Dynamic College Football Duos Already Lighting It Up in 2017

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2017

Dynamic College Football Duos Already Lighting It Up in 2017

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    Lamar Jackson has picked up right where he left off following a Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2016.
    Lamar Jackson has picked up right where he left off following a Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2016.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    To succeed in college football, you need difference-making players. They’re guys who can rise above the clutter and deliver impact performances, week after week, that win games. These kind of players are valuable, and it’s even better if you can get two or more on the same side of the ball.

    Dynamic duos are helping successful teams thrive, and through two weeks, they’re already emerging across the nation. We took a look at college football stats and found eight teams that have prominent playmaking duos. We also considered Southern California's Sam Darnold and Deontay Burnett (and other similar duos), but with talent surrounding them including tailback Ronald Jones II, they haven't had to carry the Trojans as much as others who were picked for this list.

    These are players who’ve excelled and piled up yardage and touchdowns on offense or key plays on defense, and we project that they’ll continue doing so as the 2017 season rolls on.

Georgia: RB Nick Chubb and RB Sony Michel

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    Nick Chubb is a powerful force in Georgia's backfield.
    Nick Chubb is a powerful force in Georgia's backfield.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Georgia is 2-0 following a gutty 20-19 win at Notre Dame and looks ready to take a step forward in the SEC East in Kirby Smart’s second season. Smart received a huge boost when both Nick Chubb and Sony Michel decided to return for their senior seasons rather than declare for the NFL draft.

    They give Georgia’s offense a powerful boost, and through two games, both are healthy and productive. Michel has 160 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries, and Chubb, remarkably, has 159 yards and two scores on 28 carries. It’s a perfectly balanced 1-2 punch that could carry the Bulldogs to the top of the SEC East. 

Louisville: QB Lamar Jackson and WR Jaylen Smith

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    Lamar Jackson is proving he's a special talent for Louisville's offense.
    Lamar Jackson is proving he's a special talent for Louisville's offense.Associated Press

    Two games into the 2017 season, Lamar Jackson has made a forceful defense for those who questioned his 2016 Heisman Trophy-winning campaign. Louisville is 2-0, and Jackson again looks like one of the most electric players in college football. The junior quarterback has 771 passing yards and five touchdowns against no interceptions, completing a solid 64.8 percent of his passes.

    He is also Louisville’s leading rusher with 239 rushing yards and three touchdowns, averaging 119.5 rushing yards per game. But he is far from the Cardinals’ only weapon. Speedy, athletic junior receiver Jaylen Smith has found a nice rapport with Jackson. He has 17 catches for 300 yards and a touchdown thus far. After piling up 599 yards and six scores in 2016, Smith should greatly improve on those numbers; he had nine catches for 183 yards and a touchdown in Louisville’s 47-35 win over North Carolina on Saturday.

    The Cardinals face a big test when No. 2 Clemson comes to town Saturday, but with Jackson and Smith clicking, the Tigers defense will have its hands full. 

Michigan: LB Devin Bush and LB Khaleke Hudson

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    Devin Bush has proved to be a difference-maker for Michigan's defense.
    Devin Bush has proved to be a difference-maker for Michigan's defense.Associated Press

    Jim Harbaugh’s third season at Michigan came with some challenges. The Wolverines returned only one defensive starter from 2016 and had to find a way to replace do-everything defender Jabrill Peppers, who left following his redshirt sophomore season and became a first-round pick of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.

    How do you replace Peppers? It’s a tough job for one person, but Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson are proving capable so far. Both players have three sacks apiece through two games for the Wolverines, who are 2-0 after wins over Florida and Cincinnati. Michigan has been excellent on defense, allowing an average of 15.5 points per game, and two of the four touchdowns the team has allowed have Wilton Speight pick-sixes. 

    Bush and Hudson are both good pass-rushers but also able to drop back and cover and tackle in the open field. You can’t fill Peppers’ shoes by yourself, but this duo is showing that partnership pays off.

Oklahoma State: QB Mason Rudolph and WR James Washington

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    QB Mason Rudolph is a huge reason Oklahoma State is a College Football Playoff contender.
    QB Mason Rudolph is a huge reason Oklahoma State is a College Football Playoff contender.Associated Press

    After missing the College Football Playoff last fall, the Big 12 hopes to make up for that absence in 2017. Oklahoma made a huge statement with a dominant road win at Ohio State, but the Sooners will have competition for league supremacy from rival Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in senior Mason Rudolph.

    The talented pocket passer has been nearly perfect thus far, throwing for 638 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions, completing 72.8 percent of his passes. If he stays on this pace and Oklahoma State keeps winning games, he’ll be a surefire Heisman Trophy candidate.

    It helps having a weapon like senior receiver James Washington at his disposal. Washington is one of the nation’s premier deep threats and is averaging an eye-popping 30.8 yards per reception. He has just eight catches thus far, but they’ve gone for a total of 243 yards with three touchdowns, including a 77-yarder. If Rudolph and Washington stay on the field, Oklahoma State will put up plenty of points and challenge for a Big 12 title and more.

Ole Miss: WR A.J. Brown and QB Shea Patterson

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    A.J. Brown has emerged as a special talent in Ole Miss' offense.
    A.J. Brown has emerged as a special talent in Ole Miss' offense.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    These are uncertain times at Ole Miss. The Rebels will not go to a bowl this season as a result of self-imposed sanctions connected to an ongoing investigation that ultimately played a part in Hugh Freeze's resignation. Interim coach Matt Luke has something special, however, in sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson.

    Pressed into service late last season as a true freshman, Patterson is showing why he was one of the nation’s most sought-after recruits in 2016. He is completing 76.9 percent of his passes and averaging 459 passing yards per game. Saturday, he threw for 489 yards and five touchdowns against an interception as the Rebels held off upset-minded FCS foe UT Martin. He has 918 yards with nine touchdowns against an interception through two games.

    He has made a real connection with receiver A.J. Brown, who has emerged as his top target. Brown has 16 catches for 389 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 24.3 yards per reception. After making 29 catches for 412 yards and two scores as a freshman, he’s on pace to blow past those numbers in a big way as a sophomore. With Patterson throwing to him, he can be a key building block for the Rebels.

Oregon: RB Royce Freeman and QB Justin Herbert

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    Royce Freeman has proven himself as one of the nation's best tailbacks.
    Royce Freeman has proven himself as one of the nation's best tailbacks.Timothy J. Gonzalez/Associated Press

    Oregon looks like it made the right move by hiring Willie Taggart. Following a 4-8 season that resulted in coach Mark Helfrich’s firing, the Ducks are 2-0 and clicking offensively. After Saturday’s 42-35 win over Nebraska, Oregon is averaging an impressive 59.5 points per game.

    Taggart’s fast-paced system is a perfect fit for senior tailback Royce Freeman, who gave the Ducks a big boost by returning for his final season of college football. Freeman has 303 yards and six touchdowns through two games. The powerful runner is on pace for a big season after suffering through an injury-plagued year in which he dipped from 1,836 yards and 17 rushing scores as a sophomore to 945 yards and nine scores as a junior.

    The Ducks have also found a quarterback in sophomore Justin Herbert. Herbert is emerging as one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12. Through two games, he has 646 passing yards with four touchdowns and one interception. Saturday, he ripped Nebraska for 365 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, and he is completing 77.8 percent of his passes on the season.

    It looks like Oregon’s struggles will be short-lived, and Freeman and Herbert are a huge reason.

Penn State: RB Saquon Barkley and QB Trace McSorley

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    Penn State RB Saquon Barkley is a strong Heisman Trophy contender.
    Penn State RB Saquon Barkley is a strong Heisman Trophy contender.Chris Knight/Associated Press

    Penn State was one of the biggest success stories of 2016. The Nittany Lions broke out in James Franklin’s third season, winning the Big Ten and narrowly missing the College Football Playoff. A big reason? A new faster-paced offense that stretched defenses to their breaking point.

    It helps having skilled players, too, and the Lions have several key pieces. Tailback Saquon Barkley is a strong Heisman Trophy candidate after a solid sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns. He has picked up right where he left off this fall, rushing for 260 yards and three touchdowns in Penn State’s first two games.

    Junior quarterback Trace McSorley is an excellent leader for Penn State’s offense. He threw for 3,614 yards with 29 touchdowns against eight interceptions last fall, and he has tossed five scores with two picks and thrown for 444 yards through two games. With McSorley and the tough-running Barkley on the field, Penn State is a legit College Football Playoff contender.

West Virginia: QB Will Grier and WR David Sills V

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    QB Will Grier has made himself right at home with West Virginia.
    QB Will Grier has made himself right at home with West Virginia.Ray Thompson/Associated Press

    West Virginia is off to a 1-1 start following a narrow loss to Virginia Tech and a blowout of a bad East Carolina team, but the Mountaineers’ Air Raid offense is humming along quite well. Dana Holgorsen’s group averages 40 points per game, and he’s found his next star quarterback in transfer junior Will Grier.

    Grier showed promise at Florida before being hit with a one-year NCAA suspension following a positive test for performance-enhancing substances, and he transferred to West Virginia after the 2015 season. He sat out as a transfer last fall but has quickly adapted to his new offense. Through two games, he has 723 yards with eight touchdowns against one interception.

    His top target? Wide receiver David Sills V. Sills has followed a winding path in college football after committing to Southern California as a quarterback at 13 years old, then ending up at West Virginia, transferring to a junior college and back to the Mountaineers. He is enjoying a breakout season so far, with 16 catches for 247 yards and five touchdowns. Saturday, he had seven catches for 153 yards and three scores in a 56-20 rout of East Carolina. Together, Grier and Sills look poised to put up big yardage on the Big 12 this fall.