College Football Players Who Will Have Best Highlights of Week 1

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2013

College Football Players Who Will Have Best Highlights of Week 1

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    It's impossible to predict the best plays of college football's Week 1—or, for that matter, of any week. Part of what makes a pick-six so thrilling is its unpredictability; if you were able to forecast its occurrence, it wouldn't be nearly as fun to watch.

    But while there's no way to guess at the physical "highlights" you'll see replayed on Sunday, Sept. 1, it is possible to guess at some of the highlighted stat lines. 

    Who will throw for 500 yards and take an early lead in the race for the Davey O'Brien Award, given to the nation's best quarterback? Who will rush for 200 yards and three touchdowns? Even if the numbers come against inferior competition, who will make a statement toward becoming a Heisman dark horse?

    By looking at which blue-chip players take on no-chip defenses, a grainy picture of the post-Week 1 world comes to light. It isn't clear enough to make any confident assertions, but what's the harm in trying?

QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

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    Opponent: vs. Rice

    Rice's defense was pretty bad last season, finishing 96th in Football Outsiders' defensive S&P+ ratings and 109th against the run.

    But that's not why Johnny Manziel is going to destroy it. Manziel is going to destroy the defense because he's frustrated and angry and one of the best college football players ever. Which means he'll squeeze the Rice defense like it's a stress ball on Aug. 31.

    It's been a long time—and seemed even longer—since Johnny Football has actually taken the field, so it's easy to forget just how dominant he is. But he ended last season with a 500-yard performance against Oklahoma and will surely want to remind the world what he's capable of between the lines.

    As long as he's eligible to play, Manziel will put up huge—repeat: huge—numbers against Rice.

QB Devin Gardner, Michigan

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    Opponent: vs. Central Michigan

    Michigan ended last season with a bowl loss to South Carolina, but its quarterback, Devin Gardner, still finished on a high note.

    The Wolverines had a fourth-quarter lead against the heavily favored Gamecocks, and much of that had to do with the outstanding play of Gardner. Now, after a full offseason spent as the starting quarterback, even bigger things are expected in 2013.

    Gardner gets a great opponent to start his junior season—a Central Michigan team that finished 117th in Football Outsiders' pass defense S&P+ last season. It's the perfect cupcake secondary for Gardner and a chance to post huge numbers in Week 1.

    This could be the start of a dark-horse Heisman campaign. 

RB Johnathan Gray, Texas

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    Opponent: vs. New Mexico State

    Gray was the No. 6  prospect on 247Sports' 2012 composite, and last year, as a true freshman, he didn't disappoint. He finished his first season in Austin with 701 yards on 149 carries, including two games with more than 100 yards.

    That was all done despite ceding carries to Jon Bergeron and Malcolm Brown. This year Gray should be even more of the workhorse back. Talent always wins out. And with five starters returning on one of the nation's best offensive lines, that could mean huge numbers in Gray's sophomore season.

    His year starts against New Mexico State, a team that finished 117th in Football Outsiders' rush defense S&P+ last year. Take the over on all Gray-related prop bets.

RB Melvin Gordon/James White, Wisconsin

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    Opponent: vs. Massachusetts

    Bret Bielema is gone from Madison, but even with Gary Andersen at the helm, Wisconsin should remain a rush-first (and -second) attack.

    That's what happens when you have Melvin Gordon and James White, perhaps the best running back duo in the country. You let the personnel dictate your game plan. And playing behind an always-dominant Wisconsin offensive line, the Badgers' personnel dictates a whole lot of handoffs.

    The opposing defense dictates that as well. Massachusetts finished 124th (dead last) in Football Outsiders' run defense S&P+ last season and loses both starting defensive tackles. In his College Football Preview, Phil Steele projects them as the second-worst rush defense again in 2013.

    There should be plenty of carries to go around in Week 1—enough that both Gordon and White should post massive numbers. 

     

WR Jalen Sanders, Oklahoma

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    Opponent: vs. UL-Monroe

    Louisiana-Monroe opened its season with an upset or Arkansas last season and hopes lightning will strike twice in Norman.

    The Warhawks might not be able to beat the Sooners, but they have an offense capable of keeping up. OU's defense is undergoing massive turnover and ULM has Kolton Browning, one of America's best unknown quarterbacks, under center.

    All of which should keep Oklahoma on the attack all game, throwing the ball well into the fourth quarter. That should be great news for speedy receiver Jalen Sanders, one of the nation's most explosive weapons, who could be in store for an All-Big 12 season in 2013.

    He'll fare well against a Warhawks' defense that finished 109th in passing yards allowed per game last season. There's no one in that secondary who can keep up with him.

WR Tommy Shuler, Marshall

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    Opponent: vs. Miami (Ohio)

    Tommy Shuler finished 20th in the nation with 1,138 receiving yards last year and fourth with 110 receptions.

    Scarier than just that, only three starters left from last year's offense—and two of the ones who departed were Marshall's second- and third-leading receivers.

    Which means, in short, that Shuler will be the go-to—borderline only—option on a dangerously explosive passing offense. And in Miami (Ohio), Marshall's first opponent, he faces a team that finished 120th in last year's S&P+ pass defense ratings

    That's a recipe for huge numbers.