the storylines that surrounded Penn State last season, it's easy to see why Zach Zwinak's accomplishments were lost in the shuffle. But as the full weight of NCAA sanctions—particularly in the area of scholarships—begins to take effect on the Nittany Lions, the negatives could soon begin to outnumber the positives on the field.
Zwinak is one sure-fire positive Bill O'Brien still has on the roster. He averages five yards per carry, and with graduations poised to take its toll on the Penn State passing game, Zwinak will become a featured piece to a struggling offense.
Zeinak will look to improve on his 1,000 rushing yards from 2012, and he will prove to be the difference late in close games. Unfortunately, he may also prove to be one of the only bright spots for Penn State over the next two seasons.
With all of the struggles Boston College is suffering through these days, it's easy to lose track of some pretty solid individual performances. Alex Amidon, the now senior wide receiver for the Eagles, is one player with just such a solid season in 2012.
The Eagles were an ACC-worst 2-10 last season, and there's little that tells us that BC is about to rocket far up the standings in the immediate future. That doesn't mean, however, that Amidon can't be considered one of the most underrated achievers in the game.
With over 1,200 receiving yards last season, Amidon averages over 100 yards per game and over 15.5 yards per reception. Even with all the great receivers in the ACC, Amidon was one of only two to average triple-digit yardage in 2012, joining Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins. With Hopkins off to the NFL, that leaves Amidon as the top returner at the position in the conference.
He's not enough of a weapon to single-handedly pull the Eagles out of their quagmire, but it's exactly BC's predicament that makes Amidon so underrated.
It wasn't all that long ago that Big East/American Athletic Conference teams were seen as the red-headed step-child of the Automatic Qualifiers. In all fairness, many still are.
But when Louisville spanked Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, perception of Louisville at least changed dramatically.
Much of the focus on the Cardinals is rightfully centered on do-it-all quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. But in order for Bridgewater to do what he does, particularly in the passing game, he needs some weapons at receiver. Enter DeVante Parker.
Parker finished 2012 with 57.2 receiving yards per game, fifth in the Big East. With three graduations and the fourth player on a team heading to the ACC in 2013, Parker will start 2013 as the top receiver in the AAC.
Incidentally, Parker finished last season tied for the conference lead in receiving touchdowns with 10. With raised expectations for Louisville, both his yards per game and touchdown totals should improve for Parker's junior season. Even if they don't, he'll still remaining an important tool in Bridgewater's arsenal as he chases down another conference title—and maybe even a Heisman Trophy.
Contrary to the other players on the list thus far, Taylor Lewan is not your typical point-scorer. In his career at Michigan, Lewan, an offensive tackle, has a total of 11 rushing yards which came one a fumble recovery in 2010, and one touchdown, also coming on a fumble recovery, in 2012.
This consensus All-American makes his contribution not while carrying the ball, but while protecting those who do. Lewan is unmatched in his ability to hold off defenders and was widely expected to take his talents to the pros after last season.
“At first, it was kind of a tough decision,” Lewan told the Detroit News. “That's a lot of money and an opportunity to live a dream that every kid's wanted to live. And then you think about this place [Michigan]. One hundred thirty-four years of tradition. Forty-two Big Ten championships. I want to be part of the 43rd, and I think that is not far off at all.”
In an era where top players attend college only as long as they have to before ditching their coaches and teammates for a multimillion dollar paycheck, it's refreshing to see a player hold this much loyalty to his university's historic program—especially in the face of so much money after what would have been a guaranteed first-round selection.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Jadeveon Clowney is a defensive end. How on earth could he be one of the top, underrated offensive weapons? Anyone who watched the 2013 Outback Bowl knows the answer to that question.
Clowney is very simply so good at what he does, it has an inescapable impact on every facet of the game. His defensive fireworks often provide the sparks—plural, sparks—South Carolina's offense needs to get things clicking.
Whether it's putting the opposition in a hole early on first down or second down, a big tackle on third or fourth down, or like last January against Michigan, an epic forced fumble that leads to a go-ahead touchdown, Clowney is a weapon that makes his offense's job look a lot easier than it otherwise could have, or should have, been.
Scoring points is a lot easier with a short field, and that's exactly what Clowney delivers time and time again. For that reason alone, his spot on this list is well-earned.