College Football 2014: Every BCS Team's Best Returning Player

Jeff Bell@@JrayBellCorrespondent IJanuary 9, 2014

College Football 2014: Every BCS Team's Best Returning Player

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    Florida State QB Jameis Winston
    Florida State QB Jameis WinstonKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    College football is a forward-thinking operation, and though we're merely days removed from the national championship, which saw Florida State best Auburn 34-31, it's time to take an early look at what the picture may look like at the start of the 2014 season.

    Seniors are graduating and moving on, and an astounding number of players have declared for the NFL draft, despite having a year or two left of eligibility at the college level. Those losses are, for the most part, expected this time of year.

    For fans, the real fun comes in looking forward to who might make an impact next season. While there are always surprises throughout spring and fall practice, true followers of the game already have an idea about who's going to shine brightest next fall when the tailgate supplies are pulled out of the garage and the fans warm up their vocal chords.

    We're taking a look at the best returning player on every team in an automatically-qualifying BCS conference so you have something to look forward to despite the regular season being more than 200 days off. Part of the challenge is weighing potential versus future talent, as well as comparing different positions, which is similar to comparing apples and oranges. How does an offensive linemen stack up against a wide receiver or a tight end against a punter?

    After careful consideration, here is the best returning player on every team in an AQ BCS conference.

     

    Note: BYU and Notre Dame are included despite not having a conference affiliation. In addition, several key players have yet to declare for the NFL draft. In those instances, we're using our best judgment on whether to include them, and we'll provide updates and make changes if necessary.

    All stats via CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.

Alabama: RB T.J. Yeldon

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    T.J. Yeldon
    T.J. YeldonKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Alabama's T.J. Yeldon is one of those rare backs who has it all: size, power, speed and elusiveness.

    In 2013, the true sophomore rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also caught 20 passes for 183 yards, and his return, along with a stable of talented backs, means that the Crimson Tide will remain lethal on the ground.

    Of course, going with any one of the defensive studs would also work here. But with Yeldon's potential to be a game-changer each and every week, he gets the nod as the player Nick Saban will be most happy to have back.

Arizona: WR Austin Hill

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    WR Austin Hill (No. 18)
    WR Austin Hill (No. 18)Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Wide receiver Austin Hill was injured during spring practice and unable to compete throughout the 2013 season, but what he did in 2012 makes it clear how dangerous he'll be in Rich Rodriguez's offense next year.

    As a sophomore, Hill caught 81 passes for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns. That includes a 10-catch, 259-yard effort against USC.

    While the Wildcats found innovative ways to move the ball in the rushing game this past season, the return of Hill should allow the offense to find different ways to score, making Arizona a serious threat in the Pac-12 South.

Arizona State: QB Taylor Kelly

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    QB Taylor Kelly
    QB Taylor KellyMichael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Spo

    We initially tabbed linebacker/defensive end Carl Bradford as Arizona State's best returning player, but the junior decided Monday to forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL draft (per Doug Haller, azcentral.com).

    Thus, quarterback Taylor Kelly is the next man up as the team's best returning player, but don't think of him as someone we're forced to settle on. In 2013, Kelly passed for over 3,600 yards and 28 touchdowns while also rushing for over 600 yards and another 9 scores.

    Those kinds of dual-threat numbers would look Heisman-worthy even five years ago, and if he can cut down on his 12 interceptions, he could be poised for an outstanding 2014.

Arkansas: DE Trey Flowers

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    DE Trey Flowers
    DE Trey FlowersChris Graythen/Getty Images

    In a league where the majority of teams can line up and run the ball down your throat, having a strong defensive line is a must. Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers is the Razorbacks' best returning player because when he's on the field, he's liable to make a game-changing play at any moment.

    Flowers had 44 tackles in 2013, 13.5 of which caused negative yardage. He also had five sacks.

    While you might be tempted to go with one of the team's young running backs, Alex Collins or Jonathan Williams, the two combined to post just one 100-yard rushing game in the final seven games of the year. Look for Flowers to be a menace on defense once again in 2014.

Auburn: QB Nick Marshall

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    QB Nick Marshall
    QB Nick MarshallJeff Gross/Getty Images

    Though Auburn will feature a ton of playmakers on both sides of the ball in 2014, it's hard to argue that anybody will have more of an impact than quarterback Nick Marshall.

    The star of Gus Malzahn's offense is a dual-threat dynamo who might be the fastest player in the country at his position. This season, he threw for almost 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he also rushed for over 1,000 yards and 12 scores.

    Marshall's best games came in the latter stages of the season, and with another year of Malzahn's tutelage under his belt, there's no limit to how good he can be in the future.

Baylor: QB Bryce Petty

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    Baylor QB Bryce Petty
    Baylor QB Bryce PettyChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    Some schools just can't seem to find a good quarterback, while others, like Baylor, don't ever miss. First it was Robert Griffin III, then it was Nick Florence and now, it's Bryce Petty.

    The gunslinger threw for 4200 yards and 32 touchdowns this past season, numbers that look even more impressive next to only three interceptions. While he only rushed for just over 200 yards, he had 14 touchdowns on the ground as well.

    Petty's return makes Baylor one of the favorites in the Big 12 yet again.

Boston College: LB Steven Daniels

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    LB Steven Daniels
    LB Steven DanielsGreg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

    Just a sophomore, linebacker Steven Daniels is quickly becoming a terror at linebacker for Boston College.

    On the season, he accounted for 88 tackles. He also had 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and an interception.

    The Eagles offense has a serious hole to fill with the departure of running back Andre Williams, but the team is good to go at linebacker, where Daniels is a big-time performer.

BYU: QB Taysom Hill

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    QB Taysom Hill
    QB Taysom HillEd Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    You might think of Taysom Hill as the quarterback who shredded Texas on the ground back in September, and your memory would be correct.

    But you might be surprised to learn that the BYU sophomore passed for nearly 3,000 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013. Of course, he is known more for his ground-game exploits, as he tallied 1,344 yards and 10 scores running the football.

    Hill is one of the more underrated dual-threat weapons in the game, and if he can cut down on his 14 interceptions, we could see him become dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate.

Cal: QB Jared Goff

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    QB Jared Goff
    QB Jared GoffBob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

    The Cal Bears didn't have much in the way of success in 2013, with only one victory. But quarterback Jared Goff showed that the future is very bright in coach Sonny Dykes' pass-heavy offense.

    The true freshman completed over 60 percent of his throws, passed for 3,488 yards and accounted for 19 total touchdowns.

    That may not blow you away, but it's a pretty great start for a young quarterback on a team without much talent surrounding him. Look for Goff to keep slinging it around in 2014 and for the Bears to snare a few more wins.

Cincinnati: DL Silverberry Mouhon

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    DL Silverberry Mouhon
    DL Silverberry MouhonStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    You might be tempted to roll with offensive tackle Eric LeFeld as Cincinnati's best returning player, but defensive lineman Silverberry Mouhon, in addition to staking his claim for a spot on the all-name team, may be the most impactful starter coming back.

    In 2013, Mouhon had 41 tackles, a relatively modest number for his position. But he tallied 12.5 tackles for loss, had 9.5 sacks and forced a pair of fumbles.

    Offensive players will always get first dibs on the limelight, but you cannot overstate the importance of having a dominant defensive lineman, and Mouhon is one of the nation's best.

Clemson: LB Stephone Anthony

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    Stephone Anthony celebrates an interception against Ohio State
    Stephone Anthony celebrates an interception against Ohio StateStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Clemson will have the unenviable task of replacing a number of key players on both sides of the ball, but linebacker Stephone Anthony should bring considerable ease to the process.

    After making the key interception in the Tigers' Orange Bowl win, Anthony will likely head into the 2014 season as one of the best players in the ACC.

    On the season, he had 86 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and five sacks.

Colorado: LB Addison Gillam

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    LB Addison Gillam
    LB Addison GillamChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    It was another tough year for Colorado, as the Buffaloes won just four games, two of which came against FCS foes. But that didn't stop linebacker  Addison Gillam from having a heck of a freshman season.

    Gillam tallied 107 tackles, and 9.5 were made behind the line of scrimmage.

    When you think of exciting young linebackers out west, UCLA's Myles Jack may be the first to come to mind. But Gillam had arguably as solid a first season as Jack, and he'll be leading the charge as the Buffs work their way back to respectability.

Connecticut: WR Geremy Davis

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    WR Geremy Davis
    WR Geremy DavisJared Wickerham/Getty Images

    No one likes to go 3-9, but if you're a fan of the Connecticut Huskies, three straight wins to end the season after starting 0-9 has to give you some confidence heading forward.

    Aiding that confidence is the play of wide receiver Geremy Davis, one of the best playmakers you've never heard of before. In the season finale against Memphis, Davis caught 15 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown.

    It gave him over 1,000 yards receiving on the year, and he'll head into next season as the best player on the team.

Duke: WR Jamison Crowder

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    WR Jamison Crowder
    WR Jamison CrowderMike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    Don't let Duke's football reputation fool you: The Blue Devils have a ton of talented players, perhaps none more so than wide receiver Jamison Crowder.

    You might recall the talented junior's name after watching him catch 12 passes for 163 yards in the bowl game defeat to Texas A&M. Or maybe you watched him all season long, as he wound up with more than 1,300 yards receiving for the year.

    He'll return in 2014 as one of the most exciting players in the ACC.

Florida: CB Vernon Hargreaves III

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    CB Vernon Hargreaves III
    CB Vernon Hargreaves IIISam Greenwood/Getty Images

    It's really quite terrifying to think about how good Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is going to be someday.

    But even today, he stands as one of the nation's best playmakers in the secondary. As a true freshman, Hargreaves had three picks, broke up 11 passes and had 38 tackles.

    Florida may have had a down year, but coach Will Muschamp has his lockdown corner in Hargreaves, and it'll be tough for anybody to throw the ball against the Gators in 2014.

Florida State: QB Jameis Winston

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    QB Jameis Winston
    QB Jameis WinstonKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Surprised you with this one, huh? Hopefully not, because after winning the Heisman Trophy and leading Florida State to an undefeated season and a national title, there might not be a better returning player in the entire country.

    And quarterback Jameis Winston did all of that as a redshirt freshman.

    On the year, Winston threw for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. We're all waiting to see what the big-armed Seminole superstar has in store the next time he takes the field.

Georgia: RB Todd Gurley

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    RB Todd Gurley
    RB Todd GurleyMelina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    It wasn't the dream season Georgia running back Todd Gurley might have envisioned, as the sophomore struggled with several injuries.

    He still managed to rush for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns, though, and he added on 441 yards receiving as well.

    When healthy, Gurley is one of the most dangerous players in the game. The Bulldogs will be transitioning to a new quarterback, but Gurley gives the offense a physical, home run-type of presence in the backfield every time it takes the field.

Georgia Tech: OL Shaq Mason

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    Georgia Tech celebrates a score
    Georgia Tech celebrates a scoreUSA TODAY Sports

    In Paul Johnson's triple-option offense, having athletic offensive linemen who can get upfield while maintaining their physicality is crucial.

    Johnson will be happy to bring back guard Shaq Mason, one of the ACC's best at his position.

    It may not be a glamorous job or one that will rake in postseason awards, but Mason is as important to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets offense as anyone, and his return will ensure the rushing attack stays lethal.

Houston: WR Deontay Greenberry

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    WR Deontay Greenberry
    WR Deontay GreenberryBrad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

    Losing to Vanderbilt wasn't an ideal way to end the season for Houston, but eight wins should give the Cougars plenty of hope heading into next season.

    Add to the mix the return of wide receiver Deontay Greenberry, and this is suddenly a team that could make some serious noise in the AAC.

    As a sophomore, Greenberry caught 82 passes for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns. His ability to stretch the field will cause plenty of opposing defensive coordinators to lose sleep in the offseason.

Illinois: RB Josh Ferguson

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    RB/WR Josh Ferguson
    RB/WR Josh FergusonBradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

    It was a tough year in the Big Ten conference for Illinois—there's really no other way to put it. But what running back Josh Ferguson brings to the table should hopefully have fans excited about 2014.

    The all-purpose back not only ran for 779 yards and seven touchdowns, but he had 535 yards receiving as well. And his 11 total touchdowns were critical in an offense that failed to score even 30 points per game.

    It's always important to have star players with defined roles, but when you have a guy like Ferguson who can be dangerous from anywhere on the field, it makes it that much harder for defenses to prepare.

Indiana: RB Tevin Coleman

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    RB Tevin Coleman
    RB Tevin ColemanPat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

    The Indiana Hoosiers offense averaged nearly 40 points per game in 2013, and running back Tevin Coleman was a major reason why.

    As a sophomore, Coleman rushed for 958 yards, had 193 yards receiving and reached paydirt 12 times.

    Because the program always seems to be trudging through four- and five-win seasons, fans probably look forward to the start of basketball season more than when the football team first takes the gridiron. But Coleman is a promising young back and is certainly someone to keep an eye on in the Big Ten in 2014.

Iowa: LT Brandon Scherff

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    LT Brandon Scherff
    LT Brandon ScherffMatthew Holst/Getty Images

    At Iowa, a strong running game and physical play along the offensive line go hand-in-hand with winning, and no player better exemplifies that notion than left tackle Brandon Scherff.

    Scherff, who had the option to leave for the NFL, returns as one of the best linemen in the country. His size, 6'5" 315 pounds, is one thing, but his abilities put his potential over the top.

    With Scherff up front, look for Iowa to once again have the ability to ground-and-pound its opponents in 2014.

Iowa State: WR Quenton Bundrage

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    WR Quenton Bundrage
    WR Quenton BundrageDavid Purdy/Getty Images

    Points didn't come very easily to the Iowa State Cyclones in 2013, but wide receiver Quenton Bundrage will hope to change that next season.

    The 6'2", 189-pound Bundrage caught 48 passes for 676 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013.

    But if those numbers came in just his sophomore year, you can expect him to quickly rise up into the group of elite wideouts in the Big 12 as a junior.

Kansas: LB Ben Heeney

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    LB Ben Heeney
    LB Ben HeeneyDavid Purdy/Getty Images

    Watching Kansas play, you might be surprised to find out that the Jayhawks' best returning player comes from the defense.

    But linebacker Ben Heeney will be doing his best to flip the unit's reputation upside down, and he'll do so by flying around the field, just like he did in 2013. The junior had 88 tackles and three picks, and he also had 11.5 tackles for loss.

    If Kansas hopes to improve in 2014, it starts with not allowing opposing offenses to shred right through the defense. Heeney will be the most important part of that effort.

Kansas State: WR Tyler Lockett

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    WR Tyler Lockett
    WR Tyler LockettChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters showed tremendous improvement throughout the 2013 season, and fans should be excited about his potential next year. But the most skilled player returning for the Wildcats is wide receiver Tyler Lockett, one of the Big 12's best.

    The junior caught 81 passes for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns, all marks that double the next-closest man.

    If Waters can continue to improve, it will only make Lockett more dangerous. Look for the speedy 5'11" wideout to be in the running for multiple postseason honors in 2014.

Kentucky: DL Alvin Dupree

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    LB Alvin Dupree lays the wood
    LB Alvin Dupree lays the woodJohn Sommers II/Getty Images

    Life has been difficult for Kentucky in recent years, at least outside the basketball gym. Defensive lineman Alvin Dupree is hoping to flip the script, however, and his efforts up front make him the team's best returning player.

    As a junior, Dupree had 61 tackles and seven sacks. He also forced a pair of fumbles and had 9.5 tackles for loss.

    If the Wildcats want to stay competitive in the nation's best conference, it needs to start up front. Fortunately, Dupree provides size and strength to be a force from game one.

Louisville: WR DeVante Parker

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    WR DeVante Parker
    WR DeVante ParkerAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    With Bobby Petrino back in charge, expect Louisville to air it out even more than it did with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback.

    This, in turn, means that if you play fantasy football college-style, wide receiver DeVante Parker will be a name to remember.

    Parker caught 55 passes for 885 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior, and his physical play with the ball in his hands should make those numbers go way up in his final year.

LSU: OT La'el Collins

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    OT La'el Collins
    OT La'el CollinsAl Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    The initial pick for best returning player on LSU was running back Jeremy Hill, but following his announcement on twitter that he'll be turning pro, we'll go with one of the players who helped Hill move the sticks: offensive tackle La'el Collins.

    It's not a flashy choice, but elite tackles are among the most coveted players in sports, and Collins certainly fits that description. At 6'5" 315 pounds, the junior has a frame that allows him to send away all incoming pass-rushers.

    While the onus will be on Les Miles' skill players to step up and replace the production of quarterback Zach Mettenberger and wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., the best player returning for the Tigers is Collins.

Maryland: WR Stefon Diggs

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    WR Stefon Diggs
    WR Stefon DiggsRob Carr/Getty Images

    Injuries kept Stefon Diggs from terrorizing the ACC for a full season, so don't let his mediocre numbers fool you: Diggs is as much of a home run threat as any player in the country.

    In seven games, he managed to accumulate 587 yards receiving and three touchdowns. But, again, don't let statistics fool you.

    If Diggs is healthy, he gives the Terrapins one of the most dangerous weapons in the game, and he's someone defensive coordinators must game-plan for, even in the offseason.

Memphis: DL Martin Ifedi

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    DL Martin Ifedi after a sack
    DL Martin Ifedi after a sackKim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    If you love game-changers along the defensive line, you'll love what Memphis lineman Martin Ifedi brings to the table.

    As a junior, Ifedi had 10.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He also accounted for 52 total tackles, making him quite the force in the AAC.

    Good defense typically starts with being able to get pressure on the quarterback, and the Tigers return one of the best in the league at doing just that.

Miami: RB Duke Johnson

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    RB Duke Johnson
    RB Duke JohnsonJohn David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

    Miami running back Duke Johnson only played in eight games in 2013 before being sidelined by an injury, which makes what he accomplished in that time all the more impressive.

    He tallied 920 yards and six scores on the ground while averaging nearly 30 yards per kick return.

    Fans around the country will be rooting for a full recovery, because at his best, Johnson has that rare ability to punish defenders and then outrun them that only a few other backs can match.

Michigan: TE Devin Funchess

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    TE Devin Funchess
    TE Devin FunchessMark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Picking Michigan's best returning player came down to a comparison between defensive back Blake Countess and tight end Devin Funchess. As you can see, the pass-catcher won out despite the secondary stud having six interceptions.

    Funchess is an athletic breed of tight end. As a sophomore, he caught 49 passes for 748 yards and six scores. But with the graduation of wideout Jeremy Gallon, expect his number of targets to increase dramatically.

Michigan State: RB Jeremy Langford

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    RB Jeremy Langford
    RB Jeremy LangfordKirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Michigan State sophomore lineman Shilique Calhoun was strongly considered for the honor of best returning player, but it's too difficult to ignore the accomplishments of running back Jeremy Langford.

    If you thought that Langford was simply a decent back who had a nice season, his numbers may surprise you: 1,422 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. That puts Langford squarely in the conversation for best back in the Big Ten, even with Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon.

    Because the Spartans are so dominant on defense, offensive players often fail to get recognition. But here's a guess that Langford won't be flying under the radar much in 2014.

Minnesota: RB David Cobb

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    RB David Cobb
    RB David CobbMike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    With over 1,200 yards rushing and seven touchdowns, Minnesota's David Cobb is likely the best running back you don't know about.

    But that will change in 2014 when Cobb returns for his senior season to lead the Golden Gophers ground attack.

    After a solid season in the trenches, defensive linemen Theiren Cockran was also considered here. But Cobb is perhaps the most important cog in an offense that struggled throughout the year. His return should mean more points on the scoreboard in 2014.

Mississippi State: QB Dak Prescott

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    QB Dak Prescott
    QB Dak PrescottJustin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

    Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott is exactly the kind of player that can help the Bulldogs climb up near the top of the always-rigorous SEC.

    As a sophomore, he passed for nearly 2,000 yards and 10 touchdowns—fairly modest numbers. But he also ran for 829 yards and two scores, and he even caught a pair of touchdown passes as well!

    Prescott's dynamic ability to make plays outside the pocket with both his arm and his legs gives Mississippi State an added dimension of danger in its offense.

Missouri: WR Dorial Green-Beckham

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    WR Dorial Green-Beckham (left)
    WR Dorial Green-Beckham (left)Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham improved leaps and bounds from his freshman season to his sophomore one, so it's natural to wonder what he'll be doing when the 2014 campaign rolls around.

    In 2013, Green-Beckham caught 59 passes for 883 yards and 12 touchdowns. At 6'6", 225 pounds, he's perhaps the biggest target in any passing game in the SEC.

    With proven backup quarterback Maty Mauk ready for his time in the spotlight, look for Green-Beckham to be making the highlight reel every week when college football resumes.

     

Nebraska: RB Ameer Abdullah

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    RB Ameer Abdullah
    RB Ameer AbdullahJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Unlike some of the talented backs in the Big Ten conference that you haven't heard much about, Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah is almost certainly a player on your radar.

    That's probably because, as a junior, Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns. He also caught 26 passes for 232 yards and a pair of scores.

    His return will ensure that Nebraska's ground game is once again one of the best in the Big Ten.

North Carolina: WR Quinshad Davis

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    WR Quinshad Davis
    WR Quinshad DavisMike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    Wide receiver Quinshad Davis is the most dangerous player in North Carolina's offense and easily the team's best returning player.

    In just his sophomore season, Davis racked up 730 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. He even threw two touchdown passes for fun.

    His height at 6'4" gives the Tar Heels a big target in the red zone, and expectations should be very high for his junior year.

North Carolina State: RB Shadrach Thornton

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    RB Shadrach Thornton
    RB Shadrach ThorntonStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    It was a brutal year for NC State, a team that won just three games and ended the season on an eight-game losing streak.

    But the play of running back Shadrach Thornton brings some light to the end of the tunnel, and he'll enter 2014 with high expectations as the leader of the Wolfpack's rushing attack.

    On the season, Thornton rushed for 768 yards and four touchdowns, and he also caught 16 passes out of the backfield.

Northwestern: LB Chi Chi Ariguzo

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    Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo
    Northwestern's Chi Chi AriguzoEric Francis/Getty Images

    Northwestern wasn't known for its defense in 2013, but that doesn't mean the Wildcats were without talent.

    The most talented returning player on the team is linebacker  Chi Chi Ariguzo, who simply made plays all over the field throughout the season.

    Ariguzo had 106 tackles, six tackles for loss and four interceptions. His return should help the Wildcats improve on the amount of points they give up each week.

Notre Dame: LB Jaylon Smith

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    LB Jaylon Smith
    LB Jaylon SmithJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Given the nature of today's game, one might select wide receiver DaVaris Daniels as Notre Dame's best returning player. But we're siding with potential over experience—as in, the enormous potential Jaylon Smith has at linebacker.

    As a true freshman, Smith was third on the team with 67 tackles. He also had 6.5 tackles for loss and an interception.

    Brian Kelly's offense remains a work in progress, and it could get a boost with the return of quarterback Everett Golson. But Smith has quickly become one of the leaders on defense, and he could soon be one of the best linebackers in the country.

Ohio State: QB Braxton Miller

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    QB Braxton Miller
    QB Braxton MillerStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    If you account for 36 touchdowns in one season, you're probably the best player on the team.

    That's exactly what Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller did in 2013, despite missing several contests. He topped the 1,000-yard mark on the ground and the 2,000-yard mark through the air as well.

    His return will give the Buckeyes one of the most dynamic signal-callers in the game, which should allow the offense to once again be prolific.

Oklahoma: QB Trevor Knight

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    QB Trevor Knight
    QB Trevor KnightSean Gardner/Getty Images

    Perhaps we're falling victim to quarterback Trevor Knight's bowl performance and ignoring the rest of the season, but if what he did against Alabama is any indication of his future, watch out for the Sooners.

    Of course, Knight's average efforts from the regular season are noteworthy in that his domination of the Crimson Tide could be an aberration. But only Johnny Manziel has shredded Nick Saban's team with such ease over the past couple seasons. Against the Tide, Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns.

    DE/LB Eric Striker was considered because of a more complete body of work, but because of his potential to be one of the best signal-callers in the country, Knight gets the nod for Oklahoma.

Oklahoma State: RB Desmond Roland

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    RB Desmond Roland
    RB Desmond RolandRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy's offense is effective because of a passing attack that normally spreads it out and attacks all game long. But it's at its best when the Cowboys can mix it up with an effective ground game, and that's exactly what running back Desmond Roland brings to the table.

    Who?

    Well, it's a fair question, until you realize that Roland accounted for 16 total touchdowns as a junior. He may have been overshadowed by the passing game, but he was no less important than the receivers.

    Linebacker Ryan Simmons could also stake his claim to the title of best returning player, but with the weapons the Cowboys lose on offense, we're willing to bet that Roland will make plenty of headlines in 2014.

Ole Miss: Bo Wallace

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    QB Bo Wallace
    QB Bo WallaceJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace was not without his share of ups and downs in 2013, but the end result was over 3,300 yards passing and 24 total touchdowns.

    He'll lose one of his top targets in wide receiver Donte Moncrief, but the Rebels welcome back Laquon Treadwell, perhaps the player with the most pure talent on the whole team.

    There's also defensive back Cody Prewitt, who tallied six picks, but Wallace is the key to the whole operation. How he steps up as a leader in his senior season will determine what the Rebels accomplish in 2014.

Oregon: QB Marcus Mariota

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    QB Marcus Mariota
    QB Marcus MariotaRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    Because of his so-so performance in the Ducks' game at Stanford, few realize just how incredible Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is when he's on.

    For the season, the redshirt sophomore threw for over 3,600 yards and 31 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards and another nine scores.

    Of course, if you watched the first half of Oregon's Alamo Bowl victory over Texas, you saw what a weapon Mariota is for Mark Helfrich's squad. He easily tops the list of the Ducks' best returning players.

Oregon State: QB Sean Mannion

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    QB Sean Mannion
    QB Sean MannionJonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Oregon State has itself a real gem in quarterback Sean Mannion, who'll provide headaches to opposing coaches throughout the offseason as they prepare for next year.

    Exactly how do you stop a guy who threw for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns? Well, you start by looking at game film from the second half of the Beavers' season, when good defenses forced Mannion into a few too many interceptions.

    But with another year under his belt, look for Mannion to keep tossing the rock around the field in 2014 and pile up monster numbers along the way.

Penn State: QB Christian Hackenberg

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    QB Christian Hackenberg
    QB Christian HackenbergMike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg turned in a pretty solid first year considering everything the program has gone through.

    As a true freshman, Hackenberg threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, leading the Nittany Lions to seven wins. If he was able to do all that just months after arriving on campus, imagine what he'll do in a year or two when he becomes fully acclimated to college football.

    We may be siding more with potential rather than proven ability here, but even if you don't think Hackenberg is Penn State's best returning player, you have to admit he's at least the most important one.

Pittsburgh: WR Tyler Boyd

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    WR Tyler Boyd
    WR Tyler BoydJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

    In just his first season, Pittsburgh freshman Tyler Boyd became the Panthers' leading wide receiver.

    His stats show 85 grabs for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns, which are remarkable numbers for anybody. He also added 108 yards and a score on the ground, and he even found the end zone on a punt return.

    This kid can do it all, and he'll be thrilling Panthers fans in Paul Chryst's offense for years to come.

Purdue: WR DeAngelo Yancey

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    WR DeAngelo Yancey
    WR DeAngelo YanceyPat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

    Purdue wide receiver DeAngelo Yancey may be just a freshman, but fans have to be excited about what the future hold for the 6'2", 200-pound kid from Atlanta.

    In 2013, Yancey caught 32 passes for 546 yards and a pair of scores, and he quickly became one of the few bright spots in the Boilermakers offense, which struggled often.

    If he can show gradual improvement, he may fast become one of the top targets in the Big Ten.

Rutgers: LB Steve Longa

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    LB Steve Longa
    LB Steve LongaNoah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

    Rutgers linebacker Steve Longa is someone you may not know much about, but that won't last very long.

    In just his first season on the field, Longa tallied a whopping 123 tackles for the Scarlet Knights. That included 7.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles.

    With the program making the jump to the Big Ten, becoming more physical has to be a priority. Longa will undoubtedly help out with that.

SMU: WR Darius Joseph

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    WR Darius Joseph
    WR Darius JosephJim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

    You're doing something right if you catch over 100 passes in a year.

    That is exactly what SMU wide receiver Darius Joseph accomplished in 2013.

    With former Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert throwing the ball, he caught 103 passes for 808 yards and five touchdowns.

    His athleticism is crucial in an offense that requires multiple pass-catchers to utilize the open holes in a defense. Joseph will continue to bring a dynamic element to the Mustangs' passing attack in 2014.

South Carolina: RB Mike Davis

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    RB Mike Davis
    RB Mike DavisRob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

    South Carlina fans won't ever forget the efforts of running back Marcus Lattimore from 2010-2012, nor should they. But his replacement, Mike Davis, has completely eliminated any concerns about the Gamecocks' rushing attack moving forward.

    The sophomore back did this by carrying the ball 203 times for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. He also caught 34 passes for 352 yards, making him a true all-purpose back.

    With experienced backup Dylan Thompson taking over the quarterback position and Davis having another offseason to grow, look for Steve Spurrier's team to have little trouble moving the ball next year.

South Florida: WR Andre Davis

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    WR Andre Davis
    WR Andre DavisKim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    With a record of 2-10, almost nothing went right for South Florida in 2013. But one bright spot was the play of wide receiver Andre Davis.

    The junior from Tampa caught 49 passes for 735 yards and two touchdowns for the Bulls.

    When the meaningful games resume next fall, you can be sure that Davis will be the top target for whichever quarterback wins the starting gig.

Stanford: WR Ty Montgomery

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    WR Ty Montgomery
    WR Ty MontgomeryGary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    It might be illegal to talk about Stanford and not focus on somebody from the offensive line or linebacking corps. But as long as no one tells on me, the pick here is wide receiver Ty Montgomery.

    After a disappointing sophomore season, Montgomery responded in a big way by catching 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior. Because of his speed, he also tacked on 159 yards and two scores on the ground.

    The other option here was tackle Andrus Peat, who will overwhelm most defenses in 2014. But because of his speed and ability to make plays in the open field, Montgomery tops the list as Stanford's best returning player.

Syracuse: DB Durell Eskridge

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    S Durell Eskridge (ground)
    S Durell Eskridge (ground)Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Despite being only a sophomore, Durell Eskridge quickly became one of the best safeties in the ACC for Syracuse.

    He made 78 tackles during the season and had four interceptions. He also added four tackles for loss.

    At 6'3", 207 pounds, Eskridge has the ideal size to be a playmaker in the secondary. And with an impressive 2013 under his belt, look for him to continue to grow the next time he takes the field for the Orange.

TCU: DB Sam Carter

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    TCU DB Sam Carter
    TCU DB Sam CarterJerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    TCU coach Gary Patterson is known as one of the best defensive minds in the game, and he has a real playmaker in the secondary in Sam Carter.

    In 2013, Carter accounted for 49 tackles and five interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

    If the Horned Frogs hope to bounce back from a disappointing campaign, it'll start with the defense, which allowed an uncharacteristic 25 points per game. Fortunately, Patterson will have Carter to lead the way on that side of the ball.

Temple: LB Tyler Matakevich

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    LB Tyler Matakevich
    LB Tyler MatakevichJim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

    If you don't know much about Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich, you aren't alone. But here's some tasty football knowledge to take with you into 2014: The Owls sophomore had 137 tackles in 2013. In addition to that mind-blowing total, he had 11.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.

    What Matakevich did isn't unprecedented, but if he's this mature in his abilities as a sophomore, he can be expected to flat-out dominate in 2014.

Tennessee: LB A.J. Johnson

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    LB A.J. Johnson
    LB A.J. JohnsonKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    With a face that screams "don't mess with me," Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson is the team's best returning player.

    But his intimidating countenance isn't the only reason for that, nor is it the biggest one; it's the fact that he accounted for 108 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss in 2013.

    If Butch Jones' team wants to continue to get better and eventually return to a respectable place in the SEC, it'll need guys like Johnson leading the charge.

Texas: DE Cedric Reed

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    Texas De Cedric Reed
    Texas De Cedric ReedRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Texas Longhorns may be losing Jackson Jeffcoat to the NFL, but they'll return one of the Big 12's premier pass-rushers in defensive end Cedric Reed.

    Reed was one of the catalysts for the defensive turnaround partway through the 2013 season. He finished the year with 77 tackles and 10 sacks.

    His ability to not only make the play but get into the backfield (see: 16.5 tackles for loss) is what separates him as a potential All-American candidate for 2014.

Texas A&M: OT Cedric Ogbuehi

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    RT Cedric Ogbuehi
    RT Cedric OgbuehiScott Halleran/Getty Images

    First there was Luke Joeckel, then Jake Matthews and now Texas A&M tackle Cedric Ogbuehi is starting to make a name for himself on the Aggies' front line.

    It almost makes you wonder if what quarterback Johnny Manziel did was really all that impressive considering the amount of talent protecting him (totally kidding, A&M fans, Manziel was and is fantastic).

    Ogbuehi returning should be a comfort to whoever wins the starting quarterback job, as that player will rarely have to worry about whichever defender is being blocked by the monster right tackle.

     

Texas Tech: QB Davis Webb

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    QB Davis Webb
    QB Davis WebbDonald Miralle/Getty Images

    In these kinds of articles, the quarterback will often get the nod simply because of how much his play affects the game.

    Though you might be able to argue a few other players for Texas Tech, we're going with freshman quarterback Davis Webb. He threw for over 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns despite playing in only 10 games, and in two of those he hardly saw the field.

    What that means is that Webb is a name to look out for in 2014, and the Red Raiders should be improved in year two of the Kliff Kingsbury era.

UCF: LB Terrance Plummer

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    LB Terrance Plummer
    LB Terrance PlummerChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    Don't look now, but UCF's emergence with quarterback Blake Bortles under center may be just the beginning of the Knights' reign.

    Even with Bortles and running back Storm Johnson leaving, George O'Leary's team returns a number of talented guys, including linebacker Terrance Plummer.

    As a junior, Plummer made 110 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss of yardage. He also had two interceptions. Plummer's return means that even with the expected regression from the offense, the Knights will have an excellent chance to win a second straight AAC title.

UCLA: QB Brett Hundley

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    QB Brett Hundley
    QB Brett HundleyStephen Dunn/Getty Images

    You could almost make a case for freshman linebacker Myles Jack, which says a lot about his ability, but UCLA's best returning player has to be quarterback Brett Hundley.

    In 2013, Hundley passed for over 3,000 yards, rushed for over 700 yards and accounted for 35 touchdowns. If he were to do that 15 years ago, he may have been a lock to win the Heisman Trophy.

    That tells you a lot about how far offense has come in college football, but it also speaks to Hundley's talent. If he can show a little more consistency through the air, he'll likely be up for a bevy of postseason awards following the 2014 campaign.

USC: WR Nelson Agholor

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    WR Nelson Agholor
    WR Nelson AgholorEthan Miller/Getty Images

    Quick, who's the best wide receiver on USC? Marqise Lee, right? Well, talent-wise, you'd have a strong case. In terms of productivity, however, that distinction belongs to Nelson Agholor. And Lee is off to the NFL anyway.

    As a sophomore, Agholor led the Trojans with 56 catches for 918 yards and six touchdowns. He also averaged nearly 20 yards per punt return, two of which he took all the way to paydirt.

    It's worth noting that Lee missed several games due to injury, but even when the two were healthy, it was clear how much talent Agholor had, and his return means that the Trojans' passing attack will stay as healthy as ever.

Utah: WR Dres Anderson

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    WR Dres Anderson
    WR Dres AndersonWilliam Mancebo/Getty Images

    Utah didn't achieve much in the way of offense in 2013, especially after quarterback Travis Wilson was sidelined by injury. One bright spot, however, was the play of wide receiver Dres Anderson.

    The junior from Riverside, Calif., caught 53 passes for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns while also holding down kickoff return duties.

    His speed and elusiveness in the open field really opens up the Utes offense. And if Kyle Whittingham can find a long-term solution at quarterback, you can bet the first thing he'll tell him is, "Get the ball to No. 6."

Vanderbilt: DL Caleb Azubike

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    DL Caleb Azubike
    DL Caleb AzubikeStacy Revere/Getty Images

    Defensive linemen Caleb Azubike is another player on this list that we're selecting in part because of his potential, but that doesn't mean he hasn't done anything on the field.

    In just his sophomore season, Azubike made 31 tackles, 10 of which caused negative yardage. He also tacked on four sacks.

    Having bulk in the middle of the defense is a must when you're living in the SEC, and Azubike has a chance to become one of the league's best interior linemen. Running back Jerron Seymour is also a name to watch, but the potential of Azubike was too much to ignore here.

Virginia: DB Anthony Harris

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    DB Anthony Harris
    DB Anthony HarrisGeoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    The Virginia Cavaliers began the season 2-1 and then lost nine straight. But even with a disheartening end to the season, fans should reflect on the play and future potential of defensive back Anthony Harris.

    Not only did the junior safety account for 80 tackles, but he also had eight interceptions, which was tops in the country.

    The program probably won't experience a magical turnaround in one year, but having a player in the secondary you can count on to create turnovers is one way to start the process.

Virginia Tech: DB Kendall Fuller

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    DB Kendall Fuller
    DB Kendall FullerRobert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

    Much like Anthony Harris in the previous slide, Virginia Tech's Kendall Fuller is one of the nation's best defensive backs.

    The only difference is that Fuller's emergence came in just his first season for the Hokies.

    If he can grab six picks and make 58 tackles as a freshman, what do you think he'll do as a sophomore? Head coach Frank Beamer probably can't wait to find out.

Wake Forest: DB Ryan Janvion

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    LB Ryan Janvion
    LB Ryan JanvionRobert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

    It may seem like there's a pattern of first-year players on this list, but that's because it's extremely difficult to make an impact as a freshman. Therefore, when a guy comes in and competes right away, you know you're watching something special.

    Thus the reason for the inclusion of Wake Forest strong safety Ryan Janvion.

    As a freshman, Janvion made 95 tackles and had an interception. Without a whole lot of forward momentum occurring in the Demon Deacons' program, he should at least give coaches confidence that they'll have an All-Conference-caliber linebacker roaming the field in 2014.

Washington: LB Shaq Thompson

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    LB Shaq Thompson
    LB Shaq ThompsonEd Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    You can often tell the best player on a defense just by watching a few plays and looking for the guy who always ends up near the ball. For Washington, that's sophomore linebacker Shaq Thompson.

    Thompson, who also has the ability to play in the secondary, had 78 tackles in 2013. He also had an interception that he returned 80 yards for a touchdown.

    But what separates the sophomore from everyone else is his combination of instincts and physicality. He's the first player opposing offenses should look for before each play.

Washington State: WR Gabe Marks

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    WR Gabe Marks
    WR Gabe MarksMark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    In Washington State coach Mike Leach's Air Raid attack, the quarterback is the most important player. That certainly rings true for the Cougars, but with 22 interceptions thrown, we can't call Connor Halliday the team's best returning player.

    Instead, we'll go with wide receiver Gabe Marks, just one of the many pass-catchers that have thrived in Leach's system. As a sophomore, Marks caught 74 passes for 807 yards and seven touchdowns.

    He'll return as the leading man in a stable of athletic wideouts who are sure to wreak havoc on opposing secondaries in 2014.

West Virginia: LB Nick Kwiatkoski

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    LB Nick Kwiatkoski
    LB Nick KwiatkoskiEvan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

    It was a bummer year for West Virginia after losing quarterback Geno Smith and wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey to the NFL the previous season.

    If there is a turnaround, though, it might start with the side of the ball that coach Dana Holgorsen isn't known for: the defense. Specifically, we're looking at linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who had a terrific season for the Mountaineers.

    The sophomore from Bethel Park, Penn., had three interceptions to go along with 68 tackles.

Wisconsin: RB Melvin Gordon

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    RB Melvin Gordon
    RB Melvin GordonRob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

    Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns, numbers that only a few other backs surpassed in 2013. Keep in mind, however, that he did this while sharing carries with James White.

    Gordon is just the latest in a long line of Badger backs who epitomize Big Ten football. He doesn't go down easily, has incredible balance and has enough speed to make defenses pay in the open field.

    He'll return in 2014 as one of the country's top running backs.