College Football's Most Clutch Performers in 2018

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2018

College Football's Most Clutch Performers in 2018

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    College football superstars—and especially legends—are forged by performances during epic showdowns or at times when games are on the line.

    The sport lost its share of clutch performers following the 2017 season when gamers like Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, USC's Sam Darnold, Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick and South Florida's Quinton Flowers entered the NFL draft.

    Others remain, but it's time for some new go-to guys to emerge for their teams. One player on this list, in particular, has developed a propensity for coming through in critical times. Others show promising potential when it comes to producing in marquee moments.

    These are guys with a knack for thriving in the spotlight. In a couple of instances, they aren't superstars yet, but they have the ability to elevate their games at the right moment. For others, their careers have only just begun, but there is already evidence they belong on the list.

    Let's take a look at college football's top returning clutch performers, who'll have a chance to build on that legacy in 2018 and, in some cases, after.

Sutton Smith, Defensive End, Northern Illinois

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    2017 stats: 63 tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 14 sacks

         

    Clutch numbers

    The sophomore defensive end, who played linebacker during his first two seasons for Northern Illinois, doesn't get a lot of headlines because he plays in the MAC. You'd still better learn his name.

    He's one of the best returning defenders in the nation, and the country's sack leader terrorized opposing quarterbacks a season ago, virtually living in the backfield. For those of you who write that off as, "Yeah, well, he probably beat up on lesser competition in an inferior conference," consider the following stats.

    In the Huskies' win over Nebraska, Smith had six tackles and two sacks. He added another sack against San Diego State, and though he struggled against Toledo, he added six tackles and 2.5 sacks in a monster performance in a late-season win over Western Michigan.

    Smith closed his season with a seven-tackle performance against Duke in the Quick Lane Bowl. In the biggest games, he had his best showings.

         

    Clutch moment

    That game against the defending MAC champion Broncos was huge, and in a back-and-forth battle, Smith's fumble recovery and 58-yard touchdown return in the second quarter gave NIU a 21-14 lead in what became a 35-31 win.

    If you want to tack on another dramatic performance, Smith led the Huskies defense in a resounding early-season win against Nebraska with four of his team's nine tackles for loss against the Cornhuskers.

Jonathan Taylor, Running Back, Wisconsin

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    2017 stats: 299 rushes for 1,977 yards (6.6 average) and 13 touchdowns

         

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    Jonathan Taylor became a household name as a true freshman for Wisconsin in 2017. The 5'11", 214-pound running back from Salem, New Jersey, was the best player on one of the nation's top teams all season.

    Though you wouldn't expect coach Paul Chryst to have to ride a youngster like Taylor, he was too good to keep off the field. In an early-season win over Florida Atlantic that aged well, Taylor burst onto the scene with a 223-yard, three-touchdown performance.

    He added 249 yards against Nebraska, 219 against Purdue, 157 against Iowa and 130 in the Orange Bowl win over Miami. Had he not struggled so much in the Big Ten Championship Game (71 yards from scrimmage) he'd be higher on the list.

    Even so, he's only going to improve, and Wisconsin isn't going anywhere.

         

    Clutch moment

    It was a milestone season for Taylor, who broke Adrian Peterson's NCAA freshman rushing record, but it wasn't the Orange Bowl that put the freshman on the clutch list.

    In what would turn into a big 17-9 triumph, the Wisconsin freshman had three rushes for 75 yards, including a 67-yard score, on the opening drive against Purdue.

    With the game on the line and needing to salt away the win, Taylor was the go-to guy, eating up chunks of yards to run out the clock and keep the final drive alive in a rainy, rugged game.

Jaquan Johnson, Safety, Miami

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    2017 stats: 96 tackles, one sack, four interceptions, one touchdown

          

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    In a year when Miami's defense carried the Hurricanes near the top of the rankings before a late-season collapse and the "turnover chain" became en vogue in Coral Gables, nobody made more plays than safety Jaquan Johnson.

    He was the best player on the country's most opportunistic defense, and he was the poster child for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's unit. He led the team with 96 tackles, and he had four picks, including one returned for a touchdown.

    His all-around game wasn't lost on his coaches.

    "The guy is unbelievable," Diaz told the Palm Beach Post's Matt Porter back when the 'Canes were 10-0 and a threat to win the national title. "He's the heart and soul of our secondary. When you need a guy to make a play, that's the guy."

    Though he's only 5'11", 190 pounds, he played much bigger in the box score.

          

    Clutch moment

    The margin for error wasn't large for a team that rarely dominated opponents, but he had a huge interception return for a score against Virginia and made highlight reels with a one-handed pick against Virginia Tech. 

    But Johnson's biggest play was a late fumble recovery against North Carolina as the Tar Heels were driving inside the Miami 40-yard line for what would have been the go-ahead score. Instead, Joseph Jackson forced a fumble that was recovered by Johnson, and the Hurricanes ran out the clock with 2:11 left.

    According to the Miami Herald's Susan Miller Degman, the fumble recovery capped an 11-tackle performance he dedicated to his late grandfather.

Darrell Langham, Wide Receiver, Miami

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    Butch Dill/Getty Images

    2017 stats: 11 catches, 209 yards, two touchdowns

         

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    How does a player with 11 catches over an entire season get on this list, much less this high on the list?

    Let's just say Darrell Langham had a flair for the dramatic. The Hurricanes weren't anywhere close to the nation's most consistent passing team, and there were steadier targets than Langham (who'll be a redshirt senior in 2018) on the roster.

    But the Hurricanes wouldn't have been a national story for as long as they were without Langham, regardless of his having just two catches in the season's final eight games. Two massive early-season plays will forever be 2017 highlights.

    He beat Florida State star cornerback Tarvarus McFadden for a 23-yard touchdown catch with six seconds remaining to give the Hurricanes the 24-20 victory. Langham then caught a tipped ball on 4th-and-10 on the final drive that allowed the Hurricanes to complete a 25-24 comeback win over Georgia Tech.

         

    Clutch moment

    Anytime a Miami player makes a play to beat Florida State, there's a little piece of history reserved for him. That's the case with Langham, who needs to build on that in '18.

    He overpowered McFadden on the catch, using his 6'4", 220-pound frame to make one of the season's biggest plays for the Hurricanes. He faded as the season dragged on, though, and that can't happen if he's going to take his game to the next level.

    "I feel like my confidence has been boosted," Langham said after the FSU game-winner. "I feel like I can do more to help the team, just waiting for my time to help out."

    The 'Noles are still waiting on him to be a consistent threat.

Nate Stanley, Quarterback, Iowa

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    Matthew Holst/Getty Images

    2017 stats: 55.8 completion percentage, 2,432 yards, 26 touchdowns and six interceptions

         

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    Iowa has been known as a run-first team for years under Kirk Ferentz, but the Hawkeyes needed to replace C.J. Beathard in 2017, and sophomore Nate Stanley answered that call.

    He had a brilliant season, finishing with 20 more touchdown tosses than picks. He was at his best during key moments, too, despite a completion percentage that needs to improve if his team is going to be more consistent in '18.

    The 6'5", 212-pound signal-caller completed 46 of 84 passes for 599 yards, seven touchdowns and two picks in the fourth quarter and overtime of games, according to Landof10.com's Scott Dochterman. He starred in games against Iowa State, Ohio State and Penn State as well.

    Stanley has a lot of room to develop, but he's off to a sterling start to his career.

         

    Clutch moment

    There were lots of big moments, but the biggest arguably came in an early-season 44-41 victory over rival Iowa State in a game where the Hawkeyes needed every bit of his production.

    Stanley posted the first 300-yard, five-touchdown performance by a Hawkeye in 30 years, leading three touchdown drives of more than 90 yards. In the closing minutes, he led an 89-yard drive to force overtime.

Tua Tagovailoa, Quarterback, Alabama

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    Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

    2017 stats: 63.6 completion percentage, 636 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions

         

    Clutch numbers

    Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa doesn't have a lot of lines on his resume, but there's a big reason why everybody in college football is talking about him this offseason and he's on everybody's breakout star list.

    That's, of course, because of his national championship game performance in a Crimson Tide comeback victory in overtime against SEC mate Georgia. Alabama wouldn't have yet another national championship if not for coach Nick Saban's decision to put in the freshman from Hawaii.

    Down 13-0 at halftime, Saban made the call.

    "With the absence of a passing game,” Saban said, according to the Washington Post's Barry Svrluga. "…I just didn't feel we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark."

    But that decision alone wasn't the reason for the win. Tagovailoa had to perform, and he posted a title game to remember, capped with an overtime touchdown pass for a walk-off win.

         

    Clutch moment

    Of course, it was Tagovailoa's rocket pass to fellow freshman DeVonta Smith from 41 yards out for the go-ahead, game-ending scoring strike that gave the Tide a 26-23 win. Smith beat his defender by several steps, blowing past him.

    Tagovailoa delivered a bullet that probably will be immortalized in paint and hanging in Crimson Tide fans' living rooms across the state for years to come.

Jake Fromm, Quarterback, Georgia

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    Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    2017 stats: 62.2 completion percentage, 2,615 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions

         

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    When Jacob Eason was lost to an injury in the season-opening win over Appalachian State, tons of uncertainty accompanied the entry of true freshman Jake Fromm into the starting lineup. 

    But he was steady, not spectacular, in a difficult 20-19 road win over Notre Dame in his first career start, throwing for 141 yards, a touchdown and an interception, and coach Kirby Smart did a great job easing him in with all the talent in the backfield.

    By the end of the season, Fromm was an offensive centerpiece. After sputtering in a lopsided loss to Auburn, he rebounded with 224 passing yards and two scores against Georgia Tech, followed by a dominant showing in the SEC Championship Game rematch with the Tigers.

    He only got better against Oklahoma.

          

    Clutch moment

    Fromm's most spectacular effort came in the first round of the College Football Playoff, completing 20 of 29 passes for 210 yards in a 54-48 double-overtime shootout win over Oklahoma.

    OU signal-caller Baker Mayfield told DawgNation.com's Seth Emerson after that game that he sees a little of himself in Fromm: 

    "It takes a special person as a freshman to take command of an offense like that, with guys that are veterans that have been there for a while. So he has command of the huddle," Mayfield said. "So I do see some similarities there."

    With 3:15 remaining and down 45-38, Georgia took over on its own 41 with two timeouts. Fromm delivered a 15-yard strike to junior receiver Terry Godwin on one play. He scrambled away from pressure and found Sony Michel for 17 more yards to the Sooners' 23-yard line.

    Then on a 3rd-and-10 play, Fromm found Godwin again for 16 yards and a first down at the 7-yard line. Nick Chubb tied the game two plays later with a two-yard touchdown run.

Bryce Love, Running Back, Stanford

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    2017 stats: 2,118 rushing yards, 8.1 average, 19 touchdowns

         

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    The Heisman Trophy runner-up always was a big-play threat, but he proved he was more than a worthy replacement for departed star Christian McCaffrey in 2017, becoming the nation's most dangerous player for a Stanford team that performed better than expected.

    In a season when the Cardinal struggled defensively and switched passers from Keller Chryst to K.J. Costello, they still went 9-5, including a 7-2 mark in the Pac-12. That was chiefly because of Love, who was a dynamic superstar.

    Even when Stanford proved it wasn't an elite team in season-ending losses to USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game and TCU in the Alamo Bowl, Love was still exceptional, rushing for 270 total yards and three scores. He also set a school record with 301 rushing yards in a 34-24 win over Arizona State. 

         

    Clutch moment

    For all the highlights Love piled up in 2017, his most important performance in a victory came during a 166-yard showing where he scored three times in a 30-22 win over Washington that ultimately propelled the Cardinal to the title game.

    He did most of that damage hurting from an ankle injury that kept him off the practice field for more than a month.

    "Oh, and then there's Bryce Love," Stanford coach David Shaw told ESPN.com's Kyle Bonagura. "He played on one leg and played a phenomenal game. I'm not gonna mention any awards, but if he doesn't win 'em all, then I don't know what's going on. This guy is unbelievable."

McKenzie Milton, Quarterback, Central Florida

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    Mike Stewart/Associated Press

    2017 stats: 67.1 completion percentage, 4,037 passing yards, 37 touchdowns and nine interceptions; 613 rushing yards and eight touchdowns

          

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    Few quarterbacks in the country were more perfect for a system than Central Florida sophomore signal-caller McKenzie Milton was for Scott Frost's Knights scheme.

    The former Hawaii high schooler was brilliant throwing the ball and running it for a Knights team that went undefeated, beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl and perhaps should have gotten the opportunity to play in the College Football Playoff. Anybody that stood in UCF's way was generally embarrassed.

    Now, with Frost off to his alma mater Nebraska, new coach Josh Heupel will try to take what Frost did and continue it. Thankfully, Milton will be in Orlando for at least another season. He's one of the more critical returning centerpieces in the nation.

    In two wins over Memphis, he threw for 747 yards and eight touchdowns. Even when he only completed 46 percent of his passes in the bowl game, he still had 358 total yards, three scores and no turnovers.

         

    Clutch moment

    After starting 3-of-17 in the first half against Auburn, Milton couldn't be stopped in the second half. He led the Knights to a roaring 34-27 comeback win over a Tigers team that had allowed just 17.3 points per game.

    Behind Milton, UCF doubled that, as he completed 13 of 18 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns and added six carries for 33 yards after the break.

    He lived up to his coach's expectations. Frost told the Omaha World-Herald's Sam McKewon before the game: "He'll put on a show."

Trace McSorley, Quarterback, Penn State

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    Matthew Holst/Getty Images

    2017 stats: 66.5 completion percentage, 3,570 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions; 491 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns

         

    Clutch numbers

    Trace McSorley followed up his exceptional sophomore season with another quality showing in 2017, teaming with Saquon Barkley to produce the Big Ten's most prolific offense for coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

    With Moorhead gone in '18, McSorley will need to adapt. But new coordinator Ricky Rahne will take over after four seasons as the team's passing game coordinator, so there is a level of familiarity. McSorley is a great dual-threat weapon around which to build, even without Barkley.

    His clutch performances date back to a midseason showing in '16, when he threw for 335 yards and led a late fourth-quarter drive to force overtime in an eventual win over Minnesota.

    Those numbers continued to swell for the Nittany Lions late in the season, and that momentum carried over to '17 with eight passing performances of 280-plus yards.

    His brilliant four-touchdown performance in a 42-13 dismantling of Michigan was thorough. He was also excellent in a 39-38 loss to Ohio State and in the Fiesta Bowl win over Washington. McSorley posts big-time performances in the biggest games.

         

    Clutch moment

    It's a tie.

    The 2017 walk-off scoring pass to Juwan Johnson in a 21-19 win over Iowa in Iowa City was crucial, and it garnered national headlines because of the nature of the victory.

    It's also hard to beat his two-game stretch in 2016 in a dominant 45-12 win over Michigan State that catapulted PSU into the Big Ten Championship Game and then in the title game victory over Wisconsin. In those two games, McSorley earned his reputation as a gamer after throwing for 760 yards and eight touchdowns without a single pick.

           

    Unless otherwise noted, stats are courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com, and recruiting data is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.   

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.