Every Power 5 College Football Team's Most Important Returning Player for 2017

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2017

Every Power 5 College Football Team's Most Important Returning Player for 2017

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    While NFL draft coverage focuses on players leaving school in pursuit of their next dream, the college football world is fixated on who is coming back for the 2017 season.

    A team's best player isn't necessarily the most important, though. The definition varies by team, because his value, a leading role, the lack of a comparable replacement and the given program's perceived potential must all be taken into account.

    Oftentimes, the quarterback is most important, but not every program from a Power Five conference will return its 2016 starter.

    Additionally, with one exception because Texas Tech is a unique case, this is not a projection beyond obvious new starters (like Shea Patterson), so incoming recruits, redshirt freshmen and returning backups are not included. Previous contributions, including from injured players, were considered.

Unranked ACC Teams

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    Boston College: Harold Landry, DE

    Harold Landry realistically doesn't have anything left to prove at the college level, yet he decided to return for his senior season. That's excellent news for a Boston College defense that loses Kevin Kavalec and Matt Milano. Landry has collected 36.5 tackles for loss with 21 sacks and 10 forced fumbles over the last two years.

       

    Duke: T.J. Rahming, WR

    If everything goes according to Thomas Sirk's rehab plan, Duke will have a quarterback dilemma. What's clear, though, is to whom Sirk or Daniel Jones will be throwing most often. T.J. Rahming grabbed 70 passes for 742 yards last season—both of which are more than double the No. 2 returner in those categories—as well as 43 receptions in the previous year.

       

    Georgia Tech: Dedrick Mills, RB

    Despite not playing in four games as a freshman, Dedrick Mills posted team highs of 771 yards and 12 touchdowns. Since he's the B-back in Georgia Tech's triple-option offense, Mills has the biggest projected role. Clinton Lynch leads the flashy A-backs, but Mills will be relied upon to grind out tough yards in the middle.

       

    North Carolina: Bentley Spain, LT

    Per Bill Connelly of SB Nation, only Western Michigan returns less of its offensive production than North Carolina. "That's a problem" is a drastic understatement. Bentley Spain, a two-year starter and three-year contributor, will be the cornerstone of a unit that must allow UNC to completely rebuild at the skill positions.

       

    North Carolina State: Jaylen Samuels, TE

    His position is listed as tight end, but that's merely a small piece of what Jaylen Samuels does. As a junior, he caught 55 passes for 565 yards and seven scores, adding six rushing touchdowns with a 5.7-yard average on 33 attempts. NC State was 6-2 when Samuels scored and just 1-4 when he failed to reach the end zone.

       

    Pitt: Jordan Whitehead, S

    Jordan Whitehead cannot atone for Pitt's overall issues on defense, but he needs to elevate a secondary that ranked second-worst nationally in 2016. The Panthers must have a playmaker to complement Quadree Henderson's impact on offense and special teams. Whitehead has the potential to be more than a reliable tackler.

     

    Syracuse: Ervin Phillips, WR

    Quick-hitting targets are essential in head coach Dino Babers' system. Ervin Phillips almost exclusively did his damage near the line of scrimmage while gathering 90 receptions for 822 yards and six touchdowns. Syracuse rightfully should be concerned about replacing Amba Etta-Tawo's production on the outside, so Phillips can't let those worries happen inside, too.

     

    Virginia: Kurt Benkert, QB

    The 2017 outlook is bleak for Virginia, which at least returns one standout player on each level of the defense in Andrew Brown, Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding. But the defense isn't going to solve the problems of the nation's 14th-worst scoring offense. That burden lands on Kurt Benkert, who tossed 11 interceptions last year.

     

    Wake Forest: Duke Ejiofor, DE

    Marquel Lee's presence in the middle will be missed, but Wake Forest still has a major disruptor off the edge in Duke Ejiofor. He tallied 17 tackles for loss with 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles last season. Since the offense is likely to sputter though the year, Ejiofor and the defense will need to carry the Demon Deacons.

Unranked Big Ten Teams

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    Illinois: Malik Turner, WR

    Hopefully Mike Dudek can stay healthy, but the wideout has missed the last two seasons since a breakout freshman year. Malik Turner returns with a pair of 500-yard seasons to his credit, totaling career highs of 48 catches, 712 yards and six touchdowns last season. The next best returning target, Sam Mays, had just 13 receptions for 158 yards.

       

    Indiana: Tegray Scales, MLB

    While the offense works out issues at quarterback and a vacancy at running back, Indiana's defense can rely on its centerpiece. Tegray Scales racked up 126 tackles with an FBS-best 23.5 for loss last season. As long as Scales is manning the middle, the Hoosiers should be a nuisance to defeat in Bloomington.

     

    Iowa: Akrum Wadley, RB

    This isn't simply that Akrum Wadley is a terrific running back. It's not only because he averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season en route to a team-best 1,081 total yards and 10 touchdowns. But the rising senior is both the leading returning rusher and receiver for the Hawkeyes. Wadley added 36 catches for 315 yards.

       

    Maryland: D.J. Moore, WR

    Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison give Maryland a couple of weapons in the backfield. However, the departures of Teldrick Morgan, Levern Jacobs and even DeAndre Lane severely limit the options available on the outside. D.J. Moore led the Terps with 637 yards and six scores last season. He accounts for 96.8 percent of returning production from wide receivers.

     

    Michigan State: Brian Allen, OL

    After a complete collapse in 2016, Michigan State's return path to relevancy starts up front. Brian Allen has started at both guard and center during his career, so the Spartans have a bit of freedom to fit their offensive line around Allen. That's a useful luxury for a program looking to rebound, especially considering the combined potential of LJ Scott, Madre London and Gerald Holmes.

       

    Minnesota: Rodney Smith, RB

    P.J. Fleck loves a balanced offense, and the head coach is not afraid to ride his running backs. He enters an ideal situation at Minnesota with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Smith paced the Gophers with 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, and they'll need a similar year from him while breaking in a new quarterback.

     

    Nebraska: Devine Ozigbo, RB

    First, the good news: Most of the offensive line is back. The bad news: Nebraska loses the two quarterbacks who started, its leading rusher and three of the top four receivers. Devine Ozigbo totaled 512 yards from scrimmage last season. He'll occupy a featured role for the rebuilding Huskers in 2017.

     

    Northwestern: Clayton Thorson, QB

    Opponents know to expect a heavy dose of Justin Jackson on the ground, and he's the primary reason Northwestern has been and will be competitive. The question is whether Clayton Thorson can lead the offense after the departure of Austin Carr, one of college football's best slot receivers last year. Jackson will get his; can Thorson consistently do the same?

     

    Purdue: David Blough, QB

    David Blough attempted 517 passes last season, mostly out of necessity because Purdue was typically losing. New coach Jeff Brohm's system is balanced, but the uptempo style may result in even more throws for Blough. He tossed 21 interceptions in 2016 and will be without his four leading wide receivers. Uh-oh?

       

    Rutgers: Tariq Cole, LT

    Baby steps, Rutgers. Tariq Cole is simply one part of a massive puzzle for Rutgers, but he's a huge piece. The 6'6", 313-pounder allowed just one sack last season, per Pro Football Focus. Improvement starts up front, and 2016's last-ranked unit sure should be thankful to have Cole protecting the to-be-determined quarterback.

Unranked Big 12 Teams

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    Baylor: Travon Blanchard, LB/NB

    Each notable spot on the offense has a competition, a commendable backup or proper depth. But now that Patrick Levels is gone, Baylor doesn't have someone who can seamlessly fill in for Travon Blanchard, a hybrid linebacker who also contributes as a rusher. Blanchard amassed 73 tackles with nine for loss and broke up five passes.

       

    Iowa State: Jacob Park, QB

    Jacob Park put together a relatively efficient 2016 campaign, but QB Joel Lanning did some of the heavy lifting in the red zone. He accounted for 11 total touchdowns inside the 20-yard line. Park, who threw for 1,791 yards with 12 scores and five picks, will take on this increased responsibility while attempting to help the Cyclones finish stronger. They were 1-5 in games decided by 10 points or less.

     

    Kansas: Dorance Armstrong Jr., DE

    Until the offense settles on a quarterback, Kansas' best hope for a victory is its defense. Dorance Armstrong Jr. was the unit's breakout player last season, posting 20 tackles for loss with 10 sacks and three forced fumbles. The Jayhawks' next three leading sack artists managed nine combined.

       

    Kansas State: Jesse Ertz, QB

    He isn't a great passer, but Jesse Ertz is a fundamental piece of the Kansas State scoring attack. As a junior, he threw a paltry nine touchdowns, yet his 2,012 yards led the Wildcats. He tied Winston Dimel with 12 scores on the ground. If Ertz develops as a passer, K-State can be more than a feisty, low-scoring team.

     

    TCU: Kenny Hill, QB

    Kenny Hill opened the 2016 season on fire, throwing for 375-plus yards four times in five games. Then, during the final eight outings of the year, he never reached 250 yards while throwing six touchdowns and eight interceptions. Hill's consistency will be a pivotal factor for TCU's success—or lack thereofin 2017.

      

    Texas: Malik Jefferson, MLB

    Perhaps for a different reason than expected, Malik Jefferson is the choice. Sure, he's the most recognizable name on the Texas roster, but the coaching switch should benefit the rising junior in a big way. Todd Orlando utilizes an ultra-aggressive system that will bring out the best of Jefferson's athleticism as a blitzer.

       

    Texas Tech: Nic Shimonek, QB

    The Red Raiders are absolutely loaded at wide receiver, but they need a reliable distributor. Otherwise, the dreadful defense will once again drag down a fun offense. Texas Tech is the exception to the rule because Nic Shimonek must officially beat out Jett Duffey, who is currently suspended, in the fall. Either way, though, the team's hopes rely solely on the quarterback.

Unranked Pac-12 Teams

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    Arizona: Brandon Dawkins, QB

    Anu Solomon's transfer has left Arizona in an unfortunate yet not unfamiliar position. Previous injuries led to Brandon Dawkins receiving playing time in 2015 and starting in 2016. However, he's been more of an athlete than a quarterback. Dawkins' development as a passer will determine if the Wildcats make a bowl game.

     

    Arizona State: N'Keal Harry, WR

    Between Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, Arizona State's running game is in good shape. Blake Barnett's arrival shores up the quarterback position, and the front seven brings back a few key contributors. But N'Keal Harry had more yards as a freshman (659) than any other returning wide receiver has for his career.

     

    Cal: Demetris Robertson, WR

    The 2017 season probably won't be memorable for Cal. On the bright side, the Golden Bears seem to have a go-to receiver in waiting with Demetris Robertson. He grabbed 50 receptions for 767 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman.

     

    Oregon: Justin Herbert, QB

    Royce Freeman is an outstanding runner, but Tony Brooks-James, Taj Griffin and Kani Benoit give Oregon a deep backfield. However, Justin Herbert is the only quarterback on the roster with both experience and production. The sophomore isn't quite a proven player, given the Ducks' 2-5 record with him as a starter. But there's also no doubt Herbert is Oregon's best option.

     

    Oregon State: Ryan Nall, RB

    It's not a coincidence each of Oregon State's three conference victories coincided with Ryan Nall's best performances. He topped the 100-yard mark four times, and the Beavers went 3-1. Nall, who battled injuries throughout the year, finished with 951 yards and 13 touchdowns.

     

    UCLA: Josh Rosen, QB

    Josh Rosen wasted no time in 2015 establishing himself as a well-regarded quarterback, but a shoulder injury ended his sophomore campaign after six games. In his absence, UCLA went 1-5. We already have a clear picture of the Bruins without Rosen, and it ain't pretty.

     

    Washington State: Luke Falk, QB

    Last season, Luke Falk completed 70 percent of his passes for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns. Each of those numbers ranked in the top 10 nationally. As if that's not enough evidence, Gabe Marks and River Cracraft exhausted their eligibility. Washington State's chances to win the Pac-12 North revolve around Falk's play.

Unranked SEC Teams

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    Arkansas: Frank Ragnow, C

    Though quarterback Austin Allen took a beating last season, that wasn't always a product of poor blocking. Frank Ragnow can't make the receivers get open faster, but he was a steady presence in pass protection and a dominant force in Arkansas' run-based offense that produced 1,300- and 600-yard rushers.

     

    Georgia: Jacob Eason, QB

    The true mark of an elite quarterback is when he transcends the talent around him. Georgia is looking for that ascent from Jacob Eason as a sophomore. He was reasonably efficient last season, throwing 16 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions but averaging less than 200 yards per game. Eason's development will determine whether the Bulldogs contend in the SEC East.

     

    Kentucky: Benny Snell, RB

    Stephen Johnson has a reasonable argument for this spot, but Kentucky has decent balance at nearly every spot on the roster except for running back. Boom Williams declared for the NFL draft and JoJo Kemp used up his eligibility, leaving Benny Snell as the only running back with experience. Fortunately for the Wildcats, he had 1,091 yards and 13  touchdowns last year.

     

    Mississippi State: Nick Fitzgerald, QB

    Nick Fitzgerald accounted for two-thirds of Mississippi State's offense in 2016, throwing 21 touchdowns and running for 16 more. However, his production through the air is not equivalent to him being a great passer. After the departure of Fred Ross, Fitzgerald will be asked to shoulder an even greater load.

     

    Missouri: Drew Lock, QB

    There should be cautious optimism for Missouri's offense because its top four receivers and wideout Nate Brown return in 2017. But can Drew Lock get them the ball when it matters most? He threw 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions during conference play last year. With running back Damarea Crockett also in the fold, Lock has a full complement of weapons. Now, it's all about execution.

     

    Ole Miss: Shea Patterson, QB

    Chad Kelly's knee injury shoved Shea Patterson into the lineup, and that experience will benefit him as a sophomore. For Ole Miss to avoid an even bigger slip than 2016, though, Patterson had better grow up in a hurry. He'll lead an offense that lost three of its top four receivers.

     

    South Carolina: Jake Bentley, QB

    While Deebo Samuel's presence is invaluable, South Carolina's ceiling is dependent on the quarterback. Brandon McIlwain and Perry Orth weren't the answers in 2016, but Jake Bentley started to show that promise near the end of the season. The Gamecocks will hope for—and also needa sophomore surge from Bentley.

     

    Texas A&M: Christian Kirk, WR

    We know his skills, but Christian Kirk isn't here simply because he's an exciting receiver and potentially dynamic returner. Rather, Texas A&M lost everyone around him. Josh Reynolds graduated, while Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil declared for the NFL draft. Kirk, who collected 1,418 all-purpose yards last year, will be the primary target for the Aggies' new starter.

     

    Vanderbilt: Kyle Shurmur, QB

    Defense kept the Commodores relatively competitive in 2016 despite a glaring problem under center. Kyle Shurmur struggled throughout the season, only putting up solid performances against Ole Miss and Tennessee. Since the defense is likely to regress this season, Vandy will do the same unless Shurmur makes significant improvements in accuracy and the quickness of his decisions.

Auburn

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 24

    Jarrett Stidham is the most important player for Auburn in 2017, but he wasn't a member of the team last season. Kamryn Pettway led the Tigers in rushing, yet he didn't play the entire season.

    Auburn has lacked legitimate balance since Nick Marshall's departure because of a mediocre passing game. While Stidham brings that potential back to the Plains, the Baylor transfer isn't a running threat. He'll need to lean on Pettway.

    In 2016, the 6'0", 237-pound bulldozer eclipsed the 100-yard mark seven times. Pettway racked up 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns.

Utah

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 23

    No, this is not a joke. No, this is not a reflection of a poor team. It has everything to do with the value of Mitch Wishnowsky.

    Utah coach Kyle Whittingham called the Aussie a "real weapon," according to Dirk Facer of the Deseret News.

    The Ray Guy Award winner in 2016, Wishnowsky blasted punts at a 47.7-yard average. A few other players were within that range, but he only had two touchbacksboth in the season opener, per B/R research. Otherwise, he constantly deadened kicks inside the 20-yard line and often inside the 10.

    No punter in the nation flips field position better than Wishnowsky.

Tennessee

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 22

    Tennessee's backfield went from a deep and talented to young and inexperienced in a hurry. Jalen Hurd transferred, and Alvin Kamara skipped his senior year in favor of the NFL draft.

    Suddenly, John Kelly became the veteran member of the unit.

    But he's primed for a breakout season anyway. After rarely seeing the field during the Vols' first five games, Kelly tallied at least 89 rushing yards in five of the next eight games. He ended the year with 630 yards to lead Tennessee's running backs.

Louisville

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 21

    This might come as a shock, but it turns out Heisman Trophy winners are pretty useful. Lamar Jackson will be back after hoisting the award.

    What makes Jackson especially important is his ability as a designed runner. Since he posted 1,571 yards on the ground, it may seem Jackson was a scrambler. But a majority of those yards were a function of the offense and his elusiveness.

    Jackson also threw for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns compared to just nine interceptions last season.

Miami

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 20

    Joe Yearby's unexpected NFL draft declaration and Gus Edwards' looming transfer leave Mark Walton as the featured back. But the Hurricanes have a more pressing problem at receiver, particularly because they'll be breaking in a new quarterback.

    Ahmmon Richards shined as a freshman, collecting 49 passes for 934 yards and three touchdowns. Beyond him, though, Miami has Lawrence Cager, Braxton Berrios and Dayall Harris—who each represent more potential than production right now.

    The offense needs Richards to not only avoid a sophomore slump, but to establish himself as the high-volume No. 1 target during an intriguing transition year for the 'Canes.

West Virginia

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 19

    Justin Crawford led the Mountaineers with 1,184 rushing yards in 2016, but he's set for a larger role after Rushel Shell's graduation.

    While Kennedy McCoy should step in seamlessly to Shell's vacated spot, that leaves his snaps plus the likely difference between rushing attempts by Skyler Howard and Will Grier up for grabs.

    Crawford, who averaged just 12.5 carries yet gained 7.3 yards per attempt last season, should snatch them.

Colorado

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 17

    The best Power Five story of 2016, Colorado will attempt to prove its 10-4 campaign was no fluke. On the offensive side of the ball, that means another big season from Phillip Lindsay.

    While the Buffs shuffled between Sefo Liufau and Steven Montez at quarterback depending on availability, Lindsay had a constant presence. He scampered for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns, adding 53 receptions for 493 yards and another score.

    Lindsay's versatility would not be easily replaced.

Virginia Tech

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 16

    Saying the offense has interchangeable parts would be a disservice to Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges, but Justin Fuente's system is built to distribute the ball quickly. Virginia Tech can play through a year of average talent on the scoring side.

    Defensively, however, Tremaine Edmunds is a special player. He surged into the starting lineup as a sophomore and gathered 106 total tackles with 18.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks.

    Edmunds' combination of size (6'5", 236 lbs) and disruptive nature is unique on the Hokies' depth chart at linebacker.

Florida

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 14

    Jim McElwain owns a pair of SEC East titles despite Florida fielding subpar offenses in 2015 and 2016. In both years, they ranked 113th on the ground. Skill-position talent is no longer a major issue, so the Gators need to win up front.

    Martez Ivey has the tools to become a consistently punishing blocker, but that hasn't happened yet for the 6'5", 305-pounder.

    While he's the favorite to replace David Sharpe at left tackle this season, Florida has little experience at the spot. Ivey could be the foundation of a much-improved line or an average starter on another disappointing unit for the Gators.

LSU

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 13

    Players like Leonard Fournette don't come around often. His blend of size, speed and physicality won't be matched, but Derrius Guice proved capable of providing the same impact in a different way.

    He filled in for the banged-up superstar and paced LSU with 1,387 yards (7.6 per carry) and 15 touchdowns last season. Guice will shift into the full-time No. 1 role in 2017.

    Darrel Williams and Nick Brosette are quality reserves, but neither can replicate Guice's production in the run-first offense.

Stanford

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 12

    Christian McCaffrey quietly put together another massive campaign, but his injury allowed Bryce Love to gain valuable experience.

    After impressing in a minimal role two years ago, he tallied 783 rushing yards on 7.1 yards per attempt last season. Love also averaged 124 yards in the two games McCaffrey missed.

    Even more importantly, though, the drop-off between Love and the next running back is immense. Stanford needs a healthy Love.

    Don't we all?

Oklahoma State

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 11

    Oklahoma State must've been overjoyed when Mason Rudolph and star wideout James Washington elected to return in 2017. After all, good luck replacing Rudolph's efficiency.

    The offense is built on high-percentage throws, but he still only tossed four interceptions while racking up 4,091 yards and 28 touchdowns. Rudolph added six rushing scores for the Cowboys.

    With him, OSU is a Big 12 title and maybe even a sneaky College Football Playoff contender. Without Rudolph, the Pokes might not even be a bowl team in 2017.

Michigan

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 10

    Wilton Speight is an essential piece, but depth is a lessening problem at quarterback. Mason Cole's versatility offers Michigan an important luxury heading into 2017.

    A two-year starter at left tackle, he shifted to center as Graham Glasgow's replacement last season. Depending on the speed of left tackle Grant Newsome's rehab from a knee injury—and considering a 38-day hospital stay, we'll assume nothingthe Wolverines may have a deeper group of talent at guard and center than on the outside.

    Michigan must have a more dependable run-blocking unit up front, and that means having the best five on the field. Cole's ability to play anywhere will allow the coaching staff to build the O-line around four other spots and confidently slot him at the greatest need.

Wisconsin

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 9

    Wisconsin isn't dominant, but it's a reliable 10-win team. T.J. Edwards is basically the program in individual form.

    Although the inside linebacker isn't particularly flashy, he's a knowledgeable player who always seems to be in the right spot. Edwards was the Badgers' leading tackler in both 2015 and 2016.

    His clear strength is run support, but there's nothing Edwards doesn't do well. He's an ideal fit for a sound Wisconsin defense.

Florida State

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 8

    Florida State still won 10 games last season despite Derwin James going down with a season-ending injury in early September. But he's the type of defensive playmaker needed for a championship run.

    In 2015, James collected 91 tackles with 9.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks. The freshman was tremendous in run support, tough to beat in coverage and wildly efficient as a blitzer.

    The 'Noles didn't (and still don't) have a replacement capable of matching James' contributions. When healthy, he's a menace.

Penn State

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 7

    Perhaps this one should be a tie. Saquon Barkley is a Heisman-caliber talent, but we're only kidding ourselves if we think Penn State wins the Big Ten with any quarterback other than Trace McSorley.

    Against conference opponents, the signal-caller threw 21 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. He finished the season with a 29-8 ratio, tallying 3,614 passing yards while adding 365 yards and seven scores as a runner.

    The Nittany Lions at least have 2016 5-star Miles Sanders waiting behind Barkley, but Tommy Stevens is no McSorley.

Ohio State

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 6

    Good J.T. Barrett led Ohio State to dominant wins in September. Bad J.T. Barrett narrowly avoided losses opposite Michigan State and Michigan before getting owned against Clemson.

    Barrett's 2016 numbers were solid with 3,400 yards of total offense and 33 touchdowns. Plus, there's no debating it's impressive when a team can overcome poor quarterback play to reach the College Football Playoff.

    But his declining performance—along with the offensive line, yesis a major reason the Buckeyes had an embarrassing finish. A full season of Good J.T., however, could mean a championship.

Oklahoma

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 5

    Oklahoma will spend the early portion of the 2017 campaign trying to replace Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook. That's no easy task, but Baker Mayfield makes it a little easier.

    After accumulating 4,105 yards of total offense and 43 touchdowns in 2015, the gunslinger lifted those numbers to 4,142 and 46, respectively, last season. He finished third in Heisman voting while guiding the Sooners to another Big 12 crown.

    Mayfield enters the offseason as a top-three player in the nation. The retooled offense will count on him matching that billing, lest Oklahoma slide out of its place atop the conference hierarchy.

Washington

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 4

    Exactly how good is Jake Browning? His efficiency is impressive, but it's also fair to say wide receiver John Ross and Washington's outstanding defense buoyed the sophomore quarterback last season.

    Browning sported a 62.1 completion percentage along with his 3,430 yards, 43 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Now, he'll try to replicate those numbers without Ross.

    The front seven of the defense will be solid, but the Huskies must replace Sidney Jones, Kevin King and Budda Baker in the secondary. In all likelihood, opponents are going to score more often.

    Can Browning win Washington games? Or is he best at not losing them? There's an important distinction.

USC

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    Sam Darnold
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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 3

    Explanations don't get much simpler than this:

    • USC with Max Browne as starter: 1-2; 4.7 yards per play
    • USC with Sam Darnold as starter: 9-1; 6.9 yards per play 

    Darnold entered the starting lineup in a road game against Utah and suffered his only loss of the season because of the Trojans' fumble problems. Otherwise, he excelled.

    The redshirt freshman had 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns to nine interceptions. In all nine wins, Darnold threw at least two scores. He helped USC win its first Rose Bowl since 2008.

Alabama

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 2

    Tua Tagovailoa very well may be the future of the Alabama program. At this moment, though, he's a highly valued prospect who is backing up the consensus freshman quarterback of the year.

    Jalen Hurts is the quarterback room. He collected 3,734 total yards and 36 touchdowns during his first season. Due to transfers by Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell, nobody else has experience under center.

    Hypothetically, Tagovailoa might be ready in 2017. But nobody can say with absolute certainty he would handle the learning curve as quickly as Hurts did last season.

Clemson

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    Final AP Poll Ranking: 1

    Dexter Lawrence is a spectacular defensive tackle, and his presence is essential for Clemson. But it also helps to have a versatile talent like Christian Wilkins moving around the line.

    In 2015 as a freshman, he played on the inside and totaled 33 stops. Wilkins shifted to D-end last season and posted 48 tackles with 13 for loss, adding 10 pass breakups for the national champions. Wilkins was also a part of the punt team and the offense's jumbo package.

    The Tigers will likely need an improved defense in order to overcome the massive losses on offense. Wilkins can fill whatever role they need in the trenches.


    All recruiting information via Scout. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.